Competing Below the Threshold

Harnessing Nonviolent Action

Maj. John Chambers, U.S. Army

Dr. Lionel Beehner

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A number of recent events highlight how nonviolent resistance has befuddled foreign militaries. In the spring of 2018, for example, a nonviolent Pashtun movement rose to protest the Pakistani military’s oppression and extrajudicial killings of ethnic Pashtuns.1 In January 2019, nationwide protests in Venezuela left security forces unclear on who was in charge and how the international community might respond.2 In the summer of 2019, prodemocracy protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to voice opposition to Beijing.3 In each case, civilians were able to leverage protests to force regimes to acknowledge their demands, and the regimes struggled to respond to nonviolent threats against their authority appropriately.

As the U.S. military finds its capability to project conventional power unrivaled in its history, the current operational environment is giving rise to forms of warfare that are nonviolent by design and that challenge the cherished Jominian beliefs that war requires armed actors engaged in large-scale combat operations. As a result, American soldiers will find themselves increasingly tasked to take on issues outside the bounds of simply killing the enemy to achieve the Nation’s strategic objectives. Consequently, we must evaluate and pursue strategies in order to achieve our objectives within these constraints. Nonviolent action is one of these strategies.

Nonviolent action is a kind of proxy warfare that falls below the threshold of armed conflict. History is replete with states attempting to “delegate war” to nonstate actors or insurgent groups as a way to outsource the management of violence to achieve certain ends or to avoid escalation with a more powerful enemy. Under conditions defined by competition short of armed conflict, nonviolent approaches fill a critical gap in the national security toolkit.4

External support of nonviolent actions is an effective component of military strategy. The term “external support” refers to the provision of technical, logistical, financial, or material support to an unarmed actor through the actions of capacity building and connecting. Although predominantly the purview of civilian agencies, support for nonviolent actions should be integrated into U.S. military doctrine. This is not to argue that nonviolent action is a substitute for what militaries should train and equip for; rather, it can serve as a vital complement, whether deployed simultaneously or sequentially, as a way to create multiple dilemmas for a targeted regime.

The logic is manifold. Given the interconnectedness of today’s world, where images of disproportionate collateral damage can be broadcast across the globe at an instant, cases of nonviolent action highlight the shortcomings of traditional military tools and approaches. Warfare, moreover, is becoming more diffused and decentralized, enabling individuals and nonstate actors in ways unprecedented. Consider the ways in which nonstate actors can conduct cyberattacks largely undetected or how a sophisticated bot can weaponize information to disrupt democratic elections. States, too, are incentivized to operate “below the threshold” of armed conflict and engage in nonlethal activities that fall into the “gray zone.”5 Below the threshold of conflict, the U.S. military finds itself at a disadvantage, given its doctrine, organization, training, equipment, personnel, norms, and standard operating procedures.

What Is Nonviolent Action, and How Does It Work?

U.S. military strategists and policy makers have not paid sufficient attention to the utility of nonviolent action despite historical precedent and ample academic research supporting its effectiveness. Nonviolent action removed post-Soviet strongmen in Georgia and Ukraine; ousted dictators in the Philippines, Serbia, and Egypt; and enabled the Russian Federation’s near-bloodless annexation of Crimea. Scholars find that nonviolent resistance campaigns are nearly twice as likely to succeed as those that employ violence.6 Put bluntly, nonviolent action works by eroding the power base of a regime through the mobilization of the people against it; it fails if the people do not support the regime.

Nonviolent action is the application of power in a conflict using “symbolic protests, noncooperation, and defiance but not physical violence.”7 The purpose of nonviolent action is to achieve strategic objectives—ranging from varying degrees of governmental reform to removal of the incumbent regime and to expulsion of a foreign occupier.8 Proponents of strategic nonviolent conflict emphasize the choice to engage in civil resistance as one based on pragmatism rather than moral considerations. That is, militaries support such strategies because of their operational effectiveness, not out of some normative principle, though advancing American values is part of the National Security Strategy.9

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Nonviolent action is the application of power in a conflict using ‘symbolic protests, noncooperation, and defiance but not physical violence.’

