Transitions to civilian-based defence

Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp is president of the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, Massachussetts, and is the author of numerous books on nonviolence and civilian-based defence.

What are the more likely ways by which a shift from military-based defence to a civilian-based defence system might be actually implemented? That question is the focus of this paper.

By "civilian-based defence" is meant here a national defence policy to deter and defeat aggression, both internal (as coups d'état) and external (as invasions). This capacity is to be achieved by preparing the population and institutions for massive nonviolent resistance and defiance. Civilian-based defence is one specific application, out of various uses, of the general technique of nonviolent action, or nonviolent struggle.

"Transarmament" is the process of the changeover from military-based defence to civilian-based defence. This is projected as usually occurring by incrementally building up a nation's civilian-based defence capacity and then gradually phasing out its military defence capacity. "Transarmament" is contracted to "disarmament" which involves a simple reduction or abandonment of military capacity without providing a substitute means of defence.

An examination of how transitions from military-based defence to civilian-based defence might be possible is necessarily based on certain assumptions. These should be made explicit to make possible reasoned evaluation.

The assumptions underlying this paper include the following fifteen points:

1. It is more important to achieve a transition from military-based to civilian-based defence than either (a) to witness against the violence and oppression of the world without making an impact on it, or (b) to present a doctrinally-driven schema for comprehensive social change which is most likely to going to remain only that.

2. Society and the world cannot be changed both comprehensively and rapidly. Time and strategic steps are required.

3. Political violence, including war for defence, is not going to be developed without the prior development of an effective nonviolent substitute form of struggle and means of defence. Therefore, "disarmament" or repudiation of military means will not precede transarmament to civilian-based defence. Instead, military means can only be abandoned after civilian-based defence capacities and abilities to wage nonviolent struggle for other purposes are in place.

4. Civilian-based defence and nonviolent struggle can be effectively practised without a principled commitment to ethical or religious "nonviolence" or even without an acceptance of the view that substitute nonviolent sanctions are universally applicable.

5. The separation of nonviolent struggle from assertions that a certain ethical, religious or political position is a requirement for its sincere or effective practice is a pre-requisite for the widespread adoption of nonviolent struggle and for transarmament to a civilian-based defence. Nonviolent struggle has begun to escape from the ideological ghetto in which it has wrongly been placed by many critics and advocates alike. That separation of nonviolent struggle and civilian-based from identification with doctrinaire positions is already well underway, and attempts to restore a presumed connection between them could be disastrous.

6. "Human nature" does not need to be changed as a pre-condition for civilian-based defence.

7. A prior transformation of the international system is not required before adoption of civilian-based defence by individual countries or groups of countries.

8. A prior transformation or revolution of the social system is not a pre-requisite for the acceptance of civilian-based defence or a requirement for its viability.

9. The use of nonviolent struggle for liberation from a foreign yoke or domestic dictatorship, or for other purposes, does not lead to an easy, "natural" adoption of civilian-based defence. Instead, specific consideration, adoption, and preparations for civilian-based defence are required.

10. Civilian-based defence requires widespread acceptance and support from the society before it can be adopted and implemented effectively.

11. An identification of civilian-based defence as only related to, or compatible with, a particular political perspective or doctrine will seriously inhibit the policy's wider acceptance. However, there is nothing wrong with any political or cause group claiming that civilian-based defence is compatible with its own views, while allowing that the policy may also be compatible with the perspectives of other groups.

12. An identification of civilian-based defence with pacifism and anti-militarism will serve to alienate important potential support. Such identification will instead serve to cause the policy to be dismissed or opposed without fair evaluation. Specifically, no peace or pacifist group or radical political body should identify itself as the prime advocate of, or authority on, civilian-based defence.

13. A "trans-partisan" approach -- which seeks to achieve careful evaluation of civilian-based defence by people and groups of widely differing political views and attitudes to defence and past wars -- has the greatest opportunity to produce widespread acceptance of the potential viability of this policy and agreement to initiate steps toward its adoption. A trans-partisan approach would also aim at incorporating people holding various perspectives in support of the development and adoption of civilian-based defence

14. If the substance of a possible civilian-based defence policy is presented on the basis of its potential utility, such a policy might well receive widespread support across the political spectrum in a democratic society.

15. Effective civilian-based defence requires planning and preparations, and cannot be responsibly left to simple spontaneity. This is not to deny the usefulness of appropriate types of initiative and spontaneity within the context of clear strategic conceptions and planning.

On the basis of these assumptions and insights, one can conclude that in most cases (but not all), civilian-based defence could not be adapted quickly as a full substitute for military defence, whatever might be desirable. This is in part because of the time required for preparing the new policy, organising the transition, and achieving the needed popular and organisational support.

