A Visit with Peter Ackerman and Hardy Merriman

at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer); Peter Ackerman and Hardy Merriman (interviewees) | 2015-07-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: Since retiring, Louise Arbour has been saying that she is “re-thinking” her position on promoting democracy and human rights. The details are vague, but her new approach sounds relativistic and flexible about upholding human rights. I’m troubled by her disquiet about what I had considered a closed issue. Since I can’t interview her now and since you promote democracy too, I decided to ask your thoughts instead.

PETER ACKERMAN: I don’t agree with the approach you’ve described. A lot of people are disoriented now about what is required for democracy promotion. If you look at democracy promotion from, say, 1978 to 1989, it was about dictators falling because of civil resistance—people expressing dissent to undermine the control of an authoritarian over his own people. The people who were in the middle of those battles—whether in Czechoslovakia, Poland, South Africa, Chile, the deep South or India—were all pursuing the goal of human rights. There was no relativism about those issues. We have the Universal Declaration. There’s no reason to question it except the risk involved in implementation.

When the walls fell in 1989, everybody was feeling great. The issue of democracy promotion became primarily a question of institutional perfecting—getting a better legal system, etc. The people like Louise who went through that process had a lot to offer. That’s important work. It happened in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, and in Latin America.

The form of democracy promotion that I’ve been working on is really about how to battle authoritarianism and corruption. I have yet to meet one authoritarian who has given up his power or shared power voluntarily. The reason they share power is because if they don’t, something worse is going to happen. I had a professor at the Fletcher School named A.F.K. Organski, who wrote a book called World Politics. The first day of class he said, “See this book I made you buy? There’s only one thing in it you need to understand. It’s all about Number Two wanting to be Number One.”

During the second Gulf War, some people began to tire of seeing the US as the single superpower. Number Two wanted to become Number One. People like Dominique de Villepin from France made it impossible to create the war coalition and the Chinese, Russians, and elements of NATO all started to push back on the US.

So the concept of democracy promotion has changed. Louise Arbour’s skills are less important now in democracy promotion, which is more about battling authoritarian regimes. I am hearing a lot of arguments now like the ones you mention. People say, “We have to be humble!” No, we don’t have to be humble with dictators! The deaths, the disease, the poor education, the economic backwardness, the ethnic and mindless conflict—these are all related to poor governance.

For many years I was the chairman of Freedom House, which measures every country for political rights and civil liberties and then calculates the aggregates. Those aggregates have slid back ten years in a row. But individuals should definitely have their political rights and their civil liberties protected.

SPENCER: Okay, but do they have to do it themselves? To what extent can outsiders assist?

ACKERMAN: We’re wrestling with that now. My oldest son is a mathematician at Harvard and a world-class wrestler. Now, would you say to him, “Nate, read a book, get on the mat, and wrestle”? Or would it help if he had a coach? He has one of the greatest coaches in the world, who doesn’t say a word during the match. It’s all about letting Nate develop his own tools.

What are the limits of the right to assist? The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict was born of one simple idea: Skills are more important in determining the outcome of these conflicts than the prior conditions, like the nastiness of the authoritarian, the lack of ethnic coherence, or poor economic background. None of those conditions determine the outcome of a conflict! We did a study at Freedom House and it’s been confirmed by Why Civil Resistance Works.

SPENCER: That book is my bible these days.

ACKERMAN: It’s a great book. It shows that prior conditions do not correlate with outcome nearly as much as commonly assumed. Gene Sharp was my doctoral adviser, and I was doctoral adviser for Maria Stephan, one of the authors of that book.

Peace usually comes when there’s a stable military order, but in the kind of peace that we want, the military is subject to civilian control. Dennis Blair, who was the head of the Pacific Fleet and was Obama’s first director of National Intelligence, has written a book about why America should use its relationships with militaries around the world to influence foreign officers and soldiers to care professionally about excellence in the military and uphold democratic values instead of being a crony to the guy in charge. A lot of successful nonviolent struggles create defections in a government’s security forces away from authoritarianism. For example, the second revolution in Ukraine, which happened about a year ago, was all about the movement creating a situation that caused military defections.

SPENCER: About Arbour again, I read that she doesn’t devalue human rights and democracy, but only sees the efforts to create them as no longer working.