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Nonviolent campaigns may achieve their objectives via one of four mechanisms, or a combination thereof: conversion, accommodation, coercion, or disintegration.10 Conversion occurs when the incumbent changes its views and accepts the claims of the nonviolent group. Accommodation is the outcome of compromise, where both parties relinquish part of their objectives without appearing to violate their fundamental principles. Coercion and disintegration occur when the incumbent maintains its intent to control the political system but is weakened to the point where it must acquiesce or it simply falls apart.

Two key dynamics of nonviolence are relevant to the external sponsor: eroding a regime’s sources of political power and enabling postconflict political outcomes favorable to the sponsor’s core values. Regarding the first dynamic, regimes derive political power from authority, human resources, skills and knowledge, material resources, sanctions, and psychological factors that lead to habits and attitudes.11 A regime’s authority is derived from its possession of a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”12 It emphasizes that legitimacy is derived from the people, and power depends on the obedience and cooperation of the governed.13 Under many authoritarian states, citizens act “as if” they revere the regime, and the mere act of adorning societies with symbols of rules and cults of personality, even if meaningless, is evidence of a form of power.14 Other scholars note that coercion is costly for regimes, so leaders should prefer that their citizens comply with orders—say, paying one’s taxes—voluntarily.15 When large swaths of the population disobey and refuse to recognize or legitimize these sources of power, the regime loses control and can ultimately be removed.16

Greater numbers of mobilized citizens lead to enhanced resilience, a higher level of tactical innovation, and thus, a greater opportunity for disruption. Disruptions shift the loyalty of opponents, most crucially members of the security forces that undergird the repressive regime, which creates further pressure to alter the status quo. Security force defections increase the chance of success of nonviolent action by nearly 60 percent, and the likelihood of inducing defections increases steadily as resistance membership grows.17 In this way, nonviolent action achieves strategic objectives by undermining the power structures in a regime that depends on obedience and cooperation.18

A second key component of nonviolent action is enabling postconflict political outcomes favorable to the sponsor’s core values. Successor governments ushered in through nonviolent methods are more democratic and durable than those established through violent insurgency. Successful nonviolent campaigns increase the probability of democratic regime type emergence by over 50 percent.19 In contrast, countries are more likely to experience recurrence of civil war within ten years if exposed to a violent campaign.20 These outcomes occur because citizens involved in mass nonviolent action are likely to remain politically engaged in the transition process, citizens may expect movement leadership to maintain nonviolent relationships with their constituents, and nonviolent movements are less likely to rely on secrecy and military virtues as part of the new regime.21 On a more basic level, the death, destruction, and sectarian enmity often wrought by violent insurgency make postconflict consolidation difficult and costly.


Core Benefits of External Sponsorship

Beyond the empirical evidence that nonviolent campaigns are more successful than their violent counterparts, we point to four key benefits of this kind of sponsorship: nonkinetic solutions, nonattribution, amplification of other elements of national power, and support for liberal norms and values.

Nonkinetic solutions. There are many instances where kinetic solutions to achieve strategic ends are either inappropriate or ineffective. These instances arise due to risk aversion resulting from domestic political considerations or competing alliances. Often, domestic political considerations such as an aversion to casualties or large-scale troop deployments constrain the options available to decision-makers. A recent example of this risk aversion was the war against the Islamic State in Syria, which was fought mostly by proxy on both the Russian and U.S. sides. When risk aversion exists, nonviolent action provides a nonkinetic option to achieve national objectives while limiting the danger troops are exposed to and the number of troops involved in the conflict. Furthermore, sponsoring a nonviolent movement can help prevent escalation to a broader “shooting war” through its nonviolent nature. This limits collateral damage and preserves infrastructure in already unstable regions. More importantly, engaging in nonviolent action keeps the conflict below the threshold of war and limits the ability of regimes to bring their allies into the fight for additional support. Consequently, nonviolent action can achieve its objectives while limiting the scope of a conflict and decreasing the risk for escalation.

