Using Nonviolence as a National Defense Policy

By George Lakey

Japanese legislators broke into a physical struggle for control of the microphone in a committee meeting on September 17. The emotions reflected the depth of controversy over amending the nation’s security policy. Japan’s constitution has up until now prevented sending soldiers overseas to assist allies in combat; the military can act only in self-defense. On September 18, the ruling coalition gained a majority in Parliament to expand its military’s role, despite the opposition of a majority of the people.

Japanese ruling and opposition lawmakers scuffle at the Upper House's ad hoc committee session for the controversial security bills at the National Diet in Tokyo on September 17, 2015. Japanese lawmakers came to blows as they tried -- and failed -- to stop the passage of a security bill that could see the military fight abroad for the first time in decades. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Democratic Party contenders for president, including Bernie Sanders, have equally failed to break out of the doubtful assumption that nations are made most secure by relying on the military. In the late 1960s, I met a couple of junior Israeli diplomats in an off-the-record conference. I acknowledged that Israel had a security problem and asked for their thinking. They said their strong military defense could take care of it, so I pressed them. I pointed out the demographic trends in the Middle East and to the Jewish Israelis’dependency on the United States, which contradicts their dream of an independent land of their own. “Why not create a Plan B?” I asked. “Why not look into the possibilities of a nonviolent defense strategy that might offer more security?”

They brushed the idea aside. “You’ll see,” they said. “We have made it utterly clear that we are invulnerable, so the Palestinians will give up their resistance. They’ll accept the situation and we will have peace.”

Since then I’ve referred to military defense as “Israel’s insecurity policy” and noted its lack of pragmatism. Real pragmatists, in Israel then or in Japan and the United States now, do the research necessary to create the strongest possible case for several options, and then choose among those.

Does Japan have a security problem? Of course — to be a nation or community in this world is to have a security problem. Climate change renders security an even greater challenge. Real pragmatists ask, “Where can we go for fresh alternatives?”

Asymmetric Warfare Offers a Clue

In the 18th century, British Redcoats knew how to wage a “proper war” with the American colonists. Despite the might of the British Empire, they met defeat, partly because the Americans didn’t make war “properly.” The colonists responded with guerrilla tactics. In the 20th century, it was the American empire that was humbled, when its B-52’s were met in Vietnam by guerrilla war.

Even an apparently overpowering aggression can be defeated by resisters who, instead of meeting the opponent on its own terms, resist by using different weapons. The economy is not the only arena where creativity pays off.

The fundamental step required in Japan, Israel and nearly all countries is to break out of conventional thinking and look for innovative power sources. That’s what the German government did when the Ruhr Valley was invaded by the French and Belgian armies in 1923. If the German Social Democrats had been stuck in the old paradigm, they would have given up and the French and Belgians could have had their way with the coal and iron-rich Ruhr Valley. Fortunately, the party’s working class members do know the value of the strike: Germany mounted a nonviolent resistance in the Ruhr that defeated the aims of the aggressors.

The Czechs and Slovaks innovated in 1968, when their country was invaded by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact nations. Czechoslovakian President Alexander Dubcek was a Communist politician who was pragmatic enough to lock his troops in the barracks to minimize futile violent resistance, and used his time before the attackers arrested him to prepare a legal defense before the United Nations. It was the civilians who mounted the nonviolent resistance, an astonishing effective display of creativity and courage. In a matter of days invading troops were melting like butter in the sun, and troops had to be rotated back to their home countries because they were becoming unreliable.

In a week, the Soviets were forced to bring Dubcek back from Moscow to Prague and compromise their aims in the short-run. Dubcek tamped down the direct action while Czechs still resisted cooperation. It took many months before Moscow could gain a degree of compliance it could live with.

Defense ministries elsewhere in Europe sat up in wonder: How could the people of Czechoslovakia even for a short period stop half a million soldiers from taking control of them, with zero preparation, prior training, overall leadership or strategic plan?

If a people can do so much with so little, what might a prepared and trained population do with a clear plan of nonviolent resistance?

