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Stephen Zunes on The Campbell Conversations

Stephen Zunes, left, speaking with Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher

Over the past 40 years, the world has witnessed a wave of democratization.  Why have so many dictatorships fallen?  This week on the Campbell Conversations, University of San Francisco professor Stephen Zunes argues that it’s largely because of strategic non-violent movements.  Zunes also specializes in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and there he argues that the U.S. enables Israeli policies that give it little incentive to compromise, making the peace process difficult.

Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm joined today by Stephen Zunes. He's a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco and the coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies there. He is also a Senior Policy Analyst for the Foreign Policy and Focus project at the Institute for Policy studies in Washington DC and a contributing editor at Tikkun magazine. Professor Zunes, welcome to the program.

Stephen Zunes (SZ): Great to be here.

GR: In your work, you argue that in the waves of democratization we have seen across the world in the last thirty years; non-violent activist opposition has played the most important role. I want to explore that a little bit. First, just how striking has the last thirty years been for worldwide democratization? It certainly is not always obvious that progress is being made.

SZ: Certainly it has been uneven. As this wave of democratization has taken place, some authoritarian regimes are getting more effective at challenging it, and of course there have been a number of reversals.

But overall, since I was an undergraduate back in the 1970’s, we have seen more than 70 countries move from dictatorship to some degree of democracy. What we found is that some regimes fell through armed revolution, a few more through voluntary reforms by the elite, a kind of top-down guided democratization within the system, and only one or two through foreign intervention. But in the vast majority of cases, close to three-quarters of these transitions, the most important single variable was democratic civil society organizations engaged in strategic non violent action.

GR: And I wanted to ask you about precisely what you mean by non-violent activist opposition. So explain that a bit more beyond just the phrase itself to me.

SZ: It most certainly includes public demonstrations and the contestation of public space, but it can also mean things like boycotts, strikes, burning of symbols of government authority like ID cards, violation of public regime orders like curfew restrictions. It can also include the establishment of parallel alternative institutions for social organizations and legitimacy. Unlike armed struggle, which is usually centered on young able bodied men with guns, it’s the kind of thing that the entire society regardless of age or gender or physical ability can take part in.

GR: And over the course of the thirty years, what countries and regimes would you say fall into like the "greatest hits" category?

SZ: Certainly, we would start with the Philippines and the downfall of the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship and the People Power Movement there. We saw the scene in Latin American forcing Pinochet to have a referendum, the dictator of Chile who lost, as well as, Bolivia and some other Latin American countries.

Eastern Europe, of course. It wasn’t NATO that brought down communism, it was Polish dock workers, ... Czech intellectuals, Estonian folk singers and millions of other ordinary Eastern Europeans that faced down the tanks with their bare hands. Some of the post-communist dictatorships, most notably Milosevic in Serbia--it wasn’t eleven weeks of NATO bombing that got rid of the Butcher of the Balkans--but young Serbian students who mobilized the population after a stolen election.

And we also see it in parts of Africa, not just North Africa where Tunisia has been the most prominent success story of the recent Arab spring. But in countries like Madagascar and in fact in South Africa they are arguing the ANC never got beyond the occasional acts of sabotage. It was the Democratic Front and the Trade Union Movement. It was mass resistance in the townships that also made the Apartheid system unsustainable and forced them to negotiate with Mandela and lead to majority rule.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher and I’m speaking with University of San Francisco Professor Stephen Zunes, an expert on non-violent opposition movements that are pushing for democracy. Okay, so you have given me these many examples. Why exactly do you think the non-violent opposition is more effective than the alternative approaches?  And the other piece of this--in the cases that you gave me there were violent and armed oppositions or outside interventions, and you are separating out the non-violent aspect as being the real cause for change. Can you talk a little bit about both of those?

SZ: Sure, no struggle is completely non-violent or completely violent; they are all mixed. But I emphasized the ones in which the primary mode of the struggle, the most significant modes of struggle politically, and also one that involved the largest amount of participants, were those who rejected the use of violence.

I should emphasize this is not out of ethical considerations.  Gandhi and King are exceptions to the rule, in that they were both religious pacifists and leaders of strategic non-violent action. The vast majority of people and leaders of these movements chose non-violence not because they were pacifists, not because they have any kind of religious or ethical commitment to non-violence per se, but because this is one of the most effective means of struggle. In other words it was a strategic decision, not a moral decision. But I think it does certainly have more appeal than armed struggle. There are a lot of people who are not willing to take up the gun, for various reasons, but who are willing to take part in non-violence.  Again that is part of its strength. You do have the numbers, which are always a key variable and as I mentioned, everybody in society can take part in that.