Nonattribution. Covertly sponsoring a nonviolent campaign may allow an external sponsor to influence the operational environment to achieve strategic ends while maintaining plausible deniability. This lowers domestic political risk as well as the risk of intervention by adversaries of the external sponsor who may be allied with the targeted regime. This likely keeps the conflict below the threshold of war and in the so-called gray zone between peace and war. Additionally, should the nonviolent movement shift to violence or change direction in its strategic objectives, nonattribution allows the external sponsor to withdraw support without negative domestic and international consequences.

Amplification of other elements of national power. Nonviolent movements erode the power of regimes and force the regimes to devote significant time and resources to addressing actions of the movement. Consequently, regime leadership is often preoccupied with ending the nonviolent movement and regaining lost power. This allows the external sponsor to achieve greater effects with its other elements of power—diplomatic, economic, and information. For example, as regimes lose power, they may be more susceptible to diplomatic pressure if it allows them to maintain their current status and position. Similarly, if an external power has imposed economic sanctions on a targeted regime’s industrial base and the nonviolent movement focuses its effects on disrupting production and transportation through the use of walkouts, work stoppages, work slowdowns, and marches, the impact of economic sanctions is amplified.22

Support for liberal norms and values. Sponsoring nonviolent action allows the external sponsor to support liberal norms and values, such as life, liberty, equality, freedom of speech, and democracy, while maintaining the moral high ground and not engaging in violent regime change. Democracies rely on their people to elect their leaders, and supporting regime change through violent means is often antithetical to these liberal norms and values. Consequently, sponsoring nonviolent action allows external sponsors to support liberal norms and values while maintaining the moral high ground and achieving strategic ends that are beneficial to the external sponsors. In virtually all of the national security strategies going back decades, there has been an emphasis on spreading American values, such as individual liberty, justice, and rule of law.

Nonviolent Action in Modern Conflict

In the post-Cold War era, the United States became wedded to a paradigm defined by the binary conditions of war or peace in the international system. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 forced a reassessment of the pervading mental models of conflict and an adaptation to a spectrum that includes interstate competition below the threshold of traditional war. Literature on gray-zone conflict and recent military concepts focus on such competition, but the role of nonviolent action remains largely unexplored. The special operations community has been the most proactive in discussing nonviolent action within the context of its unconventional warfare core activity, but progress remains limited. Resolving this gap is critical to optimizing the application of limited resources to compete in today’s complex operating environment.

The gray zone describes the competitive space below the internationally recognized legal understanding of war. Mixing nontraditional, military, and nonmilitary tools to pursue political objectives while avoiding escalatory thresholds characterizes such competition.23 The U.S. defense community has only recently begun to wrap its head around this concept, but America’s adversaries have been drawing lessons from the past two decades.24 A number of top Russian officials described color revolutions as “a new form of warfare invented by Western governments” to enact regime change short of war.25

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. government-financed organizations such as the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute spent millions of dollars on democratic civil society movements that contributed to the “rose” and “orange” revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), respectively.26 However, these were part of broader democracy promotion efforts rather than a deliberate attempt to compete with Russia through nonviolent methods. Ironically, in condemning the United States’ use of nonmilitary means, Russia incorporates nonmilitary means such as support to political opposition and information warfare as key elements of its gray-zone approach.27

Paralleling the gray-zone discussion, the idea of “competition” pervades recent military concepts such as the U.S. Army’s multi-domain operations (MDO) and the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC). MDO recognizes the role of U.S. forces in “competition” as active campaigning to “advance or defend national interests without the large-scale violence that characterized armed conflict.”28 It specifically calls for “converging political and military capabilities—lethal and nonlethal—across multiple domains in space and time to create windows of advantage” but then primarily focuses on deterring and defeating adversary aggression with an emphasis toward setting conditions to win maneuver campaigns in armed conflict.29

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Ironically, in condemning the United States’ use of nonmilitary means, Russia incorporates nonmilitary means such as support to political opposition and information warfare as key elements of its gray-zone approach.

