Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action was widely and, in general, favorably reviewed. The Western Political Quarterly deemed the tome “monumental,” and Armed Forces and Society compared it to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.69 The Journal of Developing Areas described it as “the most important, comprehensive, and challenging work on nonviolence to appear in this century,” and International Organization dedicated twenty-one journal pages to its discussion.70
Sharp’s nuclear theorist mentor, Thomas Schelling, wrote the book’s introduction, capturing its essence: Sharp’s work “does not attempt to convert you to a new faith. It is not about a compassionate political philosophy that, if only enough of us believed it, would make the walls come tumbling down. It offers insight, by theory and example, into a complex field of strategy.”71 Ostensibly, for Sharp, nonviolent action was not about philosophical commitments, but about superior gamesmanship; not sentiment, but strategy. It was the heyday of game theory—“the theory of strategic interaction between rational individuals”—and true to the zeitgeist, Sharp offered an almost scientific formula for successful nonviolent protest movements, a rationalization of political resistance.72
In Part One, Sharp lays out what would become his best-known argument, eventually termed his “social theory of power.”73 Here, echoing Machiavelli’s dictum that “the safest castle is to not be hated by the people,” Sharp argues a state’s power is always fundamentally based on the voluntary consent, obedience, and cooperation of the governed.74 If one wants to “control” or collapse a regime, one must figure out how to withdraw these things en masse.75 The most strategic way to do this, Sharp says, is for protest movements to attack the sources of a government’s political power with “nonviolent action.”76 In later work, he would urge protesters and their handlers to focus their moral incursions on the “pillars” of a regime’s power, institutions like the media, universities, and the military.77
In Part Two, Sharp details 198 nonviolent “actions,” the specific maneuvers of his “technique of struggle.” Culled from the long history of labor struggles, civil rights campaigns, and national liberation movements, and offered in index form, this list of protest tactics includes: use of symbolic colors, parades, vigils, use of banners written in English for international consumption, mock awards, protest disrobings; forms of economic non-cooperation like boycotts, divestment campaigns, and strikes; political non-cooperation, like refusing to assist law enforcement; and psychological interventions like fasts.
In Part Three, he presents nonviolent action as a style of combat he terms “political jujitsu”—using the stronger opponents’ energy against themselves, rather than confronting it head-on.79 In the dynamics of political jujitsu, government repression is itself a source of power for revolutionaries. If protesters can nonviolently provoke a violent response from the state, public opinion might be turned against the regime, its moral authority weakened: “…Nonviolence helps the opponent’s repression throw him off balance politically.”80 Sharp writes, “When the system largely characterized by political violence is actively, albeit nonviolently, challenged, one can expect that the basic nature of that system will be more clearly revealed in the crisis then during less difficult times. The violence upon which the system depends is thus brought to the surface and revealed in unmistakable terms for all to see: it then becomes more possible to remove it.
Gene Sharp was a modern Machiavelli—but in reverse. He was not interested, like Machiavelli, in how to build, maintain, direct, or transform the popular will that buttresses political power. Rather, he was interested in how to disintegrate it. In Sharp’s “politics of nonviolent action,” the state was not the prize, not even a terrain of struggle: it was the enemy, the object to be paralyzed and dissolved.105 And in this regard, Sharp fit neatly into the emerging neoliberal consensus’s pathological hatred of the state, and unerring faith in the “free market.”
Neoliberalism’s advance was long, marked first, many argue, by the economic liberalization of Pinochet’s authoritarian Chile following the successful CIA-backed coup against the democratic socialist administration of Salvador Allende in 1973. Another important moment was the “structural adjustment” of New York City in 1975, wherein Wall Street creditors used a fiscal crisis to force a bleak public austerity package on the city, with little skin off their noses. In 1979, chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volker confronted high wages by jacking up the federal funds rate, eventually to 20%, plunging the U.S. into a “cold bath recession.” Wage freezes and concessions followed, as well as debt-crises throughout the export-oriented Third World, useful opportunities for more creditor-driven, sovereignty-eroding structural adjustment policies. But the neoliberal assault was kicked into high gear with the Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s, which featured dramatic tax cuts, the rollback of public services, deregulation, and union busting.
This “neoliberal turn” was accompanied by a more pugnacious, neoconservative foreign policy. U.S. grand strategy shifted from mere “containment” of the communist contagion, to active “rollback.” The face of anticommunism changed, from brooding Ivy League spook to crusading Sunbelt cowboy.
An important organ of the new foreign policy was the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Congressionally funded “democracy-promotion” organization launched in 1983.126 In 1968, Bissell had reminded those assembled at the Council of Foreign Relations headquarters that clandestine intelligence funding was politically costly if exposed. The NED would be different. As Reagan declared at the founding: “This program will not be hidden in shadows. It’ll stand proudly in the spotlight… And, of course, it will be consistent with our own national interests.”127 For the next forty years the NED would openly fund “pro-democracy” opposition movements against administrations that failed to fall in line with the new neoliberal orthodoxy or the U.S. agenda more broadly.128 Allen Weinstein, who helped establish the NED, put it like this: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”129
The same year the NED was founded, Gene Sharp launched the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), a public-facing non-profit dedicated to advancing “the worldwide study and strategic use of nonviolent action.”130 Thomas Schelling, Sharp’s Cold War mentor from the CIA at Harvard, would sit on the board of directors. With neoliberalism at home and communist rollback abroad, Sharp and AEI staff would spend the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s tracking, studying, consulting with, and training nonviolent social movements calling for “democratic freedoms and institutions” around the world.
