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Reason Magazine

Resistance Tactics

Ted Galen Carpenter | January 1995 Print Edition

Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, by Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, Westport, CT: Praeger, 380 pages, $55/$22.95 paper

A persistent problem facing the victims of an invading army or an indigenous dictatorship is how to defend or restore their freedom, and especially how to do so without precipitating a bloodbath. The standard initial response to invading forces is conventional military defense, but that approach is not particularly practical when the aggressor is much larger and more powerful. The most common forms of resistance to entrenched repressive regimes, whether homegrown or installed by a conqueror, are guerrilla warfare and terrorism. But the success rates of those strategies are spotty at best and likely to increase the level of human carnage.

In Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, Peter Ackerman, a visiting scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and Christopher Kruegler, president of the Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts, present compelling arguments that a well-conceived campaign of nonviolent resistance may be a more feasible option. Their book, which builds on the pioneering studies of scholars such
as Gene Sharp and Thomas Schelling, provides crucial insights into the reasons why some attempts at nonviolent resistance succeed and why others fail. Although the authors do not attempt to offer a comprehensive strategic blueprint--the varied circumstances of confrontational situations would make such a rigid formulation impractical--they do develop several important principles of nonviolent strategy.

The topic is of more than academic interest in the post-Cold War era. Ackerman and Kruegler's observations are pertinent to any number of contemporary geopolitical situations. Consider the tense relations between Russia and the small countries on its perimeter. The Baltic states fear the upsurge of Russian chauvinism symbolized by Vladimir Zhirinovsky and worry that it might be the prelude to a new wave of Russian expansionism. But there's no way that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, given their limited populations and resources, could ever hope to repel an invading army from a neo-imperial Russia. Or consider Cuba. The Cuban economy is so weak that it must ration butter, but the army is hardly lacking guns. Dissidents hoping to accelerate the demise of the Castro regime have few options other than nonviolent resistance.

As befits the relevance of its topic, Ackerman and Kruegler's book is not a dry theoretical treatise disconnected from the real world. The authors examine six historical episodes of nonviolent resistance undertaken by populations that lacked access to effective military power.

Those episodes are quite diverse: the Russian rebellion of 1905; the German public's resistance to the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923; India's agitation against British colonialism in 1930-31; Danish resistance to the Nazi occupation in World War II; the civic strike against the dictatorship of Gen. Maximiliano Hernández Martinez in El Salvador in 1944; and Solidarity's campaign against Poland's communist government in 1980-81.

The authors' historical survey undermines a number of persistent myths about nonviolent resistance. One is the notion that such movements are spontaneous mass uprisings by populations that have been pushed beyond endurance--the implication being that it is futile to outline organizational or strategic principles for waging a resistance campaign because such uprising cannot be anticipated, much less channeled. The case studies examined show, however, that while there were spontaneous aspects to the resistance movements, there were also important elements of planning and coordination that varied in effectiveness and sophistication.

Another myth is that nonviolent resistance is both "passive" and pacifist (indeed, the technique is all too often misnamed "passive resistance"). Ackerman and Kruegler demonstrate clearly that such movements, while seeking to avoid bloodshed, can be quite assertive, if not aggressive. For example, the Ruhrkampf directed against the French included the open harassment of French military personnel. More recently, the Philippine "People Power" revolution in 1986 involved tense confrontations between demonstrators and the military. Leaders of the insurgent forces deliberately courted such confrontations to force the military to choose sides--either to fire on innocent civilians or abandon its support of the Marcos dictatorship.

In fact, Ackerman and Kruegler point out that there is no conceptual chasm separating violent and nonviolent tactics; there is instead a spectrum of measures. Even basically "nonviolent" movements sometimes resorted to sabotage of industrial machinery, communications paraphernalia, and transportation equipment as part of their resistance campaign. That was a prominent feature of the 1905 Russian rebellion, the German resistance to the French occupation of the Ruhr, and the Danish underground's harassment of the Nazis.

Indeed, leaders of nonviolent campaigns frequently find it difficult to restrain supporters who wish to escalate the level of violence. The disappointing outcomes of the Russian and German case studies suggest that a failure to maintain adequate nonviolent discipline can reduce the probability of achieving a movement's ultimate objectives because it alienates potential domestic and external supporters.

The most tenacious myth Ackerman and Kruegler debunk is that nonviolent resistance is effective only in dealing with democratic governments that have adopted uncharacteristically repressive policies. According to that argument, peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience can prick the conscience of democratic rulers and publics, gain the support of international opinion, and force a change of policy while totalitarian and authoritarians regimes will simply use whatever force is necessary to smash the opposition.

