INTERVIEW: Stephen Zunes
by Grant Reeher - Wednesday, May 21st, 2014
Stephen Zunes is professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco

Stephen Zunes is professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco and the coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern studies there. He is a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy and Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor at Tikkun magazine.

Grant Reeher (GR): In your work, you argue that in the waves of democratization in the past 30 years, nonviolent activist opposition has played the most important role. How striking have the past 30 years been? It certainly is not always obvious that progress is being made.

Stephen Zunes (SZ): Certainly it has been uneven. As this wave of democratization has taken place, some authoritarian regimes are getting more effective at challenging it, and of course there have been a number of reversals. But overall, since I was an undergraduate back in the 1970s, we have seen more than 70 countries move from dictatorship to some degree of democracy. What we found is that some regimes fell through armed revolution; a few more through voluntary reforms by the elite, a kind of top-down guided democratization within the system; and only one or two through foreign intervention. But in the vast majority of cases, close to three-quarters of these transitions, the most important single variable was democratic civil-society organizations engaged in strategic nonviolent action.

GR: What do you mean by nonviolent activist opposition?

SZ: It most certainly includes public demonstrations and the contestation of public space, but it can also mean things like boycotts; strikes; burning of symbols of government authority, like ID cards; violation of public regime orders, like curfew restrictions. It can also include the establishment of parallel alternative institutions for social organizations and legitimacy. Unlike armed struggle, which is usually centered on young, able-bodied men with guns, it’s the kind of thing that the entire society regardless of age or gender or physical ability can take part in.

GR: What would you say fall into the “greatest hits” category?

SZ: Certainly, we would start with the Philippines and the downfall of the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship and the People Power movement there. We saw the scene in Latin America forcing Pinochet to have a referendum (the dictator of Chile, who lost), as well as Bolivia and some other Latin American countries.

Eastern Europe, of course. It wasn’t NATO that brought down communism, it was Polish dock workers … Czech intellectuals, Estonian folk singers and millions of other ordinary Eastern Europeans that faced down the tanks with their bare hands. Some of the postcommunist dictatorships, most notably Milosevic in Serbia; it  wasn’t 11 weeks of NATO bombing that got rid of the Butcher of the Balkans, but young Serbian students who mobilized the population after a stolen election.

And we also see it in parts of Africa – not just North Africa, where Tunisia has been the most prominent success story of the recent Arab spring, but in countries like Madagascar and, in fact, in South Africa they are arguing the ANC (African National Congress) never got beyond the occasional acts of sabotage. It was the Democratic Front and the trade union movement. It was mass resistance in the townships that also made the apartheid system unsustainable and forced them to negotiate with Mandela and led to majority rule.

GR: And some cases, there were armed oppositions or outside interventions, and you say the nonviolent aspect was the real cause for change. Why do you think the nonviolent opposition is more effective than the alternative?

SZ: No struggle is completely nonviolent or completely violent; they are all mixed. But I emphasized the ones in which the primary mode of the struggle, the most significant modes of struggle politically, and also one that involved the largest amount of participants, were those who rejected the use of violence.

I should emphasize this is not out of ethical considerations. Gandhi and King are exceptions to the rule, in that they were both religious pacifists and leaders of strategic nonviolent action. The vast majority of people and leaders of these movements chose nonviolence not because they were pacifists, not because they have any kind of religious or ethical commitment to nonviolence per se, but because this is one of the most effective means of struggle. In other words, it was a strategic decision, not a moral decision. But I think it does certainly have more appeal than armed struggle. There are a lot of people who are not willing to take up the gun, for various reasons, but who are willing to take part in nonviolence.  Again, that is part of its strength.

GR: Have things changed over the years, in terms of how successful something like the American Revolution could be?

