Strategic Nonviolent Conflict
By Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler
Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, (Westport,Connecticut: Praeger, 1994).
Ackerman and Kruegler argue that the use of nonviolent action in conflicts is on the increase. They seek to understand the principles of effective nonviolent conflict, and to explore its potential uses in the contemporary context. Since they take the practitioner's choice of strategies to be a key factor in the success or failure of nonviolent actions, much of their work focuses on describing strategies and developing principles to guide strategic planning. The text consists of nine chapters with an authors' Introduction and Forewords by Gene Sharp and by Thomas Schelling.
In their Introduction to the text, the authors list a number of features of the contemporary international scene which may encourage the increased use of nonviolent action. They note that NGOs are playing larger roles and wielding increasing power in international affairs. "Nonstate actors may find that their particular attributes and capabilities make them especially well suited to waging nonviolent conflict."[xxi]
Ethnic conflicts are on the rise globally. Given the potential of ethnic conflicts to escalate dramatically and violently, and so to provoke international censure, ethnic groups may well turn toward nonviolent conflict to press their demands. Marginalized groups have not been very successful in using terrorism to achieve their goals. Groups which had resorted to terrorism may turn to nonviolent strategies, which have had a somewhat better success rate.
Nonviolent resistance may be used as a form of civilian-based national defense. This approach prepares the general population to use nonviolent resistance should another power attempt to invade. The goal is to make it impossible to successfully occupy and govern the invaded territory. Civilian-based defense may be an appealing option to small states which have no realistic hope of defending themselves by military force.
It has often been thought that nonviolent action is most effective in democratic states. The authors suggest instead that nonviolent conflict may be a precursor to democratization. "Effective nonviolent conflict may be shown to precede, abet, and defend the democratizing process."[xxiii] And so supporting nonviolent action is one way to encourage and support democratization.
Finally, they note that technological advances, especially in communications, have made strategic nonviolence easier to use and more effective. They have also created new opportunities for nonviolent action. The authors caution, however, that technology in and of itself does not give an advantage to nonviolent actors. Technology can also be used to dominate and oppress. Ultimately, nonviolent actors must always out perform their adversaries in order to succeed.
Chapter One describes the emergence of nonviolent action as a significant feature of in many contemporary conflicts. They observe that the use of strategies of nonviolence need not be based on a philosophy of nonviolence. Many contemporary actors simply find nonviolent actions to be the most effective and least costly, and in most contemporary conflict some combination of violent and nonviolent action has been used. Nonviolent actions range from forms of protest and persuasion, to forms of non-cooperation such as strikes and boycotts, to forms of intervention such as sit-ins.
The authors close Chapter One by raising and rebutting some traditional arguments against nonviolent actions. Some have argued that it is not possible to produce a "formula" for effective nonviolent strategy. The authors agree that no simple formula is possible, but respond that a better understanding of the complex variables at play is certainly possible and desirable. They also reject the claim that "true" nonviolence must be understood as a transformative activity and philosophy. Some have argued that nonviolence cannot succeed in the face of extreme violence and repression. Here the authors argue by historical cases that nonviolent action can oppose violent repressive regimes. They note "nonviolent conflict cannot require a kinder and gentler world in which to prevail, but it may offer (and has offered) a realistic alternative in the face of political violence as we know it."
Chapter Two describes twelve principles of strategic action. Each principle addresses a factor contributing to the success or failure of strategic nonviolent conflict. In developing a plan for strategic nonviolent action, the actors must formulate clear achievable goals. They must strengthen their organization, secure needed resources and support, and seek support from external actors, groups or states. They must also develop a repertoire of nonviolent actions and tactics.
In engaging in nonviolent conflict the actors must maintain strong discipline, and refrain from violent action. Violence will cost the group credibility, and dramatically escalate the conflict. They must mute the effects of the opponents' violence, by avoiding it or preparing for it. Nonviolent actors should seek to use and publicize the opponent's violence to undermine domestic and foreign support for the opponent. They should attack their opponent's strategy for maintaining control and obedience. In their ongoing planning over the course of the conflict, nonviolent actors must continue to reassess actions and options as the situation progresses. They must adjust their offensive or defensive postures in light of new vulnerabilities or strengths. And they must strive to keep their actions and and goals connected.
In Chapters Three through Eight the authors analyze cases of widespread and sustained strategic nonviolent conflict. Each case concludes with an analysis of how well the conflict conformed to the authors' twelve principles of strategic action. Ackerman and Kruegler examine the use of nonviolence in the First Russian Revolution, between 1904 and 1906. They examine the German use of passive resistance during the French occupation of the Ruhr region. They analyze the Indian Independence Movement in the 1930, and resistance to the German occupation of Denmark in the early 1940s. They investigate the use of a civic strike to depose the General Martinez in El Salvador. And finally they examine the conflict between the Polish Communist Party and the Solidarity trade union movement in 1980.
Having explored historical uses of nonviolent action, Chapter Nine draws some general conclusion about what is needed for nonviolent action to succeed. The authors also evaluate their principles in light of their findings from the historical record. This chapter includes a chart summarizing each cases' conformity to the twelve principles and assessing the success or failure of nonviolent action in each case. The authors find no strong correlation between the ferocity of the opponent and failure of nonviolent action. Nonviolent action tended to succumb to opponents who applied steady, sustained pressure, rather than swift repression. Their review of the cases shows that their initial principles do identify relevant factors in the success of nonviolent action, and that conforming to those principles did increase the chance of successful action.
The authors draw some general lessons for nonviolent protagonists from their review of the cases. "First, it seems that it is easier to mobilize for conflict than to wage it...Second, it seems that the greatest source of counter-productive behavior is associated with the conception of nonviolent strategy." Groups tended to make strategic errors during their ongoing planning over the course of the conflict. They note that nonviolent actors tend to end their campaigns somewhat prematurely, and often leave themselves no way to rejoin the conflict. The authors also find that, "not only does violence mix poorly with nonviolent action, but even the contemplation of opportunistic violence weakens the effectiveness of strategic nonviolent conflict."
Ackerman and Kruegler conclude the text with a brief overview of contemporary conflicts, including Panama, China, the Philippines, East Central Europe, and South Africa. They express hope that a better understanding of the principles of strategic nonviolent action will lead to its wider use.