Does the American left have a defense policy? One possible answer to this question should be: No, and we don’t need one. The important thing is to show that “national defense,” like “national interest,” is largely a mystification, meant to obscure the fact that the purpose of American foreign policy is to “defend” the “interests” of those who control the domestic economy. Propaganda aside, the function of the Cold War is to justify American and Soviet military intervention in their respective imperial spheres. What American policymakers mask by the term “national security” is their fear that successful independent development in one Third World country will lead others to withdraw from the Western-dominated global economy. So the primary task of the left is to demystify the Cold War, to demonstrate that “defense” is a euphemism for intervention.
Another possible answer would be: No, and we can’t afford one. The important thing is to halt the self—propelling momentum of the arms race. Nuclear “modernization,” in the form of the MX, the cruise missile, and space weapons, puts the survival of the species on a hair trigger. Before we can even begin to make political arguments about the real meaning of “national security,” we need to convince people that these new technical developments endanger not just our security but our very existence. So the primary task of the left is to freeze, and then slowly reverse, the automatization of annihilation.
Of course there’s a lot of truth in both these answers. But I still want to suggest that the left should have a defense policy, and that it should be the one outlined in Gene Sharp’s new book, Making Europe Unconquerable.
Sharp is possibly the world’s leading historian of nonviolent action. His massive work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action chronicles and analyzes virtually every form of nonviolent struggle ever employed. The number and diversity of these nonviolent campaigns — from pre-revolutionary America to pre-revolutionary Iran, from Nazi-occupied Western Europe to Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, from Central America in the 1940s to the American South in the 1960s -- is impressive. What’s equally striking is that they were all improvised, not part of a planned, prepared, society-wide or movement-wide strategy. In recent years, Sharp and a few others have been trying to work out a strategic theory based on these experiences, which might be adopted by an entire society as an alternative to military defense. Sharp calls it “civilian-based defense.” A good many Europeans and even some European governments -- Sweden and the Netherlands -- have shown interest in these ideas. Making Europe Unconquerable is an effort to introduce the theory of civilian-based defense to Americans.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that a Soviet invasion of Western Europe is a genuine threat. Mainstream strategic thought suggests two ways of deterring such an invasion: by threatening to respond with nuclear weapons or by building up sufficient conventional forces to defeat the invaders. As Sharp points out, neither of these “defense” policies has anything to do with defense. If they somehow fail as deterrents, and the invasion takes place, then the society in question will be destroyed, ‘either by nuclear retaliation or by conventional weaponry, which nowadays approaches nuclear weaponry in destructive capacity. But suppose there were a defense strategy that could deny the invaders their goals without resulting in mass destruction?
Sharp’s originality results from considering why the Soviets (or anyone) might actually want to invade another country. Merely inflicting damage for its own sake has rarely been any side’s main motive since the days of Attila the Hun. The most likely motives are: to preempt military action from the other side; or to achieve some kind of political or economic control, whether by establishing a surrogate regime or by influencing the invaded country’s policies.
Sharp argues that a country employing non-military, civilian-based defense can frustrate both of these objectives. Obviously, the motive for nuclear pre-emption-- no minor concern for West European countries whose small, NATO-supplied nuclear arsenals can be wiped out, along with much of the society, by a Soviet counterforce strike-- disappears altogether. Equally important, Sharp claims, the dreaded Soviet Army can be effectively fought with non-conventional weapons.
Civilian-based defense is the planned and coordinated use of nonviolent tactics that deny political power or legitimacy to an aggressor. Examples include: specific and general strikes, slowdowns, mass resignations, boycotts, paralysis of transportation and other key functions, clandestine broadcasts and newspapers, construction of parallel institutions and survival networks, and fraternization with invading troops. There are many other possibilities. If carried out in a sophisticated and determined, way, they would make it impossible for an external aggressor to exercise political or economic control. There would, of course, be costs — executions, imprisonment, forcer labor. But the costs of a nuclear or conventional defense, even a “successful” one (whatever that may mean), would be incomparably greater.
And there would be collateral effects on the aggressor regime. International sanctions would be easier to organize if the use of force was unilateral. More important, the morale of the invading troops and the home population might be difficult to maintain in the face of nonviolent resistance-- the desire to avenge soldiers fallen in battle is, after all, a staple of every government’s war propaganda. Sharp points out that Soviet troops sent to Czechoslovakia in 1968 had to be rotated out of the country within a few days and stationed in Siberia, where they could not spread news of the Czech civilian resistance to the Soviet population. They were replaced with non-Russian-speaking troops, who could not communicate with the Czech resisters. Soviet reservists called up to threaten Poland in December 1980 deserted in huge numbers, which may partly explain Soviet reluctance to invade in 1981. Even dictatorial regimes have to worry about domestic public opinion.
In case all this sounds utopian, Sharp emphasizes that the tactics he advocates have already been used with considerable success in 20th-century Europe: in the German Ruhr against the French after World War I; in Denmark and Norway against the Nazis; and in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland against the Soviets. Were they failed, he argues, it was precisely for lack of advance planning and coordination. If a tiny fraction of the resources currently devoted to military research, production, and training were devoted to research and training in civilian-based defense, a society-wide defense plan -- complex, detailed, and flexible -- could easily be worked out.
Clearly, civilian-based defense requires decentralization of social power -- i.e., real democracy -- and a genuinely non-interventionist foreign policy. These two requirements will no doubt make it seem terminally unrealistic to many on the left. Why not concentrate all our efforts on achieving social justice, they may ask, after which international conflict will presumably wither away?
Sharp’s answer would be that, despite our best efforts, international conflict probably will not wither away in time to prevent the earth from being turned into a radioactive cinder. Without accepting Cold War mystifications about “national security” or “national interest,” we simply have to assume the persistence of international conflict for a long time to come. This means that, for better or worse, the United States is going to have a defense policy of some sort for the foreseeable future. Civilian-based defense is a morally and practically superior defense policy. The left should consider adopting it.