War Without Weapons: How Non-Violent Campaigns Reduce the Incidence of War

By Andrew Mack

Baltic Way protest, Lithuania, 1989. Via Wikimedia user Rimantas Lazdynas.
Baltic Way protest, Lithuania, 1989. Via Wikimedia user Rimantas Lazdynas.

Over the past four decades, there has been an astonishing, though little noticed, decline in the number of autocratic regimes around the world. In the mid-1970s, there were some 84 autocracies worldwide; by 2012 there were just 20 — a 75 percent decline. This shift has been evident to a greater or lesser degree in every region of the world.

Successful campaigns of non-violent direct action have played a substantial role in helping drive this decline. From the late 1970s to 2006 there were 39 such campaigns against autocratic regimes — almost half were successful. This success rate was substantially greater than that of violent insurrections. During this period few autocratic regimes were overthrown by rebel armies, or were deposed by foreign military intervention.

Just how successful nonviolent campaigns have become over the past century, both in absolute terms and relative to armed struggles, was revealed in a path-breaking 2011 study entitled Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. Drawing on a new dataset of some 323 violent and non-violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006, Chenoweth and Stephan tracked the long-term increase in the number of non-violent campaigns and compared their success rates with those that relied on armed violence.

Their data show that not only has the frequency of non-violent campaigns increased since 1900, but so too has their success rate.

One of the study’s most remarkable findings was that the success rate of non-violent campaigns was more than double that of violent insurgencies. And since 1980, the overall success rate of non-violent campaigns has increased still further, while that of violent insurgencies has declined.

In the 1980s, for example, some 52 percent of non-violent campaigns were successful, compared with less than 40 percent of violent campaigns. But between 2000 and 2006 (the last year for which the study has data), non-violent campaigns were successful in 70 percent of cases; violent campaigns in less than 15 percent.

These striking findings suggest a possible additional explanation for the decline in the number of major armed conflict numbers since the end of the Cold War: namely that as opponents of autocratic regimes have become increasingly aware of the successes of non-violent resistance campaigns, more and more of them have chosen to reject the much less successful — and far deadlier — option of armed struggle.

It is quite possible, in other words, that we are witnessing an important substitution effect — with activists choosing to pursue campaigns of non-violent direct action rather than decreasingly successful violent resistance campaigns. If this indeed is case then, other things being equal, then we have an important additional explanation for the decline in major armed conflicts around the world.

This is difficult to prove. The two strategic approaches could, in theory, be completely unrelated. This seems highly unlikely, however. There is ample evidence in the security studies literature to show that conflict strategies pursued successfully in one context tend to be emulated in others. With respect to non-violent struggles, the emulation effect is also well documented.

How likely is it that the successes achieved by the type of non-violent campaigns examined by Chenoweth and Stephan will continue? This is difficult to gauge. However in addition to the emulation effect, there are two other persuasive grounds for believing that the rise in the number and success rate of major non-violent campaigns is not accidental, and that the conditions that facilitated the increased post-Cold War successes of non-violent campaigns may well continue to prevail.

First, is the argument that as the structure of societies becomes more complex and interdependent, increasing numbers of individuals and groups within civil society acquire roles that are indispensable for the effective functioning of the state. Equally important, the individuals who occupy these roles are effectively un-substitutable — i.e., they very difficult to replace — unlike unskilled workers.

In the early days of apartheid in South Africa most workers in the country’ mines were unskilled. If they went on strike they could be simply sacked, sent back to the reserves, and new unskilled workers were brought in to replace them. The “structural” power associated with their role was zero. In today’s high-tech mining operations in South Africa a large percentage of the work force is skilled. These workers are effectively irreplaceable, giving them structural power that the workers of much of the apartheid era were denied.

One consequence of these changes is that has been that it has become extraordinarily difficult for complex modern states to govern by brute coercion. Effective governance requires high levels of cooperation between citizens and key non-state groups. The denial of such cooperation thus becomes an increasingly potent source of leverage for non-violent resistance movements.

Second, and relatedly, there has been a major normative shift over the last 30-plus years — one that rejects authoritarian modes of governance and that embraces democratization. This worldwide shift, one that has been embraced by elites as well as citizens, is evident, not just in the huge decline in the number of autocracies since the late 1970s, but also by the fact that the number of democracies has more than doubled. The successful high-profile non-violent campaigns waged against autocratic governments during this period have likely helped drive this normative shift — and have in turn been inspired by it.

In the worldwide movement to end colonial rule some liberation strategies relied on violent struggle, others on non-violent direct action, but in a substantial number of cases the colonial powers, recognizing that a huge normative shift had taken place, simply conceded independence without offering any resistance at all. Quite apart from moral considerations, defending colonial rule had ceased to be politically rational.

These developments suggest that the increase in the number and success rate of civilian resistance campaigns has not only played a direct casual role in bringing down authoritarian regimes, but has also played an important indirect role by helping strengthen the global norm against autocratic governance.

The success of non-violent campaigns may, in other words, be even greater than Chenoweth and Stephan’s thought-provoking study has shown.

  1. I don’t think that this notes that most governments on Earth currently seem to have shifted from autocratic to competitive authoritarian. Also it treats some of the dictatorships we saw during the Cold War as the norm when historically such autocratic states had a lot of trouble establishing themselves.

    I won’t dispute the basic point that nonviolent resistance in most (though not all) cases is more effective, nor will I pretend that democratic governance hasn’t expanded. I would just suggest that we shouldn’t view it in simple terms like “current norm is democracy”.

  2. This is very telling since Colonialism ended many many years ago, or so on paper with an official stamp. The struggle to shed an hierarchical system is an ongoing battle. Loved reading this and I only know more about life and world!

    1. I’m not quite sure what you mean about colonialism unless it’s a reference to the promises made by nationalist governments in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Could you elaborate?

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