Stephen Zunes and the Struggle for Overseas Profits
“The name for our profits is democracy” – Phil Ochs, Cops of the World
By Stephen Gowans
Stephen Zunes, a professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, is bristling against what he calls the leftist attack on “independent” grassroots nonviolent activists who are trying to bring down “autocratic” governments and “dictatorships” in places like Zimbabwe, Belarus and Iran (1). People who have cast votes in these countries may be surprised to discover they’re living in dictatorships, but the U.S. government says they are, and “progressives” like Stephen Zunes are happy to lend credibility to Washington’s charges. “Independent” grassroots activists in these same countries may be surprised to hear they’re independent, despite the cataract of support they receive from U.S. and Western governments and Western ruling class foundations, but if Zunes wants to elevate them from fifth columnists to independent democracy activists, they’re pleased to receive his support.
These days, Zunes’ bristling against the leftist attack may have something to do with the attack hitting too close to home (2). His association with dodgy U.S. ruling class foundations that hide the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives behind a high-sounding commitment to peace has increasingly come under scrutiny. And judging by his reaction, he doesn’t like it (3).
Although he boasts of having impeccable progressive and anti-imperialist credentials, Zunes chairs the board of academic advisors for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (the ICNC), a Wall Street-connected organization that promotes nonviolent activism in the service of destabilizing foreign governments — the same ones the U.S. State Department (and Zunes) likes to discredit by calling them dictatorships.
The ICNC’s founding chair is New York investment banker Peter Ackerman, who is also a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an organization dominated by directors of major U.S. corporations, corporate lawyers and CEOs. The CFR brings together executives, government and military officials and scholars to provide policy advice to the U.S. State Department. Its key members circulate between the council, corporate board appointments and State Department positions. The CFR has never been particularly concerned about promoting peace, freedom and democracy, but has had a single-minded focus on promoting the overseas profit-making interests of U.S. corporations and investors.
Ackerman is also chairman of the board of Freedom House, an organization that champions the rights of journalists, union leaders and democracy activists to organize openly to bring down governments whose economic policies are insufficiently friendly to U.S. trade and investment. Funded by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House features a rogues’ gallery of U.S. ruling class activists who have sat, or currently sit, on its board of directors: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Otto Reich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Steve Forbes, among others. These people share Zunes’ rhetorical commitment to “freedom and democracy,” though the only freedom they’re interested in is the freedom of U.S. corporations and investors to accumulate capital wherever and whenever they please.
Ackerman’s Center has been heavily involved in successful and ongoing regime change operations, including in Yugoslavia, which Ackerman celebrated in a PBS-TV documentary, Bringing Down a Dictator, about the ouster of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Ackerman, who studied under U.S. nonviolence guru Gene Sharp, has a U.S. Marine Corps officer son who earned a silver star for service in Iraq, using bombs and bullets, not nonviolent activism, to change Iraq’s regime. Apparently, Ackerman did little to instill nonviolent values in members of his own family.
The Center’s vice-chair is Berel Rodal, a former senior Canadian government official in foreign affairs, international trade, defense, security and intelligence, hardly the kind of background you would expect of an advocate of nonviolence, but fits well someone who has taken a leadership role in promoting Western foreign policy goals. Put the two together and you get nonviolent direct activism in the service of US foreign policy goals – -exactly what Rodal, Ackerman, the ICNC and Stephen Zunes are all about.
Another Center associate is Robert Helvey, whose book “On Strategic Non-Violent Conflict: Thinking about the Fundamental”, is promoted on the Center’s website. Helvey is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former U.S. military attaché to Myanmar (like Rodal’s, an improbable background for a budding Ghandi) who has been linked to anti-Chavez groups. Chavez has accused Helvey’s employer, the Albert Einstein Institution, of being behind an imperialist conspiracy to overthrow his government (4). Zunes says that “charges that…Bob Helvey” or the Albert Einstein Institution or the ICNC “are serving as agents of U.S. imperialism are totally unfounded” and that “the only visit to Venezuela that has taken place on behalf of any of these non-profit groups engaged in educational efforts on strategic nonviolence was in early 2006 when” Zunes “led a series of workshops at the World Social Forum in Caracas.” (5) Chavez, he says, has fallen for a conspiracy theory. These “individuals and groups” are not “plotting with his opponents to overthrow him.” (6)
But a Reuters’ report says Helvey was brought to Caracas in 2003 “by a group of businessmen and professionals to give courses to young activists on how to ‘resist, oppose, and change a government without the use of bombs and bullets.’” (7) Is Zunes unaware of this, or is he paltering with the truth?
