An accurate and fair critique of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict


Having previously written a critique of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict which examined it's "democratic" associations (GLW #722), I was amazed to discover that Professor Stephen Zunes presently serves as the chair of their board of academic advisors. Amazed because this information was news to me as the ICNC's academic advisors are not available on its website, and also that a progressive academic like Zunes would become associated with the ICNC.

However, I was most shocked by the tone of his opening comment in his rebuttal to my article that suggested that merely because he has progressive credentials, this alone "should raise serious questions regarding" my own analysis (GLW #723, — implying that progressive voices should not be critiqued from the left, something I think is very necessary to strengthen the power of progressive thinking. This article is my response to Zunes' misreading of my work.

"First of all", Zunes asks, "why would [the ICNC] have someone like me in such an influential position? And why would I agree to take such a post [in 2006] for an organisation if it really supported an imperialistic agenda?" Answering the first question is easy for anyone not associated with the ICNC, as Zunes' association with them serves to legitimise its work, helping insulate its activities from critical commentary. The answer to his second question is not so obvious: maybe Zunes was unaware of the ICNC's ties to "democratic" elites, or perhaps he knew of these connections but still thought that they were no cause for concern. As I will demonstrate in this article, I believe that the latter situation applies to Zunes. However, initially I will respond to some of his criticism of my article.

Strangely, Zunes denies that ICNC works closely with the Albert Einstein Institution, a blatantly false assertion given that the ICNC's founding chair, Peter Ackerman (who is also chair of the neoconservative Freedom House) was until recently a director of the Albert Einstein Institution. Despite this clear Ackerman link, Zunes writes that the ICNC "has never had a single operational meeting with anyone representing" the Albert Einstein Institution. His point may well be technically true, but his statement is a little disingenuous to say the least. Likewise, he notes that "the Albert Einstein Institution has never received any government funding" — again although this may be technically true, the institute openly acknowledges the support it has received from the International Republican Institute and from two Congressionally funded quasi-NGOs, the National Endowment for Democracy and the US Institute for Peace.

Zunes observes that my claim that ICNC president Jack DuVall's "work (and that of his close colleagues) is intimately linked to the NED and much of the US-based 'democracy promoting' establishment" is in Zunes' words "particularly absurd". On this point, I guess I overstated the case a little, as although I demonstrated Duvall's connection to former CIA head James Woolsey and his long working relationship with Ackerman, I did not determine that Duvall himself had direct ties to the NED.

Likewise it is true that I was mistaken to observe that Duvall had been involved in founding the military-linked Arlington Institute, because as Zunes correctly points out, Duvall has in fact only served on its board of directors for a couple of years — although it is important to note that he was a director of the institute at the same time as James Woolsey.

Interestingly, Zunes also implies that the Arlington Institute's founder, John L. Petersen, is progressive because he is a member of the anti-imperial Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. This is correct in one sense, but he neglects to mention that while this Coalition is opposed to the neoconservatives' brutal imperialism, its membership is dominated by free-market orientated libertarians from organisations like the Cato Institute and the Independent Institute.

I also agree with Zunes that "Joanne Leedom-Ackerman has no affiliation with ICNC", however, I clearly acknowledged her only "admittedly tenuous" link to the ICNC was through her marriage to the ICNC's chair. Likewise I concur with Zunes' that her links to other elite groups like the International Crisis Group and the NED/Center for International Private Enterprise-funded International Center for Journalists do not make her part of some "imperialist plot". Unlike Zunes, however, I think that such groups' work should be critically examined given the finding of the few critical studies that have investigated their activities to date, e.g. Jan Oberg's (2005) The International Crisis Group: Who Pays the Piper?

Zunes goes on to point out that "[n]o evidence has emerged that [Gene Sharp, the Albert Einstein Institution's founder] has ever worked with ... any other organ of the US government". Again this may well be true, and it is very hard to prove otherwise, but it is clear that Sharp has no problems of accepting support from the US military. Even Sharp's major theoretical contribution to non-violent scholarship — his trilogy, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1972) — was written with the indirect support of the military, as he openly obtained funding from Professor Thomas C. Schellings grants. Grants that in turn were obtained from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense, and from the Ford Foundation (whose work was intimately linked with that of the CIA). (Incidentally this information was openly revealed in the acknowledgements of Sharp's book.)

Unfortunately, the critique that I and other activists have made of those groups that are linked to the NED (and the "democracy" crowd) are fairly limited at present, which might explain why in the past (and even now) that progressive activists have become unwittingly entwined with the activities of such manipulative organisations. Thus it is not surprising, as Zunes' correctly notes, that in the past many activist scholars have accepted support from the Albert Einstein Institution.

However, it is completely erroneous to then imply that this should in some way shield the institution from leftist critiques. As Zunes surely must recognize, just because I lay bare numerous links between the ICNC and US foreign policy elites does not mean that its staff are direct proponents of US imperialism (although of course the ICNC's staff do exhibit impressive military links). In fact, my argument is almost the opposite — the ICNC's apparently progressive politics actually serves to insulate many of its anti-democratic funders from serious criticism, which helps prevent progressive activists from restricting the cynical abuse of civil disobedience by imperial interests.

Fortunately, the involvement of progressive activists with such elite-linked groups should happen with less frequency in the future owing to the recent support that critiques of the NED's work have received in the US: for one example, see the work of the International Endowment for Democracy (<>).

