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Despite Recent Flairs in Violence, the Future Belongs to Soft Power

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Though it takes more patience, recent history has shown that people power is more effective than state violence.

Sometimes those, like myself, who advocate people power gloss over the positive impact that state violence has had in the world. The fight over slavery was a fight defined by hard, military power, guns and bodies strewn from north to south, families without fathers and brothers and sons. It was a fight that ended in the bloody death of a U.S. president, and a fight that continued after the peace treaties had been signed in the form of the vicious Jim Crow laws.

That is history. And it is hard to imagine how history could be different. What would a strictly non-violent struggle against slavery have worked? It is difficult to know.

What we do know is that some of the more vicious legacies of slavery were ended through nonviolent struggle. All the violence of the Jim Crow south was no match for the 'soft' power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The twentieth century is full of examples of state violence being circumvented by groups of disciplined people organized to resist injustice. The South African Army was often deployed to defend apartheid. The massacre at Sharpsville resulted in a renewed vigor of the African National Congress, and in time, led to the dissolution of apartheid. In Chile, General Pinochet ruled with an iron fist for 16 years. The electoral power of the vote ended his regime without gunfire on a massive scale. Even the American support that helped Pinochet take over had begun to collapse.

These monumental successes for people power were noted by scholars and policy makers the world over. During the 1990s, many said that state violence was becoming obsolete.

Then came 9/11, and the sequence of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed that state violence as a vehicle for change was back in fashion. But did either of these conflicts produce clear-cut positive results? Hardly.

Far more hopeful have been the recent stories out of Myanmar and the Arab world.

In Burma today, the fifth largest army in the world has just allowed a prisoner of 20 years to run for Parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi chose never to leave her country, but instead stayed to be with her people. That simple gesture -- her decision not to leave -- gave the people of Myanmar the hope they needed to fight for democracy. She now stands alone against the mighty army, and she is winning. Twenty-two years after her victory at the polls for her party, National League for Democracy, she will step into Congress as an elected member in a country where the Constitution will have to be rewritten and everything from prisons to education must be reformed. Her election represents yet another non-violent victory against an oppressive government -- albeit one the world has barely noticed.

Though still on going, the Arab Spring has provided another glimmer of hope for people power as a mechanism for real change around the world.

While peaceful activism is a slow, frustrating process, the results are stronger and mightier than the sword of military power.