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The JCIC advances the discussion by providing a framework for competition that allows for conveying prioritization and specifying the degree of ambition or restraint based on political objectives, resources, and risk. The United States may improve its strategic position or counter or contest adversaries—all with the aim of setting conditions “to enable the maximum range of measures to absorb change and respond effectively as the intensity of the political situation changes.”30 Less prescriptive than MDO, the JCIC provides a fertile place to incorporate nonviolent action as a way to compete.

Before Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Arab Spring generated a wave of discussion amongst academia, practitioners, and military thinkers on the utility of nonviolent action as a form of warfare. Erica Chenoweth and Srdja Popovic both refer to nonviolent action in the context of “asymmetric” and “unconventional” warfare.31 On the military side, limited attempts have been made to introduce social movement theory and civil resistance into the official special operations core activity of unconventional warfare (UW). Doowan Lee first provided a “social movement approach” to UW that expanded the aperture from the traditional emphasis on supporting violent insurgencies to include nonviolent resistance movements.32 Will Irwin of the Joint Special Operations University offers the most comprehensive examination to date, describing how “full-spectrum” UW may enable successful competition in the gray zone.33 Despite efforts to incorporate nonviolent action under the UW umbrella, even special operations leaders recognize that critical gaps in policy and military doctrine remain.34

Operationalizing External Support to Nonviolent Action

Gene Sharp, sometimes described as the “Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,” characterizes the role of external support as “at best supplementary and complementary to internal resistance, never as the main actions of the struggle,” because to be most effective, the aggrieved group must bear the brunt of the struggle against the repressive regime.35 Despite his view of the limited use and effectiveness of international support, third-party nonviolent intervention (TPNI) continues to proliferate amongst grassroots organizations and state actors alike.36 This article focuses on the military’s ability to leverage the TPNI mechanisms of capacity building via technical and financial assistance, and connecting by facilitating planning, communication, and linkages across indigenous activist networks and between transnational actors.37

How can the U.S. military more effectively incorporate support for nonviolent action into its toolkit? The existing capability resident within U.S. special operations forces provides an available solution for the U.S. military to support a nonviolent action campaign through capacity building via technical, financial, and material assistance, and connecting through the facilitation of communications and networking. Through the strategies, tactics, techniques, and procedures of UW, which focus on supporting resistance movements against adversarial regimes, U.S. special operations forces could externally sponsor a nonviolent campaign to achieve their strategic ends.38 While sponsoring and executing a nonviolent campaign might seem counterintuitive to some who argue that the military is meant to apply overwhelming force and kill the enemy, it is an important tool that can be more effective than blunt violent action under certain circumstances.

As described in the U.S. Army Special Operation Command’s “The Unconventional Warfare Pocket Guide,” key phases of a UW campaign include organization, building, and employment.39 During the organization phase, Special Forces (SF) teams organize, train, and equip resistance cadre with an emphasis on developing infrastructure.40 In essence, SF teams are building capacity for the resistance movement. To do this in a TPNI setting, teams may provide technical and material assistance, and in some cases, financial assistance to allow the movement to build infrastructure essential for expansion and the ability to build a larger following and increase pressure on the regime.

During the buildup phase of UW, SF teams focus on expanding the movement into an effective resistance organization.41 The teams connect the resistance organization to additional resources and personnel in order to increase their size and effectiveness. In a TPNI setting, the ability to increase resources and personnel available to a nonviolent movement builds leverage and places more pressure on the regime as more citizens are brought into the movement against the regime.

Finally, during the employment phase of UW, SF teams support the resistance as it initiates operations against the regime.42 In the context of TPNI, SF teams could use their special skill sets and enablers to help the resistance movement plan and conduct an effective nonviolent campaign to increase pressure on the regime. Teams could also leverage psychological operations capabilities using social media platforms to increase the effectiveness of their operations and the pressure on the regime to capitulate through conversion, accommodation, coercion, or disintegration.