Therefore, in most situations, consideration of civilian-based defence and transarmament to it will necessarily be an incremental process of a series of limited steps. These will move toward increasing the role, importance, and scale of the civilian-based defence preparations. Indeed, excessively rapid, ill-prepared changeovers could result in unnecessary failures of civilian-based defence when it is applied. Those failures would unjustifiably help to discredit the whole policy.

In this incremental approach to transarmament, civilian-based defence would be adopted in a series of limited steps, and preparations and training would begin on a relatively modest basis, while the existing military policy is still in place. The civilian-based "components" could then be expanded in stages. Instead, therefore, of a single all-or-nothing decision on adopting the policy, there would be a series of sequential decisions on whether to take the next immediate step. This process would differ significantly from the more traditional "campaigns" or "movements" for or against policies.

The emphasis is the transarmament period ought not responsibly to be on abandoning military means but instead primarily on the increase in effective defence capacity through the development of the new civilian-based defence policy.

In all countries not subject to imminent attack, time is available for reasoned evaluation and decision about the new policy, and to research its capacities, dynamics, requirements, and strategic principles.

The steps in the incremental adoption of civilian-based defence will be of varying substance and duration. There is no blueprint of steps and time scale that is applicable to all countries and situations. In general, however, the following elements will be included in the process of transarmament:

  • research;
  • public education;
  • policy and feasibility studies;
  • evaluation by the public, private organisations, official institutions, defence departments and ministries, and legislatures;
  • introduction of a modest civilian-based component (perhaps for specific purposes);
  • preparing and training of the populace;
  • consideration of adding other purposes for which civilian-based defence may be utilised;
  • legislative and administrative action on these decisions;
  • strengthening the capacities of civilian-based defence; and
  • unification of the defence policy.

Major attention must be given to comparative analyses of the advantages and disadvantages, the capacities and incapacities, of military-based and civilian-based defences to meet security needs for the present and the foreseeable future.

No single model or policy consideration and partial or full transarmament can be created that will be applicable to all countries and situations. There are at least four general models:

1. Full, relatively rapid, adoption of civilian-based defence as the country's defence policy by small countries that at present have, or when independent will have, no viable military or alliance alternative because of some special situation or condition. Existing such countries might include Iceland and Costa Rica. Possible future such countries might include Palestine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Hong Kong, and Tibet. The initiatives for adopting civilian-based defence might come from the government or from the population and independent institutions of the society.

2. The addition of a civilian-based component to a predominantly military defence policy to serve one or more specific purposes with no intention to expand that component to play wider roles within the overall policy. Examples where this has already occurred include Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, and Yugoslavia. Countries which may add such a policy in the future include Norway and Finland, and the many countries which are vulnerable to coups d'état, such as Thailand, Chile, and Zambia. The civilian-based components might be intended for use (a) where military resistance is futile or suicidal; (b) where military resistance has failed; or (c) where internal usurpations are possible.

3. The phased introduction and gradual expansion of civilian-based defence elements with the objective of full transarmament. This is especially likely in countries whose military capacity, when compared to potential attackers, is so limited that they are incapable of serious military defence. Countries in such situations which also require effective external or internal defence include Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Mexico and Taiwan.

4. The negotiated, phased, multilateral transarmament of several neighbouring countries, simultaneously introducing civilian-based defence components, perhaps followed by a phased reduction of military weaponry. Transarmament by international negotiation might be arranged in Central Europe and Central America, for example.

Very little attention has been given to the applicability of civilian-based defence to present and potential superstates compared to the defence problems of small and medium-sized countries. These superstates include the USA, the Soviet Union, China, India, and potentially Brazil. The applicability of civilian-based defence to them depends in part on the assessment of the nature of these regimes and their objectives.

Most of the superstates have been clear aggressors against other countries, but that does not eliminate their own need for defence, externally and internally. Their own security problems are much simplified if their own militarily dependent allies (as NATO partners and Japan for the USA) could become self-reliant in defence through civilian-based defence.

All superstates would need defence against internal usurpations, as executive usurpations, coups d'état, "secret governments", and the like. Political democratisation and decentralisation in superstates could also be facilitated by a civilian-based defence policy.

Attention to the potential of civilian-based defence for very large countries is required, including the models of transarmament and corollary structural changes which might be required for maximum effectiveness.

In assessing how the changeover from military-based defence to civilian-based defence might best be handled, it is most important to recognise that the problem requires serious analysis and policy development. We are now at a stage of the development of nonviolent struggle and civilian-based defence where such analyses and policy studies are possible. We are also at a point internationally where we can project the project relevance of civilian-based defence for various countries. Rigorous attention is now required to the possibilities and models of transarmament for a considerable variety of countries and security situations.

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