Thought for the Week: War is not the answer

Oliver Robertson reflects on nonviolent resistance

At Remembrance, when the British nation’s focus is so intently on the fighting (mainly) men and the victories and prosperity they helped provide, even voicing another opinion – or wearing another colour poppy – can be an act of resistance.  This is important to remember, because very often a large step for peace, such as attempting to disarm warplanes at a BAE Systems base or sailing into a nuclear test zone to try to prevent a nuclear detonation, is a long way along a path that began with the simple step of refusing to go along with the crowd.

Nonviolent resistance is all about achieving your goals without resorting to violence. It is often assumed to be idealistic and unrealistic,  as the situations that tend to get raised when discussing alternatives to military action are at the very extreme end of the spectrum, where nonviolence seems useless: enemies with no limits to their brutality and no willingness to compromise. Nonviolent resistance is also assumed to be idealistic and unrealistic because people don’t know much about it – ask them and they may be able to name the Indian campaign for independence led by Mohandas Gandhi or the American Civil Rights Movement, but they probably don’t link these all together (even though Martin Luther King Junior took direct inspiration from Gandhi’s example) and almost certainly don’t give them the title of ‘nonviolent action’.

This is a pity, because nonviolence works. In a book analysing every violent and nonviolent resistance campaign between 1900 and 2006 (and there were 323 of them), Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan found that nonviolent campaigns were significantly more likely to achieve their outcomes than violent ones – over half of all nonviolent campaigns were successful, with almost eighty per cent at least partially successful. In contrast, just one quarter of the violent campaigns were successful.

Nonviolent campaigns, also, tend to involve a far larger number of people than violent campaigns, so there is less risk of a minority imposing its ideas on the majority. In contrast to assumptions about nonviolence being useless against repressive regimes, successful nonviolent campaigns have taken place in countries all along the freedom-repression spectrum. And nonviolent campaigns are considerably more likely to lead to stability after victory, and avoid a relapse into conflict or civil war.

Some of this may seem like common sense – if you use participatory methods that empower the masses in your campaign, people are probably more likely to support and be familiar with democracy as a legitimate way of resolving differences; if you are trying to change the hearts and minds of the population, rather than cow them with weaponry, then they are more likely to want to stick with whatever you set up afterwards. But it is valuable to have the numbers and the figures to back up the ideas, and to show that this isn’t something that has just happened once or twice over the last century, but a method that has been used, successfully, again and again and again.

So, whatever we remember on Armistice Day or at any other time, let’s remember not just what happened, but also what worked.

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