Factors Influencing Successful External Sponsorship

An external sponsor has limited leverage over internal movement dynamics via the mechanisms of capacity building and connecting as discussed above, but its influence over radical flanks, moreover, is virtually nonexistent. Regarding the former, an external sponsor may attempt to pressure the movement to remain united and maintain nonviolent discipline. The sponsor may also abandon its efforts by terminating support when violent opposition reaches an unacceptable threshold and leverage mechanisms cease to be effective at arresting the slide toward violence. Abandonment may demonstrate the sponsor’s commitment to nonviolent principles, but it may also have a perverse effect on the sponsor’s overall credibility: Why would any movement hitch its wagon to the sponsor if it will ultimately be left to its demise? Consequently, policy makers and military planners must also understand the factors that influence the success of nonviolent action campaigns.

First, and most significant, a state cannot export a revolution—the population that will execute a nonviolent action campaign must be committed to resisting those in charge. If the population is not committed, nothing the intervening force does will lead to or culminate in revolution or regime change. Also, it can backfire. State repression may lead to a spiral effect of tit-for-tat violence that escalates to a broader civil war as seen in the initial phase of the Syria conflict. Violence can also signal to the international community one’s willingness to incur risks for a cause, and conversely, nonviolence can unwittingly signal the opposite, creating perverse incentives and moral hazards.

Beyond those broad-based factors, external sponsors face a number of challenges unique to harnessing nonviolent action employed by indigenous resistance movements—these are the dilemmas of control, legitimacy, and dependency that result in reinforcing and opposing relationships caused by internal and external dynamics (see figure).

Control. Support to nonviolent resistance is essentially proxy warfare. History is replete with states attempting to “delegate war” to rebel organizations, primarily as a material and political cost-saving device.43 A sponsor’s ability to extract favorable outcomes is a function of first choosing the right group to support and subsequently the ability to influence the proxy’s actions. In principle-agent theory, these are known as adverse selection and agency slack—incomplete information often prevents the sponsor from understanding the proxy’s true capabilities or intentions, and divergent goals are difficult to mitigate if the sponsor does not have sufficient leverage over the proxy.44 This may be troublesome if a sponsor chooses to categorically reject violence, but the proxy decides to transition from nonviolence to violence—how to ensure nonviolent discipline is maintained. Similarly, if a sponsor chooses to pursue a parallel approach to capitalize on a potential positive radical flank effect, or build violent capacity in preparation for sequential action, how does one restrain the violent wings or prevent them from acting too soon? There is inherent tension between building capacity and creating expectations that may go unmet.


Legitimacy. The attribution of assistance to a local nonstate actor from an external sponsor can create the very spiral dynamics nonviolent action seeks to avoid. Groups may be resistant for this reason of accepting financial transfers or training. The “foreign taint” can also negatively impact a group’s legitimacy among its population. An example of this was the Bush-era push to give Iranian opposition groups $75 million as a way to boost civil society there, establish a prodemocracy broadcast in Farsi, and undermine the regime, yet the effort was soundly rejected by locals.45 The Maidan movement in Kyiv’s 2014 uprising was similarly tarred by Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine and the Kremlin as agents of the West. The effects of external support may be particularly acute for nonviolent movements because support impacts the ability of movement leaders to mobilize potential participants and contributes to the regime’s rationale for excessive repression. The external sponsor must consider the trade-offs between overt and covert support, as well as the role of cumulative credibility on long-term ability to effectively employ nonviolent resistance movements in support of strategic objectives.

Covert support affords the sponsor the potential for deniability, which may allow both the sponsor and the recipient to mitigate the costs associated with outside manipulation. However, given realistic constraints on maintaining plausible deniability, sponsors and recipients may consider the value of Robert Helvey’s guidance on the influence of foreign nationals: “Such assistance should be readily acknowledged or even matter-of-factly characterized by the movement as opposition requested technical assistance which has no line authority and strict accountability.”46 Transparency may increase movement credibility in the eyes of constituents if leadership is upfront about its sources of support, and this may preclude embarrassing revelations later on. However, research shows that overt, external state support may have no effect on the success of nonviolent campaigns, so the benefits of disclosure should be weighed against the potential for conflict escalation with the target regime.47

