Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present

Dec 4, 2009

Full Video

Global Ethics Forum TV Show

Should civil resistance be seen as potentially replacing violence completely, or as a phenomenon that operates in conjunction with, and as a modification of, power politics?


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you for joining us.

It is a great pleasure to welcome back Adam Roberts to the Carnegie Council. Sir Adam is a man long known for his erudition and wit, now even more recognizable with the addition of "Sir" before his name, an honor bestowed upon him since his last visit to the Carnegie Council.

Today Sir Adam is here to discuss what many will say is the definitive work on civil resistance. This book, Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the President, is co-edited with Timothy Garton Ash. You will find this work to be not only a wonderful historical record, but it is accessible and quite fascinating to read.

Most of you are familiar with the names Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev. But do you know what they all have in common? The answer is quite simple: These inspiring leaders were responsible for some of the most dramatic political moments in the last century.

Whether we are talking about the civil rights movement, Solidarity, velvet or color revolutions, all these dramatic and desperate historical developments share what Sir Adam says is a decisive presence of non-violent action against such challenges as dictatorial rule, racial discrimination, and foreign military occupation. It was the role of people power that was employed to upset the status quo and establish a different model of governance built on the principles of representative democracy, human rights, and liberal ideals.

In Civil Resistance and Power Politics, the editors and their contributors look at most of the major cases since the 1960s that employed civil resistance as a political tool to try to change the status quo, including the actions masterminded by Gandhi, the U.S. civil rights struggle in the 1960s, the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the campaigns against apartheid in South Africa, and the various movements contributing to the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 to 1991.

In this century, they also consider the color revolutions, such the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, to the saffron-colored robes of the Buddhist monks marching through the streets of Rangoon in 2007.

In reading this book, what I found particularly interesting was an analysis of why some attempts at mass civil resistance succeeded in attaining their objectives, even though others failed. While there seems to be agreement among the authors that the world today has been shaped significantly by non-violent political action, the more puzzling question is, was it strategy, circumstance, time, or luck that contributed to the success of many of these movements? An additional question is whether civil resistance will have a future, and can it or will it replace violence completely?

For the answers, please join me in welcoming our guest today, the very distinguished Adam Roberts.


ADAM ROBERTS: Joanne, I've never had such a warm and fulsome introduction before 9:00 in the morning. Thank you all very much for turning out at a distinctly uncivil hour.

I thought that the most useful thing to do in my introductory remarks would be to say something about the thinking underlying the book, which has these two themes of civil resistance and power politics and tries to relate the two. There is a very long tradition of people viewing the phenomenon of non-violent resistance as potentially replacing violence entirely in international affairs. That was the hope held out in various ways by such figures as Gandhi and Martin Luther King and by interpreters of these phenomena, such as, for example, Joan Bondurant in her famous book Conquest of Violence and by my friend and colleague, who greatly influenced me in my early thinking about this, Dr. Gene Sharp of the Einstein Institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

So that's a tradition of seeing civil resistance as not just an interesting phenomenon, but as something that potentially could replace violence in human affairs, if not in absolutely all aspects of human life, at least in the great majority of human activities.

I want to suggest a different view of how we should understand civil resistance—some might say a more grimly realistic view, some might even say a view that dilutes the purity of the notion. But I believe the different view is actually more faithful to the phenomenon than the view of it as completely replacing power politics.

We are talking about a mechanism of struggle that avoids the use of violence by the participants. Often that involves a great degree of principle in order to achieve that avoidance of violence. Think of the way in which, for example, the leaders of Solidarity in Poland were completely clear in their minds that this movement had to avoid the use of violence and that the lesson of Polish history was that violent insurrections are catastrophic. There was a strong awareness that violence had to be avoided, not just by the use of non-violent tactics in some mechanical way, but also by avoiding certain types of situations that might be particularly prone to lead to violence. So they tended more to operate by sit-ins in the shipyards than by actually demonstrating on the streets, where there would be more risk of counterforce by the regime.

Coupled with that, there is a distinct theory of how such action achieves change, not just by the appeal to rulers to change their minds, desirable as that might be, but also, frequently and in many different forms, the attempt to undermine the power of the adversary, to take allies, as it were, from the adversary to persuade the forces not to shoot or whatever it might be. One finds that that is a common theme in many movements. So there is a notion of power there and a notion of wielding power by undermining the power of the adversary.