ACKERMAN: They’re trying to build better institutions that the bad guys nevertheless control. The worst problem today is corruption. It’s taking all the good work that Louise and others have done to build institutions and corrupting them.

SPENCER: Let me say what bothers me. I go to Russia sometimes. I was there three years ago during the Bolotnaya Square demonstrations against Putin, where the first violence occurred. As Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth show about civil resistance, if you’re violent, you’ve got a 25 percent chance of success. If you’re nonviolent you’ve got a 50 percent chance of success. That’s much better but it’s not good enough. My question is: How can you improve the odds above fifty percent? I was cheering for the opposition, but my Moscow friends won’t participate in it because they think there’s no chance of success. And they have a point. Everything depends on getting a big crowd out. Belgrade and Kiev are not huge cities but they could get about a million protesters to demonstrate. Accord­ing to some estimates, Moscow has 18 million people, but they could only get 100,000 people to their largest demonstration.

ACKERMAN: Civil resistance is not just about protests. There are other dimensions. Gene Sharp listed 198 tactics. They can be classified two ways. One is what Erica and Maria call “concentrated” and “dispersed” actions. Protest is concentrated. It’s a tactic, not a strategy. A tactic will be effective in one context and two days later will be ineffective in another context. In the case of Serbia, the protests came at the end, not the beginning. A lot was done beforehand. Sequencing these tactics is a key element in strategy.

SPENCER: Are you suggesting that there’s more opposition in Moscow than I have seen?

ACKERMAN: The answer is: You can never tell what there is. As Natan Sharansky says, the opposition is mostly composed of “latent doublethinkers.” People’s willingness to express their opposition depends on the risk they have to take to express it. Civil resistance strategy requires estimating who is willing to take different levels of risk. Not everybody is willing to take the same amount of risk. Also, when someone is willing to take one risk, afterward they may be willing to do it a second time. For example, in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, they created a signature drive that millions of people signed. Then many people went to the street in the protest drive. Had they gone directly to a protest, these people might not have emerged, but they were willing to sign a petition as long as they knew that millions of others would sign. That cohesion factor allowed them to take the next step.

SPENCER: True, and the Russians say, “I’m not going out because nobody else seems to be going out.” But my larger concern is this: Suppose you win. Then the day after you’ve ousted the authoritarian ruler, what are you going to do?

ACKERMAN: That’s all part of it. But the people who are least equipped to appreciate the potential of their movement are those in the middle of it.

SPENCER: Really? That’s an interesting observation.

ACKERMAN: Because they tend to suppose that people are of equal motivation and equal levels of risk tolerance. Until you do a series of disruptive acts, you can’t understand where your sources of power are. Which people are willing to act?

I was mentioning how to categorize these tactics. Maria and Erica divide them into dispersed and concentrated. A concentrated one would be a protest—higher risk. A dispersed one would be like a strike or boycott.

I like to distinguish between tactics of commission and omission. A tactic of commission—where you go to the streets and do something—requires one kind of response from the authoritarian: Stop doing this! A tactic of omission is when you stop doing something that they want you to continue doing. That can be more complicated. For example, Poland’s movement was based on the strike in the Gdansk shipyards. At one moment they were going to leave the shipyards to protest. That would have been a devastating mistake. They were going to turn an act of omission into and act of commission. Fortunately, they kept it as an act of omission and basically screwed up their foreign exchange.

So I like the designations together: both concentrated and dispersed and omission and commission as a grid to put different tactics in.

SPENCER: When my friends ask me why the Arab Spring failed, I can’t tell them. Nowadays before I get too fervent in supporting a civil resistance movement (even if I think they are going to be able to stay as nonviolent as Tahrir Square was) I want to know what they are going to do after they win—how much preparation they have done, how they expect to run a democracy. Until the Arab Spring began failing, I hadn’t worried about what would happen after they got rid of the dictator.

