Between Hard and Soft Power:The Rise of Civilian-Based Struggle and Democratic ChangePeter Ackerman, Chair, International Center for Nonviolent Conflict
Remarks to the Secretary's Open Forum
June 29, 2004
Opening Remarks and Introduction
The debate over the merits of each form of this power is decades, if not centuries, old. It has intensified certainly since 9/11. One side declares soft power irrelevant -- these are the enemies to whom the U.S. will never be attractive; while the other side claims our military initiatives could never succeed with the world hating America. Yet the debate is really two sides of the same coin: that foreign policy initiatives emanating from the United States or other major powers are all that counts in world affairs.
But there is another type power, civilian-based power, and that is what I am here to talk to you about today. Time and again over the past century it has been a major force in overcoming oppression, ending injustice, fostering democracy, human rights, civil society and political stability in virtually every region of the world. The difference between civilian-based power and hard and soft power is that civilian-based power is indigenous. It is not something controlled or imposed by great powers on others; civilian-based power is local, and it springs from the concerted, collective, strategic, nonviolent actions of large groups of people within a country or conflict.
So more precisely, what is the phenomenon of civilian-based power and how does it operate in key regions that U.s. policymakers are tasked to influence? The strategic use of civilian-based power is a way for people with no military alternative that's viable to fight for their rights and to liberate themselves from oppression. The tactics include acts of defiance available to ordinary citizens such as strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and every conceivable act of social and economic non-cooperation.
Now, the strategic side of this is to select and sequence these tactics based on a plan to undermine an authoritarian's pillars of support and control, including and especially the loyalty of the military and police. Nonviolent resistance operates on a disperse theory of force in society. That power is derived from the everyday lives of ordinary people. The dynamic unfolds when people refuse to obey and then make themselves ungovernable. This leaves the authoritarian's position untenable. By way of contrast, violent insurrection operates from a so-called decapitation theory: mobilize a guerrilla force to kill the leader, and change will come. The problem with the decapitation theory is that the probabilities of success are historically very low, and that the change that comes is rarely democratic, because the guerrilla groups invariably want the absolute power of those they have successfully deposed. Whereas nonviolent insurrections have tended to result in democratic transformation, because organizing many segments of the society for the resistance reinforces the civic structures needed to sustain a democracy.
Civilian-based resistance has been part of the greatest news-making events of the last quarter century. Here I would include, as Bill mentioned, the people power movement that overthrew Marcos in the Philippines; the 600 civic organizations that forced Botha from power, demanded DeKlerk's release of Mandela, and ended apartheid in South Africa; the "No" campaign that terminated Pinochet's reign of terror in Chile; the Solidarity movement that created the first trade union and ultimately led to the demise of Communist rule in Poland; and of course I should mention the civil rights movement in the United States and Gandhi's battle with the British now 75 years ago.
In the past few months, several of the conflicts involving civilian-based power have won notable victories. In November of last year, the corrupt administration of Edward Shevardnadze in Georgia was ended. What many don't know is that the final three weeks of mass demonstrations were the tip of the iceberg. Planning, training, and a series of small-scale nonviolent actions began as long as a year before. Interestingly, the media in the Middle East took special notice of the events in Georgia, and commentators there began to ask if this could happen in their own countries. And for those skeptical of Muslim receptivity to civilian-based resistance, I would call your attention to the events of May 6th of this year. On that day, Aslan Abashidze, the dictator of Ajaria, which was a breakaway province of Georgia, was forced out of power. What many don't know is that Ajarian students contacted Georgian students in the Kmara resistance movement to learn how to launch a nonviolent struggle in Ajaria. Planning and actions began as early as this past January.
Now, in our question-and-answer session I hope we'll be able to talk a little bit more about the importance of planning. Movements that are planned tend to be more successful that movements that are spontaneous. One of the interesting illustrations of this is when Lech Walesa came to celebrate the opening of our first movie, he made it very clear that there was a two-year prelude, a conceptual prelude, a planning prelude, to Solidarity before it was launched in the early '80s, and he considered this vital to that movement's success.
