Peace works better than war

Erica Chenoweth will talk about non-violent civil disobedience movements, and how they've been statistically proven to be much more effective than violence in forcing change. She's this Thursday's Vail Symposium Hot Topcs speaker.
Special to the Daily |

If You Go

What: Vail Symposium’s Hot Topics Signature Speaker Series

Who: Erica Chenoweth, Ph.D., “Nonviolent Conflict Resolution”

When: 5:30 reception, 6 p.m. program, Thursday

Where: The Grand View room in the Lionshead Parking Structure

Tickets: $10 in advance (before 2 p.m. Thursday), $15 at the door, $5 students, teachers, VVYPA members

Information: Call the Vail Symposium at 970-476-0954, or go to

VAIL — A little civil disobedience is good for society’s soul, and better than that, it works better than violence, says Erica Chenoweth.

Chenoweth is a political scientist and professor from the University of Denver and co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.”

Let’s be clear. Chenoweth did not start out thinking this way. She firmly believed that the way to challenge the system and create something new was to shoot it out of the saddle and take its place.

Her dissertation was about how and why people use violence to create change. She said she bought into the idea that power and change flow from the barrel of a gun.

Even though she was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado in Boulder — the natural habitat for crunchy, Birkenstock-wearing, latte lickers — she was not one of those.

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Not once did she picket a fast food restaurant for packing food-like substances in Styrofoam containers.

Then she attended a workshop on nonviolent change. She thought it was dangerously naive then, saying “It can’t work, generally, if you’re trying to overthrow a dictator or start a new country.”

She no longer thinks that way.

That’s because she spent the next two years collecting data on movements — both violent and nonviolent — aimed at overthrowing governments and oppressive regimes.

The data was clear.

“Nonviolent campaigns were far more effective in reaching their goals,” she said.

It only takes 3.5 percent

It used to be commonly believed that no regime could stand against 5 percent of its country’s population. Researchers now find that only takes 3.5 percent.

“That’s still a very large number in most countries. In the United States, that’s 11 million people,” she said.

That’s because there is strength, and safety, in numbers, Chenoweth said.

“It allows a wider variety of people to participate. Nonviolent movements tend to attract more and varied numbers of participants,” she said.

The young, the elderly, the infirmed can all participate in nonviolent civil movements, Chenoweth said. That’s not necessarily true if you have to pick up a weapon and fight.

Not everyone is willing to risk that kind of danger, she said.

“Not everyone wants to take the same chances and they won’t show up unless there’s a large group,” she said.

Nonviolent civil movements work because no regime loyalists of any country live in isolation. They have family, friends and contacts throughout the community.

Disruption is part of the key, she said, and there are many ways to achieve it.

“What if it became common knowledge that when a movement becomes too dangerous and violent, it can shift and alter,” she said.

She said all that data leads to a new question: Why was it so easy and comfortable to believe that violence works?

Among other reasons, she grew up in America, where military personnel are honored on national holidays.

“It was easy and natural to think that violence and heroism are one in the same. They don’t necessarily mean the same thing,” Chenoweth said.

The data doesn’t lie, but what to do about it?

“Now that we know what we know about the power of nonviolent conflict, I see it as our shared responsibility to spread the word so that future generations don’t fall for the myth that violence is their only way out,” Chenoweth said.


Chenoweth holds a Ph.D. and is associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and an associate senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo.

Foreign Policy magazine ranked her among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013 for her efforts to promote the empirical study of civil resistance.

Chenoweth’s research program involves three main questions:

Why do state and non-state groups use political violence?

What are the alternatives to political violence?

How can these alternatives be promoted?

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or

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