Sponsor credibility is a key concern for both sides. Véronique Dudouet notes there has been inconsistency on the part of Western nations supporting prodemocracy activists, which is often a function of competing foreign policy interests focused on security and economics.48 This perception may impact the initial willingness of nonviolent resistance movements to partner with the United States, and the manner in which the United States executes the support will impact long-term ability to repeatedly employ nonviolent resistance movements. The United States has a history of abandoning its proxies when political winds shift. Transparency may also allow the targeted regime to delegitimize the movement by labeling them as “supporters of Western imperialism” and “American agents.”49 Indeed in the past, just as Russia accuses today, regimes such as Iran, Belarus, and Burma have claimed democracy promotion efforts were “soft coups” against governments considered hostile to U.S. interests.50 Beyond delegitimizing the movement, U.S. support could also provide the justification for increased repression. Unless the repression results in backfire, this increases the barriers to entry for growing and sustaining the movement.

Dependency. The external sponsorship of nonviolent action can have the same perverse incentives of external sponsorship of violent insurgencies, including the creation of a kind of dependency that can erode morale and motivation, as well as inhibit the development of homegrown innovation or logistical capacity. Resistance movements must acquire resources to mobilize against the target regime. The origin of such material support may impact how the movement behaves toward its constituents. Studies indicate that dependence on foreign sponsorship contributes to abusive relationships between rebel groups and civilian populations. This dynamic may stem from initial resource endowments: resource-poor rebels are more likely to moderate their behavior toward civilians because they need community buy-in to secure support; in contrast, resource-rich rebels, owing either from a monopoly on natural resource extraction or external patronage, are less likely to rely on the populace for their survival and may subsequently engage in abusive activity that alienates a mass support base.51 Idean Salehyan qualifies this dynamic based on the type of external sponsorship: support by democratic states with a track record in favor of human rights is better able to constrain rebel behavior via initial selection criteria and subsequent leverage mechanisms.52 With caution toward drawing too direct a comparison between violent and nonviolent insurgencies, a similar dynamic exists with nonviolent movements where activists may lose their power base by relying too heavily on foreign rather than local support.53

Navigating the linkage of control, legitimacy, and dependency is the critical dilemma impacting a sponsor’s effective employment of nonviolent resistance movements. Sponsors require leverage over their clients to influence their actions. This leverage may be best attained by control of resource provision. However, the more reliant resistance movements are on external sponsors, the more likely they will neglect their constituents. If the success of nonviolent action is contingent upon mobilizing the largest popular base, the presence of external sponsorship may become problematic for all parties involved if these dynamics are not carefully managed.



From Russian interference in Western elections to the reverberations from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, nonviolent actions have left their indelible mark on modern states and societies, even as these actions reshape our preconceptions of what contemporary warfare resembles. Nonviolent action also puts militaries trained and equipped to fight conventional armies or to counter insurgencies or terrorist groups at a disadvantage. There may be institutional resistance within some quarters of the U.S. military to engage in nonviolent action, given the opportunity costs associated with it, especially when it comes to training. But as warfare changes and looks less like what Carl von Clausewitz envisioned—the harnessing of a large-scale and organized violence to achieve some political end—and is more diffused, urban, and unconventional, demand for nonviolent action will increase.

The U.S. military must look past its institutional biases toward large-scale combat operations, and in line with MDO, truly look toward converging political and military capabilities across multiple domains to create windows of advantage.54 If we look at future conflict through the lens of most likely and most dangerous, the most likely form is low-intensity, gray-zone type conflict. In these types of conflicts, third-party nonviolent intervention is a viable course—within its constraints—which allows nations to achieve strategic objectives without resorting to large-scale troop deployments, and in some cases, maintaining plausible deniability. As the ubiquitous “small wars” continue and the U.S. military prioritizes preparation for large-scale, decisive-action type conflict, policy makers need a capability to limit U.S. entanglement while still achieving strategic objectives. Support for nonviolent action fills this niche, and consequently, deserves recognition and resources.