Now, in the current 12-month cycle, conflicts featuring the use of civilian nonviolent tactics have occurred or are occurring in Armenia, Belarus, Burma, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, Cuba, Nepal, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Iran, Zimbabwe, and as I mentioned Georgia and Ajaria.
Nevertheless, in my experience the ideas of nonviolent resistance or the application of civilian-based power can be confusing because of the misconceptions people typically have. Now, what are these misconceptions? One important misconception is that civilian-based power, which requires nonviolent discipline in its execution, is the same as principled nonviolence. Nonviolent tactics are used for strategic purposes, whereas nonviolence described as an ethic is usually associated with pacificism. Successful, nonviolent resistance movements therefore don't depend on converting the oppressor. Instead the require a significant level of coercion, as authoritarians rarely give up power voluntarily.
Another misconception is that leaders of nonviolent movements must be saints. But except for Gandhi and King, virtually all leaders of nonviolent resistance movements would have considered a military option if it was viable. In fact, most movements, such as South Africa and Poland, evolved from failed violent insurrections. While leaders of civilian-based movements demand nonviolent discipline, they don't necessarily require this discipline for its moral value. They demand nonviolent discipline so their provocations create dissension among groups their adversaries depend on. A movement can't co-opt the loyalties of people they threaten to kill or maim.
Another widely held misconception is that the potential for civilian-based power is limited by the brutality of the dictator or oppressor. In fact, sometimes the most brutal dictators turn out to be the most brittle. No one would call Pinochet a pussycat. For the crimes they commit against their populations, these dictators can easily commit against their followers who they often believe in their paranoia are becoming traitors. In the end, no one trusts anyone in the inner circle, which leaves the dictator's position highly exploitable. In general, the press and foreign policy community tend to understate the vulnerabilities of oppressors at every point before they are ousted. That is why their loss of power by nonviolent means is always a shock to the so-called experts. I remember the day Milosevic fell a prominent newscaster on national TV said, "I don't understand how this could have happened -- he was just in power six days ago."
Another misconception that I'd like to discuss is that some policymakers assume that nonviolent resistance movements can be instigated from the outside. But that is most often not the case. Why? Because such movements are always developed at the grass-roots level involving males and females, old people and young people, of every economic and social strata. Also, these movements can and do experience severe repression. Civilians will not take risks unless there is a home-grown leadership that inspires them and that is credible. However, civilian-based movements can be nurtured by external assistance, and I'm going to talk about that later.
Now, one final misconception is that nonviolent resistance movements are just so-called peaceful mass protests in big cities. To be effective though, civilian-based power must include a variety of tactics, dispersed geographically. Otpor, the anti-Milosevic student movement, was successful because it operated in 70 cities and towns outside Belgrade. Mass protests may start a movement, but alone they cannot finish one. A variety of confrontations and provocations are necessary before the authoritarian's pillars of support will desert him.
While Iran, for example, is ripe for the expression of civilian-based resistance, a full range of tactics have yet to be applied throughout the country. Now, when this occurs, and I believe it will, events will take a surprising turn.
Now, what we are about to see is a short highlight reel of a documentary I produced with filmmaker and director Steve York. It chronicles the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, the first successful nonviolent resistance movement in the new millennium. This case study is full of interesting developments. For example, the opposition movement did not need igniting by the West. In fact, the Serbs will adamantly argue that they suffered a setback by the NATO bombing over Kosovo. However, to their credit, officials from America and Europe regrouped, and along with key NGOs provided importance assistance and training in the critical months that followed. Nevertheless, most experts assume that Milosevic, the butcher of the Balkans, would only fall by violent insurrection. In our interviews for the documentary, key officials generally conceded surprise at the suddenness of Milosevic's demise.
Now let's watch this 10-minute highlight reel.
