The Pacifism Papers 2: The Pacifist State

In the last couple of years, I have been working on a project funded by the Marsden Fund of New Zealand about how pacifism is suppressed and subjugated as a theory and practice of politics. During this time, I have given lectures to different groups about my findings. The following talk was given recently in October 2017 at a Study Day in Auckland, New Zealand, organised by the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.


The recent decision of the Catholic Church to repudiate the theological justification for war deals a powerful blow to the idea of ‘just war’ – an idea entrenched in our society and culture, and considered by most people to be nothing more than commonsense. At the same time, it raises the important question: should nation states possess the weapons and means of war? Should they even have military forces? After all, if there are no circumstances in which war can be initiated and conducted justly, then why would we need militaries trained and equipped to fight war?

Interestingly, the idea of dismantling state militaries and replacing them with what is called “social defence”, or “civilian-based defence” – leading to what we would call a Pacifist State, one which no longers possesses the means to wield military force – is not new. It was an idea studied and discussed widely up until the 1990s. Some of the books written about this topic include: Baradford Lyttle’s 1958 book, National Defense Through Nonviolent Resistance; Adam Roberts’ 1967 book, The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Non-violent Resistance to Aggression; the 1974 book, War Without Weapons: Non-violence in National Defence by Anders Boserup and Andrew Mack; Gustaaf Geeraerts’ 1977 book, Possibilities of Civilian Defence in Western Europe; Gene Sharp’s 1985 book, Making Europe Unconquerable: The Potential of Civilian-based Deterrence and Defense, which was followed by his 1990 book with Bruce Jenkins called Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System. In 1993, Brian Martin wrote Social Defence, Social Change; the 1996 book, The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach by Robert Burrowes; and in 1996, Franklin Zahn published a book called, Alternative to the Pentagon: Nonviolent Methods of Defending a Nation. All these books, as well as many more articles, papers and conferences, were given over to the idea that nation states could dissolve their military forces and replace them with civilian-based forms of nonviolent defence.

However, since then, it is true to say that peace scholars and activists have made little progress in advancing this revolutionary idea. Certainly, apart from Lithuania to a limited extent, no governments have taken it seriously as a possibility, and it is virtually unknown in the world of international relations scholarship or public political discourse. In fact, the obvious lack of attention to the idea led Brian Martin to publish an article in 2014 entitled, “Whatever happened to social defence?” in the journal Social Alternatives. There are of course, many reasons for this widespread neglect: it would threaten the profits of the military-industrial complex, it challenges our cultural values and commonsense ideas about violence, it would empower ordinary people against the forces of social control, it would give the government one less tool to control the masses, it would challenge our war-based sense of national identity, and so on.

Nevertheless, I would like to suggest today, following the pacifist scholar Brian Martin, that we are at an opportune moment for bringing back the proposition that states should completely disarm and dissolve their military forces and commit to a radically nonviolent kind of politics. In addition to the repudiation of just war by the Catholic Church, there are other good reasons for arguing that it is time to take the Pacifist State seriously, and to consider dissolving the military as an institution.

First of all, the last few years, as well as an honest appraisal of the last few centuries, have clearly demonstrated that war and military force is hugely destructive and largely incapable of achieving positive political goals such as creating peace, strengthening democracy, enforcing human rights, defeating fascism, and so on. Instead, it has the tendency to perpetually create the conditions for the following war, not least through the logic of the security dilemma – the fact that building up arms in one state produces anxiety in another, leading to a spiral of insecurity and tension. The war on terror is a perfect example of this broader failure, with millions killed, increased instability, and no reduction in the levels of terrorism and violence.

Second, the existence of nuclear weapons and the continual development of other forms of destructive weaponry makes it extremely risky for the whole world. The dangers of escalation and misperception, and the psychology of crises – such as the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula – make disarmament and demilitarisation a critical priority at the present time.

