Promoting 'democracy' through civil disobedience

Saturday, August 25, 2007

In GLW #718, Jack Duvall, the president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), published a letter in response to a couple of "errors" Eva Gollinger made in her interview "US continues destabilisation push in Venezuela" in GLW #716. Duvall denied accusations that his group had been involved in training activist groups involved in the recent "color revolutions" in Eastern Europe, and in opposing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. However, Duvall does admit in his letter that in March 2005 the ICNC "gave support to the [Albert] Einstein Institute for a workshop it conducted on nonviolent action for Venezuelans, [which was] held in Boston".

This admission is significant because although Duvall claims the ICNC "ha[s] not and will not accept any support from any government for any purpose", it has always worked closely with the Albert Einstein Institute [AEI] — a group that does work closely with the US government and the notorious National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Duvall gives a false impression that his organisation is totally isolated from US foreign policy elites.

Without prior knowledge of Duvall's institutional affiliations, it is easy to believe that he and the ICNC are supporting progressive activists all over the world. But unfortunately his work (and that of his close colleagues) is intimately linked to the NED and much of the US-based "democracy promoting" establishment.

For readers unfamiliar with the NED and its anti-democratic "democracy" cohorts, a brief introduction to the work of Professor William I. Robinson is in order. Simply put, Robinson hypothesised that as a result of the public backlash against the US government's repressive and covert foreign policies in the 1970s, foreign-policy-making elites elected to put a greater emphasis on overt means of overthrowing "problematic" governments through the strategic manipulation of civil society.

In 1984, this "new" thinking was institutionalised with the creation of the quasi-nongovernmental organisation the NED, which acts as the coordinating body for better-funded "democracy promoting" organisations like USAID and the CIA. Working closely together, these "democratic" organisations use 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". Robinson notes the primary goal of such "democracy promoting" groups is the promotion of polyarchy or low-intensity democracy over more substantive forms of democratic governance, enabling "the replacement of coercive means of social control with consensual ones".

Robinson's pioneering book on this subject, Promoting Polyarchy (2006), provided a detailed examination of the role of US-based "democracy promoting" groups in sabotaging democracy in Nicaragua, the Philippines, Chile and Haiti. Since then, many studies have supported his findings, furnishing further examples of unwanted "democratic" interventions all over the world.

Returning to Duvall, among progressive activist circles perhaps his biggest claim to fame is his co-authorship (with Peter Ackerman) of the book A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (2000). However, what fewer activists will be aware of is Duvall's involvement in founding the Arlington Institute. Dr Ackerman was the founding chair of the ICNC, and is currently the chairman of Freedom House and a member of the US Advisory Council of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Duvall's involvement in launching the Arlington Institute (in 1989) is important because like many of the people involved in the "democracy promoting" world, the main person behind this non-profit venture, John L. Petersen, is a military man through and through. According to the Arlington Institute's website, Peterson's "government and political experience include stints at the National War College, the Institute for National Security Studies, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council staff at the White House". On top of this, the Arlington Institute also boasts among its co-founders former head of the CIA James Woolsey.

Significantly, the Arlington Institute's website notes that it specialises "in thinking about global futures and trying to influence rapid, positive change", which ties in neatly with the work of the ICNC, and with Jonathan Mowat's description of the institute as acting as strategists for the new postmodern coup.

The ICNC, of which both Ackerman and Duvall are founding directors, describes itself as "an independent, non-profit, educational foundation that develops and encourages the study and use of civilian-based, nonmilitary strategies to establish and defend human rights, democracy and justice worldwide". Yet the name of their organisation belies its actual unstated objective, which is to help promote revolutions in geo-strategically useful countries. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that most of ICNC's principals of non-violence were trained within the heart of the military-industrial complex.

ICNC vice-chair Berel Rodal was formerly director-general of the policy secretariat in Canada's Department of National Defence; ICNC manager of educational initiatives Dr Maria J. Stephan, has worked "at the U.S. Department of Defense and with the international staff at NATO Headquarters in Brussels"; and Shaazka Beyerle (former vice-president turned senior advisor of ICNC) is a founding vice-president of the European Institute (another group that is well linked to the "democracy" establishment).