Can a Nation Plan to Use Alternative Means for Security?

In 1964, four years before the Czechs and Slovaks acted, I joined a study conference at Oxford University pulled together by Gene Sharp, April Carter and others. Sir Basil Liddell Hart, one of the leading military strategists of the day, told us that when consulted by the Danish government he already had urged the Danes to “transarm” to civil resistance for their national defense policy. Adam Roberts turned the study conference into a book chapter published in 1968, called “The Strategy of Civilian Defence.” Princeton later followed up, in 1990, with Gene Sharp’s remarkable book “Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-military Weapons System.”

Around the same time as the Oxford study conference, the American Friends Service Committee convened a group to outline what a nonviolent security policy might look like for the United States. The group included the famously anti-imperialist Quaker A.J. Muste, so we spent hours debating whether there was even any point in writing a book for the United States, considering that it uses its military chiefly to police its empire. The Japanese today see that reality, which is one reason a majority oppose a new enhancement of its own military.

People protest against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's controversial security bills, outside of the venue of a public hearing in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo on September 16, 2015. Japan is set to enact controversial security bills that opponents say will undermine 70 years of pacifism and could see Japanese troops fighting abroad for the first time since World War II. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO

Our U.S. group agreed with Muste that nonviolent struggle cannot be bent to defend an empire, but decided to go ahead with the study anyway. Most of our fellow Americans naively believe that the military defends us rather than far-flung corporate interests. They cling to that illusion out of a concern for security, and we agreed that humans have a legitimate need for security.

What if the peace movement had a vision of a more effective, nonviolent and less expensive security policy that in fact defended our people? What if the movement advocated for that alternative and (of course) found that the government was utterly uninterested? At that point, the broader citizenry might smell the hidden agenda, and realize that their pockets were being picked by the IRS to protect the multinationals’ exploitive relationships with the Global South. “Imperialism” becomes not a rhetorical catchword, but an expensive scam that hurts us in the pocketbook.

Our group published “In Place of War” in 1967 but the U.S. peace movement was not ready to think about an alternative vision: the Vietnam war preoccupied us. In Europe, however, the 1968 Czechoslovakian resistance provided the drama. The defense ministries of the Nordics, the Netherlands, and Austria opened their checkbooks for research programs on nonviolent struggle as a means for national defense, hiring as consultants some of those who had been in our Oxford study conference.

In 1970, I was invited to the University of Uppsala to speak at Sweden’s national conference on civilian-based defense, or CBD. A top official of the Swedish defense ministry told me that their research focused on potential threats from the Soviet Union. If the Soviets wanted to annex Sweden’s rich economy, the researchers were confident that Sweden could resist effectively with CBD. If the Soviets tried to coerce Sweden into the Warsaw Pact, he believed CBD could also be effective. The sticking point, he said, was how to counter a territorial grab of the far Swedish North, as part of a World War II situation where territory was strategic. I asked him how likely a World War II scenario was, and he smiled and admitted, “Very unlikely.”

Nonviolent Struggle More Powerful than Violence

All this happened in the early days of nonviolent research, comparable perhaps to early studies of electric cars and wind generators. Since the 1970s, a small tribe of researchers has investigated the power of civil resistance in many different settings — resisting occupation and aggression and going on the offensive against dictatorship and economic exploitation.

The most decisive findings yet came out of the database of over 300 large-scale cases of violent and nonviolent struggles between 1900 and 2006, compiled by political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. The team wanted to know which technique was more effective and found that movements that chose nonviolent struggle doubled their chance of winning compared with movements that chose violence. Their book, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” suggests how this could be true, since it contradicts conventional wisdom.

I find the study’s results even more remarkable, considering that most of the movements using civil resistance were operating without use of mass training and only a minimum of preparation and knowledge-based strategy. If the peace movements of Japan, Israel and the United States choose to build on a half century of strategy work and devise a serious alternative to war, they will certainly build in preparation and training and gain the attention of pragmatists in their societies.Φ

George Lakey co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group which just won its five-year campaign to force a major U.S. bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Along with college teaching he has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.

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