Fine. But I think we are left with two questions, questions which this book tried to gnaw away at. In gnawing away at them, what we did, which I think is unique in the literature, is to try to get coverage, not just of the perspective of a civil resistance movement and its leaders, but also of their adversaries and of outside powers.

We organized a conference two and a half years ago at which we had all three types of people present. It was extraordinarily interesting to see how, for example, the U.S. ambassador then in the Philippines viewed the People Power movement in the Philippines and viewed the U.S. role in relation to it. There one had a conjunction of power politics and civil resistance. Again, in many cases, it was interesting to see how those who would notionally be having to deal with movements on behalf of their governments—we had a U.K. official who had been in charge of dealing with emerging trouble in Northern Ireland and with the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland reporting on how they had seen the problems that they had faced.

This interest in the links between, on the one hand, civil resistance, and on the other hand, the world of power politics lead to two big questions:

The first is, how much has civil resistance depended on factors of power, including military power sometimes, for its success, in those cases where it did succeed?

The second is, how much has civil resistance actually changed or modified world politics? Has it left us with a better world than it found?

As to the first question, the dependence on factors of power for its success, it's worth remembering as a beginning to this that actually no major leader of any civil resistance movement that I have been able to find has been a complete, absolute, fundamentalist pacifist, not even Gandhi. Gandhi was very explicit that there were circumstances where force was justified and wrote articles to that effect. He also believed—and it's a persistent theme of his writing and it's obviously a worry in his mind—that the worst thing of all was cowardice and that bravery, whether it assumed violent or non-violent forms, was preferable, always better than cowardice.

Of course, famously, Martin Luther King, the great leader of the civil rights movement, applied for a gun license when his house was attacked and, more importantly—and we'll come to this in a second—had other complex relations with the world of power.

As to the dependence on factors of force, the first thing to note is that many non-violent movements have emerged in the wake of their own country's defeat in war. So there's an interesting connection with war here. The Russian Revolution of 1905, largely non-violent in character, followed immediately on the defeat of Russia in the war against the Japanese. The Argentine uprising, as it were, the civic uprising that led to the defeat and withdrawal of the Galtieri regime, followed the defeat of Argentina in the Falklands War. The Belgrade revolution of the year 2000 followed one year after the NATO military campaign against Serbia. So there's an obvious connection there that when a regime has been cut down to size, as it were, when its magic has been lost by retreat as a result of war, it may be vulnerable to a civil uprising.

Then there's another connection that has been very little noted in the literature, which is that for a non-violent movement to achieve its objectives, it may be very important that there is defended space nearby. Think of the way in which Denmark rescued Jews from Hitler's attentions in 1943 by spiriting several thousand Jewish citizens of Denmark across the sound to Sweden. But it was because Sweden had defended space that it was able to accept and then protect these refugees. Think of the refugee movement from East Germany in 1989 that was absolutely crucial in the downfall of the Wall and then the ending of the East German regime, none of which would have happened without this massive movement of refugees. It was because they were able to escape to defended space in Austria, West Germany, and so on that that movement was able to take place.

Then there's the fact that force may sometimes be used to protect demonstrators. The first time I came to New York, I stayed with my good friend Jim Peck on 125th Street, who had taken part in the early Freedom Rides in the United States. They were a heroic struggle, and sometimes they did require federal protection in order to save them from the violence of southern states.

There was the case of the great Freedom Ride of May 1961, which was escorted by 22 highway patrol cars, two battalions of National Guardsmen, three U.S. Army reconnaissance planes, and two helicopters. That's not minor stuff, just getting from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. Likewise, the famous great symbolic march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965 could only succeed in attaining its objective of getting to Montgomery on its third attempt and with very substantial federal protection.

So there's that connection. Many civil movements may succeed precisely because there is an awareness that, whereas at the intermediate level they face violent opposition, there is at a higher level a degree of protection available to them or a degree of support.

