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The big question in global affairs

Associate Professor of Public Affairs Alan Kuperman says the spread of nonviolent resistance movements could lead to a more peaceful future.

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We hear a lot of doom-and-gloom about the future.

The world will be too hot, too crowded. There will be too few resources and more competition for them.

We asked University of Texas at Austin researchers for the opposite — the ideas, technologies, policies or combinations that will make it possible for the world to be a better place in the future.

In this third installment of “The Big Question” series, Alan J. Kuperman, associate professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, responds to the question “What in your field could make the world a better place?”


Alan Kuperman

Alan Kuperman stands in the LBJ Library and Museum in the gallery that depicts America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Photo: Marsha Miller

One big fear about the future is that we will see more bloody civil wars and even genocides — as bulges of unemployed young people, climate change and growing inequality contribute to resource scarcity and societal resentment, sparking violence. That might happen.

But a more encouraging dynamic that could avert this tragic scenario is the growth and spread of nonviolent resistance movements. The remarkable “Arab Spring” that began late last year in Tunisia and Egypt is the latest illustration. In a matter of weeks, nonviolent protests compelled regime change, the start of constitutional reform, and a path to free and fair elections — at a human cost that in historical terms was extremely low.

Consider the alternative scenario that was averted. If the frustrated people of these two north African countries had instead taken up arms to overthrow their governments, we might well have witnessed bloody civil wars. The army in each state would have rallied behind its government to defend against the “rebels.”  Such a violent government response inevitably would have killed many more innocent civilians — and thereby encouraged their neighbors, friends and relatives to join the fight — provoking even greater state retaliation. Violent uprisings thus not only would have cost many more lives, but been less likely to succeed.

Nonviolent resistance is hardly a new phenomenon, but it is growing and spreading. In the old days, prominent examples seemed to arise once every generation — led by Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King in the United States or Nelson Mandela in South Africa. But now they come in bunches, starting with the “color revolutions” of last decade — in Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan — and now the Arab Spring.

Two common misconceptions about such movements are that they are “passive” and that this passivity is motivated by a moral aversion to violence. In reality, these campaigns embrace very active resistance — such as marches and boycotts — to compel the government either to make concessions or attack peaceful protesters in ways that delegitimize the regime and persuade its security forces to switch sides. The protesters eschew violence not on ethical principle but because they believe it would backfire by increasing the human cost and decreasing the chance of success.

The tragic consequences of the alternative, violent strategy are vividly on display in Libya, which borders Egypt and Tunisia. In all three north African countries, the initially non-violent protests provoked state crackdowns. But only in Libya did the protesters themselves respond with large-scale violence, and quickly, seizing an army garrison and launching a rebellion within three days of the first protest. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi retaliated by ordering his tanks, military aircraft, security forces and foreign fighters to attack rebel strongholds in civilian areas — prompting casualties, destruction of property, a humanitarian emergency, NATO intervention, a full-blown civil war (that still has not finished), and most recently vengeful attacks by victorious rebels against civilians accused of supporting the former regime.

The good news is that nonviolence often works at low cost. Admittedly, it is not easy and may not work everywhere, especially in ethnically or tribally divided societies. But even where it fails, it greatly reduces the human cost compared to rebellion, which in any case rarely produces a free society.

The bad news is that Washington may not have gotten the message. When Libya’s protesters turned to violence, U.S. President Barack Obama spearheaded a NATO military intervention that emboldened the rebellion, greatly escalating and extending Libya’s bloody civil war.

The leaders of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia understood that rebellion usually does not pay — an emerging global ethos that could make the future more peaceful. Looking ahead, the White House should reinforce this norm of strategic non-violence, rather than undermining it by launching military interventions that only encourage further bloodshed.

Alan J. Kuperman is an associate professor of public affairs in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs where he teaches courses in global policy studies.