Small Wars Journal

Civil Resistance as a Form of Unconventional Warfare: Interview with Professor Erica Chenoweth

Wed, 03/21/2012 - 6:36am

Editor's Note:  The past year of the Arab Spring, as well as recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, have shown the power of civil resistance.  This resistance has been used as a relatively stand-alone tactic powerful enough to topple long-standing dictators, and we have also seen it come in conjunction with violent insurgencies.  Dr. Chenoweth offers a nuanced understanding of this topic and its importance.

Is civil resistance a form of warfare (a method of using a set of tactics “as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective”)?

I do see civil resistance as an active form of conflict, albeit often a far less destructive and more constructive form than violent warfare. I see the deliberate application of nonviolent methods, like strikes, boycotts, protests, and other tactics, as a viable substitute for armed insurgency in many cases, but without the long-term damage that armed insurgencies often do to social relationships, infrastructure, and economic and political development. This means that a number of principles from traditional insurgency apply to civil resistance campaigns. For instance, few generals (or guerrillas) win wars by using the same technique on the battlefield day after day. Flexibility, unpredictability, and efficiency are essential in battle. They are essential in civil resistance as well.

Gene Sharp argued that planning a strategy in a nonviolent resistance campaign is of crucial importance. What does strategy/strategic competence mean in the context of civil resistance?

As with any struggle, strategic competence is the ability to articulate realistic, viable objectives, link tactics to those objectives, and develop contingency plans for when things go wrong. A strategically adept campaign will have a strategy not only for confronting the opponent with disruptive force, but also for enforcing discipline and unity within the campaign itself. A successful civil resistance campaign will have a plan for overcoming adverse conditions—and a plan B for when plan A goes wrong. I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan.”

What is the role of networks in mobilizing a civil resistance? How important is to leverage and harness the power of widely spread societal networks?

Most civil resistance campaigns that succeed enjoy broad-based support from a variety of different societal groups. They typically engender support from women, the elderly and the young, people from a variety of classes, parties, regions, and religious backgrounds. Insofar as widely spread networks help movements to draw in diverse participation, they are useful. However, formalized networks or civil society organizations may not be necessary to achieve high levels of diverse participation. Sometimes the opponent is so widely hated in society (like the Shah in Iran, for instance) that diverse and broad-based mobilization occurred without formalized societal networks existing in the country.

In the pop-centric COIN language is said that the best weapons don’t fire bullets. Which are the “best weapons” to be used in a civil resistance? What are the core “ammunitions”?

The best weapons in civil resistance campaigns are those that exert the maximum pressure on the opponent with the minimum amount of risk and damage to the civil resistance campaign. These will vary from conflict to conflict. Sometimes mass protests are extremely disruptive and less risky than other types of actions, like nonviolent occupations. Other times protests may expose participants to extreme repression, where general strikes, slow-downs in the workplace, or economic boycotts would be just as disruptive but less risky. Activists have to decide for themselves what kind of opponent they face, and where they have the capacity to truly exert real pressure without submitting themselves to needless repression. But regardless of the tactics they choose, these tactics will likely remain ineffective without active support from the civilian population. In that regard, I suppose people are the most important assets.

You have focused your research on a few clear cut nonviolent resistance campaigns: the Iranian Revolution, The First Intifada, the Philippine People Power movement and the Burmese uprising. Which are the key ingredients for a civil resistance to achieve success? What kind of domestic mechanisms should be leveraged/triggered in order to achieve success?

Successful campaigns have a few things in common. First, they tend to attract massive support from diverse sectors of society. This means that their mobilization strategy typically focuses on a particular social or political issue that has widespread resonance in the society. Second, they tend to mix their methods—they combine methods of concentration (like protests, demonstrations, occupations, rallies, etc.) with methods of dispersion (like stay-at-homes, go-slows, strikes, boycotts). This allows them to keep the pressure on while giving activists a bit of relief from exposure to regime repression. Third, although it is never a good idea to deliberately provoke violence from the regime, most regimes use violence against major nonviolent campaigns anyway. Successful campaigns find ways to publicize regime abuses to challenge the regime’s moral legitimacy, which can lead to the campaign’s attracting even more participants as more people reject the regime’s claim to legitimate rule. Fourth, many nonviolent campaigns are able to produce loyalty shifts within the regime’s “pillars of support”—the security forces, economic elites, civilian bureaucrats, media elites, and other regime functionaries. This is not because these erstwhile regime supporters begin to sympathize or support the unarmed rebellion. Rather, regime elites begin to perceive further resistance to change too costly—politically, economically, or socially. This is a major reason why numbers matter: they produce the sense that change is inevitable, and that regime elites must surrender, reform, or get out of the way.

Can you explain in more detail the process through which a campaign of nonviolent resistance is able to leverage its pressure and influence on the regime’s “pillars of support”?

Gene Sharp has theorized that every regime is dependent on the cooperation, obedience, and help of different pillars of support--such as economic elites, civilian bureaucrats, state media, security forces, and educational elites--to remain in power. Historically, nonviolent campaigns have been able to chip away at these pillars by imposing significant costs on them. For instance, oil worker strikes deprived the Shah of Iran the revenue necessary to convince Iranian economic elites and security forces to continue to support him. Activists associated with the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins in the U.S. civil rights movement learned how to make segregation costly for white business owners. By refusing to leave segregated lunch counters at downtown Nashville diners, white townspeople stopped eating at the diners, making local business lose revenue that they earned during lunchtimes. Those business-owners then put pressure on Nashville's mayor to desegregate, not necessarily because they agreed with desegregation, but rather to save their own businesses. So leverage doesn't really depend on "conversion" as much as it depends on imposing costs. Importantly, the ability to impose and sustain these high costs often depends on broad-based participation. The more people participate, the higher capacity to impose costs on the pillars and pull them away from the regime.