ACKERMAN: Some things that you’re calling “the Arab Spring” actually bear no resemblance to each other. Tunisia had one kind of experience. Syria was never a fully organized civil resistance movement. In 2011 people were trying to ape what happened in Tahrir Square. But Tahrir Square was not the Egyptian movement. The movie we just produced about the Egyptian movement extends from early 2000 until today. Tahrir Square was a bump in the road of that broader movement. So when you say “the Arab Spring doesn’t work,” it’s not a relevant comment. Tunisia did go to a democracy. Egypt is a work in progress. Syria was a civil resistance for a period of time and then the Sunni military defected and left the Alawites, though they were in the middle of civil resistance together. So by the winter of 2011, the movement became a civil war between Sunnis and Alawites. There was no Arab Spring. These are three different Arab conflicts. And there are other places.

HARDY MERRIMAN: Yemen. Bahrain.

SPENCER: The Green Revolution in Iran.

ACKERMAN: That one didn’t reach its goals. But remember, historically civil resistance achieves its goals fifty three percent of the time.

SPENCER: Well, that’s the problem. How can you make it better than fifty percent?

ACKERMAN: Skills. In my dissertation I looked at two cases: the Indian independence movement of 1930 and the first Russian revolution in 1904-05. The first Russian revolution was like a wildfire—a series of tactics that led to the creation of the Duma but ultimately was diverted by the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks into street battles. It petered out.

The civil resistance—the satyagraha —in India in 1930 around the Salt March was carefully planned, defined as nonviolent, and came close to total victory. The viceroys said, “If they can turn the loyalties of the 100,000 local constabulary, we will have to leave.” So a skillfully-run campaign has a much better chance of success. I turned my dissertation into a book: Strategic Aspects of Nonviolent Resistance.

When I was a graduate student at the Fletcher School, I took a course at Harvard with Tom Schelling. You know him?

SPENCER: Yes. I was at Harvard when he was flourishing.

ACKERMAN: Amazing man. I told him I was interested in asymmetry—when people with lots of military capability don’t always win. He said, “I have a better subject for you. Why don’t you study what happens when people have NO military capability and still win? I want you to meet Gene Sharp.” So Gene became my thesis adviser, and he’s been an inspiration to my work, though my work has gone in a different direction. Gene’s focus was: You can’t govern people who won’t obey you. The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

My work has been based on the fact that there’s a cost to the authoritarian—disobedience—and a cost to the people who disobey—repression. The distribution of those costs is a strategic question.

Say you have an authoritarian leader whose entourage will never defect. Then you have elites that control various processes—bureaucratic, security, religious, etc.

SPENCER: Yes. The pillars.

ACKERMAN: The pillars. Then you have the general population. The theory of violent insurrection is that a force of athletic young men tries to kill everybody up the chain of leadership and create change. But the success rate of violent insurrection is low because their military’s capability is much less than the dictator’s military at the start. To change this imbalance they either have to kill a bunch of people or do a combination of killing and getting people to defect. If you’re killing people, you’re unlikely to get them to defect, so the forces remain inequitable, and change is hard to accomplish. The regime’s military protects the pillars and counter-attacks. The guerrilla force peters out, and the general population incurs immense death and destruction.

In civil resistance, within the elites, not the leadership, there are what Natan Sharansky calls “latent doublethinkers”—people who are not all equally loyal. And the key for these strategies is to enable these latent doublethinkers to discover each other. A protest is a process of self-discovery of various people, so that ultimately the pillars move down to include the population. The leadership loses control of the elites and their pillars. They defect. The elites become more responsive to the general public. The leadership either has to negotiate or leave.

SPENCER: What are you assuming about the general population? Is this the base of opposition to the ruler? Are you assuming that down here there’s nobody who likes that guy?

ACKERMAN: Some do, some don’t.

SPENCER: Okay. Well, by the way, Russians love Putin, so it doesn’t apply.

ACKERMAN: Well, they loved Milosevic for a time and they stopped that.

SPENCER: Canadians love Fidel Castro even today. But go ahead.

ACKERMAN: I don’t see many of them moving there. Okay, now we get to the issue of conditions. [Reading aloud:] “Contrary to what most people assume, factors such as regime type, level of economic development, literacy rate, or fractionalization of society along ethnic and religious lines have not had a statistically significant effect on the ability of the civic movement to achieve success through civil campaigns.” This is a Freedom House study that is echoed by the Stephan/Chenoweth book.