Helvey’s dalliances with the anti-Chavez opposition came fast on the heels of “his work in Serbia before Milosevic’s fall” where he “briefed students on ways to organize a strike and how to undermine the authority of a dictatorial regime.” (8)
Zunes has received at least one research grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and has served as a fellow of the organization (9). USIP’s aim is to “help prevent and resolve violent conflicts”, an improbable mandate given that the organization was established by the U.S. government, receives funding from Congress, and has a board of directors appointed by the President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the president of the National Defense University – hardly the world’s greatest advocates of peace, but pretty effective advocates of the pursuit of U.S. corporate and investor interests abroad.
What’s not so improbable is that Zune’s ICNC colleagues (you know, the guys who are absolutely not agents of U.S. imperialism) are also connected to USIP. ICNC founder and Freedom House chair Peter Ackerman is on the advisory council. Former U.S. Air Force officer, presidential campaign speechwriter and ICNC director Jack DuVall – who Zunes must know well based on his assurances that “Jack DuVall…is not an agent of U.S. imperialism” (10) — is also connected to the USIP.
It’s hardly curious, then, that a group of Americans, many with backgrounds in the military, but also in foreign policy and investment banking, connected in some way to the U.S.-government funded and directed Institute of Peace, and involved in training foreign activists to destabilize foreign governments, might be seen as agents of U.S. imperialism. But Zunes says they’re not, offering his assertion alone (and his self-proclaimed credentials as a progressive and anti-imperialist) as proof.
Zunes’ rhetoric is reminiscent of Bush’s. He says nonviolent activists are pursuing “freedom and democracy” (in the same way, apparently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a project in bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East). He throws the charge of dictatorship around as facilely as Bush does. Yugoslavia (in 1999), Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Iran are dictatorships, he says. Apparently, Zunes has been too busy mimicking State Department press releases to notice there are elections and opposition parties in these places.
He says “there is no evidence…to suggest…that the U.S. government or any U.S.-funded entity has ever provided training, advice, or strategic assistance for the kind of mass popular nonviolent action campaigns that have toppled governments or threatened the survival of incumbent regimes.” (11)
Maybe he hasn’t been paying attention. When it comes to Zimbabwe, one of Zunes’ and the U.S. government’s favorite betes noire, there’s plenty of evidence. The British newspaper The Guardian revealed as early as August 22, 2002 that, “The United States government has said it wants to see President Robert Mugabe removed from power and that it is working with the Zimbabwean opposition” “trade unions, pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations” “to bring about a change of administration.” (12)
Washington confirmed its own civil society-assisted regime change plans for Zimbabwe in an April 5, 2007 report, revealing that in 2006 “The U.S. government continued to support the efforts of the political opposition, the media and civil society,” including providing training and assistance to the kind of grassroots “pro-democracy” groups phony anti-imperialists, among them, another ruling class foundation-connected academic, Patrick Bond, celebrate as “the independent left.” (13) The U.S. “supported workshops to develop youth leadership skills necessary to confront social injustice through nonviolent strategies.” (14)
Zunes tries to defend U.S. government meddling in the affairs of other countries by pointing out that “the limited amount of financial support provided to opposition groups by the United States and other Western governments in recent years cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place.” (15)
Who said it could? The real issue isn’t whether groups that challenge foreign governments are homegrown; it’s what they’re struggling for, why phony peace institutes are helping them, and what they’re going to end up with if they’re successful.
How curious that the governments Zunes really seems to be concerned about (Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus and Myanmar) are hostile to the idea of opening their doors to unrestricted U.S. investment and exports. How curious that the successful soft revolutions Zunes admires (Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine) have brought pro-U.S., pro-foreign investment governments to power.
And what happens when the soft revolutions Zunes and his colleagues assist, succeed? In Serbia, which Zunes’ ICNC considers to be the site of one of its most successful engagements, “dollars have accomplished what bombs could not. After U.S.-led international sanctions were lifted with Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the United States emerged as the largest single source of foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, U.S. companies have made $1 billion worth of ‘committed investments’ represented in no small part by the $580 million privatization of Nis Tobacco Factory (Phillip Morris) and a $250 million buyout of the national steel producer by U.S. Steel. Coca-Cola bought a Serbian bottled water producer in 2005 for $21 million. The list goes on.” (16)
Meanwhile, in Kosovo, the “coal mines and electrical facilities, the postal service, the Pristina airport, the railways, landfills, and waste management systems have all been privatized. As is the case across the Balkans, ‘publicly-owned enterprises’ are auctioned for a fraction of their value on the private market with little or no compensation for taxpayers.” (17)
It should be recalled that prior to the soft revolution-engineered corporate takeover, the Yugoslav economy consisted largely of state- and socially-owned enterprises, leaving little room for U.S. profit-making opportunities, not the kind of place investment bankers like Ackerman could easily warm up to. That the toppling of Milosevic had everything to do with opening space for U.S. investors and corporations should have been apparent to anyone who read chapter four of the U.S.-authored Rambouillet ultimatum, an ultimatum Milosevic rejected, triggering weeks of NATO bombing. The first article called for a free-market economy and the second for privatization of all government-owned assets. NATO bombs seemed to have had an unerring ability to hit Yugoslavia’s socially-owned factories and to miss foreign-owned ones. This was an economic take-over project.
