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Deconstructing Nonviolence and the War Machine: Unarmed Coups, Nonviolent Power, and Armed Resistance

Finlay, Christopher J. (2021) 'Deconstructing Nonviolence and the War Machine: Unarmed Coups, Nonviolent Power, and Armed Resistance.', Ethics and international affairs., 35 (3). pp. 421-433.


Proponents of nonviolent methods often highlight the extent to which they rival arms as effective means of resistance. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, for instance, influentially compared civil resistance techniques favorably with armed insurrection as means of bringing about progressive political change. Ned Dobos cites their work in support of the claim that similar methods—organized in the form of Gene Sharp’s idea of ‘civilian-based defense’—may be substituted for regular armed forces in the face of international aggression. I deconstruct this line of pacifist thought by arguing that it builds on the wrong binary. Turning away from a violence/nonviolence dichotomy structured around harmfulness, I look to Richard B. Gregg and Hannah Arendt for an account of nonviolent power defined by not being coercive. Whereas nonviolent methods of coercion in the wrong hands still have the potential to subvert democratic institutions—just as armed methods can—Gregg’s and Arendt’s conceptions of nonviolent power identify a necessary bulwark against both forms of subversion. The effectiveness of non-coercive, nonviolent power is illustrated by the resistance of U.S. democratic institutions to largely nonviolent attempts at civil subversion by supporters of Donald Trump, during Trump’s attempts to overturn the election in 2020. By contrast, if coercive violence had any significance, it is visible not in the riotous behavior of the Trump supporters on January 6, 2021, but in the state’s deployment of force—especially the National Guard—to contain the chaotic destruction Trump’s supporters threatened.

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Publisher statement:This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the same Creative Commons licence is included and the original work is properly cited. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use. Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
Date accepted:19 July 2021
Date deposited:06 August 2021
Date of first online publication:21 October 2021
Date first made open access:06 August 2021

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