Then there are times when force may be needed to topple a regime. Civil resistance may, and indeed does, characteristically produce a stalemate, where it can deny a regime a degree of cooperation or embarrass it with demonstrations in the streets or whatever, maybe undermine the unity of its armed forces—all of those things may be achieved—but it may still not be able to unseat an adversary regime. Hence, for example, the impressive Buddhist revolt in South Vietnam in 1963 against the policies of the minority Catholic government of Ngo Dinh Diem, but that could only end with a coup d'état, with a degree of support, tolerance, possibly even planning from an intelligence agency which we all know and love in Washington, D.C.

Another instance of where a civil movement then led to an action which was somewhat different from that which the civil movement itself had been planning and supporting was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, beginning largely as a student revolution, largely seeing itself as, as it were, politically progressive, organizing massive demonstrations, undermining the shah, diminishing the United States' support for the shah, Jimmy Carter realizing that he was onto a loser with this ruler who tortured his opponents and so on. Yet it took what one might call an Islamic Leninist, in the shape of Ayatollah Khomeini, to bring about the end of the shah's regime and a new regime, because, at a certain stage, a greater degree of organization, toughness, even ruthlessness was required than that which the demonstrators could provide.

Sometimes—and this is the most extraordinary case of all—civil resistance may be in support of the use of force. There's the wonderful account in the book of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974-75, which I think was unique in being a civil revolution—the first, as far as I know, to bring the name of flowers to revolutions. It's now become almost routine, with the Rose Revolution and so on—which was in support of the coup d'état by the young officers in Portugal who wanted to end Portugal's African wars.

It's a fascinating story, where the civil movement in support, which was not encouraged initially by the military—the military, as usual with all coups d'état, told people to stay at home, to keep quiet, to get out of the way—they rushed out into the streets in support of the coup. But at the same time, and over a period of well over a year, the popular involvement sought, in a way, to civilize the coup, and in particular, sought to keep Portugal in a path moving towards Europe, towards multiparty democracy, and away from the communist vision, which had been one powerful strand among the coup leaders.

All of which led to that wonderful conversation between Mario Soares, the Portuguese Democratic Socialist leader, and Henry Kissinger. Kissinger doubted whether the civic revolution in Portugal could work. He was extremely skeptical. He said to Soares, "You're just a Kerensky. You're just the temporary ruler and then the communists will take over from you. You're really paving the way for them."

Soares said, "Well, I don't want to be like Kerensky."

Kissinger then famously said, "Nor did Kerensky."

Actually, Kissinger was wrong. Professional diplomats tend to get treated rather roughly these days, but his professional diplomats in Portugal—Frank Carlucci was the ambassador and Herb Okun, who also spoke Portuguese, was working closely with him in the U.S. embassy—they managed to persuade the United States that this was not an incipient Chile, that you could trust the Portuguese people, all would end well, and the United States did not need to plot and plan any sinister counter coups. Thank goodness, because this was a case of actually very successful civil resistance. But what a paradox, that it's civil resistance in support of and taming of a military coup.

Now, briefly, how much has civil resistance changed power politics? The big way of the last few decades has been through the ending of the Cold War. I am not one to say the cause of the end of the Cold War is X. Anybody who comes to you and says that they have a single explanation of the end of the Cold War should be told to jump into the nearest lake. If ever there was a multi-causal event that required a complex chain and confluence of different factors for it to succeed, it was the end of the Cold War.

For my money, the process of progressive dissolution within the communist world, the growing lack of belief even within Communist parties, has to be one important part of the explanation. Another, of course, has to be the policies of Gorbachev. Another has to be the line taken by Western powers, which, if I may summarize it, wasn't just the hawkishness that is claimed by the right as their own special, as it were, selling point, but was a remarkable combination of toughness and flexibility and a willingness to provide a secure environment within which change could happen within the Soviet Union. President Reagan was very much part of that process, despite his fierce language. The accounts by his own principal diplomats—especially, for example, Jack Matlock in Moscow—show a very clear recognition of the need to provide a secure environment where the West would not be taking advantage of every change within the communist bloc. That was a great contribution.

There are many other factors I could mention—the growth of nationalism, the economic decline, the way in which Western Europe brilliantly lent huge sums of money to East German leaders, Hungarians, Poles, so that they were so much in debt that Gorbachev couldn't face the prospect of taking over these countries, because he would have to take over the debts, which he was in no position to do. Lending money hand over fist to dodgy dictators I wouldn't recommend as a general policy, but it worked in this particular case.

