a large crowd engaged in nonviolent resistance

Demilitarization: Is It Time for Civilian-Based Defence?

“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 deadlier nuclear weapons, this old thinking threatens our survival. By calculation or inadvertence, a nuclear exchange, even if limited, will kill tens of millions, stunt the lives of many more, induce widespread famines, and accelerate global warming.

We still await 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? Part of the answer may lie in an old idea that is still new.

New Thinking: For the 1980s and Today

Gene Sharp, in the 1980s, offered bold, thinking, that remains fresh today. This thinking departed markedly from national-security doctrine. Supported by the Albert Einstein Institution, Sharp advocated a complex nonviolent defence system – “civilian-based defense.” He summarized this concept 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 a hard-headed scheme to supplement and (eventually) replace military weapons systems with a nonviolent weapons system based in civil society.

Unfortunately, discussion of this innovative approach receded 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 this alternative irrelevant.

However, the end of history was short-lived. With the rise of multi-polarity, authoritarianism, climate crisis, and more murderous nuclear weapons, it may be time to revisit the idea of civilian-based defence (CBD).

Civilian-Based Defence: What Is It?

Summarizing this approach is not easy. Sharp’s 1990 book – Civilian-Based Defense – is heavy going. The reader begins with mastering Sharp’s ideas on nonviolent action, which he 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 defence. 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 defence, 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. Instead, nonviolent action works through non-cooperation and obstruction nationally, through rallying international support, and through eroding the morale and loyalty of the usurper/aggressor’s home base, troops; and functionaries. Nonviolent defence makes starkly evident  who is responsible for brutality and repression – and who courageously and unthreateningly resists illegitimate domination.

You may, by now, judge that Sharp’s idea is indeed bold, 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 realistic strategic alternative to war in thwarting internal usurpers, deterring potential aggressors and defeating attackers. It is a method of struggle to deny an opponent his goals. But it is not a panacea. CBD may fail. Even if it succeeds, it may involve many casualties – though many fewer than would result from a conventional or nuclear war.
  • CBD, for many countries, would supplement their military capability, not displace it. Military commanders might 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. For many countries – for example, those that belong to NATO – treaty obligations hinder CBD. Such countries will need to withdraw from formal alliances;  military budgets will 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 success. 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 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 themselves 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 made. 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 a major challenge is to maintain nonviolent discipline; resorts to violence resulting in deaths foment 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 simply a utopian yearning.

What Are the Benefits?

If it is feasible to introduce CBD, what are the potential benefits?  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 successfully tackling this looming threat. 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). 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 facing 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 would thus also 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 benefits are this plentiful, 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, to halt an out-of-control climate crisis, to overcome vast and growing inequalities, and to 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 He  includes 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 exemplary resistance movements have been if they had the benefit of this accumulated wisdom? Instead, the resisters had to invent nonviolence in the moment?

In assessing possibilities, we should recall 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 signaled 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.

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


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 defence, but also in disaster relief, 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.

Facebooktwitterlinkedinby feather
This entry was posted in demilitarization and tagged , , , , , , , , , , on by .

About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.