Metta Spencer in email discussion with Erica Chenoweth, co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works.
METTA SPENCER: Peace Magazine should have reviewed your book, Why Civil Resistance Works, when it appeared last year, but maybe it will be even better just to talk with you about it. It’s an immensely important contribution to peace research, so let’s start right off summarizing the findings. What were the big discoveries you made?
ERICA CHENOWETH: Well, the key takeaways are basically threefold. First, civil resistance campaigns—where unarmed civilians confronted their opponents using nonviolent tactics like protests, strikes, boycotts, stay-at-home demonstrations, and the like—succeeded twice as often as violent insurgencies during the last century (the study covers the period 1900 to 2006). Second, this is true even in many situations where we would expect nonviolent resistance to fail—like in highly repressive, authoritarian countries. And third, countries emerging from a major nonviolent uprising were more likely to become stable democracies after the conflict was over.
SPENCER: Were these the questions that you intended to answer from the outset or did you come upon these discoveries by surprise?
CHENOWETH: I was definitely surprised. From my own point of view, the biggest shocker was how much more effective civil resistance campaigns have been than most violent insurgencies. I came to the research thinking that violence only happens when people think it is going to be effective—that if it didn’t have a high chance of success, it would never happen in the first place. But here was some pretty convincing empirical evidence showing that I might be wrong about that.
SPENCER: Where did you get your list of conflicts? Did you work with a list of historical conflicts that other researchers had compiled or did you start listing these struggles by yourselves? What were the criteria for inclusion in your list and what sort of struggles did you exclude? How did you judge whether a conflict was waged violently or nonviolently? I suppose most struggles were some ratio of both.
CHENOWETH: For the nonviolent ones, we started from lists gathered by other researchers, like veteran civil resistance researchers April Carter, Howard Clark, and Michael Randle. Those three had recently published a comprehensive bibliography identifying hundreds of nonviolent campaigns. We also used lists by Kurt Schock, Jeff Goodwin, Stephen Zunes, and Gene Sharp, and then added to them based on additional case studies identified in historical books, news sources, and encyclopedic entries. Once we gathered our list, we circulated it widely and asked for input. We asked about whether we were missing any campaigns, especially ones that had failed. It was a two-year process. We took our list of violent conflicts from the Correlates of War data set, which is commonly used by scholars of international relations. We have a long list of criteria for inclusion, but the major points are that there had to be at least 1,000 visible participants in each campaign, and the campaigns had to have some degree of coordination. What I mean is that we didn’t count a one-off event, like a protest where 400,000 people showed up. They had to show up for a while and continue being active in order to count as a campaign. We only included campaigns that were trying to overthrow a regime, secede, or kick out a foreign military occupation. This is because lots of folks would be skeptical of the chances of success for a nonviolent campaign in circumstances like these.
They are truly the hard cases. We had to make judgment calls about whether they were most appropriately classified as nonviolent or violent. About 30 of the nonviolent campaigns had some incidental violence or a so-called “radical flank.” But if violence became the primary method of struggle, we called this a failed nonviolent campaign followed by a new violent campaign. This was something we asked our colleagues to help us assess—whether it was appropriate and reasonable to call campaigns primarily violent vs. primarily nonviolent. Although it did take some judgment calls in some cases, I feel that our coding decisions for each case are pretty defensible.
SPENCER: When you started, were you already familiar with How Freedom is Won, the study by Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman? It seems quite compatible with your own findings.
CHENOWETH: Yes, we both knew of the study. They were primarily interested in the question of whether civil resistance was a major factor in explaining democratic transitions. Although their study is certainly groundbreaking, ours includes a wider variety of struggles (beyond democratic transitions), and our study is more concerned with whether these campaigns succeed or fail. So the findings are compatible, but our scope and aims were somewhat different.
SPENCER: You show that the success of a nonviolent struggle depends mainly on the numbers of people who participate in it. But some people won’t participate, even when there’s a perfect opportunity and not much risk in doing so. To boost their participation seems to involve changing their whole culture. That’s not exactly part of the problem that you chose to address in the book, but what are your ideas about how to deal with it? (I myself am convinced that TV or radio drama series can do more to prompt people to change their cultural orientation voluntarily than anything else. Do you know of any such study of ways to encourage democratization?)
CHENOWETH: There are lots of studies in sociology that deal with why people mobilize in some cases but not others. I think the jury is out. But my guess is that when an issue truly resonates with people, and when they decide that the risk is worth it, they join. What we don’t know is what kind of systematic forces lead to that. You’re probably right that in some cases, TV and radio would do the trick. In other cases, a highly-publicized repressive incident might outrage a bunch of people, and they might decide that enough is enough. I suppose what I’m saying is that social scientists have a long way to go before we fully understand what makes people tick in this regard.