So if it’s not conditions, it must be skills. Here’s a quote from the Nobel Prize laureate Tom Schelling: “The tyrant and the subjects are in somewhat symmetrical positions. They can deny him most of what he wants if they have a disciplined organization to refuse cooperation. He can deny them just about everything they want by using the force at his command. They can confront him with chaos, idleness, and social breakdown. Indeed, most of what they deny him, they deny themselves. It is a bargaining situation in which either side, if adequately disciplined and organized, can deny most of what the other wants.”

Skills are based on the decisions you take. And in every conflict, you’ve got choices to make: grand strategic (how to create policy; what are your goals?), tactical (what are the things at your disposal to create disruption?), logistical (what supports the tactical?), and finally the strategic interactive part, where you link tactics to the overall goal.

At the level of grand strategy, what the civil resister wants is unity. The authoritarian wants to be able to co-opt, so that unity never occurs. At the tactical level, the civil resister wants disruption by acts of commission or omission, while the authoritarian wants suppression, by violent acts of oppression or threats of terror. At the logistical level, the civil resister wants to build capacity—the offensive ability to organize, to mobilize, to communicate, and the defensive ability to protect your people, to give them money if they are on strike, the ability to protect their rights. Outsiders can be especially helpful here. What the authoritarian wants is the capacity for destruction by shutting down those capabilities.

At the strategic interaction level, the civil resister wants a robust capability to plan. The authoritarian just wants mindless reaction. The biggest ally of the authoritarian is the confusion of the dissidents. Let’s eliminate confusion.

When planning, you need to distinguish good decisions from bad ones—ones that are more likely to yield positive results than negative ones. So I ask people, “What is the point of what you’re going to do?” And they ask, “How do I evaluate how I’m doing today?”

For that we have a body of literature. A man named Atul Gawande wrote a book called The Checklist Manifesto. He worked in emergency rooms where people arrive badly injured. Their problems are not easily discernable and there is tremendous time pressure. Gawande created a checklist of between 5 and 9 things to do or not do, which saved lives and ameliorated the problems. So he started to look at other fields too. Now at major construction projects, you see people creating checklists and integrating the checklists into one grand result.

So when people come to us and ask “How am I doing?” we want to answer them with a checklist. I’m going to write a book called The Checklist to End Tyranny. I divide these checks between the movement’s status and the trends. “How am I doing?” Well, (1) Do you have a unified vision? Has the civil resistance campaign unified around goals and leaders? (2) Does the civil resistance campaign have an operational plan for victory? (3) Are you able to maintain nonviolent discipline? If you allow violence to creep into your tactics, your participation will go down, your credibility with the population will go down, and you will find it hard to get people to defect whom you’re threatening to kill. So are you constructing tactics that will maintain that nonviolent discipline? These first three items on the checklist relate to the present status of the movement. The next three or four relate to the trends of the conflict. Let’s see how you’re doing.

SPENCER: Wait a minute. How are you going to keep nonviolent discipline?

ACKERMAN: You make people understand that you don’t want to be just emotional. You want to be effective and that’s what the checklist is for.

SPENCER: That sounds like a slogan. But what do you actually do with guys who start throwing rocks?

ACKERMAN: You say, “Why are you doing this?” Not from a moral point of view, but from a strategic point of view. “What do you hope to accomplish?” You’ve got to have a plan. The problem is that the guys throwing rocks are not asked by the other guys what their plan is, because the guys who should be asking don’t have a plan themselves!

SPENCER: Okay, fair enough.

ACKERMAN: Now trends. Civil participation. (1) Are the numbers of participants growing? That is the best indicator of success. (2) Are you diminishing the impact of oppression and leading to backfire? In other words, when the authoritarian sends his forces to kill people, is it working less well for him? Can you protect yourself from being killed? Or if he kills people, does it create defections within his own ranks? (3) Are you identifying potential defectors and maximizing their chances for expressing themselves?

So these are the six. We’re thinking of adding a seventh, which gets to your point. The seventh might be: Do you have goals for the post-conflict? But for now, these six are very clarifying.

SPENCER: Yes, but at every step, I would be asking how you’re going to achieve those things.

