Machiavelli of nonviolence

IT'S not easy being considered the Machiavelli of nonviolence. But Gene Sharp relishes his role. For nearly 40 years -- ever since the ashes of Hiroshima and the Holocaust left an impression on him as an undergraduate at Ohio State University -- Dr. Sharp has probed alternatives to violence. Today, as director of Harvard University's Program on Nonviolent Sanctions, the soft-spoken scholar is considered one of the world's leading proponents of nonviolent struggle.

And like Renaissance statesman Niccolo Machiavelli, Sharp is a pragmatist. Almost obsessively so.

He preaches the power of nonviolent force to the nation's ``princes'' -- the military and political leaders who shape United States defense strategy. But he says his ``gospel'' has nothing to do with religion, morality, or social justice -- and little to do with peace.

``Peace? No, we're not talking about peace,'' says Sharp with quiet intensity, leaning forward in his chair. ``We're talking about alternatives to violent struggle.''

A deliberate man with ruddy cheeks and wavy brown hair, Sharp articulates these alternatives in a tiny office tucked away in a building that houses the Harvard School of Design.

When Harvard carved a niche for the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in 1983, Sharp's work was legitimized. He says he felt further vindicated in 1984 when a condensed version of his three-part opus, ``The Politics of Nonviolent Action,'' was translated into both Hebrew and Arabic and distributed at Jerusalem's Center for the Study of Nonviolence.

But with its financial struggles and fringe status at the university, the Harvard program has not yet reached its potential.

``Nobody abandons violence if it is viewed as the most effective means of struggle,'' Sharp says. ``People will only accept nonviolent struggle if it is more effective than violence.''

That's why, in his writings, he sidesteps issues of morality, religion, and pacifism. He prefers a vision of nonviolent action based on power, not peace. Indeed, the cornerstone of his work is the belief that political power depends on the people's support and/or submission. When citizens are thoroughly trained in ways to withdraw that support, he says, a ruler cannot rule, a leader cannot lead.

The Oxford-educated philosopher illustrates his points by referring to real-life examples of nonviolent resistance -- from ancient Rome to modern Manila. In ``The Politics of Nonviolent Action'' Sharp traces the often-neglected history of nonviolent boycotts, strikes, symbolic protests, and organized disruption.

Unlike Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, both of whom sought spiritual reconciliation and education, Sharp's ``end product is success,'' says Michael Nagler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. `` . . . He invites people to use his techniques without making nonviolence a way of life.''

Many observers applaud Sharp's pragmatism. ``He's taken the concept of nonviolent action off the pedestal,'' says Paul Wehr, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. ``The peace movement has had too little concern for alternatives. But that's changing, because people like Sharp are doing so much research.''

But others think Sharp's avoidance of morality and religion has gone too far. One colleague criticized Sharp's admiring study of Gandhi's political wisdom in ``Gandhi as a Political Strategist''; he feels that Sharp failed Gandhi by failing to assess the crucial role of religion in Gandhi's political action.

And Dr. Nagler regrets that his colleague sacrifices the power of conviction in his pursuit of the power of numbers. ``Gene's so concerned not to appear flaky,'' he says. ``He's afraid the policy people -- and it's the policy elite he's really aiming at -- will reject what he has to say without even considering it.''

Sharp defends his approach. ``I'm insisting on protection rather than trying to change the world,'' he says, adding that if it is ever to succeed, nonviolent action must work for ``people who don't necessarily believe as you do.''

In his most recent book, ``Making Europe Unconquerable,'' Sharp tries to convince ``nonbelievers'' that nations should look into nonviolent defense alternatives. He argues that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should be replaced by civilian-based defense (not to be confused with civil defense, often identified with the preparation of bomb shelters). Such a defense strategy, he explains, would prepare populations in noncooperation and defense so they would be nettlesome and perhaps ``unconquerable'' by an invader such as the Soviet Union.

The concept has caught on in Scandinavia, where several countries have integrated some civilian-based training into their weapons-based defense strategies. In West Germany last month, a leader of the anti-NATO, anti-nuclear Greens party emerged from the party's four-day congress and called for a sweeping system of ``weaponless social defense.''

But most political scientists -- including Sharp himself -- agree that the US will be one of the last countries to ``transarm'' -- to begin the crossover from weapon-based defense to civilian-based defense. The psychological hurdles to its acceptance seem much higher here, says Bruce M. Russett, a professor of international relations and political science at Yale University. He says the key question -- and limitation -- for such a defense strategy is, ``How much real social solidarity can be mustered in a society?''

That question needs more investigation, says Sharp. But he is set in his opinion on the current NATO policy of deterrence: ``The capacity to defend in order to deter has been replaced by the capacity to destroy without the ability to defend. We've been misled. Our offensive fixation has distracted us from the vital task of defense.'' That same fixation, Sharp says, has warped our reaction to terrorism. He concedes that no one has thoroughly investigated the role of nonviolence in addressing terrorism. But ``the whole concept that you deal with it by dropping bombs and retaliating is a bit of nonsense,'' he told Ted Koppel on ABC's ``Nightline'' program after the US bombing of Libya in April. ``It distracts attention from their grievances.''

Real grievances can be addressed only nonviolently -- from both sides -- Sharp contends. He suggests that part of the response has to include political sanctions, economic boycotts, and disruption of the offending government or group.

``Negotiations are not an alternative to violence,'' Sharp says. ``The negotiation process is one of peeking under the table to see how big a club the other guy has. . . . The capacity for violence is still there. But you have to have some other form of struggle.''

He says nonviolent resistance is the only practical alternative.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.