Think bombs are more powerful than sit-ins, strikes or boycotts? Vermont native Maria J. Stephan has proof war is no match for nonviolent opposition.
Stephan, a strategic planner with the U.S. State Department, had such inklings when she met Erica Chenoweth, a scholar who has worked everywhere from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
The two teamed up to write the book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” a statistical analysis of more than 300 global campaigns over the past century that is the first definitive study of its kind.
“The most striking finding,” the authors conclude, “is that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.”
Specifically, the two discovered that nonviolent civil disobedience and noncooperation achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent efforts. They also determined that governments of countries where peaceful movements took place were far more likely to become or remain stable democracies.
Published by Columbia University Press, the 320-page book has won the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award from the 15,000-member American Political Science Association and, just last month, a $100,000 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order from the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
“The implications of their work are enormous,” Grawemeyer Award director Charles Ziegler says. “Not only do their findings validate the work done by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but they shed new light on the political change we’re seeing today, such as the Arab Spring process in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations.”
Not bad for someone who grew up in the small town of Clarendon, population 2,571. Stephan, 35, cites “my parents and brother” (Philip, Marianne and Peter) on the book’s dedication page. But she credits the entire Green Mountain State for providing her a launch pad into the world.
“When people ask where I’m from, I say Vermont,” she says in an interview. “After they ask where it is, I explain what it’s about: Vermonters believe in self-organization, having an open mind, listening to diverse perspectives. There’s something about it that sticks with you.”
The 1995 graduate of Mill River Union High School also points to her participation in varsity basketball, soccer and softball. In the latter sport, her home run with two outs in the top of the 11th inning allowed her school to beat its No. 1 rival and win a spot in the state championship game.
“All that experience — teamwork, camaraderie, focusing on a mission — has served me well.”
Introduced to international studies during a junior year in France, Stephan earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston College and master’s and doctoral degrees from nearby Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Her resulting career has circled the globe, with stops at the European/NATO policy office of the U.S. Defense Department, NATO headquarters in Brussels, and civil society organizations in Israel, Palestine, Russia and Sri Lanka.
Stephan had finished editing the case-study compilation “Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) when she started collaborating with Chenoweth on their book.
Chenoweth was working in California. Stephan was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Yet between them, they figured out a way to amass and analyze data on all known uprisings between 1900 and 2006 involving more than 1,000 people that related to a country’s secession, overthrow of a dictatorship, or removal of a foreign occupation.
“A prevailing view among political scientists is that opposition movements select terrorism and violent insurgency strategies because such means are more effective than nonviolent strategies at achieving policy goals,” they write. “But in our data, we find the opposite: although they persist, the success rates of violent insurgencies have declined.”
Nonviolent resistance efforts vary from small protests to large occupations. (“I prefer the term ‘nonviolent’ to ‘peaceful,’” Stephan says, “because civil resistance movements are often highly disruptive — the antithesis of peaceful.”) But they all center on the same target: “When large numbers of people in key sectors of society stop obeying and engage in prolonged acts of social, political, and economic disruption, they may fundamentally alter the relationship between ruler and ruled.”
Chenoweth and Stephan’s book includes 30 graphs and tables charting their conclusion: “On the whole, nonviolent resistance campaigns are more effective in getting results and, once they have succeeded, more likely to establish democratic regimes with a lower probability of a relapse into civil war.”
The work, released in hardcover in 2011 and paperback this past winter, has drawn rave reviews from publications including The Atlantic, The Guardian of London, and the International Herald Tribune.
“All of us dedicated to peaceful protest as a way to change the world can take heart from this book,” The Progressive magazine says.
But challenges remain. Stephan, lead foreign affairs officer for the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, recently returned from a year in Turkey, where she worked with activists from neighboring Syria on “how to survive, mobilize and communicate” as their country is wracked by a civil war.
Now stationed in Washington, Stephan says that assistance included “nonlethal equipment and training and humanitarian aid.” But for security reasons, she can’t elaborate more about U.S. government efforts to stop the two-year-old conflict that has killed nearly 100,000 people.
Although some are calling for military intervention, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled this past week to the Middle East to push for peace talks. Stephan supports such government efforts — as well as continued aid at the ground level.
“We need to think about ways to better support civilian-led movements, even in tough environments,” the Vermont native says. “I want to continue to advance some of the practical elements of our research, finding creative ways to prevent violent conflict and help activists who are committed to using civil resistance. There’s a lot more work that has to be done.”
Meet the author
Maria J. Stephan will return to Vermont on June 9 when the Rutland Dismas House — the halfway home for former prisoners where she learned about social justice as a summer staffer — gives her its Father Jack Hickey Award at a fundraising dinner at 4 p.m. at the Rutland Holiday Inn. For tickets or more information, call (802)- 775-5539.MORE IN Vermont News
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