ACKERMAN: All this checklist does is reduce confusion. We say: Unless your campaign is moving in these ways, you’re not winning. And just having confidence that these are the right questions is of huge benefit to people.

SPENCER: Okay. I like the questions.

MERRIMAN: The question is, which variables are most salient to the conflict. If you have thirty or forty to fixate on, there’s no way you can hold them all in your mind. So you need to ask: What are the most important factors to focus on?

Suppose you’re in a long term struggle that involves a clear goal—a policy change—that you haven’t achieved yet and you don’t know how you’re doing. You have to come up with other indicators. Sometimes people conclude that they must be losing even when they are winning. They aren’t tracking the correct set of indicators. But their belief that they are losing can lead to all kinds of self-defeating behavior, such as empowering others to say “Let’s give violence a shot.”

SPENCER: Okay. I once asked Gene Sharp something like this: Isn’t it important, before you start a campaign, to at least have a plan for the kind of government you’re going to set up after winning? Shouldn’t you practice democracy first? Don’t you need a shadow government to install the day after you win? He said no. My jaw dropped.

ACKERMAN: Did he elaborate?

SPENCER: No, and I didn’t pursue it. That isn’t the kind of work that he does, but I have come to believe it’s an important thing to do.

ACKERMAN: You’re right. I think Gene and I are cut from the same cloth here. We’re in the battle and when the battle is over, other people take over. But Gene is not dealing with the younger generation as much as I am and they are yelling at me over the same thing. And we may indeed add a seventh item to the checklist: “Are the probabilities increasing of creating sustainable institutions for power-sharing and dispute-resolution?”

SPENCER: And if they say no, what does that do to items one through six?

ACKERMAN: That’s an interesting question. We thought we had success with one through six until the last ten years. But they forgot seven and now—

SPENCER: Maybe this is where Louise Arbour is uncertain too, for she is saying that whatever was working before isn’t working now.

ACKERMAN: That’s not what I’m saying. What didn’t work was the ability to stabilize seven. If seven doesn’t work, you have to go back to one through six. It doesn’t invalidate one through six. It just means that, even though you won, like in Hungary, you never created sustainable institutions. That is the second part of democracy promotion. When people speak this way, they tend to invalidate the first six. But institutions don’t last forever, so you may have to go back into the fight and do one through six all over again.

SPENCER: My friends in Russia (and I used to have a lot of them. I’m losing them fast because I keep talking about democracy and they don’t want to hear it). What they say is, if we got rid of Putin we’d just get somebody worse.

ACKERMAN: They can’t say that for sure. It depends on how and why Putin left power. One thing is clear in the Freedom House studies and in Maria Stephan’s and Erica Chenoweth’s work: If you go through one through six, and you’re succeeding in them, you’re creating habits of cooperation and participation—democratic habits that make the transition to checklist item seven more possible. In contrast, a violent insurrection is just a few people taking control and saying, “Look, I took all the risk; I’ll take all the power.” This is why the democratic prospect is vastly greater in a civil resistance movement.

MERRIMAN: The data is pretty compelling. Erica’s and Maria’s book shows that five years after a transition that was driven by a civil resistance movement, there’s a 57 percent chance of a democratic outcome.

SPENCER: It’s still 57 percent—not 97 percent.

MERRIMAN: You’re right, it’s still 57 percent and the outcome for a violent insurrection is 6 percent. And we know from the Freedom House study that in top-down transitions that had no grassroots component, the democratic outcome is only about 14 percent. So comparatively, in civil resistance you’re seeing something dramatically more effective.

Then you look at failed campaigns of civil resistance and they show that five years after a campaign has failed, there is still a 35 percent chance of a democratic outcome, which is amazing. That suggests that there is something inherently democratizing about the participation of lots of people in a civil resistance movement. It builds democratic skills and trust and ways of getting people involved.

We tend to remember cases where civil resistance failed and sometimes we undervalue cases where it has been effective. If you look at Egypt today and ask, “What’s going wrong?” you should also look at Tunisia and ask, “What’s going right there?”

SPENCER: Let me tell you the kind of answer I would get if I said that to my Russian friends. They’d say, “Probably Tunisia had some favorable circumstances—say, civil society—that made the people ready for democracy and enabled them to install good institutions. Or maybe they had them half-built before it started, so they won. But Russians had no experience with democracy and cannot take care of themselves. Therefore, if we got rid of Putin we’d have more bloodshed.” I never listened to my friends before but I do now.

