Demilitarization: Is It Time for Civilian-Based Defense?

Updated: May 20

By Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace.



© Warren K. Leffler


“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Albert Einstein’s famous comment is more profoundly true today than when he uttered it in 1946. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explained in 2015, Einstein’s understanding of this old mode of thinking still defined the prevailing national security doctrine of all major states. It’s time for a change in thinking.


Old Thinking

National-security doctrine includes the typical belief “that the best defense is a good offense; that any military buildup by an enemy must be matched or exceeded; that wars can—indeed, must—be fought against hateful and dangerous concepts such as terrorism and communism; and that nuclear bombs are like conventional ones, just more powerful.” The basic idea mirrors fistfights between school children: you need to be bigger and tougher than your opponent.

But in today’s world of nuclear proliferation and of new generations of deadlier and more cunningly designed nuclear weapons, this old thinking is likely to lead to our demise. By calculation or inadvertence, a nuclear exchange, even if limited, will kill tens of millions and stunt the lives of many more.

We are still waiting for the new thinking that will release us from the existing balance of terror among nuclear-armed states. Nuclear disarmament is an ever more distant prospect. Human nature remains unchanged. Disputes among nations will always emerge. And we need international cooperation to avert the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change. What shall we do?


New Thinking: For the 1980s and Today

Gene Sharp, in the 1980s, did offer new, bold, thinking, and it remains fresh today. It departed markedly from national-security doctrine, which would not win it friends in the military-industrial-intellectual complex. Supported by the Albert Einstein Institution, Sharp advocated a complex nonviolent defense system – “civilian-based defense.” He summarized this bold idea in an article in 1980, illustrated it in a book on Making Europe Unconquerable in 1983, and elaborated it in a theoretical volume in 1990. Sharp offers, not a utopian pacifist dream, but a hard-headed attempt to think through how, gradually (in most countries), to replace a military weapons system with a nonviolent weapons system based in civil society.

Unfortunately, this ingenious rethinking disappeared from debates with the end of the Cold War. The ascendant meme of “an end of history,” an idealized liberal-democratic order supervised by the sole superpower, seemed to render it nugatory.

However, the end of history was short-lived. With today’s rise of multi-polarity, authoritarianism, a rapidly warming world, and new generations of deadly nuclear weapons, it may be time to revive the idea of civilian-based defense.


Civilian-Based Defense: What Is It?

Summarizing civilian-based defense (CBD) is not easy. Sharp’s book with this title is heavy going. The reader must first master Sharp’s ideas on nonviolent action, which Sharp presented in their fullest form in a massive three-volume work in 1973. (He identified 198 methods of nonviolent action, organized in three categories, while warning that the list was not comprehensive.) The reader then proceeds to the intricacies of applying this analysis to national defense. CBD aims to prevent internal usurpation of power, deter potential aggressors, and defeat invaders, all in the context of nuclear-armed states and the primacy of national-security doctrine.

Here, is Sharp’s own summary from his 1990 book. Civilian-based defense

is a policy [whereby] the whole population and the society’s institutions become the fighting forces. Their weaponry consists of a vast variety of forms of psychological, economic, social, and political resistance and counter-attack. This policy aims to deter attacks and to defend against them by preparations to make the society unrulable by would-be tyrants and aggressors. The trained population and the society’s institutions would be prepared to deny attackers their objectives and to make consolidation of political control impossible. These aims would be achieved by applying massive and selective noncooperation and defiance. In addition, where possible, the defending country would aim to create maximum international problems for the attackers and to subvert the reliability of their troops and functionaries. (pp.2-3)

In sum, Sharp contends that the power of society and its institutions can (in most cases, and at some point) displace military weapons in defense, even in the context of nuclear-armed states. CBD is not insurrection, if insurgency involves “a violent uprising against authority or government” (Oxford dictionary). Indeed, an armed insurgency will, according to Sharp, undermine the effectiveness of civilian defense. Nonviolent action erodes the legitimacy of usurpers/aggressors among their supporters and troops; it is clear who is the threat, who is responsible for brutality and repression.

You may, by now, judge that Sharp’s idea is indeed courageous, but also outrageous in its impracticability. To allay this understandable reaction, I summarize some of Sharp’s qualifications and provisos, scattered here and there in his works:

  • CBD is not a philosophy like pacifism. It is a method of struggle to deny an opponent his goals. It accepts that conflicts will always arise. It is a realistic strategic alternative to war in thwarting internal usurpers, deterring potential aggressors and defeating attackers. Nor is it a panacea. CBD may fail. Even if it succeeds, it may involve many casualties – though many fewer than would result from a conventional, and especially nuclear, war.

