Tag Archives: IFOR

Readings in Nonviolence: Approaches to nonviolent defence

Defence and offence


A lot of water has flown under many bridges since 1983 when the following piece was written but some of it is not only still very meaningful today but extremely relevant in the Irish context as the process is underway to dismantle the last parts of Irish neutrality, and the Irish state seeks to effectively join NATO and EU nuclear armed and provocative alliances.

What follows are extracts from a paper given by renowned British peace activist and academic Michael Randle to a conference on Building Nonviolent Defence organised by WRI (War Resisters’ International) and IFOR (International Fellowship of Reconciliation) in the Netherlands in July 1983. The wider context then included renewed fears of nuclear war and a strong anti-nuclear weapons movement; currently we have wide fears of escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war but no strong peace movement in relation to it or other critical peace issues, and still the danger of escalation to nuclear war. Reading ‘Russia’ today for ‘the Soviet Union’ then is fascinating and disheartening, and shows how little we (all of us) have progressed in forty years.

The issue of nonviolent defence and non-offensive defence is further dealt with in INNATE’s submission to the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy which will be meeting in June (2023) in Cork, Galway and Dublin; this submission will be included in the July issue of Nonviolent News. The online webinar by StoP on ‘Human and ecological security’ – much more meaningful than a narrow emphasis on ‘military’ security – is online and can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpcK1QYLk6M with Diana Francis, John Maguire and John Lannon.

Dotted lines in the following indicate a section, large or small, which has been omitted from the original (overall a considerable amount is omitted). As with all such pieces we are not saying we agree or disagree with particular points but that the issues and arguments covered are important for any peace movement to consider and look at in relation to ‘our time’.

Extracts from

Approaches to nonviolent defence

by Michael Randle (at WRI/IFOR conference, July 1983)

Alternative Defence has become a major area of discussion within the resurgent peace movement in Europe. In my view it is right that this should be so. First saying no to nuclear weapons – indeed saying no to war – is not a defence policy; second there may well be a large constituency of people who are deeply concerned about the moral implications of nuclear deterrence and the sheer magnitude of the risks involved but who nevertheless go on supporting the present policies because they see no viable alternative. This then may be a particularly opportune moment for advocates of a nonviolent approach to present their ideas.

The need for defence

……. First, attacks from outside on states and communities do occur and can vitally affect the lives of the population……Second, the main threat to a community and the individuals that comprise it does not always and necessarily come from within in the form of an oppressive state machine or exploiting class….Third, a disarmed (or disarming) Western Europe would be at some risk from the Soviet Union and perhaps also from the United States……..

….Nor I think is it sufficient to produce analyses seeking to show that it would not be in the political or economic interest of the Soviet Union to attack Western Europe, though of course every effort must be made to put the Soviet threat into perspective and to show the absurdity of the new Cold War images that are being projected….

Finally I think it has to be said that the Soviet Union has shown itself capable of acting with brutality and cynicism, just like any other superstate one could say, and not only within its so called sphere of influence in Eastern Europe……

Models of Transition and the Role of the State

Two main models of transition are advocated within the nonviolent movement, though there are obviously variants of these.

The transarmament model envisages the possibility of persuading the state to transfer resources currently invested in military defence towards research and preparation for nonviolent defence…..The ultimate aim would be to have the country rely entirely on nonviolent methods for its defence – though there are non-pacifists who see the evolution being towards a mixed strategy of military and non-military defence.

There is more to changing the defence system of a country however than securing transfers of investment, and if transarmament is to become a concrete programme that governments could be pressed to adopt its advocates will have to address themselves also to he question of how the military posture and military strategies of a country or alliance might be modified over time so that they become less provocative and less likely to lead to war; the ‘defensive’ military postures now being widely discussed in the broader peace movement and in some military/strategic circles would be relevant here. But a discussion of this kind would underline the tension for pacifist organisations between their uncompromising anti-militarism – their advocacy for instance at the personal level of non-cooperation with any form of military organisation – and the espousal of a programme of change which envisages military defence for the forseeable future and perhaps even a system of conscription to maintain it.

The libertarian, anti-statist model

The main alternative model looks to the development of nonviolent methods of defence from below by peace and radical movements and rejects collaboration with the state. Its advocates point to contradictions for pacifists of such collaborations, and above all stress the danger that the state might take-over the notion of nonviolent civilian resistance but treat it simply as a technique and incorporate it as a minor element in a total defence strategy which would remain overwhelmingly military in its emphasis, and might indeed have a nuclear element in some cases.

