WHEN FACED WITH THE SEVERE PROBLEMS of confronting a dictatorship, some people may lapse back into passive submission. Others, seeing no prospect of achieving democracy, may conclude they must come to terms with the apparently permanent dictatorship, hoping that through “conciliation,” “compromise,” and “negotiations” they might be able to salvage some positive elements and to end the brutalities. On the surface, lacking realistic options, there is appeal in that line of thinking.
Serious struggle against brutal dictatorships is not a pleasant prospect. Why is it necessary to go that route? Can’t everyone just be reasonable and find ways to talk, to negotiate the way to a gradual end to the dictatorship? Can’t the democrats appeal to the dictators’ sense of common humanity and convince them to reduce their domination bit by bit, and perhaps finally to give way completely to the establishment of a democracy?
It is sometimes argued that the truth is not all on one side. Perhaps the democrats have misunderstood the dictators, who may have acted from good motives in difficult circumstances? Or perhaps, some may think, the dictators would gladly remove themselves from the difficult situation facing the country if only given some encouragement and enticements. It may be argued that the dictators could be offered a “win-win” solution, in which everyone gains something. The risks and pain of further struggle could be unnecessary, it may be
argued, if the democratic opposition is only willing to settle the conflict peacefully by negotiations (which may even perhaps be assisted by some skilled individuals or even another government). Would that not be preferable to a difficult struggle, even if it is one conducted by nonviolent struggle rather than by military war?
Merits and limitations of negotiations
Negotiations are a very useful tool in resolving certain types of issues in conflicts and should not be neglected or rejected when they are appropriate. In some situations where no fundamental issues are at stake, and therefore a compromise is acceptable, negotiations can be an important means to settle a conflict.
A labor strike for higher wages is a good example of the appropriate role of negotiations in a conflict: a negotiated settlement may provide an increase somewhere between the sums originally proposed by each of the contending sides. Labor conflicts with legal trade unions are, however, quite different than the conflicts in which the continued existence of a cruel dictatorship or the establishment of political freedom are at stake.
When the issues at stake are fundamental, affecting religious principles, issues of human freedom, or the whole future development of the society, negotiations do not provide a way of reaching a mutually satisfactory solution. On some basic issues there should be no compromise.
Only a shift in power relations in favor of the democrats can adequately safeguard the basic issues at stake. Such a shift will occur through struggle, not negotiations.
This is not to say that negotiations ought never to be used. The point here is that negotiations are not a realistic way to remove a strong dictatorship in the absence of a powerful democratic opposition.
Negotiations, of course, may not be an option at all. Firmly entrenched dictators who feel secure in their position may refuse to negotiate with their democratic opponents. Or, when negotiations have been initiated, the democratic negotiators may disappear and never be heard from again.
Individuals and groups who oppose dictatorship and favor negotiations will often
have good motives. Especially when a military struggle has continued for years
against a brutal dictatorship without final victory, it is understandable that all the
people of whatever political persuasion would want peace. Negotiations are
especially likely to become an issue among democrats where the dictators have
clear military superiority and the destruction and casualties among one’s own
people are no longer bearable. There will then be a strong temptation to explore
any other route that might salvage some of the democrats’ objectives while
bringing an end to the cycle of violence and counter-violence.
The offer by a dictatorship of “peace” through negotiations with the
democratic opposition is, of course, rather disingenuous. The violence could be
ended immediately by the dictators themselves, if only they would stop waging
war on their own people. They could at their own initiative without any
bargaining restore respect for human dignity and rights, free political prisoners,
end torture, halt military operations, withdraw from the government, and apologize to the people.
When the dictatorship is strong but an irritating resistance exists, the dictators
may wish to negotiate the opposition into surrender under the guise of making
“peace.” The call to negotiate can sound appealing, but grave dangers can be
lurking within the negotiating room.
On the other hand, when the opposition is exceptionally strong and the
dictatorship is genuinely threatened, the dictators may seek negotiations in order
to salvage as much of their control or wealth as possible. In neither case should
the democrats help the dictators achieve their goals.
Democrats should be wary of the traps that may be deliberately built into a
negotiation process by the dictators. The call for negotiations when basic issues
of political liberties are involved may be an effort by the dictators to induce the
democrats to surrender peacefully while the violence of the dictatorship
continues. In those types of conflicts the only proper role of negotiations may
occur at the end of a decisive struggle in which the power of the dictators has
been effectively destroyed and they seek personal safe passage to an
Power and justice in negotiations
If this judgment sounds too harsh a commentary on negotiations, perhaps some
of the romanticism associated with them needs to be moderated. Clear thinking
is required as to how negotiations operate.
“Negotiation” does not mean that the two sides sit down together on a basis of
equality and talk through and resolve the differences that produced the conflict
between them. Two facts must be remembered. First, in negotiations it is not the
relative justice of the conflicting views and objectives that determines the
content of a negotiated agreement. Second, the content of a negotiated
agreement is largely determined by the power capacity of each side.
Several difficult questions must be considered. What can each side do at a
later date to gain its objectives if the other side fails to come to an agreement at
the negotiating table? What can each side do after an agreement is reached if the
other side breaks its word and uses its available forces to seize its objectives
despite the agreement?