Third, the costs of war and militarism are unsustainable in a time of climate change and austerity. Global military spending of over a trillion dollars per annum could, and should, be better spent on mitigating the effects of climate change, poverty reduction, healthcare, education, housing and the like. We should also note that militaries are one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases in the world; dissolving them would go a long way to towards reaching carbon reduction targets and perhaps pushing back the worst case scenarios of climate change. Militaries are also a poor form of economic investment: dollar-for-dollar, investing in green technology, for example, produces more jobs and more wealth than investing in the military.

Lastly, as I and many others have shown, today we know that everything that militaries claim to be able to do – such as national defence, humanitarian protection, security, and so on – can be done by other nonviolent means. In other words, we don’t actually need the military anymore. We could do perfectly well without it, and without its risks and costs we could make a much better society and a much better world.

Is Military Force Necessary?

Of course, the idea that nation states need military forces – for self defence, for peacekeeping, for a sense of identity – is so widely accepted these days that it is little more than common sense. Therefore, the first objection that someone will make to the notion of the Pacifist State will be: Does the idea of a demilitarised, unarmed nation state make any sense? Does the prospect of replacing military defence with forms of nonviolent social defence make sense? Related to this, does it make any sense to think that we could protect vulnerable civilians in situations of civil war or genocide without using military forces? I have already suggested some reasons – that militaries are horribly expensive, they haven’t done a good job of creating peace, they contribute to climate change, and so on. But are there are other reasons why it would make sense to dissolve the military.

I would argue that it does make sense – it actually makes more sense than keeping the military in place – if you understand a few things about the nature of violence, and the nature of nonviolence. First of all, it makes sense when you recognise some of the prevalent myths that surround our collective understanding of violence and what it can purportedly do. Most people think that having military force and the ability to use violence means that we have power, and that we can force others to either stop doing something we don’t like (deterrence) or do something we want them to do (compelance). The belief is that with violent capabilities we can deter others from attacking us, force others to stop committing abuses, or establish the conditions for peace and democracy. According to this belief, violence can be used as a predictable tool of politics: bomb ISIS and you will deter them from attacking the West; invade Gaza or Iraq and you will stop terrorist attacks; overthrow Gaddafi and you will bring democracy to Libya; arm the police and you will prevent attacks on tourists in Paris; and so on.

However, this is a belief that misunderstands and confuses the relationship between violence, force, and power, and particularly, the relationship between brute force and coercion. In fact, the effectiveness of violence to deter or compel depends entirely on how people respond to the violence, not the violence itself, and the capacity to kill and destroy actually bears little relation to the ability to coerce. Just because you can threaten me with violence does not guarantee that I will obey you or submit to your wishes. In reality, the application of violence can provoke either deterrence or retaliation, intimidation or rage, submission or resistance, and the desired response can never be assured. Even when force is used for purportedly good reasons – such as intervening to protect civilians from violent attack – the response by the actors involved and those who are witnessing it cannot be predicted. In a great many cases, including Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, so-called well-intentioned interventions have ended up killing large numbers of civilians and provoking more widespread violence and instability. Military force and violence, is therefore, an unreliable tool of politics because it produces a great many unpredictable outcomes – as the rise of ISIS and the defiance of North Korea indicates.

More broadly, a realistic understanding of the current global balance of forces (in which most states cannot realistically defend themselves from the large states), and a realistic understanding of the security dilemma demonstrates that the common faith in military force is misplaced. The truth is that New Zealand, or most other countries in the world, could not use their military forces to protect the nation from invasion, especially if it was from a powerful nation. Out of the world’s 200 or so nation states, only a handful could successfully use military force to repel an invasion. More importantly, in a world of nuclear weapons, the military would be impotent to stop a nuclear attack.

Added to this, we know that the possession of military force actually makes other nations nervous and anxious, because they cannot be sure of the real reason why we possess military forces. We may claim it’s solely for defence, but other states cannot be sure it’s not for a preemptive attack. This is called the “security dilemma”, and its internal logic dictates that states must keep up a sufficient level forces to deter other states from being tempted to attack them first. So, if we combine nuclear weapons with the security dilemma, the result is a world where the possession of military forces makes arms races inevitable and misperceptions, tensions and crises much more likely. In other words, military forces actually contribute more to international insecurity than to security; they make us more likely to be attacked – and if we were attacked, they are unlikely to help us much, anyway.