According to its own annual reports, AEI did not prioritize fighting dictators and promoting “democratic freedoms and institutions” in US client states like Saudi Arabia, Zaire, Chile, El Salvador, or Guatemala. These countries are either never mentioned, or mentioned only in brief passing, in two decades worth of AEI annual reports. Rather, AEI and its adjuncts consistently focused their efforts in countries where political leadership was resisting NATO’s geostrategic priorities and/or the economic liberalization programs being pushed by the World Bank, the IMF, and U.S. Treasury’s “Washington Consensus”: countries like the Soviet Union, Burma, Thailand, Tibet, Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and post-collapse Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia.131 In a number of these cases, the movements trained in Sharp’s methods successfully executed nonviolent revolutions—sometimes called “velvet revolutions” or “color revolutions,” for the telltale use of an official movement color.
The targeted regimes were corrupt and dictatorial to varying degrees; the citizenry had plenty of reason to want change. But always, “the social demands for bread, for work, for effective public services, even for an end to police repression, that drove people into the streets” remained unmet after their nonviolent revolution.132 Rather, in most cases submission to neoliberal structural adjustment followed: selling off state assets, deregulating and privatizing state and worker-owned industry, cutting taxes, rolling back social spending, forcing tight monetary policy, removing price controls, removing capital controls, forcing markets open to Western investors, and establishing free trade zones. For this reason, the late radical Brazilian political economist Moniz Bandeira would argue in his final book, The Second Cold War: Geopolitics and the Strategic Dimensions of the USA, that it was Gene Sharp’s ideas that “lay at the heart” of the U.S.’s “Second Cold War” regime change policy.133
Like NATO, AEI eventually found its new mandate in the grisly breakup of the multi-ethnic socialist state, Yugoslavia. After World War II, Yugoslavia had accepted development loans from the World Bank and other Western financial institutions. By the late 1980s, Western creditors, led by the IMF, were using their leverage to push Yugoslavia toward neoliberal economic restructuring.159 In January 1991, in defiance of these policies, Slobodan Milosevic, leader of the Yugoslav Republic of Serbia, signed a law behind the backs of international creditors “requiring Serbian-controlled national banks to issue $1.8 billion worth of new money” to pay pensioners, farmers, and avoid industrial bankruptcies.160
The West was incandescent at this upstart nationalist. Western diplomats condemned Milosevic’s move as a “‘fatal assault’ on the country’s standing with Western creditors, since it showed that Belgrade had no control over the money supply.”161 The international press turned sour, the U.S. terminated aid to Yugoslavia, and threatened to use its veto power at the World Bank and IMF to suspend credit.162 The Executive Director of the World Bank offered blunt terms echoing Margaret Thatcher: “We expect [Yugoslavia] to stick to the program. That implies sticking to disciplines that go with the fiscal and monetary policy. Whatever the social cost, there is no alternative.”163
The next ten years were ugly. Yugoslavia descended—some would say was pushed—into the horrendous nationalist violence of the Yugoslav Wars.164 The U.S. did not help matters. The Central Intelligence Agency “helped to train” the separatist Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army—previously considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist group—and “encouraged them to launch a rebellion in southern Serbia in an effort to undermine the then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.”165 As one European K-For battalion commander complained, “The CIA has been allowed to run riot in Kosovo with a private army designed to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.” NATO imposed several rounds of economic sanctions, refusing to lift them unless Milosevic accepted permanent NATO occupation and the full privatization of the economy, a demand “deliberately” made “to provoke rejection by Belgrade.”166 When Milosevic refused, as designed, NATO launched a 78-day ariel bombing campaign. Even Henry Kissinger was appalled.167 All this, and yet at the turn of the millennium, Milosevic was still in power. To unseat him, something more was needed.
Since the late eighties, Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution had been actively reaching out to “Slovenian democrats.”168 In 1997, AEI began communicating with Albanian students, meeting once in person.169 And in March and April of 2000, the Albert Einstein Institution provided a workshop on nonviolent action for two-dozen members of the anti-Milosevic youth organization Otpor!—translated, “Resistance!”—at the Budapest Hilton.170 Funding for the confab came from the International Republican Institute, an NED pass-through.171
Presiding was long-time AEI consultant Colonel Robert Helvey. Helvey was an expert in clandestine actions, and had formerly presided as dean of the Defense Intelligence School, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s training institute.172 He had also served as Defense Intelligence Agency attaché to Rangoon and as instructor at the Naval War College. From March 31 to April 3, Helvey trained the young activists in the theories of Gene Sharp, “who emerged as a sort of guru to Otpor! leaders.”173 According to an understated New York Times Magazine article, “This session appears to have been significant.”
