The non-violent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are pushing at an open door. Even the Pentagon has begun to look at their value in situations of conflict and political impasse.
Today’s news is covering the essentially non-violent struggle of the opposition in Zimbabwe to push aside the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe. Despite the provocations of the police and the army, the opposition has turned the other cheek (unlike in Kenya) and in doing so won over almost 100 percent of foreign opinion.
In another example, exiled Iranian opposition activists are studying and training in techniques of non-violent conflict, emulating the success of the recent movements for change in the Ukraine and Serbia.
One shouldn’t be surprised by this turn of events. The 20th century is rightly described as the bloodiest century of mankind. But it was also the most creative in terms of alternatives to violence – not only Martin Luther King and Gandhi (with the anti-British Pathans in South Asia joining his movement, a historical development somehow overlooked today by the NATO armies in Afghanistan), but also the work of Chief Albert Lithuli and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Archbishop Helder Camara in Brazil and Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta in East Timor.
Then there were the 1950s marches against nuclear weapons that helped persuade President John Kennedy to push for the Test Ban Treaty. And later the massive protests against the Vietnam War.
There is no way one can put a precise finger on it. But there has been a sea change in Western society’s attitude to war. Despite the headlines, there are fewer wars now than ever before in history. The number of wars conducted between democracies since the end of World War II is zero.
The industrialised, richer, democratic nations have mostly abandoned armed conflict as a way of conducting their relations with other countries. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the only exceptions. There is only a small constituency in the West that supports a strike against Iran.
Even in poorer countries where warfare is rife, war is waged by a remarkably small group – mainly criminals, bullies and warlords, often easily defeated by UN-type military intervention, perhaps combined with outside political pressure, except in rare cases like Afghanistan where the Pathans have a deep and almost unique culture of resistance.
In only the United States and Russia is military intervention a constant topic of conversation and serious ongoing preparedness.
Take a close look at Holland, Sweden and Switzerland if one doubts how war-making cultures can change. At the end of the 18th century, Holland and Sweden each had armies larger than those of Britain or Austria and far larger than Prussia. Holland was one of the great seafaring, imperialistic countries of the world. But for the last two and a half centuries Holland has been far from warlike.
From 1415 to 1809, Scandinavian countries were almost permanently at war. But since Sweden’s defeat by Russia in 1809 they have more or less withdrawn from violent conflict, as has Switzerland, which in 1500 was a feared warrior nation.
If the militaristic atmosphere of past ages is beginning to change one shouldn’t be surprised at the greater role that non-violent campaigns have played over the last 60 years. And they tend to be successful, too.
A recent study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, reported in Harvard’s quarterly journal International Security, finds that large-scale non-violent campaigns of civilian resistance have achieved success 53 percent of the time. In contrast, terrorist campaigns achieved their objectives only 7 percent of the time.
Success comes from many factors, not least of all persistence. But it also comes from an enhanced domestic and international legitimacy of such movements and alienation of the regimes, as happened in the Ukraine three years ago. Second, public opinion at home – repulsed by violence – finds a non-violent movement increasingly appealing. Repression by heavily armed police and army helps turn public opinion against the regime.
This happened in the Philippines where violent opposition had failed. When two million people rallied peacefully to oust dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the Reagan administration pushed for him to step down.
One can point to numerous situations where non-violence could be made to work today. But no situation is riper for it than the Israel-Palestine dispute. If the Palestinians could drop their guns and stones and organise an effective non-violent movement, they might find a million Israelis supporting them.
John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University has written that warfare was once regarded as “natural, inevitable, honourable, thrilling, manly, invigorating, necessary, glorious, progressive and desirable.” It could well be that this era is approaching its close and non-violent resistance is becoming the main tool of radical, even revolutionary, change.
* Jonathan Power is a columnist, filmmaker and writer. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Khaleej Times.