Another reason is that for effective regime change from below you need defectors from within the system.  For example, soldiers and police are much less likely to defect if they are being shot at than if they are being ordered to fire into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators who could be their friends, neighbors, family members. And another factor is the large undecided population. You find in almost all these struggles people who may not necessarily like the regime, but are scared of change and maybe reluctant to support the opposition if the opposition is taking up arms, even for a just cause.  It makes people nervous. They are concerned about the people who are involved and who might end up taking over, and they are less sympathetic because they might believe the current regime's propaganda about fighting terrorism and trying to maintain order. But when you see a non-violent protesters being shot, beaten and oppressed, they gain sympathy. And they say, “Well, these people are the ones who are being non-violent. They are the ones who seem to have legitimacy and it’s the government that is being illegitimate." And so you find that the non-violent struggles are much more likely to gain support from people who are kind of in the middle, whose support you need in order to get enough numbers to bring down a dictatorship.

GR: I will take this back further in history, to the American Revolution, which I guess is an outlier in all of this. Have things changed over the years, in terms of how successful something like the American Revolution could be?

SZ: A lot of people forget that a lot of the American Revolution was non-violent, ... but if you actually look at the records at that time, including the correspondence of the British governments and the like, it was the tax strikes, the massive uncooperation, that was at least as problematic as the soldiers. Indeed if the French had not intervened, we would have certainly lost the war, but it was [also] an unarmed resistance. It actually started in the 1760’s--that really helped undermine British control. I think the Boston Tea Party may be the only incident that really made it to our history books, but that was just one of quite a number of instances of civil resistance within the colonies.

GR: I am talking with Stephen Zunes. He is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco and an expert on democratization and opposition movements.

I wanted to further explore the nature of this non-violent protest movements that we have been discussing. It is one thing to say that they are non-violent and in opposition to authoritarian regimes. It is another thing to say that the movements themselves are democratic. How democratic are these movements as movements?

SZ: They vary and a lot of it depends on the strength of civil society prior to the launching of the movement, and it depends a lot on the nature of leadership, and so it varies considerably. I think in order to build a broad coalition and be successful you end up with a pretty diverse kind of leadership, diverse organizations. You don’t tend to have a clear single leader, and of course in some cases when such was the case, such as in Iran, where in a largely non-violent uprising against the Shah, the Ayatollahs end up taking over. They imposed a new authoritarian system.  Sometimes non-violent movements will be victorious very quickly. They don’t really have time to consolidate these kinds of institutions.

In fact successful non violent movements on average take one quarter of the time victorious armed movements take to succeed. And I think one thing we found in Egypt was that while there had been certain antecedents to the struggle going on for years, the revolution itself only lasted eighteen days, and the military was able to effectively seize control.  When they had the elections the more democratic secular opposition was divided, and so that the two top vote getters being the military candidate and the Muslim brotherhood candidate--the worst possible choices in the minds of pro-democratic activists.  And problematically pro-democracy activists didn’t have the experience, organization or money that the Muslim brotherhood and the military had, so that was to their disadvantage. So it can sometimes be a challenge if you don’t have good political organization. You don’t just need good tactics; you also need good leadership, and you need good vision and good organization.

GR: I wonder if there is any application of your arguments to the United States itself. A recent thorough study of US Policy making by a couple of researchers at Princeton University concluded for example that we are now an oligarchy, not a democracy. Is there any application of your research to thinking about the American situation?

SZ: Well if you look at the struggles that have made our country more democratic over the years, it's almost always been through popular non-violent struggles, from the suffrage movement, to the civil rights movement, to the American labor movement. Almost all the  progress that we have seen in making our country more democratic has come through popular non-violent struggles.  I would agree that there is a need now for it, with the great increasing concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy. What we saw through the Occupy Wall Street movements is the beginnings of that kind of resistance, though the lack of organization and other strategic errors made that short-lived. I think it is an indication what we may be seeing more of in the future and hopefully in a more organized and strategic way.

GR: If you’ve just joined us you’re listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public media and my guest is University of San Francisco Professor Stephen Zunes. In the time we have left I want to turn to the specific area of the world that you have focused on, the Middle East. And even more specifically Israel and Palestine. How likely is it that we will see lasting peace and cooperation there, say in the next twenty years?

