Making Nonviolent Statecraft into a Self-Evident Truth (originally published on

Nonviolent statecraft is a difficult proposition because policy makers act in the national interest, which will not consider nonviolence as its priority. Nations often pursue war and embrace violent regimes as allies because the benefits economically and politically of the military/industrial complex are irresistible. As a result it is hard for peace-oriented policy makers and bureaucrats to persuade their own institutions to commit to nonviolent statecraft.

Let’s take an example. An oil-producing regime upon which the U.S. economy depends eagerly courts the United States, promises to build free U.S. military bases, offers full cooperation militarily and in intelligence, and offers generous contracts to American companies in a wide range of congressional districts. Aligning with that regime’s interests appears advantageous, but doing so forces the United States to view the oil-producing regime’s adversaries as the adversaries of the United States.

Military Experiments in Conflict ResolutionThat is the bad news. The good news is that we have been making headway in at least some branches of government. There is evidence that more and more senior military personnel recognize the self-defeating nature of warfare waged for the sake of economic gain or due to ideological rigidity. These military personnel will continue to follow orders if the White House is occupied by militant leaders. They will continue to argue for all the funds they can get from a corrupted political system that showers them with unnecessary weapons systems. At the same time, in quiet ways, significant senior military and intelligence officials in the United States, Europe, and Israel have become more keenly aware of the utility of nonviolent approaches to conflict, in terms of statecraft and training. They have seen too much that is self-defeating, especially due to their bitter experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, it is becoming clear that one strategy to evolve the legitimacy of nonviolent statecraft is to harness the lessons learned by senior and former combatants.

It is for this reason that a variety of branches of the military made a decision in recent years to empower a select few of their officers and chaplains to seek higher degrees and certificates in conflict resolution and, under my tutelage, specifically in religion and conflict resolution. This in turn has had a direct effect on U.S. government behavior toward countries ranging from Iraq to the Central African Republic. Key personnel took proactive steps to engage multifaith religious leaders and representatives on the ground in order to prevent outbreaks of violence. This may seem like a small step, but it is not. The entire infrastructure of the military is generally designed for an adversarial role in most situations. This training put different voices at the table of decision-making, and offered commanders a different set of information upon which to make decisions. In other words, the “enemy” became more nuanced, better understood, and often recategorized as no longer an enemy after all.

In another situation, due to extensive inroads with certain agencies and branches of government, we were able to achieve, at least for a year, an unprecedented level of networking between Muslim leaders across Afghanistan, who were never allowed to meet before. They in turn were empowered to make the religious case for human rights, respect for women, and nonviolence. No one had ever thought to empower these imams before, despite the fact that they were the major victims of the Taliban assassinations. Our peacebuilding team’s inroads into the government helped a wide variety of official stakeholders in the American government, in the Afghan government, and in the global Islamic community of leaders to recognize the importance of engaging and empowering these imams. Unfortunately the program was short-lived (only two years), but it set a precedent for nonviolent forms of diplomacy and peacebuilding sanctioned in government circles.

It should not surprise us that often it is those with combat experience who have greater sympathy for peacebuilding efforts. Some ex-combatants become the most passionate peacemakers precisely because of what they have done and seen. In fact, some of the leaders in this field and pioneers of interfaith work were deeply involved in some of the most violent aspects of the Cold War and recent outrages in the Gulf. The wisdom of peacebuilding is also embedded in some of the most ancient texts of war, especially that of Sun Tzu. Thus, there is a precedent for our work as peacebuilders to join forces with combatants who have changed. Together we can marshal much stronger evidence for national and global shifts toward nonviolent statecraft.

Resistance from Elected Officials

The tougher nuts to crack are elected officials who fund their campaigns through major investors in the military-industrial-oil complex, as well as those politicians who gain votes by appealing to the lowest fears and prejudices.

Many of us who have been engaged in peacebuilding internationally for the last thirty years have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to persuade government officials of the value of nonviolent statecraft. Some of us have also sought to shape the views of students headed for positions of government authority. We have done this in the hope of making policy more attuned to nonviolent approaches to national interests.

At the same time, we have made inroads by persuading some agencies, such as the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and the United Nations, to implement trainings in nonviolent conflict resolution. The policy makers we have reached include embassy personnel, bureaucrats in governments across the world, and bureaucrats in multilateral agencies such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even though a sense of the benefits of nonviolent resistance has seeped into many government conversations, only a pittance is spent on peacebuilding in comparison to what is spent on military investment. To bring about a true paradigm shift we need to devote comparable funding to peacebuilding as we devote to violence.