Zunes’ associate Helvey hasn’t limited himself to training activists to overthrow governments in Venezuela and Serbia. Wherever Washington seeks to oust governments that pursue economically nationalist or socialist policies, you’ll find Helvey (and perhaps Zunes as well) holding seminars on nonviolent direct action: in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Iraq (before the U.S. invasion) and in Iran (18).
Zunes would be a more credible anti-imperialist were he organizing seminars on how to use nonviolent direct action to overthrow the blatantly imperialist U.S. and British governments. With the largest demonstrations in history held in Western cities on the eve of the last conspicuous eruption of Anglo-American imperialism, it cannot be denied that there’s a grassroots movement for peace and democracy in the West awaiting Zunes’ assistance. So is he training U.S. and British grassroots activists to use nonviolent direct action to stop the machinery of war? No. His attention is directed outward, not on his own government, but on the governments Washington and ruling class think-tanks want overthrown. He’s also busy applying for grants from a phony U.S. government institute of peace, hooking up with Peter Ackerman and his gaggle of fifth column promoters and mimicking U.S. State Department nonsense about countries the U.S. ruling class would like to dominate but can’t being dictatorships and their Western-funded oppositions being independent.
Genuine progressives and anti-imperialists should carefully scrutinize the backgrounds of Zunes and others, paying special attention to their foundation and think-tank connections. They should also ask whether the “independent” grassroots groups these people celebrate are really independent, or whether they’re as tightly connected to Western governments and ruling class activist foundations as Zunes is.
1. “Nonviolent Action and Pro-Democracy Struggles,” Z-Net, February 17, 2008,
. See also Zune’s “Leftist Attack on Nonviolent Direct Action for Democratic Change, www.canvasopedia.org/files/various/Leftist_Attack_on_NVA.doc
2. Michael Barker, “Peace Activists, Criticism, and Nonviolent Imperialism,” MRZine, January 8, 2008,
and John Bellamy Foster, “Reply to Stephen Zunes on Imperialism and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,” MRZine, January 17, 2008,
3. Stephen Zunes, “Spurious Attacks on Supporters of Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression, MRZine, January 18, 2008,
4. The Guardian, June 7, 2007.
5. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
Concerning Zunes’ assurances that Gene Sharp, Robert Helvey and the Albert Einstein Institution are not agents of U.S. imperialism and aren’t assisting groups plotting to overthrow the Chavez government:
“The AEI is run by Gene Sharp, a self-titled expert of what he calls ‘nonviolent defense,’ though better termed ‘regime change.’ His methodologies have been studied and utilized by opposition movements in Burma, Thailand, Tibet, Belarus, Serbia, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. In the AEI’s 2004 annual report, Venezuela is highlighted as an area where actions are currently being taken:
Venezuelans opposed to Chavez met with Gene Sharp and other AEI staff to talk about the deteriorating political situation in their country. They also discussed options of opposition groups to further their cause effectively without violence. These visits led to an in-country consultation in April 2003. The nine day consultation was held by consultants Robert Helvey and Chris Miler in Caracas for members of the Venezuelan democratic opposition. The objective of the consultation was to provide them with the capacity to develop a nonviolent strategy to restore democracy to Venezuela. Participants included members of political parties and unions, nongovernmental organization leaders and unaffiliated activists…Helvey presented a course of instruction on the theory, applications and planning for a strategic nonviolent struggle. Through this, the participants realized the importance of strategic planning to overcome existing shortcomings in the opposition’s campaign against Chavez. Ofensiva Cuidadana, a pro-democracy group in Venezuela, request and organized the workshop. The workshop has led to continued contact with Venezuelans and renewed requests for additional consultations.”
Eva Golinger, Bush vs Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2008, p. 136.
Either Zunes doesn’t know what’s going on, or is playing fast and loose with the truth.
7. Reuters, April 30, 2003.
10. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
12. The Guardian, August 22, 2002,
13. Stephen Gowans, “Talk Left, Funded Right, April 7, 2007,
14. U.S. Department of State, The U.S. Record 2006,
15. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
16. Elise Hugus, “Eight Years After NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’: Serbia’s new ‘third way’”, Z Magazine, April 2007, Volume 20, Number 4.
18. The Albert Einstein Institution, Report on Activities, 2000 to 2004,