Nations’ Governments Need Unarmed Defense Plans

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, February 22, 2023

It’s quite a high hurdle to appeal to a country that’s been militarily invaded — after decades of military defense (and offense) preparations and the accompanying cultural indoctrination in the supposed necessity of military defense — to appeal to said country to construct on-the-fly an unarmed civilian defense plan and act on it despite near-universal lack of training or even comprehension.

We’re finding it to be a high hurdle just to get access to bring in an unarmed team to defend a nuclear power plant in the middle of a war.

A more reasonable proposal is for national governments that are not at war to learn about and (if they really learned about it then this would necessarily follow) establish departments of unarmed civilian defense. World BEYOND War is putting together both an annual conference in 2023 and a new online course on this topic. One place to get the very beginning of an understanding that unarmed actions can repel militaries — even without serious preparations or training (so, imagine what proper investment could do) — is with this list of nearly 100 times people successfully used nonviolent action in place of war.

A properly prepared unarmed defense department (something that might require a major investment of 2 or 3 percent of a military budget) could make a nation ungovernable if attacked by another country or a coup d’état and therefore immune from conquest. Here’s how World BEYOND War has described this in its book A Global Security System: An Alternative to War:


Nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp combed history to find and record hundreds of methods that have been used successfully to thwart oppression. His search led him to the vision of Civilian-Based Defense (CBD); an alternative system that could serve the “security” functions supposedly provided by the War System. CBD: “…indicates defense by civilians (as distinct from military personnel) using civilian means of struggle (as distinct from military and paramilitary means). This is a policy intended to deter and defeat foreign military invasions, occupations, and internal usurpations.” This defense “is meant to be waged by the population and its institutions on the basis of advance preparation, planning, and training.”

It is a “policy [in which] the whole population and the society’s institutions become the fighting forces. Their weaponry consists of a vast variety of forms of psychological, economic, social, and political resistance and counter-attack. This policy aims to deter attacks and to defend against them by preparations to make the society unrulable by would-be tyrants and aggressors. The trained population and the society’s institutions would be prepared to deny the attackers their objectives and to make consolidation of political control impossible. These aims would be achieved by applying massive and selective noncooperation and defiance. In addition, where possible, the defending country would aim to create maximum international problems for the attackers and to subvert the reliability of their troops and functionaries”

The dilemma faced by all societies since the invention of war, namely, to either submit or become a mirror image of the attacking aggressor, is solved by CBD. Becoming as or more war-like than the aggressor is based on the fact that stopping the aggressor requires coercion. CBD deploys a powerful coercive force that does not require military action.

In CBD, all cooperation is withdrawn from the invading power. Nothing works. The lights don’t come on, or the heat, the waste is not picked up, the transit system doesn’t work, courts cease to function, the people don’t obey orders. This is what happened in the “Kapp Putsch” in Berlin in 1920 when a would-be dictator and his private army tried to take over. The previous government fled, but the citizens of Berlin made governing so impossible that, even with overwhelming military power, the takeover collapsed in weeks. All power does not come from the barrel of a gun.

In some cases, sabotage against government property would be deemed appropriate. When the French Army occupied Germany in the aftermath of World War I, German railway workers disabled engines and tore up tracks to prevent the French from moving troops around to confront large-scale demonstrations. If a French soldier got on a tram, the driver refused to move.

Two core realities support CBD; first, that all power comes from below—all government is by consent of the governed and that consent can always be withdrawn, causing the collapse of a governing elite. Second, if a nation is seen as ungovernable, because of a robust CBD force, there is no reason to try to conquer it. A nation defended by military power can be defeated in war by a superior military power. Countless examples exist. Examples also exist of peoples rising up and defeating ruthless dictatorial governments through nonviolent struggle, beginning with the liberation from an occupying power in India by Gandhi’s people power movement, continuing with the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the Soviet-backed dictatorships in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring, to name only a few of the most notable examples.

(See Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, and Making Europe Unconquerable, and Civilian Based Defense among other works. One booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy was translated into Arabic prior to the Arab Spring.)

In a CBD all able adults are trained in methods of resistance. A standing Reserve Corps of millions is organized, making the nation so strong in its independence that no one would think of trying to conquer it. A CBD system is widely publicized and totally transparent to adversaries. A CBD system would cost a fraction of the amount now spent to fund a military defense system. CBD can provide effective defense within the War System, while it is an essential component of a robust peace system. Certainly one can argue that nonviolent defense must transcend the nation-state focus as a form of social defense, since the nation state itself often is an instrument of oppression against physical or cultural existence of peoples.

As noted previously, scientifically proven wisdom holds that nonviolent civil resistance is twice as likely to be successful compared to movements that use violence. The contemporary knowledge, in theory and practice, is what makes longtime nonviolent movement activist and scholar George Lakey hopeful for a strong role of CBD. He states: “If the peace movements of Japan, Israel and the United States choose to build on a half century of strategy work and devise a serious alternative to war, they will certainly build in preparation and training and gain the attention of pragmatists in their societies.”


The case of Lithuania offers some illumination of a way forward, but a warning as well. Having used nonviolent action to expel the Soviet military, the nation put in place an unarmed defense plan. But it has no plan to give military defense a backseat or to eliminate it. Militarists have been hard at work framing civilian-based defense as subsidiary to and in assistance of military action. We need nations to take unarmed defense as seriously as Lithuania, and then much more so. Nations without militaries — Costa Rica, Iceland, etc. — could come at this from the other end by developing unarmed defense departments in place of nothing. But nations with militaries, and with militaries and weapons industries subservient to imperial powers, will have the harder task of developing unarmed defense while knowing that an honest appraisal may require eliminating military defense. This task will be much easier, however, as long as such nations are not at war.

One Response

  1. Hi David,
    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for this piece on CBD and for making CBD a topic for future events!
    I have long felt WBW having CBD as a center piece of its work (as exemplified in its book: A Global Security System: An Alternative to War ) makes it unique among peace groups.
    This essay and the upcoming events remind us of this and the need to keep it in the forefront despite the urgency of current events.

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