We had immense opportunities, for example, to invest in a nonviolent Syrian revolution. But key American allies on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other, guaranteed one of the worst and bloodiest standoffs in modern history. At the same time, Western governments were woefully unprepared to support nonviolent alternatives before they were overwhelmed. This is true in many regions of the failed Arab Spring. We must push for vastly increased funding to train U.S. personnel in nonviolence.

Investing in Peace

Well before the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, I had been working closely for eight years with Syrian partners on building Syrian skills of interfaith diplomacy and conflict resolution. We made tremendous inroads without any support from governments financially. We ended up having several programs and major reconciliation ceremonies even in the worst period of the American assault on Iraq, which drove millions of refugees to Syria. I even engaged in a formal apology to a victim of Abu Ghraib in the Aleppo mosque, and the story of my apology was circulated in many papers. The Swiss Embassy’s staff members were critical in offering moral support and advice throughout those years in the Syrian dictatorship. They took the members of my peacebuilding team seriously as agents of change and nonviolent diplomacy, which is one of the reasons that we managed to pull off one of a very few experiments in Syria in nonviolent diplomacy.

None of our efforts have anywhere near the funding that war has. That is why war will continue to be the status quo until the forms of peacebuilding diplomacy I have outlined here become the norm. There is a long way to go. We will keep demonstrating the virtues of nonviolent statecraft and nonviolent resistance, but it is hard to dissuade Russia and Iran from arming their allies while the United States itself arms so many problematic allies to the teeth and while Israel continues using U.S. weapons on dense civilian areas of the Palestinian territories. None of this can be easily stopped so long as congressional representatives are forced to fundraise every day from the very companies and lobbies that support the massive weapons and war investments.

We have to encourage government leaders to invest in nonviolent diplomacy, but we must also maintain a healthy skepticism of government promotion of nonviolence, keeping an eye out for the possibility that a government may be appropriating the language or trappings of nonviolence for its own purposes. One has to wonder, for example, whether any state had the Ukrainian people’s best interests at heart when certain Western political figures and government bureaucrats supported the nonviolent resistance on the streets of Ukraine. This should be studied and debated. Intelligent analysts have argued that even though the previous leader of Ukraine was horribly corrupt, the people of Ukraine may not have benefited from the disruption of the unique relationship between Ukraine and Russia.

We have to be very careful to not be used by triumphalist statecraft looking for weak spots in the bellies of adversaries or competitors. I cannot imagine how Americans would react, how much worse it could make racial divisions, if it was discovered that Putin or some agency of Russia had funded something like the anti-racist demonstrations after Ferguson. Our advice on nonviolence and our engagement with states is something we should scrutinize at each and every turn.

Building on Successful Case Studies

The best approach we have seen in recent years builds on the optimistic evidence of what I call “increments of positive change.” We must demonstrate when and how countries or regions have prospered as a result of nonviolent statecraft. We must present easy-to-understand case studies that become part of the parlance of debate in the halls of power, and we must challenge policy makers and bureaucrats to argue for and fund such experiments in the halls of American power. Look, for example, at the evolution of U.S. policy toward Cuba. At first generations of individuals made pioneering gestures, then forward-thinking politicians reached out, and finally the president of the United States and a newly minted progressive pope ushered in a new era of rapprochement.

The precedents and models exist to make the case for nonviolent statecraft in the United States, but we need to make this case so self-evident that the war options become plainly absurd. The United States would do well to look to Europe, where numerous states have set a clear example of nonviolent statecraft in action. For example, whereas the United States reacted to twenty-first-century hijackings by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean by attempting to hunt the pirates down, European countries tried a different approach: jobs programs in the villages where the pirates were coming from. The jobs programs had a massive effect. Again nonviolent diplomacy, investigation, and rational strategies won the day.

One of the most rational responses to violence is to seek to understand what inspires violence in one’s adversaries. For example, the world’s most extreme terrorists had a much easier time recruiting a global army because of the destruction of Iraq and the abuse of human rights perpetrated by American military personnel under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Extremists tend to hate it when the United States brokers peace treaties, which is what Obama has been trying to do with Iran, because peace treaties turn many potential terrorist recruits away from violence.

Want to know how to dry up interest in terrorism? A major peace treaty signed by Israel, fifty Muslim states, twenty-two Arab states, and Palestine. A peace treaty between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A Marshall plan for the poor of the Middle East, especially disempowered women. That would drive the extremists crazy. But give extremists more senseless wars with lots of civilian casualties, and you feed them. Those who practice nonviolent statecraft understand this. The only thing standing in our way is the narrow drives of the corporations, lobbyists, and violence-promoting “allies” who tyrannize Congress and the White House. We can change this by offering persistent proof that nonviolent alternatives make everyone safer, domestically and internationally.

Marc Gopin is the James Laue Professor and directs the CRDC at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University
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