The great problem here is to see how a changeover to a different system could occur……

I share by and large the libertarian vision of the possibilities of developing societies that do not have the concentration of the means of violence, the political specialisation and the generally hierarchic structures that characterise the modern state. But I feel that for the forseeable future we are going to have to deal with states and be prepared to exert pressure on them to modify their structures and change their policies especially their military policies. And there will be tensions, perhaps even contradictions……But this is not to say that the demand for total unilateral disarmament should necessarily be central in the day-to-day campaigning of nonviolent and peace movements; it may be more fruitful at a given moment to press with others for less radical changes that have some prospect of being accepted within the current order of things – the acceptance of no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy, the abolition of battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe, even the adoption of a more reasonable position in bi-lateral or multi-lateral disarmament negotiations……………..

Meeting points. Differences of emphasis will undoubtedly continue within the nonviolent movement on the question of alternative defence. But it is important also that we do not waste too much energy on the internal debates but have a sense of the shared assumptions and objectives.

a) At the individual level we are committed to non-cooperation with the military. In the long term at least this implies societies run on very different lines to those of the present day. This commitment is also an important point of identification for pacifists and nonviolent activists within the broader peace movement.

b) There is consensus that nonviolent defence must remain rooted in the population and the institutions at the base of society – trade unions, cultural, religious, political and similar organisations. Libertarians insist on this to the total exclusion of the state, but advocates of transarmament also say that the nonviolent defence must be popularly based and not in the hands of a state bureaucracy; thus the Belgian movement uses the term ‘popular nonviolent defence’.

c) There is a shared awareness of the danger not only of war but of the militarisation of society, and this may prove an important basis for judging the modified military strategies which are already being discussed and which may assume increasing importance if the anti-nuclear peace movement continues to grow.

Non-provocative Military Defence – An Interim Stage?

The concept of ‘non-provocative defence’, sometimes also referred to as ‘defensive deterrence’, is attracting increasing attention both within the peace movement and outside it. The idea is that the capacity of a military system to conduct offensive operations would be severely restricted, even if one could not eliminate it altogether; thus long range rockets and bombers would be eliminated; fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles would be used for anti-aircraft defence; there would be fewer tanks but more anti-tank munitions; and troops would be deployed and equipped in a way that would make it much more difficult for them to be mobilised and used in offensive operations.

It is further agued that since the defence enjoys certain inherent advantages in any conflict, and the offence needs normally something like a three to one superiority to be reasonably sure of success, a purely defensive system could operate with smaller forces Thus one might escape from the process of mutual escalation that characterises the present situation; moreover potential opponents would feel less threatened and this should create a better atmosphere for disarmament and political negotiations.

Clearly such a system would be preferable to the present posture of the NATO alliance with its heavy emphasis on nuclear weapons at every level and its commitment to use nuclear weapons first under some circumstances against a conventional attack……..Yet this specific example serves to highlight the problems involved in the whole exercise of seeking intermediate solutions.

a) If people come to see non-provocative defence as a reasonably secure alternative to nuclear deterrence, they may lose the incentive to search for the more radical alternatives that we favour…..

b) One of the weaknesses of the concept may be that it concentrates too much on the military battlefield as such and pays insufficient attention to the fact that the pattern in the development of warfare in the 20th century has been to turn the whole of society into the battlefield. This fact is illustrated by the increasing civilian casualties in the major wars that have occurred this century…..

c) Some versions of non-provocative defence involve a much higher level of participation by the whole population (or more usually the male section of it) in military preparations; in some sense at least they involve the militarisation of society……

Combining Military and Nonviolent Strategies

If change occurs gradually, there is likely to be a point at which preparations for military and non-military defence exist side by side….

Preparing simultaneously for military and non-military defence may present no insuperable difficulty, but the problems of operating a ‘mixed strategy’ of violent and nonviolent resistance during an actual conflict are another matter. The dynamic of the two approaches is so different that one could easily work against the other…..

Nevertheless the civilian resistance in occupied Europe from 1940-45 followed in most cases an unsuccessful military resistance, and if a nonviolent campaign is separated from the military defence in terms of time and space and organisation, one may avoid some of the major problems of a mixed strategy…..

Limitations of Nonviolent Resistance as a Means of Defence


Limitations as a deterrent

The sanctions that nonviolent resistance imposes are slow acting, and might not deter a potential aggressor intent upon some immediate strategic or practical goal.

Limitations in defending outlying areas, or attacks to gain strategic goals

Nonviolent resistance is far more suited to resisting political and cultural domination of a society, and perhaps denying an opponent economic goals, than to defending tracts of territory…….

Limitations at the level of collective security and peacekeeping

The possibilities for co-operation between states relying mainly or completely on nonviolent defence are at present very limited; there is no equivalent in the nonviolent sphere of the kind of collective security that can be provided by a military alliance, or international military guarantees. Similarly peacekeeping operations within the United Nations or other international bodies at present always involve armed forces. Perhaps unarmed forces could take on the peacekeeping role in some situations, but in others it would be very difficult to imagine how this would work.