DR. ACKERMAN: "Bringing Down A Dictator" was a 55-minute movie that aired on Public Broadcasting Corporation the Easter of 2002. I encourage you all to see the whole movie. It's very moving. There's a couple vignettes in there that are interesting. One is the point is made that the day Milosevic fell only two people died -- one of a heart attack at the parliament and the other of a traffic accident somewhere else in Belgrade.
And the other point that was made during that time: that it was very hard for the police to shoot at the crowds, because they may very well might be shooting at their own children.
Our first movie, "A Force More Powerful," was aired on PBS in September 2000 in two 90-minute segments. It chronicles six other stories of civilian-based power including, as Bill mentioned, India, Nashville, South Africa, Denmark, Poland and Chile. Both films have been seen by millions in over 70 countries.
Now, we wanted to tell these stories on film to show that even though they happened at different places and at different times, they are really the same story. And that story is, as Desmond Tutu expresses at the end of "A Force More Powerful," and I quote, "When people want to be free, there is nothing that can stop them."
But I am not here to extol the films, per se. But what has stunned us is the degree to which these stories of civilian-based power presented visually have resonated with so many others around the world. And, also, we have been pleasantly surprised that these films have been used as training tools. For example, three months after Milosevic fell, Steve York and I visited Belgrade. We showed members of the Serbian opposition one of the segments of "A Force More Powerful" on Pinochet's ouster in Chile. They told us that had they seen this film three years earlier there never would have been the bombings over Kosovo. They would have adopted a winning strategy much sooner, and Milosevic would have been long gone.
Another recent example was how the Georgian opposition used copies of "Bringing Down A Dictator." The following was the impact as reported by the Washington Post the day after Shevardnadze resigned: "The Georgian opposition movement modeled its campaign on the popular uprising that deposed Yugoslavia's president Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, and even adopted its slogan. Opposition leaders traveled to Belgrade for advice, and brought their Serbian counterparts to Tblisi. Thousands of Georgians were trained in the techniques honed in Belgrade, and the opposition persuaded Georgia's independent television network to air a documentary on the Serbian uprising -- not once, but twice, in the last 10 days. 'Most important was the film,' said Ivane Merabishvili, general secretary of the National Movement party that led the revolt. All the demonstrators knew the tactics of the revolution in Belgrade by heart because they showed the film on their revolution. Everyone knew what to do. This was a copy of that revolution, only louder." In the remarks in the discussion we have afterwards, I'd like to talk a little bit more about training. But one of the things that we have also discovered thought the films and otherwise is the portability of these ideas and the way people use the knowledge form past conflicts to impact their own.
So, in conclusion, why am I here if after all civilian-based power must be homegrown to succeed? Why should the policy community be interested in something they can't fully control? I believe there are three interests this interest should be high for people in this room. First, the stakes are huge in conflicts involving or potentially involving civilian-based power and the use of nonviolent tactics. As your former colleague, Ambassador Mark Palmer, so eloquently discusses in his recent book, "Breaking the Real Axis of Evil," the governments that brutally repress their own people are the very same ones that traffic in weapons of mass destruction and support or harbor terrorist groups. Civilian-based resistance can reduce deadly violence and the appeal of terrorist groups because it offers a viable means of resistance for people suffering under oppression.
Second, while external forces cannot bring civilian-based movements into existence, there is a great deal that the international community can do to nurture and sustain them. These movements desperately need material resources, including funds and communications equipment. This provides vital independence and standing for dissident groups. Governments and NGOs need to pressure undemocratic regimes to make them hesitate to use repression against nonviolent movements. This can be done either with sanctions targeted against elites and by continuous advocacy by human rights organizations against such abuses. Opposition members can benefit from education in the theory and practice of civilian-based resistance. Now, this doesn't detail specific advice in the heat of battle, but the general transference of strategic knowledge has made and can make in the future an enormous difference to pro-democracy elements.