  1. Javid Ahmad, “Pakistan’s Secret War Machine,” The National Interest (website), 7 May 2018, accessed 6 January 2020,
  2. Ana Vanessa Herrero and Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Venezuela’s Opposition Leader Calls for More Protests ‘If They Dare to Kidnap Me,’” New York Times (website), 25 January 2019, accessed 6 January 2020,
  3. Chun Han Wong, Mike Cherney, and Joanne Chiu, “Political Crisis Deepens in Hong Kong as Protesters Retake Streets,” The Wall Street Journal (website), 15 September 2019, accessed 6 January 2020,
  4. Arnel David, “A New Way of Warfare: The Strategic Logic of Harnessing Non-Violent Combat,” Small Wars Journal, 11 March 2015, accessed 6 January 2020,
  5. “Gen. Joe Dunford on: ‘Gray Zone’ Warfare, below the Threshold of Armed Conflict,” YouTube video, posted by “Joint Staff Public Affairs,” 12 April 2018, accessed 27 January 2020,
  6. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 6–7. Results reflect empirical analysis of 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. Nonviolent campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success when taking into account target regime characteristics.
  7. “What Is Nonviolent Action?,” Albert Einstein Institution, last modified 23 September 2015, accessed 6 January 2020, This report uses the terms nonviolent action, nonviolent resistance, nonviolent struggle, civil resistance, and people power interchangeably.
  8. Gene Sharp, How Nonviolent Struggle Works (East Boston, MA: Albert Einstein Institution, 2013), 23. Nonviolent action pioneer Gene Sharp identified 198 methods of nonviolent action that fall into three categories: protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. Examples of these methods include protests, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, and walkouts.
  9. The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States (Washington, DC: The White House), 4.
  10. Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (East Boston, MA: Albert Einstein Institution), 45-46.
  11. Gene Sharp, The Role of Power in Nonviolent Struggle (East Boston, MA: Albert Einstein Institution, 1990), 4.
  12. Max Weber, “Politics as Vocation,” in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, trans. and ed. Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters (New York: Palgrave Books, 2015), 136.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  15. Margaret Levi, Of Rule and Revenue (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).
  16. For a more in-depth discussion of the role of power in nonviolent movements, see Sharp, The Role of Power in Nonviolent Struggle.
  17. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 48, 58.
  18. Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, 29.
  19. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 213.
  20. Ibid., 217. Countries with violent campaigns have a 42 percent chance of civil war recurrence, compared to 28 percent for countries in which nonviolent campaigns occurred. For example, reference Peru where the violent Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement emerged following the defeat of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency in 1995.
  21. Ibid., 207–8.
  22. For a more in-depth discussion of the role of power in nonviolent movements, see Sharp, The Role of Power in Nonviolent Struggle.
  23. James M. Dubik and Nic Vincent, America’s Global Competitions: The Gray Zone in Context (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, February 2018), 31, accessed 6 January 2020,
  24. See Mark Galeotti, “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War,” In Moscow’s Shadows (blog), 6 July 2014, accessed 2 December 2015,
  25. Dmitry Gorenberg, “Countering Color Revolutions: Russia’s New Security Strategy and Its Implications for U.S. Policy,” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 342 (Washington, DC: Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, September 2014), 1, accessed 6 January 2020,
  26. Matthew Collin, The Time of the Rebels: Youth Resistance Movements and 21st Century Revolutions (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007), 153, 185. For example, the New York Times estimated that the United States spent $24 million on “democracy-building” programs in Ukraine in 2004, in addition to other “technical assistance” to democracy activists around the world.
  27. Nicolas Bouchet, “Russia’s ‘Militarization’ of Colour Revolutions,” CSS Policy Perspectives 4, no. 2 (January 2016): 52, accessed 7 January 2020, This was evident in Ukraine as Russia utilized a local referendum to justify its 2014 annexation of Crimea, coupled with the subsequent presence of “little green men” supporting pro-Russian crowds and seizing government buildings.
  28. Multi-Domain Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century, 2025-2040, version 1.0 (Fort Eustis, VA: Training and Doctrine Command, October 2017), 2.
