“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
– Albert Einstein
Gene Sharp advocated a complex nonviolent defence system—“civilian-based defense.” He summarized this concept in an article in 1980, illustrated it in a book on Making Europe Unconquerable in 1983, and elaborated it in a theoretical volume in 1990. Sharp offers a hard-headed scheme to supplement and (eventually) replace military weapons systems with a nonviolent weapons system based in civil society.
Unfortunately, discussion of this innovative approach receded with the end of the Cold War. The ascendant meme of “an end of history,” an idealized liberal-democratic order supervised by the sole superpower, seemed to render this alternative irrelevant.
However, the end of history was short-lived. With the rise of multi-polarity, authoritarianism, climate crisis, and more murderous nuclear weapons, it may be time to revisit the idea of civilian-based defence (CBD).
National security doctrine includes the typical belief “that the best defense is a good offense; that any military buildup by an enemy must be matched or exceeded; that wars can—indeed, must—be fought against hateful and dangerous concepts such as terrorism and communism; and that nuclear bombs are like conventional ones, just more powerful.” The basic idea mirrors fistfights between school children: you need to be bigger and tougher than your opponent.
But in today’s world of nuclear proliferation and deadlier nuclear weapons, this old thinking threatens our survival. By calculation or inadvertence, a nuclear exchange, even if limited, will kill tens of millions, stunt the lives of many more, induce widespread famines, and accelerate global warming.
We still await the new thinking that will release us from the existing balance of terror among nuclear-armed states. Nuclear disarmament is an ever more distant prospect. Human nature remains unchanged. Disputes among nations will always emerge. And we need international cooperation to avert the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change. What shall we do? Part of the answer may lie in an old idea that is still new.
Gene Sharp, in the 1980s, offered bold, thinking, that remains fresh today. This thinking departed markedly from national-security doctrine. Supported by the Albert Einstein Institution, Civilian-based defence (CBD).
Summarizing this approach is not easy. Sharp’s 1990 book—Civilian-Based Defense—is heavy going. The reader begins with mastering Sharp’s ideas on nonviolent action, which he presented in their fullest form in a massive three-volume work in 1973. (He identified 198 methods of nonviolent action, organized in three categories, while warning that the list was not comprehensive.) The reader then proceeds to the intricacies of applying this analysis to national defence. CBD aims to prevent internal usurpation of power, deter potential aggressors, and defeat invaders, all in the context of nuclear-armed states and the primacy of national security doctrine.
Here, is Sharp’s own summary from his 1990 book. Civilian-based defense is a policy [whereby] the whole population and the society’s institutions become the fighting forces. Their weaponry consists of a vast variety of forms of psychological, economic, social, and political resistance and counter-attack. This policy aims to deter attacks and to defend against them by preparations to make the society unrulable by would-be tyrants and aggressors. The trained population and the society’s institutions would be prepared to deny attackers their objectives and to make consolidation of political control impossible. These aims would be achieved by applying massive and selective noncooperation and defiance. In addition, where possible, the defending country would aim to create maximum international problems for the attackers and to subvert the reliability of their troops and functionaries. (pp.2-3)
In sum, Sharp contends that the power of society and its institutions can (in most cases, and at some point) displace military weapons in defence, even in the context of nuclear-armed states. CBD is not insurrection, if insurgency involves “a violent uprising against authority or government” (Oxford dictionary). Indeed, an armed insurgency will, according to Sharp, undermine the effectiveness of civilian defense. Instead, nonviolent action works through non-cooperation and obstruction nationally, through rallying international support, and through eroding the morale and loyalty of the usurper/aggressor’s home base, troops; and functionaries. Nonviolent defence makes starkly evident who is responsible for brutality and repression—and who courageously and unthreateningly resists illegitimate domination.
You may, by now, judge that Sharp’s idea is indeed bold, but also outrageous in its impracticability. To allay this understandable reaction, I summarize some of Sharp’s qualifications and provisos, scattered here and there in his works:
Even this summary may, I hope, demonstrate that CBD, whether it succeeds or not, is a serious form of struggle, not simply a utopian yearning.
If it is feasible to introduce CBD, what are the potential benefits? What follows is a paraphrase of Sharp’s responses, supplemented as indicated by additional benefits in today’s peculiar circumstances:
If the benefits are this plentiful, what are we waiting for?
Civilian-based defense remains a challenging proposal. It flies in the face of the conventional wisdom on national security (unless CBD is viewed only as a supplement to military force). Both the military-industrial-intellectual complex and insecure or would-be authoritarian leaders will regard the idea as absurd or dangerous. CBD has no place in mainstream textbooks on international relations (as far as I can determine). Is it then just a marginal, if courageous, initiative, best dismissed even by peace activists?
I think a dismissive approach is mistaken, or at least, premature. We have instances of successful CBD. Furthermore, we confront inter-related and devastating threats whose resolution seems to require intervention by an aroused citizenry. Governments, trapped by old thinking and vested interests, have been unable to limit ever-more deadly weapons of mass destruction, to halt an out-of-control climate crisis, to overcome vast and growing inequalities, and to reverse authoritarian tendencies. To preserve and deepen democracy while creating a world worth living in, nonviolent action may prove to be an essential tool.
In fact, CBD has worked effectively in the past, and thus presumably may do so again. Sharp draws on 16 country examples in his 1990 book. These cases involve anti-colonial struggles (4), revolts against Communist rule (4), struggle against domination by a powerful neighbour (2), and resistance to internal op-pression/human-rights violations (6). The degree of effective struggle varies widely; some failed while others achieved much success (eg. the Gandhian movement in India and the civil rights movement in the USA).
Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution offers more recent examples of nonviolent resistance, mostly to defeat internal usurpers. He also updates Sharp’s strategy and tactics, especially for youth in the digital age He includes an entertaining section on “laughtivism”. Popovic and his colleagues now coach resistance movements worldwide on the strategy and tactics of nonviolence. How much more effective might Sharp’s exemplary resistance movements have been if they had the benefit of this accumulated wisdom? Instead, the resisters had to invent nonviolence in the moment.
In assessing possibilities, we should recall that this is the age of nonviolent protest. Such widespread use of nonviolent action may prepare the soil for CBD. Scattered protests prior to the 2007–2009 world financial crash were followed by a staggering array of non-vi-olent protests worldwide in 2010–2020. In 2019, the most extensive wave of rebellion since 1968 erupted, curtailed only by the onset of the pandemic in 2021. As Wright records, the latter protests erupted in six continents and 114 countries, affecting liberal democracies as well as dictatorships:
Movements have emerged overnight, out of nowhere, unleashing public fury on a global scale—from Paris and La Paz to Prague and Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Delhi, Manila, and even Moscow. Taken together, the protests reflect unprecedented political mobilization.
Richard Sandbrook is a retired professor of political science, U of Toronto and president of Science for Peace.