Finally, perhaps most important, the awareness and harnessing of civilian-based power can broaden the limited range of options that exist when policy is considered only in terms of hard and soft power. U.S. policymakers are consistently caught in the conundrum of accommodating regimes they wish were democracies. At the same time, from the border states of the former Soviet Union to the Middle East to Africa to Asia, civilians in these regimes are calling for reform. They are demanding governments that are accountable to their citizens. But they don't want the United States or anyone else telling them what to do or trying to impose something from the outside on their societies. What they want is the tools to multiply their power, and the international community should be ready to help.
Let me conclude by planting the thought that this perhaps could be a new realm for transatlantic cooperation. Thank you very much, and I'm glad to take questions. (Applause.)
MR. KEPPLER: Anyone wishing to either ask a question or provide their own views and comments, we ask you if you're sitting in front of a microphone to please press the button. If you're not, I would encourage you to go to the microphones that we have set up there in the back, so that your comments can be recorded and included in the transcript.
While we're waiting for the first person to come up and ask a question, I'd like to use the chairman's prerogative to ask you the first question. In regimes that are so totalitarian and so authoritarian, such as North Korea, does the concept and the possibility of nonviolent conflict -- is that a real possibility? And in the examples you've given us, while they are authoritarian governments, they were not as closed societies, they did not have the extensive social and political control that we do find in those regimes like North Korea. So using North Korea as a template, is it possible that nonviolent conflict is a viable possibility there?
DR. ACKERMAN: I think first I'd like to make a general comment. Nonviolent resistance is not a panacea. It's a set of tools, a set of weapons, that are used in conflict. And as we all know, conflict has a very uncertain outcome in all cases. And there's no question that the more closed the society is, the less political space there is, the more difficult it is for movement to begin.
But we have to remember that it's not the authoritarian that fires every shot at the population or undertakes every act of depredation. They need a group around them that can have the multiplier effect and have a larger impact. It's the loyalties of that group that are critical as targets for nonviolent resistance movements.
So with respect to North Korea, I would say two things. Number one, it's probably the toughest nut to crack for sure; but, at the same time, I don't think we fully understand the extent and potential for dissidence that might exist there. Certainly people aren't happy with their lives. I think we shouldn't assume that people rest easy with their lack of freedom, and if given alternatives and if exposed to possibilities, virtually anything is possible. You also have to work with the fact that a totalitarian regime that's been successful for long periods of time expects total cooperation, and when it doesn't receive it there's a great sense of disorientation that's exploitable. So I hope that gives you a reasonable answer.
MR. KEPPLER: The gentleman there.
Q My question is somewhat related to what Mr. Keppler said. How has your organization and yourself dealt with the psychological effect that the public in general have when they are under a regime such as Iraq, for example, or the Taliban? It's almost like a government terrorism, they sort of terrorize the people, and they're so afraid of doing anything, because it is a very closed type of society. We can't really keep watch on them. There's no press. So the media has a very limited way of putting out to people exactly what's going on. So how does an organization likes your tackle first sort of identify a group internally, and then try to cure that psychological oppression that they have in their own minds that it's almost impossible to get this type of nonviolent conflict in place in those countries?
DR. ACKERMAN: Excellent question. Let me start again by reiterating a point I just made. The targeting for a nonviolent resistance movement is the loyalty of the police to the military. They basically are the key pillars of support that every totalitarian regime requires, no matter how brutal they may be. And there's no question you're correct that the key use of repression is to basically harm the few to terrorize the many, and that's certainly what happened in Chile. But one of the interesting stories is Chile. The original seeds of resistance were focused on the idea of basically having a general strike in a copper mine. Again, a focused area, limited, and of course Pinochet said if you do this we will kill those who do this, and it was a very easy target for oppression. So what the movement did instead was that they had a day they designated in the capital where people would drive at half speed and walk at half speed, and at the end of the day they would lift their windows up and start banging pots and pans. And the purpose of this is that you can't arrest everybody who's walking at half speed and driving at half speed, even if you conclude it was half speed. But what you did create was a sense of self-identification and mutual reinforcement of the dissatisfaction that exists and the possibilities of larger and more aggressive acts. And certainly the banging pots and pans, unstoppable by a totalitarian regime, reinforced that notion. This happened month after month. And what started to happen as a result is that people became less afraid and were able to coordinate more aggressive activities.