Counterinsurgencies and insurgencies tend to be seen as “cognitive battles”, “battles for the minds of the people” with the objective being the four inches between the ears of the people. To what extent is the civil resistance about influencing and winning the argument for the minds of core audiences and constituencies of a target-regime?

I disagree with those who think that nonviolent resistance wins because it has “moral superiority.” But a campaign clearly has to win a cognitive battle, which is essentially a struggle to motivate people who share common grievances and common goals to overcome the fear, apathy, or indifference that leads them to accept the status quo. This is a difficult thing to do in many societies, and it’s the core challenge for any civil resistance campaign. Although I do think that civil resistance is essentially a battle over legitimacy, nonviolent resistance doesn’t win because it is legitimate per se. It wins because regimes cannot bear the costs imposed on them once a massive portion of the population refuses to be afraid, refuses to accept intolerable circumstances, and begins to collectively say “no.”

If you can identify the sources of a government’s power -legitimacy, popular support, institutional support- then you know on what that dictatorship depends for its existence. All you have to do is to shrink that support, that legitimacy and the regime will be weakened and if you can take that sources of power away the regime will fall” said Gene Sharp. Having in mind the nonviolent resistance campaigns covered in your book which was the center of gravity of the target-regime? Where or what was the Achilles’ heel?

Each society has its own centers of gravity. However, one clear pattern is that nonviolent campaigns are superior in producing defections within the security forces compared with armed insurgencies. This pattern does vary across countries, though, and approaching security forces to encourage defections is very risky business.

How imperative is for a campaign of nonviolent resistance to search and identify the “centers of gravity” of the target - regime?

It is imperative for a campaign to identify the target regime's centers of gravity. This is one reason why campaigns cannot be imported or exported. The centers of gravity vary across countries, and only the population knows what the centers of gravity are, what the pillars' vulnerabilities are, and how to mobilize support and participation from the general population.

How does a civil resistance win the allegiance and the support of the regime main sources of power/centers of gravity in order to shift their loyalty away?

With regard to security forces, the tactics that nonviolent campaigns use—strikes, protests, etc.—spread out regime repression and make it extremely costly to continue indefinitely. When the workers aren’t going to work, people aren’t paying their taxes, and the economy has ground to a halt because of general strikes and sanctions from the international community, security forces often sense that they aren’t going to get their paychecks next month. This can be enough to make officers begin to call in sick to work, or to disobey orders altogether. Many economic elites and civilian bureaucrats are equally vulnerable to these same dilemmas. But because they don’t face violence from the unarmed insurrection, the risks costs of supporting the movement aren’t as high as if the movement was armed. 

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.

Erica Chenoweth, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and director of Wesleyan’s Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research. Chenoweth is an internationally-recognized authority on terrorism, nonviolent resistance, and counterterrorism. Her books include Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011) with Maria J. Stephan of the U.S. State Department. The book is based on an article published by the two authors in International Security, No. 1 (Summer 2008), pp. 7–44,


I think Chenoweth's published claim that "major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns" misses an important part of the picture. "Major nonviolent campaigns" succeed because they typically don't emerge until the populace and various clusters within it perceive that the dictatorship is weak enough to be toppled. Throughout the life of a dictatorship there are probes, attempts to organize and rally support. The vast majority of these fail. Most never reach the threshold of visibility; certainly they don't emerge as "major nonviolent campaigns". The major campaign emerges when probes are made and the response is weak and unconvincing. That's the time momentum gathers. Looking only at major campaigns produces a skewed picture and creates the impression that nonviolent resistance has capacities that it may not have in many circumstances.

The assumption that nonviolent campaigns have worked because they are inherently more effective, rather than because they typically emerge when a dictatorship has declined to a point where it's ready to topple, might suggest that nonviolent resistance will work against a regime at the peak of its powers. That can be a costly mistake. I'd say research on the subject needs to take into account the potency curve of a dictators reign, and consider the possibility that major nonviolent campaigns succeed largely because they don't go major until participants and potential participants are convinced that the conditions for success exist.

Chenoweth's work deals extensively with the Philippine uprising in '86, and relies heavily on journalistic and scholarly accounts. As an eyewitness to and participant in those events, I've always been shocked at the depth and breadth of the extent to which "the record" gets the story wrong. Some of these errors are significant enough to have a real impact on the conclusions drawn by academic analysts.

I can't say for sure that the historical record on other uprisings against dictatorship is as seriously flawed as the record of the Philippine uprising: I was only there in one event. Knowing how defective the reporting and the record can be, even when the media are as thick on the ground as flies on... well, it gives a bit of pause when reading conclusions based entirely on secondary sources. Maybe they get it right sometimes, but they sure as hell get it wrong sometimes too. Analysis based on those accounts has to take that into account.

Jimbo Monroe

Thu, 03/22/2012 - 12:44pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Dave, the Albert Einstein Institute has Sharp's works for download. From Dictatorship to Democracy is available in 27 languages.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 03/21/2012 - 7:16am

Gene Sharp's work should be on the reading list of every SOF operator and anyone concerned with Unconventional Warfare. Although not stated in the article the title of Gene Sharp's work is From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. You can read it on google books at this link.…

I will also have to read Dr. Chenoweth's book as well. Thanks for this interview.