MERRIMAN: I see ICNC as an educational organization. We are about analyzing, doing research, and sharing knowledge about how civil resistance works, when it succeeds, when it fails, what kind of strategies work, and so on. We only respond to requests, so we don’t ask ourselves, “How do we push democracy?” No. We ask, “What are the key research topics? What is the demand in terms of what people want to know? And what are the ways to share information about civil resistance freely with people around the world?” We don’t give advice, we don’t have a specific political end state in mind, other than what our mission says, which is to say that we aim to establish and defend human rights, democratic self-rule and justice worldwide

And on your point about the transition, it’s a great research topic but we cannot give a definitive answer to you or your friends. We can say “Over the last century, 57 percent of the time, five years after a successful nonviolent struggle, there’s been a democratic outcome.“ That’s pretty compelling. If others are unconvinced by that, fine, but they should know what they are dismissing. And we do need more research on this question.

SPENCER: You say, “We don’t advise people.” I do. Admittedly, I tend to have an answer for everything. It’s my character flaw. When I have opinions about what others could be doing, I usually say so. Is there ever a time when you say, “Don’t even try it. The people aren’t ready to do it”? When Boris Nemtsov said, “I want to run a nonviolent movement,” my friends in Moscow said, “Look, Boris, you can’t win.” But you would not give that same advice, is that true?

ACKERMAN: No, and I don’t think they have any basis for advising that either.

SPENCER: Suppose all of it worked. There’s still a 40 percent chance that you’re not going to have a democracy anyhow in five years.

ACKERMAN: The data shows, in two different studies, that “contrary to what one might assume, factors such as regime type, level of economic development, literacy rate, or fractionalization of society along ethnic, linguistic, or religious lines, have not had a statistically significant impact on the ability of the movement to achieve success through civil campaigns,” meaning that, whatever your circumstances—

SPENCER: Those circumstances! Now I’ll give you another one. What if the people want to be slaves? Suppose in a poll 90 percent of the population says, “I want a dictator! I love dictators.” What are you going to say to them?

ACKERMAN: They won’t say it that way. We have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

MERRIMAN: We only answer people when they ask to talk to us.

ACKERMAN: If they love their dictator, why would they talk to us?

MERRIMAN: It seems to me we’re focusing here on a single country and on a single outcome. Some of the most exciting research we’re supported is about grassroots movements against corruption or about why armed actors sometimes shift to nonviolent tactics. People use civil resistance for many reasons and, since knowledge matters, our goal is to share knowledge with people in many contexts, not just in struggles against dictatorship.

ACKERMAN: And a fifty percent success rate—that’s fabulous! Because, if you fail, you still can do it again. It’s true that nonviolent resistance doesn’t cure psoriasis. It doesn’t work every time. But you have three choices if you’re under authoritarian rule. (Well, I guess you just talked about the fourth—you can embrace it and love it, which I think is pretty rare.) You can dislike it but be passive. You can dislike it and undertake a violent insurrection. Or you can dislike it and take up a nonviolent insurrection.

SPENCER: There’s another option: You can wait.

ACKERMAN: That’s passivity.

SPENCER: Not necessarily. At 87, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, the leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, is the most prominent dissident in Russia. I told her that when I was going to Russia in the late Gorbachev period, I’d been puzzled. If I were in prison and the warden let me out, I would thank him. But instead of thanking Gorbachev, Russians hated him. She explained: We had been in prison for 70 years and had no idea how to take care of ourselves. When they let us out, we were like children. We had no capacity to manage our own lives. We didn’t know how to cope. But in fifteen years we’ll be okay. We are building a civil society and in fifteen years we will have democracy. Be patient.

ACKERMAN: But that’s not how it works. You don’t build a civil society without protecting it against those who want to depredate it. We’re all about pro-democracy, which means we’re all about human rights. We do it through nonviolent battle. And after the battle, when people come to the forefront for perfecting institutions, we are out of business. That’s our hope. But we have to recognize that the battle might regress. Some movements might achieve victory and then have the victory eroded because they did not consolidate their gains. That’s the lesson of the last ten years. If you get to number seven and you lose it, you have to go back to one through six.