  29. Ibid., 21.
  30. Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 16 March 2018), 9, 11, 19–22, accessed 6 January 2020,
  31. Octavian Manea, “Civil Resistance as a Form of Unconventional Warfare: Interview with Professor Erica Chenoweth,” Small Wars Journal, 21 March 2012, accessed 6 January 2020,; Octavian Manea, “Nonviolent Struggle as Asymmetric Warfare: Interview with Srdja Popovic,” Small Wars Journal, 26 March 2012, accessed 6 January 2020,
  32. Doowan Lee, “A Social Movement Approach to Unconventional Warfare,” Special Warfare 26, no. 3 (July-September 2013): 28–29, accessed 6 January 2020,
  33. Will Irwin, “A Comprehensive and Proactive Approach to Unconventional Warfare,” Joint Special Operations University Press (JSOU) Occasional Paper (Tampa, FL: JSOU, May 2016), 2, accessed 6 January 2020,
  34. Joseph L. Votel et al., “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone,” National Defense University, 1 January 2016, accessed 6 January 2020,
  35. Joshua Ammons and Christopher J. Coyne, “Gene Sharp: The ‘Clausewitz of Nonviolent Warfare,’” GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 18-10 (Arlington, VA: George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School, 4 March 2018),; Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, 412.
  36. See Véronique Dudouet, “Sources, Functions, and Dilemmas of External Assistance to Civil Resistance Movements,” in Civil Resistance: Comparative Perspectives on Nonviolent Struggle, ed. Kurt Schock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 168–69. “Third-party nonviolent intervention is defined as an action that is carried out, or has impact, across a national border, with the aim of supporting local nonviolent movements for human rights or democracy by applying the principles of nonviolent action.”
  37. Ibid., 169; see Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 52–53. Third-party actors can support indigenous nonviolent resistance movements through a number of mechanisms: informing, connecting, promoting, capacity building, protecting, monitoring, and pressure.
  38. Joint Publication 3-05.1, Unconventional Warfare (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 15 September 2015), 249. Joint doctrine defines unconventional warfare as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”
  39. U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), “The Unconventional Warfare Pocket Guide,” version 1.0 (Fort Bragg, NC: USASOC, April 2016), accessed 6 January 2020,
  40. Ibid., 13.
  41. Ibid., 14.
  42. Ibid., 15.
  43. Idean Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 54, no. 3 (7 January 2010): 493–515. For how the United States faces enduring challenges with supporting proxies, see Steve Ferenzi, “Want to Build a Better Proxy in Syria? Lessons from Tibet,” War on the Rocks, 17 August 2016, accessed 6 January 2020,
  44. Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” 3.
  45. John O’Neil, “Rice to Ask for $75 Million to Promote Democracy in Iran,” New York Times (website), 15 February 2006, accessed 7 January 2020,
  46. Rory Cormac and Richard J. Aldrich, “Gray Is the New Black: Covert Action and Implausible Deniability,” International Affairs 94, no. 3 (2018): 477–94; Helvey, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, 120.
  47. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 22.
  48. Dudouet, “Sources, Functions, and Dilemmas of External Assistance to Civil Resistance Movements,” 190.
  49. Stephen Zunes, “Nonviolent Action and Pro-Democracy Struggles,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 24 January 2008, accessed 7 January 2020,
  50. Ibid.
  51. Jeremy Weinstein, Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 7.
  52. Idean Salehyan, David Siroky, and Reed M. Wood, “External Rebel Sponsorship and Civilian Abuse: A Principal-Agent Analysis of Wartime Atrocities,” International Organization 68, no. 3 (June 2014): 635.
  53. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 23.
  54. Multi-Domain Battle, 21.

Maj. John Chambers, U.S. Army, currently serves with the 1st Infantry Division. He holds a BS from the United States Military Academy, an MS from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and an MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He has served with the 82nd Airborne Division, the U.S. Army Sapper Leader Course, the 5th Engineer Battalion, and the Department of Social Sciences at West Point.

Dr. Lionel Beehner is an assistant professor and director of research at the Modern War Institute at West Point, where he teaches courses on military innovation and research methods. He is serving as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He holds a PhD in political science from Yale University and an MA in international affairs from Columbia University.

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May-June 2020