There are other factors one could mention, such as the Helsinki process, which was absolutely crucial in changing the dialogue of politics and in legitimizing opposition movements in Eastern Europe. It's no accident that the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia was founded on the very day when Czechoslovakia became party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

So there are many processes involved. I'm not a one-solutioner, but I'm in no doubt that civil resistance changed the course of events and shaped them in a particular direction. Think, for example, of the way in which Gorbachev had no clear policy towards Eastern Europe. He wasn't actually very interested in it. One of the fascinating things about the post-Cold War documents that have emerged is that he was really more interested in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe, and his advisers were somewhat frustrated by the difficulty of getting him to concentrate on Eastern Europe.

The process of civil resistance changed the course of events in Eastern Europe in ways that absolutely had not been planned in Moscow, not even envisaged in Moscow, first of all, by the extraordinary developments in Poland in the summer of 1989. Although the fall of the Wall is naturally the great telegenic event that was the focus of our attention at the end of the Cold War, it was not the beginning of the rot in Eastern Europe. Poland was the country where the first non-communist government was formed in the communist world—something that had been deemed to be impossible by many Western theorists and by some members of the Reagan Administration, including Jeane Kirkpatrick. They said this could not happen. And yet it did happen in Poland.

Why did it happen without attracting such attention as was attracted by the Berlin Wall? It was partly because the decisive moment in Poland was the very day of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. The 4th of June was the election in Poland in which Solidarity won every seat they contested. Yet on the way to the studio, the Solidarity spokesman, a good friend of mine, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, learnt of the massacre in Beijing. He thought, "I'd better be very, very careful in what I say and not make any excessive claims. We've won a stunning victory." But he went on TV that evening in Poland and he said, "The results are very interesting. We will study them carefully," and he didn't say much more than that. That's part of the reason—and there are others—why the Polish events passed off less noticed. Of course, a roundtable—and there had been roundtable negotiations in Poland in early 1989—is less dramatic than the toppling of a wall.

As to East Germany, there's no doubt that civil resistance shaped the outcome, both in that ancient form of protest, mass emigration, and in the form of the demonstrations in the streets in Leipzig and elsewhere. As in Poland, there was a strong awareness that, for a variety of reasons, this movement had to avoid violence.

Some of the leaders in East Germany, some of the Christian pastors, were pretty close to being pacifists. But others, for reasons that were more to do with the particularities of the situation, believed that it was right to avoid violence. And we know from the Stasi records that it came very close to violence, that they did consider mass shooting of demonstrators in Leipzig. Had there been a spark to ignite such an event, it might well have happened. So it was a close-run thing.

I had the delicious experience two weeks ago of giving a lecture about the causes of the end of the Cold War in the former seat of government of the German Democratic Republic, in East Berlin. Revenge is sweet. It was interesting to see there, among a quite wide range of people, a degree of recognition that it was the discipline of the demonstrators that was crucial, but also, interestingly, a recognition of how important other countries had been in making that possible.

It was striking in Berlin—and it was a marvelous piece of symbolism, organized by the German government—that when they had this row of dominoes to knock over—as it were, the symbolic dominoes of the communist world—and the first person to give the push was Lech Walesa. He almost fell over doing it, poor chap. And the second was Miklós Németh from Hungary, because it had been Hungary's decision to allow East Germans to leave Hungary and go over the border to Austria that had made the flow possible.

If in no other way, in the ending of the Cold War I believe civil resistance has shaped the world we live in. Perhaps in discussion we can explore the question of whether, in the long term, it has changed it for the better or not.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: First of all, thank you very, very much, both for this morning and for your tremendous contribution over all these years.

I want to ask you to say something more about Iran, in two ways. First of all, it's the one example that you gave in which the outcome of civil disobedience did not lead to a liberal democratic outcome.

Secondly, we have just lived this summer through a great deal of civil disobedience. There has been this new book, of which I have read the reviews, by Haleh Esfandiari, who was with the Woodrow Wilson Center. They sought to elicit from her a confession that she and the Wilson Center were part of a velvet revolution plan for Iran—in other words, that she or the Center was somehow in a conspiracy to destroy the regime.

