Reply to Peace Activist Stellan Vinthagen
By Stephen Gowans
The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, founded by the junk-bond king Michael Milken’s former right-hand man Peter Ackerman, is accumulating a stable of academic advisors who in the last week have written a series of articles on nonviolent civil disobedience for the website openDemocracy. openDemocracy is a flashy website ostensibly committed to progressive causes but whose backers are anything but progressive, unless you think corporate philanthropists and strenuously anti-communist billionaire financier George Soros are cutting checks to individuals and groups working toward traditional leftist goals.
One article, People power and the new global ferment, written by ICNC academic advisor Stellan Vinthagen, accuses me and Eva Golinger of spinning conspiracy theories. According to Vinthagen, a Swedish sociology professor,
…a final sign of the growing impact of civil resistance are radical activists, be they left-wing, right-wing, or anarchist, who rage against “the new imperialist” tool of nonviolence (writers such as Stephen Gowans and Eva Golinger). They reduce people power to a conspiracy organized by the almighty USA and (naive or reactionary) parts of local civil society that lend themselves to the overthrow of (progressive) foreign governments. Conspiracies against such governments may exist, but indigenous people power could not grow if it were, ‘made in USA’.
Vinthagen misrepresents my position. While nonviolence, to be sure, is a tool, I do not regard it as inherently “the new imperialist” tool. Indeed, my criticism is not specific to nonviolence itself, but to its high profile promoters, particularly individuals associated with the ICNC, whose affinity with nonviolent civil disobedience appears to begin and end in the assistance it can provide grass roots movements whose goals momentarily align with those of the US state in opposing a foreign government. Gene Sharp, Robert Helvey and Peter Ackerman—who have taken an old CIA practice of covertly destabilizing target governments and made it overt and seemingly progressive—appear to be less interested in the technique’s usefulness in bringing about progressive social change and more in its usefulness as a surrogate for military means of achieving US foreign policy goals, and occasionally as a complement to state violence. (For example, while nonviolent civil disobedience is often hailed by the ICNC as a sterling example of what people power can achieve, the account conspicuously overlooks the role played by NATO’s three-month-long bombing campaign, economic warfare and assistance to a KLA insurgency in creating miserable conditions for Serbs, and hence a motivation to oust then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. These measures, all of them violent and undertaken by Western states against a foreign population, established the conditions that allowed civil disobedience to eventually topple the Milosevic government.)
It is a matter of no small moment that Ackerman—the driving force behind the ICNC–is part of the US foreign policy establishment. He is a board member of the premier US foreign policy establishment think-tank, The Council on Foreign Relations, and as independent scholar activist Michael Barker points out, has “less widely advertised service [to the US ruling class] on the advisory board of America Abroad Media, where he is joined by the likes of James Woolsey, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation (the world’s largest defense contractor).”
In their Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described Freedom House, which Ackerman not too long ago headed up, as having interlocks with “the CIA, and has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing.” (1988, p. 28.) As for Ackerman’s ICNC, its role in facilitating US regime change efforts is obvious in the following, from a 2005 New Republic article by Franklin Foer: “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” (“Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.)
Nonviolent civil disobedience is a technique, preferable, to be sure, to violence. But it is no more inherently progressive than it is inherently the new imperialist tool. Whether a specific application of the tool is good or bad depends on what it is being used for, and whose interests it serves. Unfortunately, Ackerman’s background and connections—explored in detail in Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive—suggests strongly that the ICNC promotes use of the tool, not to advance democracy in the original sense of the word, but to advance the foreign policy goals of the US state.
Vinthagen and other peace activists are doubtlessly sincere in their passionate embrace of nonviolent direct action, but their passionate commitment—and the alluring resources the ICNC offers to promote it—may have blinded them to the nature of the ICNC principals and their true aims.