SPENCER: Can you explain why the last ten years have gone south?

ACKERMAN: Unskilled civil resistance movements.

SPENCER: It has nothing to do with preparing by building institutions as much as you can under the old—.

ACKERMAN: That’s important too. If you build institutions of power-sharing and dispute resolution you eliminate the sources of conflict.

SPENCER: I’m thinking of other institutions. For example, if the Russians could just work on ending corruption, they would be halfway there.

ACKERMAN: I agree with that completely. Ask your friends, “How do you feel about having a trillion bucks being stolen from your country? Do you embrace the leader who does that?”

SPENCER: You think it’s a trillion? I heard Putin has stolen $20 billion for his personal ownership. Well, anyway. I just wonder whether it would be better to say, “I’m not sure you can get rid of your authoritarian ruler now. I would suggest that you work on corruption or rule of law—try to improve your courts first.”

ACKERMAN: You are suggesting improving them as if there’s no adversary. It’s like wearing Bermuda shorts in a snowstorm!

SPENCER: I agree. That may be the conclusive argument.

ACKERMAN: What else can we answer?

SPENCER: I want to ask Hardy about the Fletcher Institute for Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict.

MERRIMAN: Sure. We first did it in 2006. It lasts at least five full days at Tufts University near Boston. We take 45 to 50 people from around the world: a mix of activists and organizers, scholars, members of INGOs, members of the policy community, and journalists. We had 351 applications this year for fifty spots or less.

SPENCER: It just ended two days ago. What was the curriculum this time?

MERRIMAN: We look at civil resistance movements in historic context: at different cases, at the statistics, and we try to situate this phenomenon in history. Civil resistance movements are frequent and tend to happen when the institutional mechanisms for making change in a society have broken down. We had that in the United States with women advocating for the right to vote, the labor movement, the civil rights movement. We see it all over the world. We cover movements against corruption, and against extractive industries. We had sessions on democratic transition, on the role of women in movements; on the role of arts; on information communication technology. We had a plenary on how ordinary people can nonviolently mobilize reduce violence in civil war contexts. We had a breakout on nonviolent protective accompaniment and presence. We had a plenary on how movements can build economic self-reliance and generate funds for themselves.

SPENCER: Have you been noticing changed assumptions in the people arriving now, compared to ten years ago? Do people today look at nonviolent resistance differently from the people you talked to at first?

MERRIMAN: When I got involved in the field in 2002, working for Gene, the people who were excited about this line of thought were activists.

Obviously 2011 was a huge inflection point because with the Arab uprisings, you had people all over the world getting interested. Suddenly, people following global affairs saw something that they couldn’t explain. When Ben Ali, Mubarak, and others were challenged by unarmed people, it made no sense within the prevailing set of assumptions about power and geopolitics. So that gave a new hope to people that we encountered.

But the question is: What conclusions do they draw from it? If the conclusion you draw from Egypt is that the revolution is based on getting a lot of people in Tahrir, it’s going to lead you down a very different path than if you notice that the resistance went back to 2005 with campaigns that failed but helped shape the conditions that made 2011 possible.

Since 2013, after people saw the trajectory in Egypt, there is a questioning of the initial hopefulness. They ask tough questions now—which they should do! We are not the ones who take the risks and it is not for us to tell others what to do. What we can do is research those questions, find the best social science available on them, and hear from activists about what works or doesn’t work for them. We can then share that knowledge generically with others. And it’s important as people focus on various situations to keep the broader research, context, and history of civil resistance in mind. People can make points about any given case, and they may be right or they may be wrong. What I would argue is that when we look at the overall research and historic trends of civil resistance, skills do matter, objectively challenging conditions are not the sole determinants of conflict outcomes, and that well-organized, unified, disciplined people, with clear strategy, have formed movements that have defied prevailing expectations numerous times.

Hardy Merriman is president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which Peter Ackerman co-founded in 2002 and funds. The ICNC supports the Fletcher Institute and has a website with educational resources and weekly news about civil resistance actions around the world: www.nonviolent-conflict.org.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2015

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2015, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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