I wonder if you could comment a little bit on what you see the Iranian civil disobedience movement now possibly leading to and what you conclude from 1979.

ADAM ROBERTS: I was in Iran three or four years ago. I have to say, it's the kind of thing one shouldn't say about Iran, but I will say it. It reminded me of Eastern Europe. One of the reasons I used to love going to Eastern Europe was because of the disjunction between the theory and the reality. It's only worth visiting countries where there is such a disjunction, because then you can learn something new. In Iran there was that sense that I had been familiar with in Eastern Europe of an official ideology which is wearing thin, which does not command, for example, the real loyalty of very many students. I met quite a lot of students at Tehran University. There was also the sense of the irrelevance of some of the things the regime does.

Just as in the communist world there had been enormous posters advertising the next party congress—not quite clear what the ordinary citizen was supposed to do about that—in Iran there were enormous posters advertising petrochemical equipment, ditch diggers that could dig a ditch a mile long and so on. But again, what's the ordinary punter supposed to do about that? There's an irrelevance of much of the official world.

I found quite a few people who were inclined to believe the opposite of whatever the regime said. Some even believed that Israel was a land of milk and honey because they were told the opposite so regularly. That contributes to the explanation of what has happened since.

Although I should add one thing about Iran, which does make it very special, which is the very strong sense that it was abandoned by the world in the long war against Iraq, 1980 to 1988, which was as costly for Iran as the First World War was for European countries, and more costly, as it were, in terms of human lives lost than, let us say, two world wars were for America. That sense, that they were absolutely alone and abandoned by the United States, the United Nations, and so on in the war against Iraq, leaves them with a natural suspicion of the outside world as unwilling to understand or accept Iran.

One can argue the toss about why Western policy was as it was. But I do think that we need to begin any Iran policy with a recognition that we have a problem. Britain has other problems as well—Britain and the United States—such as our involvement, which is not forgotten there, in the coup to unseat Prime Minister Mosaddeq in the early 1950s.

So there is a sense of a society where the leaders can play on a nationalistic card, a patriotic card, effectively. It's not going to be easy to change that.

As regards the civil resistance movement now, it's one of many. It seems to be a characteristic nowadays of such movements that they are formed at a moment when the regime violates democratic norms by fiddling an election. That was true of the Belgrade Revolution in 2000, the Orange and Rose Revolutions in the Ukraine and Georgia, and a number of other cases. Fiddling elections is a recipe for civil resistance. It's not surprising that that has happened in Iran.

But I do think that in the short term they have a very uphill struggle, because the instruments of repression of the Iranian regime are pretty ruthless. The great factor that made it possible for civil resistance to succeed in Eastern Europe was basically Gorby's hesitation about authorizing the use of force, which then led to a degree of hesitation among the satellite regimes. Where the regimes were least in hock to the Soviet Union or least under the political spell of the Soviet Union, such as in Romania, which had a national form of communism, there was the least chance of inhibiting regime violence.

In Iran, with an extreme nationalist regime in charge and with a wide range of instruments of violence, there is a big, big problem.

But I'm not in doubt that the movement will go on, (a) because that sense that the election was stolen is very strong, and (b) because there is an enormous informed, intelligent middle class that believes in the regime, and also because demonstrating on the streets of Tehran is something of symbolic power in Iran, in a special way, because it was part of the sacred revolution of 1979 to 1980. In the constitution afterwards the right to demonstrate was guaranteed, and even if that right is violated daily, the regime is in a contradiction. We see daily that there is opposition within the regime. So in my view, it is a story that will run and run. It won't just be quickly extinguished.

As regards the foreign plot element, it's an old trick of rulers to see civil resistance as a foreign plot. I myself was once deeply privileged and honored—I have never had such a privilege in my life—as once to be accused at a conference in Poland of having organized the Prague Spring. I would love to be able to claim credit for it. Sadly, I can't, in all honesty. I would fail a lie-detector test. On another occasion, the East German leader Walter Ulbricht accused a West German friend of mine of having organized trouble in East Germany. He made a speech about the agents of imperialism and so on. It was rubbish.