A settlement is not reached in negotiations through an assessment of the rights
and wrongs of the issues at stake. While those may be much discussed, the real
results in negotiations come from an assessment of the absolute and relative
power situations of the contending groups. What can the democrats do to ensure
that their minimum claims cannot be denied? What can the dictators do to stay in
control and neutralize the democrats? In other words, if an agreement comes, it
is more likely the result of each side estimating how the power capacities of the
two sides compare, and then calculating how an open struggle might end.
Attention must also be given to what each side is willing to give up in order to
reach agreement. In successful negotiations there is compromise, a splitting of
differences. Each side gets part of what it wants and gives up part of its
In the case of extreme dictatorships what are the pro-democracy forces to give
up to the dictators? What objectives of the dictators are the pro-democracy
forces to accept? Are the democrats to give to the dictators (whether a political
party or a military cabal) a constitutionally established permanent role in the
future government? Where is the democracy in that?
Even assuming that all goes well in negotiations, it is necessary to ask: What
kind of peace will be the result? Will life then be better or worse than it would be
if the democrats began or continued to struggle?
Dictators may have a variety of motives and objectives underlying their
domination: power, position, wealth, reshaping the society, and the like. One
should remember that none of these will be served if they abandon their control
positions. In the event of negotiations dictators will try to preserve their goals.
Whatever promises offered by dictators in any negotiated settlement, no one
should ever forget that the dictators may promise anything to secure submission
from their democratic opponents, and then brazenly violate those same
If the democrats agree to halt resistance in order to gain a reprieve from
repression, they may be very disappointed. A halt to resistance rarely brings
reduced repression. Once the restraining force of internal and international
opposition has been removed, dictators may even make their oppression and
violence more brutal than before. The collapse of popular resistance often
removes the countervailing force that has limited the control and brutality of the
dictatorship. The tyrants can then move ahead against whomever they wish. “For
the tyrant has the power to inflict only that which we lack the strength to resist,”
wrote Krishnalal Shridharani
Resistance, not negotiations, is essential for change in conflicts where
fundamental issues are at stake. In nearly all cases, resistance must continue to
drive dictators out of power. Success is most often determined not by negotiating
a settlement but through the wise use of the most appropriate and powerful
means of resistance available. It is our contention, to be explored later in more
detail, that political defiance, or nonviolent struggle, is the most powerful means
available to those struggling for freedom.
What kind of peace?
If dictators and democrats are to talk about peace at all, extremely clear thinking
is needed because of the dangers involved. Not everyone who uses the word
“peace” wants peace with freedom and justice. Submission to cruel oppression
and passive acquiescence to ruthless dictators who have perpetrated atrocities on
hundreds of thousands of people is no real peace. Hitler often called for peace,
by which he meant submission to his will. A dictators’ peace is often no more
than the peace of the prison or of the grave.
There are other dangers. Well-intended negotiators sometimes confuse the
objectives of the negotiations and the negotiation process itself. Further,
democratic negotiators, or foreign negotiation specialists accepted to assist in the
negotiations, may in a single stroke provide the dictators with the domestic and
international legitimacy that they had been previously denied because of their
seizure of the state, human rights violations, and brutalities. Without that
desperately needed legitimacy, the dictators cannot continue to rule indefinitely.
Exponents of peace should not provide them legitimacy.
Reasons for hope
As stated earlier, opposition leaders may feel forced to pursue negotiations out of
a sense of hopelessness of the democratic struggle. However, that sense of
powerlessness can be changed. Dictatorships are not permanent. People living
under dictatorships need not remain weak, and dictators need not be allowed to
remain powerful indefinitely. Aristotle noted long ago, “… [O]ligarchy and
tyranny are shorter-lived than any other constitution… [A]ll round, tyrannies
have not lasted long.”Modern dictatorships are also vulnerable. Their weaknesses can be aggravated and the dictators’ power can be disintegrated.
Recent history shows the vulnerability of dictatorships, and reveals that they
can crumble in a relatively short time span: whereas ten years – 1980–1990 –
were required to bring down the Communist dictatorship in Poland, in East
Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1989 it occurred within weeks. In El Salvador
and Guatemala in 1944 the struggles against the entrenched brutal military
dictators required approximately two weeks each. The militarily powerful
regime of the Shah in Iran was undermined in a few months. The Marcos
dictatorship in the Philippines fell before people power within weeks in 1986:
the United States government quickly abandoned President Marcos when the
strength of the opposition became apparent. The attempted hard-line coup in the
Soviet Union in August 1991 was blocked in days by political defiance.
Thereafter, many of its long dominated constituent nations in only days, weeks,
and months regained their independence.
The old preconception that violent means always work quickly and nonviolent means always require vast time is clearly not valid. Although much time may be required for changes in the underlying situation and society, the actual fight against a dictatorship sometimes occurs relatively quickly by nonviolent struggle.
Negotiations are not the only alternative to a continuing war of annihilation on the one hand and capitulation on the other. The examples just cited, illustrate that another option exists for those who want both peace and freedom: political defiance.
An extract from From dictatorship to Democracy.