As I pointed out in the article, Ackerman (the ICNC's chair) also sits on the US Institute for Peace's (USIP) US Advisory Council: a point Zunes failed to draw attention to in his rebuttal of my article, despite the fact that his website advertises that he was a former fellow at the USIP. It is also strange that Zunes underestimates the influence of such groups given that Right Web — a group that published one of Zunes' articles in August 2007 — has profiled the USIP. So it is especially ironic that Right Web described the Institute like this: "Like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) ... [the] USIP is mandated to conduct — more or less in public view — operations traditionally conducted by intelligence agencies".

Furthermore, it is curious that in the article published on Right Web, "The United States and 'regime change' in Iran", Zunes says that the US's "democracy" funding has predominantly gone to "Iranian opposition groups" that "are led by exiles who have virtually no following within Iran or any experience with the kinds of grassroots mobilization necessary to build a popular movement that could threaten the regime's survival". This may well be true — who am I to say — but he is wrong to suggest that US neoconservatives argue "that only military force from the outside — and not nonviolent struggle by the Iranian people themselves — is capable of freeing Iran from repressive clerical rule". Indeed, as he must be well aware, as I demonstrated in my article on this subject last year, "Catalyst for Iranian Resistance: US 'democracy promoters' and regime change in Iran", some of the Iranian groups supported by the NED have close ties to US neoconservatives.

Zunes also notes in the Right Web article: "Some Western bloggers and other writers [which he refers to as conspiracy theorists], understandably skeptical of U.S. intervention in oil-producing nations in the name of 'democracy,' have actually bought into these claims by Iran's hardline clerics that prominent nonviolent activists from Europe and the United States — most of whom happen to be highly critical of U.S. policy toward Iran — are somehow working as agents of the Bush administration."

Thus Zunes appears to be attempting to dismiss as conspiracy theorists those people who suggest that US "democracy promoters" are attempting to encourage non-violent revolutionary action. Indeed, the bottom line is that Zunes promotes a highly selective understanding of the history of progressive social change.

Returning to his GLW article, he is correct to note that the "U.S. government has historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d'etats and other kinds of violent seizures of power by an undemocratic minority". However, he adds that: "Nonviolent 'people power' movements of the kind supported by ICNC and other NGOs, by contrast, promote regime change through empowering pro-democratic majorities which the United States and other foreign governments cannot control."

Crucially, this gross oversimplication neglects the vital role played by soft power in promoting the hegemony of transnational capitalism: "soft" strategies that were pioneered by liberal foundations like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, which worked hand-in-hand with the CIA to create civil society front groups and co-opt progressive activists all over the world (most prominently during the Cold War). Attempts to come to terms with such manipulative and cooptive tactics will be crucial to the sustainability of the left, and such strategies do not come from "some kind of Bush administration conspiracy" as Zunes implies. As I am sure he well knows, such manipulations of civil society have always had strong bipartisan support from political elites.

In addition, an obvious contradiction left unaddressed by Zunes is his belief that NGOs funded by neoliberal governments have a right to intervene in target countries, while simultaneously such neoliberal states do not tolerate foreign groups operating within their own territories. Zunes is mistaken to suggest that the NED "and other US government-backed 'pro-democracy' efforts ... focus primarily on [supporting] conventional political campaigns led by pro-Western parties". Instead, as Professor William I. Robinson points out "democracy promoting" organisations work together through a combination of both covert and overt strategies to intervene "in mass movements for democracy and endogenous democratization processes ... through a multiplicity of political, economic, military, diplomatic, and ideological channels".

Zunes is correct that it would be ludicrous to "naively think" that nonviolent revolutions "could somehow be organised in foreign capitals", but at no point do I suggest that this happens. Instead, I argue that "democracy promoting" groups merely try to hijack or channel the course of revolutionary social change towards the promotion of low-intensity democracy rather than participatory democracy. As Robinson succinctly notes: "There are those that are marginalised and pushed aside, and then there are those that the US cannot or it is not in the interest of US foreign policy to marginalise or challenge, and then they attempt to co-opt these organisations and to moderate them. Very often you get well intentioned people and you get people who have a legitimate political agenda: democratisation, regime change from an authoritarian regime, and so forth, that because structural or on-the-ground circumstances don't allow anything else, become sucked up in US and transnational elite foreign policy operations or interventions."

Finally, it is exasperating to find Zunes concluding that to work to further knowledge of how elites intent on exporting neoliberal/low-intensity forms of democracy attempt to manipulate progressive social forces actually "invalidates popular movements for freedom and justice everywhere". This is head-in-the-sand logic, as groups like the NED are quite open about their ongoing attempts to manipulate civil society: why else would they fund progressive activists? To pretend that civil society is beyond manipulation (as Zunes implies) invalidates common sense: indeed, few would suggest that just because anti-democratic elites attempt to channel social change implies "that the oppressed masses are simply pawns of great powers".

Rather, the starting point of any discussion of the forces that shape social change should start from a position that recognises that foreign policy elites have a vested interest in undermining the efforts of the global public to create a democratic civic society. Only then, when we as concerned citizens/activists try to understand the forces acting to counter our democratic aspirations, can we start devising strategies that will enable us to promote a more egalitarian and participatory global society. But for the time being, only one question remains: why does Stephen Zunes continue to maintain associations with manipulative anti-democratic elites?

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