  • CBD, for many countries, would supplement their military capability, not displace it. Military commanders could regard CBD as an added deterrent to would-be aggressors. Over time, as CBD proves itself viable through training of the populace, as its popularity grows, and as detailed research on its effectiveness expands, the military capability may shrink. Incrementalism is key.


  • CBD is best suited to small and medium countries, especially small countries that have never developed a military. Superpowers are more problematical, as they derive leverage and prestige from military might. But even nuclear powers might accept CBD as a supplement, especially if it is demanded by a public out of patriotism and concern to defend their way of life from internal tyrants or foreign domination. For many countries – for example, those that belong to NATO – treaty obligations hinder CBD. Such countries will need to withdraw from formal alliances, as their military budgets decline. International support, however, is an important prop of CBD, so the withdrawal will require careful preparation.

  • Although ideal social conditions are not prerequisites for CBD, both social harmony and strong democratic institutions are conducive to its introduction. CBD is a non-partisan, “all-of-society” approach. It is therefore difficult to introduce into societies with deep partisan divisions, such as the United States today. In addition, CBD is intrinsically democratic. Citizens of both sexes and all ages must participate. The process empowers people by giving them the tools to resist tyranny and injustice. People reinforce democratic institutions by taking direct, collective responsibility for defending them against usurpers and foreign threats.

  • No blueprint of an effective nonviolent campaign exists or could exist. Circumstances matter. Strategies vary with circumstances. Therefore, people and leaders must be trained in the variety and stages of nonviolent resistance. These stages are basically three: the initial warnings through all communications media of the society’s willingness to fight, followed if necessary by “nonviolent blitzkrieg”, and then “programmed general resistance”. Leaders must be not only skilled in strategy and tactics, but also courageous and resolute. The practitioners of CBD will encounter repression, including imprisonment, torture and death. Regardless, the resistance must persist, even if tactical retreats are taken. Although there is no guarantee of success, persistence bolsters internal morale, attracts international sympathy and support, and may undermine the loyalty of the aggressor’s support base. Collaborators, troops, functionaries and even the home population are repelled when unarmed protesters are brutally suppressed. But the challenge is to maintain discipline; any resort to violence resulting in injury or death fosters fear and revenge in opponents.

Even this summary may, I hope, demonstrate that CBD, whether it succeeds or not, is a serious form of struggle, not a utopian yearning.


What Are the Benefits?

If it is feasible to begin the process of introducing CBD, what are the benefits? They are many. What follows is a paraphrase of Sharp’s responses, supplemented as indicated by additional benefits in today’s peculiar circumstances:

  • The reduction of offensive weapons that accompanies the expansion of civil defense renders war, and especially nuclear war, less likely. The wider the acceptance of CBD, the less war remains an option. As national societies render themselves “indigestible” (Sharp’s word) through the adoption of CBD, armed invasions become unpalatable. Getting bogged down in an interminable occupation among a uniformly hostile population trained in nonviolent action is a debilitating prospect. Invasions, if they do occur, will cause fewer casualties and less damage than military warfare. Moreover, the reduction of lethal military threats allows for the growth of international cooperation. Holding nuclear arsenals becomes less important when the threat of nuclear strikes diminishes. Nuclear disarmament becomes possible.

  • Although Sharp did not address global warming, CBD would enhance the possibility of a favourable outcome. Solving the climate crisis requires global cooperation, which is more likely to emerge when the major carbon emitters are not armed to the teeth. Furthermore, as CBD develops, it will allow for the redirection of substantial resources – financial, intellectual and technological – from military defense to fighting global warming (and poverty). In our circumstances, CBD might evolve into Civilian Protection Corps, in which citizens of a certain age (say, 20-50) are expected to receive occasional training not only in nonviolent action, but also in responding to “natural” emergencies and disasters. As the incidence of floods, forest fires, devastating storms and extreme heat mounts, the curriculum of CBD might shift to accommodate emergency services. Switzerland, Norway and Sweden have long had civil protection systems; CBD in the current era would build on this experience.

  • Internal, as well as interstate, wars are less likely as CBD expands. When they face a society that is forearmed to defeat usurpers, would-be dictators will think twice. Moreover, the spread of nonviolent norms to resolve conflicts shapes the rules of the political game; consequently, disaffected groups are less likely to resort to violence to achieve their goals. The citizens of fragile state too would benefit from CBD.

