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Non-violence - a dangerous idea



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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October 22, 2008

LONDON - The non-violent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are pushing at an open door. Even the Pentagon has begun to look at their value in situations of conflict and political impasse. In the news today is the essentially non-violent struggle of the opposition in Zimbabwe to push aside the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe. Despite all the provocations of the police and the army the opposition (unlike in Kenya) has turned the other cheek and in doing so won over almost 100% of the foreign opinion that counts. Exiled Iranian opposition activists are studying and training in the techniques of non-violent conflict, emulating the success of the recent movements for change in the Ukraine and Serbia.

One shouldn't be surprised by this turn of events. The twentieth century is rightly described as the bloodiest century of mankind. But it was also the most creative in terms of alternatives to violence - not only Martin Luther King and Gandhi (with the anti-British Pathans joining his movement, an historical development somehow overlooked today by the NATO armies in Afghanistan), but also the work of Chief Albert Luthuli and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Archbishop Helder Camara in Brazil and Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta in East Timor. There were the 1950s marches against nuclear weapons which helped persuade President John Kennedy to push for the Test Ban Treaty, and later the massive protests against the Vietnam War.

There is no way one can put a precise finger on it. But there has been a sea-change in Western society's attitude to war. Despite the headlines there are fewer wars now than ever before in history. The number of wars conducted between the democracies since the end of World War II is zero. The industrialized, richer, democratic nations have mostly abandoned armed conflict as a way of conducting their relations with other countries. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the only exceptions. There is only a small constituency in the West that supports a strike against Iran.

Even in the poorer countries where warfare is more rife, war is waged by a remarkably small group - mainly criminals, bullies and warlords, often easily defeated by UN-type military intervention, combined with outside political pressure, except in rare cases like Afghanistan where the Pathans have a deep and almost unique inbred culture of resistance. In only the U.S. and Russia is military intervention a constant topic of conversation and serious ongoing preparedness.

Take a close look at Holland, Sweden and Switzerland if one doubts how war-making cultures can change. At the end of the eighteenth century Holland and Sweden each had armies larger than those of Britain or Austria and far larger than Prussia. Holland was one of the great seafaring, imperialistic countries of the world. But for the last two and a half centuries Holland has been utterly non-warlike. During the period 1415 to 1809 the Scandinavian countries were almost permanently at war. But since Sweden's defeat by Russia in 1809 they have more or less withdrawn from violent conflict. Likewise Switzerland which in 1500 was a feared warrior nation.

If the militaristic atmosphere of past ages is beginning to change one shouldn't be surprised at the greater role that non-violent campaigns have played over the last sixty years. And they tend to be successful too. A recent study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, reported in Harvard's quarterly,'International Security', finds that large-scale non-violent campaigns of civilian resistance have achieved success 53% of the time. In contrast terrorist campaigns achieved their objectives only 7% of the time.

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Success comes from many factors, not least persistence. But it also comes from an enhanced domestic and international legitimacy and alienation of the target regime, as happened in the Ukraine three years ago. Second, public opinion at home repulsed by violent movements finds a non-violent movement increasingly appealing. Repression by heavily armed police and army helps turn public opinion against the regime. This happened in the Philippines, where violent opposition had failed. But when two millions rallied peacefully to oust dictator Ferdinand Marcos the Reagan administration pushed for him to step down.

One can point to numerous situations where non-violence could usefully be made to work today. But no situation is more ripe for it than the Israel/Palestine dispute. If the Palestinians could drop their guns and stones and organize an effective non-violent movement they would find a million Israelis supporting them.

Warfare, as John Mueller has written, was once regarded as "natural, inevitable, honorable, thrilling, manly, invigorating, necessary, glorious, progressive and desirable." It could well be that this era is approaching its close and non-violent resistance is becoming the main tool of radical, even revolutionary, change.

Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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