SZ: I think most people on both sides recognize that the other is there to stay, in the sense that the Palestinians, in spite of what they perceive as great injustices done to them in the Zionist movement, and expulsion and occupation and the like. They have realized that the Israeli Jews are now part of the Middle East and they have to live with them. And similarly the Israelis recognize that--well, they have not yet recognized the Palestinians as a state and they are not yet willing to provide them with the non-territorial domain of a viable state--at least there has been some acknowledgement that they are a nation, that they do have a right to self-determination.

I think that what is important is that both sides find non-violent ways of resolving the conflict. ...The fact is that the Israelis have the upper hand right now. They are the occupier, and in international law the onus of compromise belongs with the occupation.  Given that the Palestine authority under the leadership of President Obama and Abbas has finally come around to the idea of accepting Israel and accepting the 1967 borders, and they are open to minor border adjustments, security guarantees and a demilitarized state.  Again, the Israelis are the ones at this point who do need to be willing to allow them that.

Unfortunately the United States has contradictory roles as both the chief mediator of the conflict and the chief military, diplomatic and financial supporter of the more powerful of the two parties, and that has made it difficult to move the process forward--allowing Israel to get away with expanding its illegal settlements, which have more than doubled since the signing of the Glasgow. So I think the best hope for peace would be for the United States to engage in a tough love towards Israel that is unconditional, and continue our unconditional support for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, but to be able to put pressure on the current Right-wing government to make the necessary compromises for peace.

GR: You have touched on a couple of things I had wanted to ask you about, one is this issue of the United States as the principal intermediary. If I put myself in the shoes of a Palestinian citizen it is hard for me to imagine taking the United States seriously as an intermediary, because as you pointed out its starting position is one of supporting Israel. So how can the US have any kind of moral authority in this process over there?

SZ: Certainly based on their behavior thus far, it does make it difficult. I think that the best way it would look is, if we really support Israel - and again I have nothing against supporting Israel per se- think what Israel’s actual interest is. Because as many Israelis will tell you, Israel will be far more secure within its internationally recognized border, and at peace with its neighbor--and remember not just the PLO and Palestinian authority but the neighboring Arab states have expressed the willingness to have full diplomatic relations, security guarantees in return for withdrawal. Israel may be far more secure than in this archipelago of illegal settlements and isolated military outposts amidst a hostile population. And more Israeli soldiers are outside of Israel engaging in repressive occupation than inside the country defending it.

And I have, right here, people saying that we can’t pressure Israel, because Israel is our friend. Well, my response is what you do when your friend is drunk at the bar with the car keys in their hand stumbling out towards their vehicle--a friend says,” Hey, I’m not letting you hurt yourself or other people” and takes the keys away. My Israeli friends say that is a good analogy, except they’d expand it further. They would say the U.S. is the bartender. We are the enabler; we are pouring the stuff by our continued military and economic aid, or vetoing UN Security Council resolutions, and other things that give Israel no incentive to compromise.

GR: So, if you could change one thing, let’s boil it down. If you could change one thing about American foreign policy in this area, what would it be? Would it be a change in the rhetoric toward tough love, or can you think of some things more specific you would change?

SZ: I would like to see a change in the U.S. policy overall, to one where we live up to our own rhetoric around human rights and international law. I mean, I have real problems with people who unfairly single out Israel for criticism. But I also have problems with people who unfairly believe Israel should get away with things that no other country should get away with. I mean how can we in credibility put sanctions and pressure on Russia for their illegal annexation of Crimea, when Israel has already illegally annexed part of the occupied territories? It is calling for the annexation of more of it. And not to mention Morocco and its annexation of Western Sahara. When allies engage in occupation, we don’t hear about it as much, but the same kind of principle is involved. So I think we really need to - the bottom line is to live up to our rhetoric of supporting democracies, self - determination, and the rule of law, which is after all are the principles on which our nation was founded.

GR: Some of the response that you always get when you put forward an argument like that well is it depends on the strategic influence of the country in different parts of the world. So that changes depending on what part of the world you are looking at and therefore our response needs to change.

SZ: Not necessarily, because I would say that support for Arab dictatorships and occupation armies actually hurt our strategic interest. I don’t think we would have seen Al Qaeda rise the way it has if the United States was not supporting the Saudi regime and it was not supporting the Israeli occupations. Not supporting the dictatorships in Egypt and the Emirates and other parts of the world. And I find that when we get in trouble, when we see an anti-American extremism in various parts of the world, it’s not because of our values but when we stray from our values.

GR: That was Stephen Zunes. Stephen, thank you so much for talking with me.

SZ: My pleasure, I really enjoyed this.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.