Let me also spend a second and I think -- when do we finish here? Let me spend a second talking a little bit more about the theoretical elements here with an illustration. If I lined up in Iraq the entire Republican Guard before the war, and say, Look, all you have to do is walk from this side of this room to that side of this room, and you'll be free and there will be no more depredations on yourself or your family, there will be no more fear, and Saddam will go, I think it's fair to say all but those who receive the greatest awards would probably take the step, if they believed they could be secure in that process. Now let's change the game for a second, and say, Well, walk from here to there, fine, but if 90 percent don't walk -- if at least 10 percent don't walk with you, then those who take the step off the wall -- they're going to be killed. So you say to yourself, Well, I'm sure 10 percent, since everybody knows it's 10 percent, will walk with us -- I'll take that risk.
Now start raising the number from 10 percent to 20, to 30, to 40 -- suddenly the risks multiply dramatically. And when you get to 70 or 80 percent have to walk with you, then it becomes critical for you to know who's going to walk and who's going to not walk. And what you're finding here, that the issue as to whether this regime stands or falls is not the brutality of Saddam or Pinochet or Milosevic, it's how well they can communicate with each other with confidence that everybody is going to walk.
The virtue of nonviolent resistance tactics is that allows for that kind of communication, within the inner circles and between the inner circles and the population at large. And that's what creates the disintegration of the loyalties to the dictator.
MR. KEPPLER: The lady in the back, please.
Q My name is I come from Howa Ibrahim (ph), and I come from American University. I'm a Humphrey Fellow, just rounding up my program. I'm going back to my country. I think you give me what I need to go back, and to go back well.
My question is one interesting thing about defeat is the fact there is no national leadership. How do they organize? How does the group stand, and how do you have the centralization and achieve a result without that leadership?
DR. ACKERMAN: That's also a fantastic question. And I would say that historically leadership has taken many different forms. You have a charismatic leader like Gandhi, you had in the Danish resistance of the Nazis 14 people who nobody knew who they were -- they were totally anonymous and hidden. But the key in both cases is that people had to know that those around them would respond to that leadership. And so you're exactly correct: for the leadership to be -- there has to be leadership, because there has to be guidance, because premeditation and planning and strategic thinking are critical to the success of these movements. But the leadership has to impact the general population in a decentralized way. So between the leadership that might be in the center and the general population there have to be cells of leadership, like the 600 civic organizations in South Africa. So it's very much -- that was really the -- those civic organizations were really the crucial fault group that basically made it very difficult for the apartheid regime to stay in power.
In "A Force More Powerful," we tell the story of the economic boycott in Port Elizabeth as a key story to illustrate what had happened throughout South Africa. So a leadership at the top, a leadership that disperses throughout the society are all critical. Whether it's charismatic or not is I think idiosyncratic to the circumstances.
Q (Off mike) -- faxes were used in China, cell phones are being used in decentralized communications and organizing.
DR. ACKERMAN: I'm glad you asked that. The International Center for Nonviolent Conflict had a one-day seminar with people from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories to create and to explore what technologies would actually create advantages for civilian-based movements. There is no question that these technologies are democraticizing. They give an advantage to the -- they enable decentralized activity. They create, if you will, a digital concept of the right of assembly. But I'll leave the question telling you what the best idea that came out of that seminar was. It was to -- and let's get back to North Korea, which -- and the truth that happened afterwards is as interesting as this, as what we conceived of. Let's say you drop 10,000 boxes or distributed somehow in North Korea. The boxes contain the following: 100 feet of string, a balloon, a helium canister and microwave devices, radio devices that can communicate. Tie the string to the tree. Tie the other end of the string to the balloon. Attach the electronic device to the balloon, stick the helium canister in the balloon, break it. The balloon rises 100 feet in the air, and you have an unlimited number of transmission towers. Provide in addition the ability to transmit with devices, hand-held devices -- suddenly you have an interesting opportunity.