So much for the myths of violence and what it can do. Nonviolence, on the other hand, can do all the things that violence purports to do, and it has a better record of successfully achieving its goals over the past one hundred years or so. For example, nonviolence can be used to exert power, to deter actions, and to coerce – through things like boycotts, mass demonstrations, the threat of sanctions, physical interposition, and the like. It can make even powerful states change their behaviour. Gandhi and King demonstrated this in their struggles in India and the United States. This means that if the purpose of the military is to exert power and deter opponents, then an alternative exists; we can use nonviolence to do the same things that are most often claimed to be the exclusive domain of violence.

Perhaps more importantly, well-known research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, shows that over the past one hundred years or so, nonviolent movements have been twice as successful as violent movements in achieving their goals, even when the goal involves a major demand like regime change or secession, and even when it involves a very ruthless opponent. Apart from the well-known cases of Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States, other examples of successful nonviolent movements include: the solidarity movement in Poland; the people power movement in the Philippines; the Iranian revolution; the singing revolution in the Baltic states; the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia; the peaceful revolution in East Germany; the bloodless revolution in Bulgaria; the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Serbia and Georgia; the wave of democratic transitions during the 1990s in Africa; the cedar revolution in Lebanon; the Arab Spring; and many more individual cases. There are even examples of successful nonviolent resistance to the Nazis during WWII.

Added to this, there is also a growing literature on how unarmed peacekeeping can be a highly successful means of protecting vulnerable civilians in the midst of civil war and widespread violence. Studies are now coming in from places like Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and elsewhere which show that in many cases, being unarmed actually assists peacekeepers and nonviolent peace volunteers in protecting civilians. In short, it is simply not the case that military forces are necessary for deterrence or for protecting vulnerable people. Nonviolence can do anything that violence can do (apart from kill and destroy, obviously), and it has a historical record of success that is better than that of military force.

It can also be argued that dissolving the military makes sense if the real purpose of the government is the protection and well-being of its people. That is, if we look over history, we can note that the military has most often been used not in self defence against other nations, but as a force for the suppression of groups and individual citizens within the state itself. This is certainly true for the post-colonial states, in which the military was deployed for decades in the suppression of indigenous peoples. Getting rid of the military, therefore, is a way of guaranteeing that it cannot be used against the people. Second, as mentioned, in modern war, civilians bear the brunt of the casualties: in wars since 1945, around 90 percent of casualties have been civilians. We know from the research that nonviolent resistance to invasion and armed attack results in fewer civilian casualties than when violent resistance is used. If states want to protect their civilians, in other words, they should not use the military but use nonviolent means to protect the lives of their citizens.

Dissolving the military also makes sense if you understand the nature and purpose of politics, how violence is actually the negation of politics, and how difference and deep-rooted conflict is part of the central human condition. That is, the purpose of politics is help people deal with their differences and conflicts through dialogue and compromise, which is the opposite of violence. Violence destroys the possibility of dialogue and compromise; it destroys the possibility of persuading your opponent, or of being persuaded by your opponent. Instead, it eradicates the Other; while politics is about treating people as equals and with dignity, violence is about eradicating people altogether.

In other words, the risk of maintaining a standing military is that, as we have seen in so many countries, when there is a deep political crisis or conflict, the military will be used to settle it, most often by violently eradicating those it views as the enemy. That is, one of the central problems with modern states, rooted as they are on the monopoly of legitimate violence, is that in an intense political crisis, or a perceived threat, the governing party (or elite factions) can always resort to military violence as the final form of arbitration. Removing the military from politics, and replacing it with civilian defence, therefore would remove one of the permissive conditions of violent political conflict. In short, this implies, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, that ‘nonviolence is the necessary condition for a politics not based on death’.