Hardy Merriman recently became the director of programs and research at ICNC, coming fresh from a three-year stint at the AEI. The AEI openly acknowledges the financial support it has received from the NED, USIP, and the International Republican Institute (a core NED grantee), and works closely with the ICNC providing the theoretical underpinnings for the "democracy promoting" establishment's work, helping them provide training courses all over the world for activists seeking to overthrow their governments.

Finally, Merriman's predecessor at ICNC, Kim Hedge, has now joined Freedom House — the grandfather of neo-conservative "democracy promoting" organisations — as their program coordinator for the Civil Mobilization Program. Writing in January 2007, Diana Barahona described Freedom House's board of trustees — which Dr Ackerman also chairs — as a "Who's Who of neoconservatives from government, business, academia, labor, and the press".

The last "democratic" group to which Ackerman is directly linked to is the USIP, which like Freedom House is an integral member of the US "democracy promoting" apparatus. In 1990, Richard Hatch and Sara Diamond described the USIP as a "stomping ground for professional war-makers", with a board of directors that "looked like a who's who of right-wing ideologues from academia and the Pentagon."

Today the USIP is still busy promoting its militarily-sanctioned form of "peace", yet unlike the NED it has received next to no criticism from the progressive media. Amazingly, only the one aforementioned article has criticised its work. This is in spite of the fact that its board of directors is presently home to "democratic" savouries like former CIA director James R. Schlesinger; Chester A. Crocker, the James R. Schlesinger chair in strategic studies at Georgetown University; Charles Horner, senior fellow at the right-wing Hudson Institute; and until his recent death, Seymour Martin Lipset who was also at the Hudson Institute.

In addition to both ICNC's leading principals being directly involved with a host of "democracy promoting" organisations, Dr Ackerman also benefits from his wife's vigourous "democratic" connections. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is a writer/journalist, and is currently a director of the NED-funded International Center for Journalists, and has served on the board of the AEI. Joanne is also a director of a "non-governmental" organisation called the International Crisis Group, which describes its primary role as "working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict". Unlike the NED, this group is a truly multilateral "democracy" venture as evidenced by the wide variety of governments, foundations and corporations that fund its work (see <>).

Despite Duvall's and Ackerman's clear acquaintance with the history of non-violence and strong associations with the NED crowd, they evince a highly selective memory of their "democratic" associates when it comes to their work — only mentioning the NED and USIP in passing in their book A Force More Powerful. The lonesome paragraph they devote to these groups is especially interesting, as they introduce four of the most prominent US "democracy promoters" without indicating the integral role they play in implementing the US government's foreign policy.

In conclusion it is strange to note that many of the polyarchal activities of those individuals and groups linked to the ICNC and the AEI have for the most part been ignored by progressive activists (and their media). This is an intolerable and potentially catastrophic situation for all proponents of progressive social change, and the activist community needs to move quickly to combat such groups' insidious hijacking of the discourse of democracy, peace and civil disobedience.

Ironically, the "democracy" trainers discussed in this article, with their close ties to the military establishment, are also the ones who dismiss the strategic utility of uncivil disobedience. It is likely that many activists will disagree that there are in fact limits to the strategic utility of civil disobedience — famously laid out by Ward Churchill in his essay Pacifism as Pathology, and more recently in Peter Gelderloos's How Nonviolence Protects the State — but it seems eminently sensible that activists should still discuss the strategic implications of all available tactics.

Progressive activist trainers like George Lakey have addressed the issues raised by Churchill's work in public debates, but many on the left still choose to dismiss Churchill's and Gelderloos's views wholesale, with little or no critical engagement with his revolutionary ideas. Part of this problem has certainly been amplified by the hegemonic position "democratic" non-violent theorists have attained over the study of civil disobedience, which in many circles has rendered a truly open-minded discussion of social change next to impossible.

To change this situation, first and foremost activists will have to educate themselves about the work of the "democracy promoters", a process that has been made easier by the launch last year of two groups who have made it their duty to expose the anti-democratic mechanisations of the NED and its buddies. These groups are the International Endowment for Democracy (<>) and In the Name of Democracy (<>).

It seems that only when the wider progressive community has critically engaged with the work of the "democratic" proponents of civil disobedience, can activists begin to be more sure that they are adopting the most suitable strategies to enable our planet to move toward a high-intensity participatory democracy, rather than a low-intensity neoliberal "democracy" or polyarchy.

[A longer footnoted version of this article was published in March 2007 in the online Journal State of Nature at;.]