SZ: A lot of people forget that a lot of the American Revolution was nonviolent, … but if you actually look at the records at that time, including the correspondence of the British governments and the like, it was the tax strikes, the massive uncooperation, that was at least as problematic as the soldiers. Indeed, if the French had not intervened, we would have certainly lost the war, but it was (also) an unarmed resistance. It actually started in the 1760s – that really helped undermine British control. I think the Boston Tea Party may be the only incident that really made it to our history books, but that was just one of quite a number of instances of civil resistance within the Colonies.

GR: A recent study by researchers at Princeton University concluded that the U.S. is an oligarchy, not a democracy. Is there any application of your research to thinking about the American situation?

SZ: Well, if you look at the struggles that have made our country more democratic over the years, it’s almost always been through popular, nonviolent struggles, from the suffrage movement to the civil rights movement to the American labor movement. Almost all the progress that we have seen in making our country more democratic has come through popular, nonviolent struggles. I would agree that there is a need now for it, with the great increasing concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy. What we saw through the Occupy Wall Street movements is the beginnings of that kind of resistance, though the lack of organization and other strategic errors made that short-lived. I think it is an indication what we may be seeing more of in the future and hopefully in a more organized and strategic way.

GR: I want to turn to the area you have focused on, the Middle East. How likely is it that we will see lasting peace and cooperation between Israel and Palestine in the next, say, 20 years?

SZ: I think most people on both sides recognize that the other is there to stay, in the sense that the Palestinians, in spite of what they perceive as great injustices done to them in the Zionist movement, and expulsion and occupation and the like … realize that the Israeli Jews are now part of the Middle East, and they have to live with them. And similarly, the Israelis recognize that … well, they have not yet recognized the Palestinians as a state, and they are not yet willing to provide them with the nonterritorial domain of a viable state, at least there has been some acknowledgement that they are a nation, that they do have a right to self-determination. … Unfortunately, the United States has contradictory roles as both the chief mediator of the conflict and the chief military, diplomatic and financial supporter of the more powerful of the two parties, and that has made it difficult to move the process forward, allowing Israel to get away with expanding its illegal settlements, which have more than doubled since the signing of the Oslo agreement.

GR: It is hard for me to imagine the Palestinians taking the U.S. seriously as an intermediary, because its starting position is one of supporting Israel. How can the U.S. have any kind of moral authority in this process over there?

SZ: Certainly, based on their behavior thus far, it does make it difficult. I think that the best way it would look is, if we really support Israel – and, again, I have nothing against supporting Israel per se – think what Israel’s actual interest is. Because as many Israelis will tell you, Israel will be far more secure within its internationally recognized border, and at peace with its neighbor. …  And I have, right here, people saying that we can’t pressure Israel, because Israel is our friend. Well, my response is what you do when your friend is drunk at the bar with the car keys in their hand stumbling out towards their vehicle: A friend says, “Hey, I’m not letting you hurt yourself or other people” and takes the keys away. My Israeli friends say that is a good analogy, except they’d expand it further. They would say the U.S. is the bartender. We are the enabler; we are pouring the stuff by our continued military and economic aid, or vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions, and other things that give Israel no incentive to compromise.

GR: If you could change one thing about American foreign policy in this area, what would it be?

SZ: I would like to see a change in the U.S. policy overall, to one where we live up to our own rhetoric around human rights and international law. I mean, I have real problems with people who unfairly single out Israel for criticism. But I also have problems with people who unfairly believe Israel should get away with things that no other country should get away with. I mean, how can we in credibility put sanctions and pressure on Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea when Israel has already illegally annexed part of the occupied territories?

GR: Some of the response that you always get when you put forward an argument like that, well, is it depends on the strategic influence of the country.

SZ: Not necessarily, because I would say that support for Arab dictatorships and occupation armies actually hurt our strategic interest. I don’t think we would have seen al-Qaeda rise the way it has if the United States was not supporting the Saudi regime and it was not supporting the Israeli occupations. Not supporting the dictatorships in Egypt and the Emirates and other parts of the world. And I find that when we get in trouble, when we see an anti-American extremism in various parts of the world, it’s not because of our values but when we stray from our values.

Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.

Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.

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