Thinking Strategically

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A few years ago when the Iraq war was going on, I would sometimes attend the meetings of our local peace coalition. The people there, mostly respectable members of the community, would tell you they were strong advocates of “nonviolence.” Yet I sense that nonviolence meant something different to them than it did to me. For them, it was simply the absence of violence—not physically hurting anyone and not causing too much of a ruckus.

Our little nonviolent actions—the usual marches and rallies—made us feel like we were doing something to help get the troops out of Iraq and end the war. And certainly what we did was better than doing nothing. But we were never a threat to the policies or policymakers we opposed. And we never will be until we take ourselves seriously enough to sit down and develop a strategic plan, with specific goals and a roadmap of how to achieve them.

If progressive groups want to effectively challenge the elites that own the world, they must develop effective methods of struggle. Random acts of nonviolent resistance, no matter how well intentioned, will do little to help them gain their objectives. Activist groups large and small, in this country and around the world, whether fighting for national liberation, racial justice or just to get a meeting with their elected representative, need to think more strategically.

In his book Waging Nonviolent Struggle1 Gene Sharp borrows from military doctrine 2 as he lays out the steps for planning a resistance campaign. The first task is to prepare a strategic estimate to objectively examine the strengths and weaknesses of each side in the conflict. Based on the findings of the estimate, planners can then develop a grand strategy, to determine how the struggle can be conducted and how it can be won. The idea is to find ways of using the resister’s strongest assets to attack their opponent’s most vulnerable “pillars of support”—the sources of their power.

As a next step, the grievance group should develop strategies for conducting individual campaigns within the broader struggle. Then tactics need to be chosen, with limited objectives that advance the strategic plan. Finally, strategic planners should choose the specific methods of resistance to implement the tactics. Methods might include demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, nonviolent interventions or other appropriate actions.

Of course, not all campaigns are epic enough to require this degree of planning. But some level of strategic thinking is essential. At the very least, a concrete, achievable goal and a logical, detailed plan on how to reach that goal should be agreed upon. Too often, peace and social justice organizations—like our little peace coalition—begin and end their planning with a selection of methods, with little thought as to how their actions fit into a broader strategy.

This is slowly changing. Skillful planning helped nonviolent activists bring down Milosevic in Serbia, and many of those same strategists helped train the groups that orchestrated nonviolent uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Around the world, more organizations are offering training for local groups on how to use nonviolence more effectively. But within many smaller activist groups in the U.S., strategic planning is never seriously considered.

Knowledge and tools are now available to increase the power of people everywhere. Good intentions are not enough. Governments, corporations and the elites that run the world have long used detailed strategic plans to increase their power. Progressive activists need to develop skills to do the same.

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Footnotes

  1. Sharp, Gene. Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2007.
  2. Much of Sharp’s later thinking on strategy has been influenced by Colonel Robert Helvey

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