We looked in the case studies in our book for a single case where it might be possible to say that one of these movements was the agent of a foreign power, and we couldn't find one. But what there is, is sometimes very significant external help. I think we are in a world where politics do cross borders. It's natural that they should. Political ideas have never been confined to within the borders of a single state. Political theory, political thought, and so on are naturally international in character. So there will always be elements of foreign thinking and foreign support in popular movements. But that doesn't mean sinister foreign control. As far as I know, all accusations of sinister foreign control have proved to be inaccurate.

Not only is there the case you mentioned, but there have also been a number of accusations against one of the bodies that funded our book, the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict in Washington, D.C., as some sinister international plot masterminding revolution everywhere. But again, the serious evidence in support of that proposition is practically nonexistent.

QUESTION: Given that a substantial proportion of present-day violent confrontations around the globe involve extremist elements of Islam against Western forces, and given that an orthodox reading and adherence to the Qur'an dictates an intolerant liquidation of the so-called infidel, can the West ever succeed in only affecting policies directed solely toward the majority Islamic moderate regimes, often suppressive and corrupt?

ADAM ROBERTS: I think we agree, for starters—correct me if I'm wrong—that Islam is a house with many mansions, as it were. There are many strands within Islam. Certain extremist interpretations of Islam that have flourished in recent years are far from representing a mainstream course in Islam. So the question is how best they are countered, and by implication, is there a role for, as it were, civic political action in that?

Now, there have been a number of very interesting cases in the Islamic world of uses of non-violent forms of political action. In fact, years ago, I remember meeting that wonderful figure, the Pathan Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was known as "the frontier Gandhi." He was a colleague of Gandhi's who mobilized the Pathans in the North-West Frontier Province of what is now Pakistan, then British India, against British rule. So that can happen.

Some Islamic societies have seen powerful civic movements. For example, in Algiers, in the summer of 1962, I think it was, after the end of the FLN [National Liberation Front] war, there was an internecine war between different Algerian factions, and a big popular movement, with the simple slogan "No more bloodshed," sprang up and organized huge demonstrations in Algiers and shamed the combatants into reaching a deal. So it can happen.

I am the last person to say that the means of combating al-Qaeda-type violence is exclusively through civil resistance. I'm absolutely not a one-solutioner. I think a variety of methods, including tough state police methods, are needed to cope with what is a very serious problem.

I don't feel that answers all aspects of your, as it were, multifaceted question, so come back to me if you think there is a call that I have failed to address. I have tried to give a flavor of what I think is actually, most importantly, a struggle—and you implied this—within the Islamic world.

QUESTION: To what extent are dictatorial regimes ultimately brought down by the loss of support among the middle class? You touched upon this. But quite often this middle class, disaffected business and other professional people, is then overtaken by more ideologically motivated groups.
How does this differ from what happened, let's say, in ideologically committed regimes such as Eastern Europe? You have a different kind of civil disobedience that produces different results. One, the revolution can be hijacked by the ideologically motivated groups. The other is, when those groups are already in power, you have a different kind of resistance from different kinds of people.

Can you just make that difference?

ADAM ROBERTS: It's—you're right—certainly an ancient problem that revolutions tend to get hijacked by extremists who know exactly where they are going. The great problem most of us have in life who are not extremists is that we represent a soggy middle that doesn't always know exactly where it's going. There is a Darwinian advantage in politics, sadly, to the loonies who know where they are going.

Yet I think it is a great triumph of international communism that it has succeeded in producing in many countries a middle class. It's not exactly Karl Marx's original intention. But the emphasis on education in communist societies did produce a middle class that in due turn was disenchanted with the grotesque simplicities of the doctrines of their rulers. There's something to be said about communism that it contained the seeds of its own destruction within it, rather more certainly than the capitalism which Karl Marx was opposing. So there is that factor.

But what was striking about the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and was most explicit in the case of Poland, was that they were absolutely clear that they did not want a revolution to become dominated by a Leninist vanguard, that they were aiming not at a new government that knew exactly where it was going, but they were aiming to return Poland to a multiparty system. In a sense, they were antirevolutionary revolutionaries. I think that process gives hope.