The episodes examined in Strategic Nonviolent Conflict suggest that the reality is far more complex. If the conventional wisdom were correct, the successful movements would have been the German resistance to the occupation forces of democratic France and the Indian anti-colonialism movement against democratic Britain. And, following the logic through, the Danish resistance to Nazi Germany's occupation, the Salvadoran rebellion, and Poland's Solidarity would have had faint prospects.

The actual results don't fit that pattern. For example, the resistance to the Ruhr occupation ultimately fizzled, despite substantial covert support from the German government. (Only the U.S.-sponsored Dawes plan eventually caused Paris to withdraw its forces.) The Indian effort, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, failed as well, at least in the short run. (Although Britain ultimately granted India independence, it did so only because of the financial exhaustion caused by World War II.) Conversely, the Danish resistance movement was surprisingly effective; the El Salvador strike ousted an odious dictator; and the Solidarity campaign, while only partially successful in the short term, created the conditions for a definitive victory just a few years later.

Ackerman and Kruegler demonstrate that the political orientation of the target regime is not the most important factor in whether or not a particular movement succeeds. Instead, the authors argue that what makes or breaks a resistance movement is how well it implements certain principles of nonviolent conflict. The major principles identified by Ackerman and Kruegler include a number of common-sense observations. Under "principles of development," for example, the authors stress the importance of formulating functional objectives, developing organizational strength, and attempting to secure external assistance. Under "principles of engagement," they emphasize such things as muting the impact of the opponents' preponderance of force and maintaining nonviolent discipline (i.e., eschewing terrorism).

Other insights are less obvious, however, and many of them relate to the importance of maintaining tactical flexibility. One vital principle of development, for instance, is to expand the repertoire of nonviolent sanctions. The struggle against repressive authorities is inherently dynamic, not static. Consequently, the regime in power will attempt to parry the tactics employed by the insurgents and then counterattack. Staying with one tactic (e.g., mass demonstrations) too long can enable initially beleaguered authorities to regroup and strike back at a time and place of their choice. That is perhaps the saddest lesson of the failure of the student-led Chinese campaign for democracy, which perished in Tiananmen Square.

The need to alienate the regime from expected bases of support is an especially crucial principle of engagement. Hence, for example, Solidarity's inability to undermine the military's loyalty to the communist regime allowed the Polish government to declare martial law and rely on military units to arrest the union's leadership. Adjusting offensive and defensive operations according to the relative vulnerabilities of the protagonists represents an essential "principle of conception." Leaders of the El Salvador civic strike executed that tactic to perfection. As the authors note, "Each time the movement chose to escalate the conflict, they did so in relation to the opponent's newly exposed weaknesses."

All of those measures have the common denominator of sustaining a flexible, dynamic, and offense-oriented resistance campaign. Indeed, a common characteristic of the unsuccessful nonviolent movements highlighted in the historical case studies is the tendency to persist with one set of tactics rather than adjust to changing conditions to exploit the oppressor's weaknesses or to compensate for emerging vulnerabilities in the resistance movement. The principles outlined by Ackerman and Kruegler should help the leaders of future resistance campaigns to focus better on strategic and tactical fundamentals. Among other benefits, nonviolent movements may exhibit less of a disorganized and "spontaneous" quality.

While Strategic Nonviolent Conflict provides an important intellectual resource for those interested in the mechanics of unarmed defiance, some important questions, of course, remain. Although the authors effectively undermine the myth that nonviolent resistance can be effective only against misbehaving democratic governments, they are less successful at determining how such a strategy
might be sustained against a regime or invading force that is determined to prevail at all costs and is able to retain the loyalty of enough armed personnel to execute its policies.

In that regard, the Danish example is not entirely compelling. The Nazis were preoccupied elsewhere and regarded the occupation of Denmark as a relatively low-priority matter. One suspects that a campaign of nonviolent resistance undertaken by the Poles, Ukrainians, or other populations that stood in the way of Berlin's quest for Lebensraum in Eastern Europe would not have fared as well. Similarly, such a strategy does not appear to be feasible in the maelstrom of the former Yugoslavia, where the feuding factions seem willing to slaughter each other without a pang of guilt. It is a thorny problem that advocates of nonviolent resistance must examine more thoroughly.

Additional analysis is also needed in connection with the authors' sobering observation that while resisters can raise the costs to an oppressive government or occupation force, the authorities can also raise the costs to the resisters in a variety of ways. Several of the principles outlined by Ackerman and Kruegler may need to be refined--and perhaps others developed--to help shift the odds more decisively against the forces of oppression.

Such issues await the next spate of books and articles on the subject. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict makes an invaluable contribution to the study of nonviolent resistance and offers several useful guidelines to those who are dedicated to defending or recovering their freedom in the post-Cold War world. Ackerman and Kruegler have taken our understanding of nonviolent conflict to a new and impressive level.