Tag: non-violence

Even More Thoughts on Obama’s Oslo Speech

Obama has received a lot of credit and praise for his articulation of Just War doctrine in his Oslo speech. And, while I, like Charli, found a lot to like about the speech, I take exception to the way in which he set up the issue of Just War:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.


First, let me say that I subscribe to the Just War doctrine. But all proponents of Just War need to be aware of the ambiguities, subjectivity, and moral consequences found within the contradictions of a position that claims a moral abhorrence to war and yet accepts its necessity at times. No war has lived up to the ideal type of Just War. And, the challenges of Just War doctrine will only become more complex with the confluence of such factors as technological innovation, which significantly reduces the domestic political costs of going to war; the emergence of new types of threats; emerging permissive norms of intervention; and so forth.

My broader concern, however, is with the caricature of pacifism and non-violence set up by Obama and the casualness with which he — and most Just War theorists — dismiss them. Obama rightly noted that neither King nor Gandhi were passive or naïve, and yet in the very next paragraph of his speech he dismisses their views precisely as passive and naïve when he states that as president, he has to “face the world as it is” – and “make no mistake” – “evil does exist.” And, then for good measure, he adds the standard canard that “a non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.”

It is absurd to imply that neither King nor Gandhi recognized the existence of evil – King endorsed the judicious use of police force to enforce laws precisely because he saw and understood the nature of evil (he rejected Tolstoy’s variant of pacifism on these grounds). Many pacifists accept the use of non-lethal force. But, King and Gandhi nonetheless rejected war on both moral and instrumental grounds – killing was morally wrong and violent means could never produce a just result. And, both King and Gandhi rejected passivism that they argued could lead to submission or slavery. Indeed, both suggested that those who failed to resist could be viewed as morally culpable as perpetrators of violence. They both advocated an overriding commitment to making and understanding peace and to active resistance.

Obama is not alone in his casual dismissal of non-violence. We all tend to reject it. Very few courses in IR theory, security studies, or war even address the topic of non-violence. Duane Cady points out that Walzer only gives the issue of non-violence a brief afterthought in an appendix before rejecting it as naïve. (How many of you have read Cady?)

This is surprising given that we now have some stunning empirical examples of effective non-violent civil resistance. This fall marked the 20th anniversary of non-violent popular protests that swept through East and Central Europe and accomplished what no one anticipated. Nine years ago this month, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from office through the power of massive civil protest. And, only a few years after that, he died alone in a jail cell in the Hague.

Just War theory says that use of force should be the last option and only considered when other alternatives are determined to be impractical or ineffective. My concern is that when we so casually dismiss non-violent resistance, when we fail to research and study non-violent civil protests, when we simply assume non-violent resistance is a naïve concept, it’s hard to believe that war and the use of force really are used as the last option……

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Film class — week 13

Film #13 “Gandhi” (1982). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Sharp, Gene, There Are Realistic Alternatives (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2003).

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

“Gandhi” is an outstanding film about the public life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, often called Mohatma for “great soul.” The work won 8 Academy Awards, including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. Unfortunately, at 188 minutes, it is difficult to use in a classroom setting. The Tuesday section of my class meets for 150 minutes, plenty of time for almost every film this semester, but insufficient for this one.

Nonetheless, I selected the film because of the unique perspective it offers on global politics.

After all, Gandhi was the key figure in the mass movement leading up to Indian independence and is best known for his advocacy and use of nonviolent noncooperation. Gandhi’s beliefs, teachings and practices constitute the “text” of this film. It is essentially impossible to separate his ideas and life from the action on the screen.

The struggle for independence was difficult. It took years for civil disobedience to evict the British from the Indian subcontinent, many thousands of Gandhi’s followers died in the various related struggles, and his desire for a unified India failed when the independent and separate Muslim state of Pakistan was created.

Nonetheless, the film tells a story of inspirational success — and focuses on actors and ideas that are rarely discussed in the mainstream of the international relations field. Unlike the discipline, this film centers upon the nonviolent noncooperative strategies employed by ordinary people in places — for the most part, at least — far removed from the Great Hall or battlefield.

Arguably, the film belongs to the genre of comedy, which allows me to place it within the broader theme of this class. Comedies, recall, typically focus on the day-to-day successes of ordinary people. While Gandhi’s accomplishments ultimately proved to be sweeping in scope, and certainly changed the identity of those sitting in the Great Hall, the film emphasizes the prolonged incremental progress achieved by his “constancy of purpose.

Gene Sharp’s monograph, which the author has placed in the public domain, puts noncooperative nonviolence in a broader context. On the macro-level, he develops ideas about nonviolent grand strategy. On the micro-level, Sharp identifies nearly 200 tactics for implementing nonviolent action.

I encountered Sharp about 20 years ago in a workshop in Mexico sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and Social Science Research Council. He is a founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and continues to produce interesting work for that organization. His CV is lengthy and impressive, but includes few publications in IR journals.

The students and I discussed a number of reasons why the field pays so little attention to nonviolent strategies of noncooperation. Given core assumptions traditionally embraced by IR scholars, the answer is perhaps unremarkable.

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