  • CBD is “intrinsically democratic”, according to Sharp. CBD reinforces pluralism by strengthening civil society. The shared knowledge and practice of nonviolent action empowers people by building their self-reliance. People learn that freedom is not free – it comes at a price. But the price is not high when the training and curriculum changes associated with CBD enhance societal solidarity and mutual protection in a dangerous world.

If the prospects are this good, what are we waiting for?


The Possibilities

Civilian-based defense remains a challenging proposal. It flies in the face of the conventional wisdom on national security (unless CBD is viewed only as a supplement to military force). Both the military-industrial-intellectual complex and insecure or would-be authoritarian leaders will regard the idea as absurd or dangerous. CBD has no place in mainstream textbooks on international relations (as far as I can determine). Is it then just a marginal, if courageous, initiative, best dismissed even by peace activists?


I think a dismissive approach is mistaken, or at least, premature. We have instances of successful CBD. Furthermore, we confront inter-related and devastating threats whose resolution seems to require intervention by an aroused citizenry. Governments. trapped by old thinking and vested interests, have been unable to limit ever-more deadly weapons of mass destruction, halt an increasingly out-of-control climate crisis, overcome vast and growing inequalities, and reverse authoritarian tendencies. To preserve and deepen democracy while creating a world worth living in, nonviolent action may prove to be an essential tool.


In fact, CBD has worked effectively in the past, and thus presumably may do so again. Sharp draws on 16 country examples in his 1990 book. These cases involve anti-colonial struggles (4), revolts against Communist rule (4), struggle against domination by a powerful neighbour (2), and resistance to internal oppression/human-rights violations (6). The degree of effective struggle varies widely; some failed while others achieved much success (eg. the Gandhian movement in India and the civil rights movement in the USA).


Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution offers more recent examples of nonviolent resistance, mostly to defeat internal usurpers. He also updates Sharp’s strategy and tactics, especially for youth in the digital age, including an entertaining section on “laughtivism”. Popovic and his colleagues now coach resistance movements worldwide on the strategy and tactics of nonviolence. How much more effective might Sharp’s resistance movements have been if they had the benefit of this accumulated wisdom, instead of having to invent nonviolence in the moment?


It is also relevant that this is the age of nonviolent protest. Such widespread use of nonviolent action may prepare the soli for CBD.


Scattered protests prior to the 2007‒09 world-financial crash were followed by a staggering array of non-violent protests worldwide in 2010‒20. In 2019, the most extensive wave of rebellion since 1968 erupted, curtailed only by the onset of the pandemic in 2021. As Wright records, the latter protests erupted in six continents and 114 countries, affecting liberal democracies as well as dictatorships:

Movements have emerged overnight, out of nowhere, unleashing public fury on a global scale — from Paris and La Paz to Prague and Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Delhi, Manila, and even Moscow. Taken together, the protests reflect unprecedented political mobilization.


In 2020 the United States experienced the most extensive civil unrest since the 1960s’ civil rights and anti-war protests. Social learning about effective civil disobedience through social media had a lot to do with the unrest, together with the erosion of democracy under the aegis of Trump and other nativist-populist leaders.


Popular rebellions signalled the need to reconstruct broken social contracts. Local irritants and injustices, from hikes in transit fares, to corruption, authoritarian tendencies and racist incidents, provided the spark. Yet whatever precipitated them, protests manifested a deeper anger with the prevailing order. A common theme was that self-serving elites had seized too much power and wealth. But the ongoing polarization between nativist-populists and left-liberals leaves open the question of how the social contract will be reconstituted.


Regardless, the rise of nonviolent protest worldwide furnishes a propitious environment for reconsideration of CBD.


Conclusion

Peace activists have long denounced militarism and supported demilitarization. Yet they lack a strategy for achieving this goal. Disarmament is not on the horizon. Military budgets increase on all sides. More deadly weapons appear. Tensions between rival powers intensify – tensions involving not only the United States, Russia and China, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. Militarism is on an upswing.


Civilian-based defense is a potential strategy for achieving demilitarization, social solidarity, and the overthrow of tyrants. It provides an antidote to internal wars in fragile states. It can be extended to nonviolent peacekeeping missions in divided countries. A Civilian Protection Corps can supply training not only in nonviolent defense, but also in disaster relief in societies suffering from global warming, CBD can redirect resources from military defense to solve the climate, pandemic and poverty issues. Is CBD not the new thinking that Albert Einstein called for?

Civilian-based defense is an old but still new idea, but it will never happen without a strong push from organized social movements.

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