Finally, dissolving the military also makes sense if you understand the inseparability of means and ends. It is common to think of the military as a tool – an instrument which can be picked up, used for a purpose, and then put back in the toolbox. But this is a false understanding of reality. In reality, the way we act, and the things we do, define us and shape us; they create or constitute us. In terms of the military, using military force is rooted in a specific kind of logic, and once you actually use this kind of logic, it is almost impossible to break free of the logic. Instead, military logic becomes a normal part of political thinking. More broadly, in order to use military force, you first have to construct a war system and a war society to support it. You have to have scientists and engineers who design weapons, strategists who design military strategy, suppliers who make the weapons, medical professionals who look after the troops when they’re ill or injured, laws and doctrines governing the use of violence and killing, cultural beliefs that support killing and dying for the nation (as seen in popular entertainment and children’s toys, for example), categories of friend and enemy, and worthy and unworthy victims, memorialisation for the war dead, and so on. All these practices, processes and institutions have to become embedded in society. They thus shape and impact society; they create and reaffirm a society based on violence. In the end, they make society into a war system.

From this perspective, it is not possible to make society more peaceful through using military means, just as it is not possible to make society more truthful by telling lots of lies. Gandhi argued this point by suggesting that the belief that we can separate means and ends would be the same as thinking “that we can get a rose through planting a noxious weed.” He goes on to say, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connexion between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree… We reap exactly what we sow”. ​This is not to say that the military cannot do good in the short-term, but rather, as Gandhi again, puts it: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” The philosopher Hannha Arendt makes a similar point; she says “[t]he practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

Is a Pacifist State Realistic

A second and final objection to the idea of dissolving the military will be this: Is the Pacifist State a realistic proposition? How might it work in practice? Are there any real-world practical examples? On the basis of the research I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, and a great deal more recent research, I would argue that dissolving the military and creating a pacifist state is not only practical and realistic, but it is also essential for the survival and flourishing of the planet and its people. Although not as well researched or well known as all the wars and military campaigns, there are some important areas of nonviolent research which strongly indicated that it is indeed realistic to think about how a pacifist state would work in practice.

Interestingly, anthropologists have found that peaceful, non-warring societies exist today and have existed for thousands of years; they have documented at least 74 of them. They have also found that there were many non-warring regions of the world, where political communities lived in mutual peace with other nations for long periods of history. In other words, there are historical precedents for peaceful nations living together without the practice of institution of war.

More recently, there is a rapidly growing literature on what are known as “local peace practices” and “peace formations” in which groups and communities have mobilised and established forms of peaceful life rooted in nonviolence, social justice, equality, and so on. This is sometimes referred to as the “nonwarring communities” literature, and it details how villages, towns and even cities have constructed nonviolent communities, often in the midst of very violent civil wars and widespread violence. They have done so through a variety of strategies, including disarmament, dialogue and negotiation with armed groups, nonviolent resistance, self-rule, boycotts and a great many other strategies relevant to their situation. The existence of these communities in the real world suggests that it is practical and realistic to consider forms of security and protection based on nonviolence.

Related to this, I have already mentioned that there is an important and growing literature on unarmed peacekeeping and civilian protection. This literature shows that even in extremely repressive and violent contexts, unarmed peace activists can succeed in deterring violence against civilians and protecting vulnerable people from harm – through strategies such as negotiating with armed actors, accompaniment, interposition, information gathering, humanising potential victims, relationship building, and so on. Such cases indicate once again that armed actors are not essential for protection; it is possible to protect people from violent actors without using counter-violence.

