Why Civil Resistance Movements Succeed Steve Inskeep talks to Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan about why non-violent resistance campaigns work better than armed rebellion. Their article on the subject is in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Why Civil Resistance Movements Succeed

Why Civil Resistance Movements Succeed

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Steve Inskeep talks to Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan about why non-violent resistance campaigns work better than armed rebellion. Their article on the subject is in Foreign Affairs magazine.


Right now there are demonstrations all over the world calling for economic, political or social change - from protests in Ferguson, Missouri over police tactics, to marches for and against democracy in Hong Kong. But researcher Maria Stephan admits that recent events have called into question whether such civil resistance is effective.

MARIA STEPHAN: Obviously looking around the world today, whether it's Syria whether it's Iraq - parts of Ukraine, Israel, Gaza - it's hard to be optimistic about civil resistance having you know, a hopeful future. But I - I actually think people are also looking at what is happening in these places and thinking to themselves - there has to be a better way.

GREENE: A better way is what led Stephan and her colleague Erica Chenoweth to study more than 300 cases of resistance from 1900 to 2006 - to answer one central question - are violent rebellions more effective than nonviolent movements? They spoke to her colleague Steve Inskeep about these findings.


When you look back through history, what was the difference in the results between violent tactics and nonviolent tactics, Erica Chenoweth?

ERICA CHENOWETH: Well, when we drilled down into the data, we found that the nonviolent campaigns tend to be 11 times larger than the violent ones. People power is really the main story here. When very large and diverse sectors of society withdraw their cooperation from the opponent government, it's extremely difficult for that government to maintain its hold on control. And the reason is because every power holder is 100 percent reliant on the cooperation, obedience and help of people that reside in its pillars of support. The security forces, the state media, religious authorities, educational elites, business and economic elites and civilian bureaucrats. One of the best kind of concrete examples of how this plays out comes from an anecdote from Serbia, where a nonviolent movement removed Slobodan Milosevic from power in October of 2000. And the last stages of that campaign, where hundreds of thousands of people were engaging in a demonstration in Belgrade, the police were ordered to shoot live ammunition into the crowd indiscriminately. And they just stood there in silence. They didn't retreat, they didn't join into the protest, but they didn't follow the order. When one of them was asked later why he refused to shoot, he said I was afraid my kids would be in the crowd.

INSKEEP: You described how a nonviolent uprising has broader participation - more people, sheer numbers of people. You also write about the types of people who get involved.

STEPHAN: Right, so I mean, nonviolent movements tend to attract the participation of men and women, rich, poor, blue-collar, white collar workers, religious figures - mainly because there are so many different tactics available to groups that engage in civil resistance. In general, the barriers to participation are lower. So we often see you know, women being on the front lines of movements. In Tunisia, the people power movement that ousted Ben Ali - the trade unions played a critical role in launching labor strikes, and then they played a very important role in the peace building that followed. And I think that's an important point to make - that transitions that are driven by active nonviolent means tend to result in societies that are both more democratic and that are less likely to result in civil war after the fact. So they're more peaceful societies as well.

INSKEEP: OK, so Maria Stephan why does an armed rebellion not put that same kind of pressure on an authoritarian government?

STEPHAN: Right, so when you use armed means and violence, it's very hard to co-opt or prompt loyalty shifts within those pillars of support, whether it's security forces or others. And it sort of encourages an even more massive crackdown on the opposition.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of something I heard traveling in Syria last year. I was talking with a doctor who was willing to say out loud that he had no love at all for Bashar al-Assad but having said that, he said these rebels are destroying the country. That's the kind of thing you're talking about. That's the attitude shift that may take place when it becomes an armed rebellion.

STEPHAN: Right, so I would say since I worked with some very brave and courageous Syrians for over a year while with the State Department, and can say that I have great respect for their ability to maintain a nonviolent posture for about eight or nine months against this type of regime. So I understand where that doctor is coming from. It's also pretty evident why Syrians took up arms against this type of regime. But the problem with it is that once armed insurgency became the prevailing form of resistance against the Assad regime, this significantly decreased the level of participation - it caused sort of moderate voices, fence sitters, to not be overwhelmingly supportive of the opposition. And then the resistance was very largely reliant on outside forces. So they needed weapons, training, money - which you know, as we've seen has been not as forthcoming as they would've hoped.

INSKEEP: I'm curious - since your findings have been published, what reaction you've received specifically from military officers? Erica Chenoweth?

CHENOWETH: Military officers are surprisingly receptive to the findings. They find it intuitive. They tend to like the strategic framework especially. They ask tough questions of course, but are generally pretty convinced by the findings.

STEPHAN: Likewise. So I would say one of the prevailing views amongst military colleagues is that - well, you know what? If local people - if the local communities in these countries are able to bring about serious political change themselves, and we don't have to send our guys and women into harm's way isn't that preferable? Well, of course it is.

INSKEEP: What were some of the tough questions you mentioned?

CHENOWETH: Well, it takes less than five Q and As usually to get to the Hitler question (laughter) - which is, would nonviolent resistance have worked against Hitler? There are these questions about whether there are types of regimes that nonviolent resistance can't work against and so forth, and we don't exactly know. We know that there were pockets of nonviolent resistance against Hitler's occupations in various places, and they honestly fared better on local levels than any of the partisan or armed uprisings did around Europe - that is for sure. But I think that we don't yet have a really strong set of empirical findings that suggest that there are places in the world that nonviolent resistance is totally impossible.

INSKEEP: You do have maybe not Hitler, but you do have Syria where as you've mentioned, there was an effort at nonviolent resistance for months and months, and the government drove them into armed rebellion.

STEPHAN: Right, so Syria - I think our shared analysis is that any form of resistance against this regime was going to have a difficult time. But we do say, perhaps counterintuitively, that nonviolent resistance - if it had had more time, if there had been the ability of the opposition to plan, to diversify their tactics, for the local resistance, which was actually quite amazing around Syria, to bring their activities together, to coordinate their assistance - it may have had a chance of success. They needed more time against this regime. This regime was very skilled at using the sectarian card and every other means to divide the population. And it responded of course to the armed resistance in a terrible way.

INSKEEP: Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, thanks to you both.

STEPHAN: Thank you very much.

CHENOWETH: Thank you very much.

GREENE: That was Eric Chenoweth of University of Denver and Maria Stephan, a dual fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Atlantic Council, speaking with our colleague Steve Inskeep. Their article "Drop Your Weapons" is in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

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