SPENCER: What kind of impact has your book had, so far? I imagine that most military strategists and foreign policy experts must have been astonished by your findings—if indeed they even acknowledged that you were right. What kind of discussions have you had with militarists who have read your book? Do many people dispute your findings?
CHENOWETH: Well, the reception has been mostly positive so far, even among military strategists. In fact, they often seem to be highly amenable to the argument we are making, which is a strategic one. Importantly, we’re not saying that nonviolent resistance campaigns always work—or even that they work because they are nonviolent. We’re arguing that relying on nonviolent resistance often gives these campaigns a participation advantage, which then opens up multiple avenues for building political power that aren’t available to violent ones. There has been some pushback from activists who are convinced that violence is necessary for true change because of how repressive they perceive their opponent to be.
SPENCER: According to your CV and that of your co-author, Maria Stephan, neither of you seem to have come from a background in peace studies. How then did you happen to get together and take up the research project that led to your book?
CHENOWETH: Maria was the academic outreach coordinator at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict when we met. I went to an academic workshop on people power that ICNC had arranged, met Maria, and became curious about whether nonviolent resistance could actually work in similar circumstances to violent resistance. I was just about to start a fellowship at Harvard, and she had just finished a fellowship there. So we found ourselves hanging out in similar circles, and we decided to go ahead and pursue the study.
SPENCER: Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman also have social backgrounds that are far from typical for peaceniks. They are rich guys with careers in high finance, a fact that arouses the suspicions of my left-leaning Canadian friends. Also, they have both been prominent at Freedom House, the organization that quantifies democratization around the world—which I personally appreciate but many people distrust. In fact I have friends who consider it an agency for “American imperialism,” if you’ll pardon the expression. Do you worry about such concerns?
CHENOWETH: Not at all. I personally have never worked with Freedom House, but I don’t see any robust evidence that would support such claims.
SPENCER: I was in touch with Maria Stephan before I called you. I learned that she works for the US State Department and sometimes works with the Center for Nonviolent Conflict, which Ackerman created and funds. What can you tell us about that organization? Do you suppose it has any influence on policymakers in the State Department?
CHENOWETH: ICNC is a private educational foundation whose sole aim is to disseminate knowledge about the theory, history, and practice of civil resistance. ICNC offers educational materials to anyone interested in the topic. You can get a clear sense of their activities from their website: nonviolent-conflict.org/index.php/about-icnc/what-we-do. Equally important is what they do not do—they do not provide any advice or funds to activists intending to launch nonviolent actions, nor do they accept any money from any government. Maria left ICNC before she joined the State Department (people move from NGOs into government and vice versa all the time), and she and I wrote our book in our independent capacities.
That said, I certainly hope that policymakers read it and embrace its findings, especially since we openly caution against foreign governments getting directly involved in these movements. At the end of the book, we argue that nonviolent resistance movements cannot be generated from outside. We argue that external aid can harm movements by reducing their legitimacy and lowering participation. And we are explicit that nonviolent resistance must be initiated and implemented by ordinary people inside the country on their own terms.
Still, the international community doesn’t need to stand idly by while regimes repress them. An online guide by Ambassador Mark Palmer, called “A Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development and Support,” lays out a number of ways that external actors can support the legitimate goals of these movements without interfering in them.
SPENCER: Your research is largely about how to win a struggle for democracy, but then many other challenges arise in making democracy stick, once you’ve got it. What factors do you take into account when guessing how the Arab Spring is likely to turn out five years from now?
CHENOWETH: Researchers have identified lots of so-called “requisites for democracy,” like a boost in civil society activity, economic development, and enshrinement of rights in both institutions and the country’s legal framework. I would argue that the success of democracy in the Arab Spring cases will be largely contingent on the economic situations in Tunisia and Egypt which, if they improve, will ultimately lead them toward democracy. But we shouldn’t expect to see some sort of Western, liberal democracy emerge in these settings, either. These countries are currently sorting out how they want to govern, and what sort of model works for them. It takes time to develop a workable consensus, and there will be lots of compromises. But even the fact that Egyptian civilians feel comfortable openly expressing their political beliefs in public gives me hope for the future.
SPENCER: How about Russia? An opposition movement sprang up there last winter over the rigged elections. Russia is becoming less democratic every week but many Russians aren’t alarmed, as Canadians or Americans would be. Polls show that they regard democracy as the best form of government and realize that they don’t have it, yet they are satisfied with Putin. Go figure. And they aren’t unique. Many people around the world admire dictators. Germans loved Hitler. Soviets loved Stalin. Chinese loved Mao. Many Cubans love Fidel—as do many Canadians, for that matter. If you were living inside such a country, how would you work to encourage the demand for democracy?
CHENOWETH: I have no clue. Sometimes it takes a real outrage to stimulate the demand. People living in Russia probably have a better sense of what would really set them off.
Erica Chenoweth is an assistant professor at the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Metta Spencer is an emeritus professor who taught peace studies at the University of Toronto and edits Peace.