Another important phenomenon we ought to consider is those nation states without national militaries. Although most of them are small states and/or island states, such as Samoa, Panama, Iceland, Haiti, and others, this does not necessarily detract from the argument that it would be possible to have a nation state without a military. Costa Rica, for example, abolished its standing army in 1949 following a civil war, and has remained free of large-scale violent internal conflict since. Its military budget was subsequently re-allocated to security, welfare and culture, with extraordinary results. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper reported the following:

Every few years the New Economics Foundation publishes the Happy Planet Index – a measure of progress that looks at life expectancy, wellbeing and equality rather than the narrow metric of GDP, and plots these measures against ecological impact. Costa Rica tops the list of countries every time. With a life expectancy of 79.1 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and neatly outperforms the United States. And it manages all of this with a GDP per capita of only $10,000 (£7,640), less than one fifth that of the US.

In this sense, Costa Rica is the most efficient economy on earth: it produces high standards of living with low GDP and minimal pressure on the environment. The article went on to suggest that the reason for this extraordinary success was

all down to Costa Rica’s commitment to universalism: the principle that everyone – regardless of income – should have equal access to generous, high-quality social services as a basic right. A series of progressive governments started rolling out healthcare, education and social security in the 1940s and expanded these to the whole population from the 1950s onward, after abolishing the military and freeing up more resources for social spending.

The point is not that Costa Rica is some kind of utopia, but simply that such real world examples lend further weight to the argument that dissolving the military is a viable and realistic goal that could result in tangible gains. As the peace scholar Kenneth Boulding put it, “Anything that exists is possible”. ​Clearly, Pacifist states like Costa Rica exist; therefore, a Pacifist State is realistically possible.

Following this, and as I alluded to at the start of my talk, there is a growing literature on civilian national defence models – or what is often called “social defence” – which demonstrate realistic possibilities for thinking beyond military forces as the primary tool for national defence, in particular. This literature details literally hundreds of strategies and tactics for deterring and defending against foreign invasion, from symbolic actions like rallies, fasts and the use of symbols, to practical, coordinated mass actions like establishing alternative communication systems and leadership structures, the sabotage of vital equipment and transportation, noncooperation, boycotts, strikes, obstruction, sit-ins, counter-propaganda, and many more. Importantly, social defence requires planning, investment, training, and the development of appropriate technology, and it is designed to ensure that the population can function and act independently of any occupying government. In other words, it is a strategy to empower the population so that they can resist domination by an invading or occupying force and can take actions in support of their own well-being. You can see that this is one reason why governments prefer to stick with military forces which they can control. Few governments, even enlightened ones, want their own people to be so empowered that they can resist efforts to control them.

Along with the reduced costs and risks which come from dissolving the military, there are a number of other benefits which would come from a pacifist state that relies on social defence and unarmed peacekeeping, rather than on its military forces. Most notably, engaging the public in social defence would expand democratic participation and provide civic education and inclusion in politics; it would help to break down hostile group identities and forge a new national identity based on peace rather than war; it would help to build local capacity and strengthen local peace; and it would reassure other states as to our peaceful intentions.


In conclusion, for all the reasons I have suggested in this talk, I am calling for the dissolution of the New Zealand military forces and the reinvestment of the huge savings this would entail into developing a social defence system, unarmed peacekeeping, peace education, social justice, environmental protection, and the promotion of New Zealand as an international peace-maker. Last year, the government announced that “up to $20 billion will be spent on New Zealand’s Defence Force over the next 15 years”. This sum would go a long way towards making the country more secure and working towards greater peace, development and environmental protection. It would allow us to make New Zealand a Pacifist State which was a real force for peace in the world.

Moreover, with the recent change in position of the Catholic Church towards war, the threat posed by nuclear weapons, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the anti-nuclear group, ICAN, and the growing evidential base for nonviolence, now is an ideal time to reinvigorate this important idea and re-start the efforts of the broader peace movement to disarm and dissolve the military and create New Zealand as a Pacifist State. We need to start lobbying government and convincing our fellow citizens that this is the best way forward. However, we should also acknowledge that as Brian Martin and others remind us, at the heart of social defence is the idea of local defence of the community and grassroots empowerment. If this is the case, then we don’t have to wait for governments to lead the way; we can start building resilience and peace in our own communities right now.


About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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