Portions of Sharp’s Politics of Nonviolent Action were translated and compiled as the “Otpor! User Manual.”174 Freedom House, a U.S. democracy promotion NGO and regular recipient of NED funds, paid for the translation, printing and distribution of 5,000 copies of Gene Sharp’s user-friendly pamphlet for nonviolent revolutionaries, From Dictatorship to Democracy.175 These materials were “disseminated to 70,000 activists throughout Serbia.”176 According to The Washington Post, “U.S. taxpayers paid for 5,000 cans of spray paint used by student activists to scrawl anti-Milosevic graffiti on walls across Serbia, and 2.5 million stickers with the slogan ‘He’s Finished…’”177 According to Colonel Helvey, Otpor! received about $25 million from the NED—a fact about which the organization’s leadership apparently lied to membership at the time.178 By fall of 2000, “Otpor was no ramshackle students’ group? it was a well-oiled movement backed by several million dollars from the United States.”179 Otpor! enjoyed not only U.S. money, but also audience with high-ranking officials: U.S. representatives from the U.S. Institute for Peace and the National Endowment for Democracy, former American ambassador to Croatia William D. Montgomery, and Madeleine Albright herself.180
In September 2000, Milosevic was unseated. In 2001, he would be arrested for war crimes and despite promises to the contrary, hauled off to The Hague for trial.181 In 2018 he was posthumously acquitted.182 All told, the NED spent $41 million to topple Milosevic in “the Bulldozer Revolution.”183 The final nails were driven into the Yugoslav project; economic liberalization accelerated.184 Dianna Stefanova, director of the European Agency for Reconstruction’s office on privatization in Kosovo, echoed the neoliberal refrain: “We must privatize… There is no alternative.”
Some of Helvey’s most enthusiastic trainees were two young men named Srdja Popovic and Slobodan Djinovic. After success in their home country, they set out to become nonviolent action trainers themselves, founding the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) in 2003.186 They began with “the concepts of the American academic Gene Sharp,” but on the basis of their revolution in Serbia, “refined and added to those ideas.”187
Popovic and Djinovic set to work training the Georgian youth activists of Kmara!—“Enough!”—who were opposing president Eduarde Shevardnadze with Otpor!’s model and a half-million dollar start-up grant from George Soros’ Open Society Institute.188 Shevardnadze had been a Yeltsin-allied architect of the Soviet Union’s dismemberment and a friend of NATO. For thirty years, he had been the most powerful politician in Georgia. But he had raised the ire of his Western sponsors. First he signed a 25-year gas contract with Russian-owned Gazprom.189 Then he sold Tblisi’s electricity distribution company to Russian-owned United Energy Systems—though only after U.S. firm AES bungled a grid privatization effort, and pulled out when its chief financial officer wound up dead after the company increased electricity rates.190
And so in this context, CANVAS trained and Kmara! agitated. A Peter Ackerman-produced film about Otpor!, Bringing Down a Dictator, was broadcast repeatedly on anti-Shevardnadze network television.191 As one activist said, “All the demonstrators knew the tactics of the revolution in Belgrade by heart because they showed . . . the film on their revolution. Everyone knew what to do. This was a copy of that revolution, only louder.” The Washington Post reported that “thousands were trained in the techniques honed in Belgrade”—that is, Gene Sharp’s politics of nonviolent action. By November 2003, Shevardnadze had been ousted by “The Rose Revolution.” Even The Guardian charged the U.S. with undertaking another regime change “trick.”192 Shevardnadze was replaced by slick Columbia Law grad Mikhail Saakashvili, who re-established friendly relations with the IMF, privatized public hospitals and clinics, deregulated the health insurance system, increased military and prison spending, signed the Economic Liberty Act which restricted the state’s ability to manage the economy, and reversed foreign policy, inciting a war with Russia.
CANVAS also coached the young Ukrainian agitators of Pora!—“It’s Time!”—who opposed leader Leonid Kuchma.193 Kuchma was corrupt, but his real political error was selling anti-aircraft radars to Saddam Hussein.194 In November 2004, The Guardian declared, “US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev,” and reported that the U.S. had already spent about $14 million in an effort to oust Kuchma.195 The “Orange Revolution” continued apace, and by early 2005, Kuchma was out and U.S.-favorite Viktor Yushchenko, former head of the Ukrainian central bank with close ties to racist ultranationalists, was in.196
In 2013, Wikileaks released emails revealing that Popovic, Otpor! star and Sharpian trainer, had been collaborating with private intelligence firm Stratfor since 2007, sharing contacts, information, and analysis from within social movements around the world.197 Popovic’s explanation: “We believe in talking to everybody…”
Oh, just read it all. Every student of National Security in India should be familiar with every word written here... it goes into the particulars of how colour revolutions were planned, financed, and implemented in multiple parts of the world after the cold war.