Peaceful protest is best, he says — not for any moral reason, but because violence provokes autocrats to crack down. “If you fight with violence,” Mr. Sharp said, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.”
Autocrats abhor Mr. Sharp. In 2007, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela denounced him, and officials in Myanmar, according to diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, accused him of being part of a conspiracy to set off demonstrations intended “to bring down the government.” (A year earlier, a cable from the United States Embassy in Damascus noted that Syrian dissidents had trained in nonviolence by reading Mr. Sharp’s writings.)
In 2008, Iran featured Mr. Sharp, along with Senator John McCain of Arizona and the Democratic financier George Soros, in an animated propaganda video that accused Mr. Sharp of being the C.I.A. agent “in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries,” an assertion his fellow scholars find ludicrous.
“Peace? No, we’re not talking about peace,” says Sharp with quiet intensity, leaning forward in his chair. “We’re talking about alternatives to violent struggle.”
He prefers a vision of nonviolent action based on power, not peace. Indeed, the cornerstone of his work is the belief that political power depends on the people’s support and/or submission. When citizens are thoroughly trained in ways to withdraw that support, he says, a ruler cannot rule, a leader cannot lead.
In his most recent book, “Making Europe Unconquerable,” Sharp tries to convince “nonbelievers” that nations should look into nonviolent defense alternatives. He argues that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should be replaced by civilian-based defense (not to be confused with civil defense, often identified with the preparation of bomb shelters). Such a defense strategy, he explains, would prepare populations in noncooperation and defense so they would be nettlesome and perhaps “unconquerable” by an invader such as the Soviet Union. . . .
But most political scientists — including Sharp himself — agree that the US will be one of the last countries to “transarm” — to begin the crossover from weapon-based defense to civilian-based defense. The psychological hurdles to its acceptance seem much higher here, says Bruce M. Russett, a professor of international relations and political science at Yale University. He says the key question — and limitation — for such a defense strategy is, “How much real social solidarity can be mustered in a society?”
Weapons, like all technology, are fundamentally useful for erasing natural distinctions and organic inequalities. The more sophisticated the weapon, the more likely it can be used by a coward, a moron, a weakling, or a criminal. The brandishing of a weapon is a tacit admission of insecurity and weakness.
Furthermore, this is true of all technologies (in the Ellulian sense of la technique), from appliances and computers to institutions and governments, from literary theories to scientific theories and monetary systems. The weak require more technology to overcome their disabilities. This is not so much an insult or a judgment, as it is merely a realistic acknowledgment of human nature. Acknowledging the pragmatic and psychological functions of technology is essential to using it properly and avoiding the temptation to idolize it.