I think right after we had this meeting there was -- I don't know if you remember the story of somebody tried to send a balloon over into North Korea from South Korea. So these might be far-fetched to some, but they are unquestionably enabling. Anything that creates the ability to communicate outside the reach of an authoritarian is something that is promotive of these kinds of movements.
MR. KEPPLER: The gentleman with the tan jacket, please.
Q (Off mike) -- Reform Party of Syria. As we all know, Syria is one of those tough nuts to crack. We have learned in the past few months, being active in politics and being active inside Syria as well, that the Syrians inside Syria, the dissidents, their hands are tied, and they have not been to shake the tree, as we say. And so what they have done is they've come back to us -- first in the form of, Help us free some prisoners -- which we have done. We've contacted Congress, we have letters going out, et cetera, et cetera. We are doing our best. But now the contacts have come back to us, where they are asking for help. They are saying, We need you, because we don't seem to be able to really do anything that is effective inside the country. And that is novel in its texture because, as you said, you either have a free country inside -- relatively free -- people can do what they've done, as we have seen, or anything else that comes from outside could be violent and therefore it doesn't fall in that category.
So my question is we are experiencing something new -- we as dissidents inside Syria and outside Syria -- that communications going back and forth and trying to help them inside, because we do have certain things that we can help them with. And my question is: How do you see this kind of -- how do you see our role as dissidents outside develop into trying really to accomplish something where people are really able -- but whose hands are tied in the sense that they cannot do the things that we've seen in the movie people can do?
DR. ACKERMAN: I'll answer not as an expert on the situation in Syria, because I'm not, but I'll just share with you that you're not the first person representing a particular part of the world that's come to us with this kind of request, and the request is we have a nascent movement, we have things we can do, we have restrictions on what we can do. We need a concept of what to do next that's part of a larger strategy. We need to have people help us materially.
Now, as far as you're concerned, as dissidents, I would encourage you to try to understand the parts of these movements that we studied that are relevant to you. I would try to understand what in the past relative to your circumstance -- I'd try to understand what in the past have been the critical variables of success, like the importance of unity, the importance of declaring a certain goal that basically resonates with the entire population. So, for example in the case of Solidarity they didn't ask for the end of communism -- and, believe me, they felt as much under the gun as you're expressing today. As a matter of fact, when Lech Walesa was with us, he made the point when he saw our movie -- he basically said, first, that your movie is inadequate -- my heart fell through my stomach here. And he said the reason it was inadequate was because it didn't make the point that there were one million Soviet troops on his soil when the Solidarity movement began. But he didn't define the movement's goals in terms of ending communist rule -- they just wanted a free trade union. They received a free trade union, and then within four months 10 million people signed up. That's the equivalent of 70 million people signing up for one of the unions in America within four months. So picking goals -- unity, marshaling your own resources, understanding how you can use the empathy of the international community, understanding where the regime's weaknesses are -- who do they depend on for their support in their terror, or just to get the everyday work done, understanding that repression will come back and dealing and organizing with that repression by having redundancy of leadership. These are things that were done in the past, learning how to think about the sequencing of tactics -- not just mass protests. One of the things you didn't see in this movie is that just before this major coming together in Belgrade, there was a massive strike in the coal mines, which provided a huge proportion of the electricity around Serbia. So there's a variety of tactics that are available. So I wouldn't want to gainsay to you how difficult it is. But at the same time I don't think you should lose hope to believe that there aren't things that can't be done internally if you think them through. And you think them through has a sequence of activities. So I invite you to talk with our center, and see if we have anything that might be of use, and to think through these issues because I think what would have happened elsewhere does resonate -- should resonate with what you need.
MR. KEPPLER: Peter, you want to advise people about your website, and also about the handouts that are available.
DR. ACKERMAN: You've done it. We have handouts about the center outside. I don't know if we have a few tapes. Of course if you ask us for tapes of the two movies, we will be delighted to provide them.