Foreign Policy Friday Puzzler Protest

Friday Puzzler: Why Spend on Civil Resistance Abroad?

Guest post by Scott Wisor

Venezuelans protest in Caracas in February of last year. By flickr user andresAzp.

Venezuelans protest in Caracas in February of last year. By flickr user andresAzp.

A recent post by Erica Chenoweth explores why it is that governments like China, and other authoritarian countries, attempt to restrict access to websites that share information on strategies of non-violent resistance. Many authoritarian governments appear to genuinely believe that outsider interference will result in civilian uprising and civil disobedience. Chenoweth argues that this line of thinking is mistaken, given empirical evidence that external backing for civil resistance movements is not a predictor of the success of those movements.

But at least some of these authoritarian governments are right when they assert that the United States and other western governments are actively taking steps to enact regime change. Whether providing support for violent methods, as in Syria, or non-violent methods, as in the recent debacle to fund anti-regime hip-hop in Cuba, the US government does have active policies that seek to change authoritarian regimes abroad. While authoritarian governments may be mistaken in thinking that outsiders can easily export civil resistance movements abroad or in thinking that domestic opposition they face is merely a front for foreign interests, they are correct in attributing to foreign governments support for non-violent (and sometimes violent) resistance. For example, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro may be wrong when he claims current political resistance in Venezeula is simply a US backed attempt at a coup, but he is not wrong to suggest that such efforts have historical precedent and US policy actively supports regime change in Venezuela.

So why should the US and other governments be in this business of promoting civil resistance abroad in the first place? US law forbids US politicians from accepting donations from abroad, presumably on the grounds that such financial influence would be a form of wrongful interference in domestic political matters, a way to curry undue favor in international affairs, or a violation of national sovereignty. But these reasons for restricting foreign influence in US domestic politics are presumably just as strong for other governments, which also seek to restrict foreign meddling in domestic political affairs.

Furthermore, if foreign backing for civil resistance movements is not a predictor of success, and there is a real risk that such support may undermine support for the resistors, weaken the legitimacy of campaigns for political change, and distort the aims and goals of civil resistance campaigns, why should external governments provide this support in the first place?

What am I missing? What justifies public spending in support of non-violent resistance abroad?

Scott Wisor is Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham.

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