The snag with the process is that since it was lacking in viciousness and grotesque simplicity, it led to a very soft landing for former communists. This leaves us with a political problem that we have to this day: The whole period of 1970 to 1989 was a struggle which achieved this historic impossibility of the defeat of the communist regime—and at great personal cost to the workers of Gdansk—and now they find that they are unemployed, the shipyards are being shut, and the former communist rulers are living in magnificent dachas not far away, with tons of girlfriends and God knows what. It's pretty rough.

But that's being called the price of velvet. Frankly, I think that price has been worth paying. Of course, there are possible ways of dealing with that awful aftereffect of velvet revolutions—all sorts of possibilities of truth commissions. There have been some individual cases of trials and so on. But I think the overwhelming, as it were, nature of the process in Eastern Europe was one of giving us a new kind of revolution, which is a revolution in favor of normality and not in favor of utopia.

QUESTION: May I follow up and ask you to apply your insights into Latin America, the wave of democracy, in parallel with Eastern Europe and with Portugal, and getting rid of dictators? We know it's multifaceted. What are some of the major causes?

ADAM ROBERTS: We spent a lot of time in our project discussing how to cover this great process of change in Latin America, and in particular, discussing which individual country cases would be most appropriate for exploration, granted the themes of our research project, which are civil resistance and power politics. We settled, in the end, on the case of Chile and the opposition to Pinochet.

That's a very interesting case, where a movement succeeded, over a long period, in discrediting a dictator, Pinochet, but the result could only come about through electoral processes. In the case of Chile, it took a certain amount of international pressure. I'm not often prepared to say a good word for the United States in relation to Chile, but it did, in certain periods of the case in Chile, put pressure on Pinochet to accept a democratic outcome. It was as a result of a process of demonstrations, elections, popular pressure constantly to ensure that the election results were honestly assessed, and then a constitutional process whereby Pinochet finally stood down.

Now, that's one possible way, but it's not the only possible way in Latin America. There have been so many other interesting cases in Latin America of the uses of civil resistance, going way back.

Even in the Cuban Revolution in 1959, one aspect of the revolution that has been conveniently airbrushed out of the picture is the very widespread strike movement in Havana which led to the toppling of the regime and the installation of Fidel Castro. I'm not claiming that the Cuban Revolution is a wonderful case of non-violent action. But I do think it's a reminder that the tradition of popular peaceful struggle is one that can be found in many countries of Latin America, including also Central America. Way back in 1944 in Guatemala, for example, there was resistance to a coup—a successful resistance—with, as it were, a popular civil resistance movement.

These things can happen there. But I think they happen in a weird and wonderful variety, and I'm very leery about seeing these things as part of a generalized linear process where all countries will follow the same path. They won't. They will pursue different paths. But, despite some reverses in recent years, the trend in Latin America towards democracy does strike me—and it's not only in Latin America—as a very hopeful one, and one in which civil resistance has often had a significant part.

QUESTION: I just wonder whether you could elaborate a little more on the positive/negative aspects of outside pressure on a regime. In other words, I have a feeling that in Iran, outside pressure, let's say, from one major power would be counterproductive. On the other hand, outside pressure from a larger group, a more civil sort of larger group, might lead to a positive outcome.

ADAM ROBERTS: I think that's spot-on. There are countries who are viewed so allergically in a state that their support might be a poisoned chalice, as it were. For that reason, there might be problems in too overt a U.S. support for the movement in Iran. It presents policymakers with a difficult dilemma if they feel in sympathy with a particular movement and there are reasons why they might want it to succeed. At the same time, if it's tactically disadvantageous, it may be best to keep their mouths shut.

I'm struck at the extraordinary variety of lessons one can draw from the East European events. For example, the Bush the Elder Administration showed a complete tin ear as regards the goings-on in the Baltic states in the years 1989 to 1991, partly because they didn't want to, as it were, spoil the good relations with Gorbachev, and to urge that particular republics should leave the Soviet Union would have been obviously to damage relations with Gorbachev. So they basically did virtually nothing about the struggle in the Baltic states.

Now, that may have been a good thing. Sometimes neglect may be the best policy, because it removed the struggle in the Baltic states from the realm of, as it were, great-power competition and left it to local forces, but with some very significant outside support. There was a degree of support from Finland and other Scandinavian countries, not hugely well organized, but it was very important to them to feel that there was that degree of support, and the carrying of information and news about events—all that was important.

