Civil Disobedience

Civil Resistance and Security Studies


In a guest post at The Monkey Cage, Erica Chenoweth of Wesleyan's Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research asks her field to pay closer attention to nonviolent conflict:

It is time for security studies to take nonviolent conflict seriously, and to incorporate such episodes and their dynamics into the canonical literature.

In fact, many of the concepts and strategic dynamics that dominate in the security studies literature are perfectly compatible with those discussed in the literature on nonviolent conflict. For instance, a key for any actor in an asymmetric conflict is to attack the opponent at its weakest point and, if possible, to create divisions within the opponent. Ivan Arreguin-Toft argues weaker powers can do this by adopting indirect (or "guerrilla") strategies against stronger opponents that use direct (or "conventional") strategies. Gil Merom and Robert Pape have made the argument that democracies are particularly susceptible to challenges by violent non-state actors, because they create unsustainable divisions within democracies. But few have directly compared how nonviolent challenges would line up compared with violent ones, because most of the security studies literature assumes that the most forceful, effective means of waging political struggle entails the threat or use of violence.

The same concept of attacking the opponent at its weakest point applies to nonviolent conflicts, except that I would argue that nonviolent mass movements are actually superior at undermining regime opponents through asymmetric approaches. This is not because of the "moral high ground," but rather because their reliance on nonviolent resistance confounds their opponents, whose usual response to internal challenge is to use force. As Qaddafi's response to the Libyan uprising shows, many dictators are willing to use force against nonviolent protestors; however, this is seldom costless for these dictators. They usually pay a major price in the form of loyalty shifts among security forces or civilian bureaucrats, who are more likely to defect to a nonviolent opposition–especially one that appears to represent diverse constituencies within the country–than to a violent campaign, where their survival is not assured.

Read the whole thing here. More from Reason on nonviolent conflict here. My most recent interview with Gene Sharp, the best-known scholar on the subject, is here.

[Via Jay Ulfelder.]

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  1. And then we folded the concept of non-violent action under the banner of “Terrorism and Insurgency Research”! Ha ha ha!

    1. This.

      The entire time I read that excerpt, I thought about how this will be seen as justification to squash all dissent to some (most importantly, the some in a place to do something about it).

  2. We heard that!

  3. Well, I think the real point is that a combination armed front and non-violent opposition has the best chance to prevail.

    Its pretty unusual for a purely nonviolent opposition to win, although Egypt arguably qualifies. And its somewhat unusual for a pure guerrilla movement to prevail, lefty nostalgia for various People’s Revolutionary Fronts notwithstanding.

    But, when you have a Good Cop for people to join, and a Bad Cop to contest the monopoly on use of force, you have a potential winning combination.

    1. Except that sometimes the Bad Cop becomes an excuse to crack down on the Good Cop.

      I do agree, though, that more attention needs to be paid to “mixed” revolutions. The mainstream often ignores the nonviolent aspects of an uprising, and the people who do study nonviolence sometimes have ideological reasons to discount the ways that violence and nonviolence can work together.

      1. Except that sometimes the Bad Cop becomes an excuse to crack down on the Good Cop.

        No question.

        Of course, a sufficiently cynical police state can and will create a Bad Cop where none exists, with a few “atrocities” attributed to the opposition.

        I agree completely with why various groups ignore one side or the other of mixed revolutions.

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