But I would stress in that particular case the importance of local factors. In fact, I think I'm right in saying that the case of Estonia is the only case in the whole of world history where the same person, who happens to be a friend of mine, was one of the authors of his country's Declaration of Independence and also was one of the authors of the law of the parent state, as it were, the Soviet Union, which granted independence. Maybe that could only happen in the Soviet empire, which had a very peculiar, special set of characteristics that made it possible.

So outside involvement can sometimes be problematic. But then again, think: The U.S. sanctions against Poland after martial law were extremely well-judged sanctions, the removal of which was geared to very limited concessions that could be made by the Polish regime. It was clearly stated that if they let out the principal Solidarity leaders, this or that aspect of the sanctions would be lifted. That is an unusual case of sanctions being rather effective, partly because they were limited in character and geared to simple steps that in no way required the ending of communist rule in Poland or anything like that.

So I'm very leery about generalizing. I think it's always a matter of almost aesthetic judgment, what degree of outside support may be needed and useful. But I think one should never start from the presumption that outside support per se is something illicit and wrong. It's a normal aspect of politics.

QUESTION: The detractors of our president have been accusing him of not being supportive of the attempted revolution in Iran. I gather from what you say that that is not a fair criticism, necessarily.

The other part of my question has nothing to do with that. In the last couple of days, we have read about this cleric who has stepped to the fore, a highly distinguished individual. What role do you think such a person could play in the moving forward of that revolution?

ADAM ROBERTS: I think the approach of the Iranian cleric in question, Montazeri, is of huge significance, (a) because many people in Iran will learn of it by various routes—the population of Iran is very well informed and manages to get information from outside—and (b) because he has used such wonderful language.

I've always rather liked the language that the pope used about the Treaty of Westphalia as "null, void, incompetent, immaterial, invalid now and for all time." That was railing against the treaty that was widely seen as the foundation of the modern international system. I've always mourned the fact that we don't have political invective as good as that today.

But in this case we do. His invective is wonderful, and he piles it on every bit as much. I think this does play a very important part in communicating the sense that the revolution has lost its way in Iran, which it has. Having originally seen the creation of a world Islamic state as its objective, it has limited it to, as it were, what happens within Iran—largely, not entirely. But that's, of course, to be welcomed. But then it has lost its way within Iran. It has particularly lost its way on the crucial issue, which was unusual in the case of the Iranian Revolution, of seeking to be both a revolutionary religious regime and at the same time a democratic regime. It has lost its way in the tangle that arises from that interconnection.

On your larger question, I have indicated that I think he [Obama] faces a real dilemma over this one. I thought his statements relating to Iran in his famous Cairo speech were very well judged. If I were U.S. president, which I hope I never am, I would definitely begin my approach to Iran by recognizing the failure of the West in relation to Iran over a 50-year period, the terrible succession of failures, because I think it's only by recognizing what we have done wrong in relation to Iran that we can begin to have leverage with the Iranian population.

Just as Willy Brandt, kneeling in Warsaw on his visit to Warsaw, was a crucial part of Ostpolitik—a recognition that, yes, modern West Germany recognizes that terrible crimes were committed by its predecessors—so in a different way—we are not talking about crimes on the same level, but in a different way—if I were president, I would begin by a very frank recognition of the awful failure and the terrible cost that Iranians paid in the war against Iraq for that failure of the outside world.

I think it depends on how it's approached. If it's just a superficial support for a current democratic movement, without recognizing the depth of the problem that underlies the whole issue, it wouldn't succeed. But if we do recognize the depth of the problem, something might happen.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.

You may also like

JUL 9, 2024 Article

The Rise of Preemptive Bans on Human Microchip Implants

As the impact and influence of chip implants increases in the U.S., it's time to raise ethical and legal questions about this technology.

JUL 2, 2024 Podcast

Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

JUN 27, 2024 Podcast

AI, Military Ethics, & Being Alchemists of Meaning, with Heather M. Roff

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen and Heather Roff, senior research scientist at the The Center for Naval Analyses, discuss AI systems, military affairs, and much more.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation