Might is not always right way

Published, with copy-editing changes, in the Illawarra Mercury, 10 March 2010, p. 20. Submitted under the title "Alternatives to military research".
pdf of published article

Brian Martin

On March 1, a group of students protested at military research being carried out at Wollongong University. They called for research funding to go instead to areas such as global warming.

But isn't military research needed for Australia's defence? Not necessarily. Nearly everyone assumes that defence means military defence, but actually, there are many possible ways to make Australia more secure, especially considering that it is one of the world's least likely countries to be invaded.

Funding could go into diplomacy, conflict resolution, poverty reduction and addressing social inequality. Stronger efforts in these directions would reduce potential threats to Australia.

There's a huge discrepancy in funding for these different options. Billions of dollars go into military hardware, personnel, training and research, but there's precious little funding for things like improving skills in international conflict resolution.

There are also neglected options for Australia's defence. One innovative approach is called nonviolent defence, or social defence. It is based on grassroots nonviolent resistance to aggression using methods such as strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and rallies.

These might seem ineffectual against a ruthless government, but appearances are deceptive. A recent study in the journal International Security documented that, in recent decades, nonviolent methods have been more effective than violent ones in shifting authoritarian regimes in democratic directions.

In the past 15 years, nonviolent action has been used effectively against repressive governments in Indonesia, Serbia, Ukraine and Lebanon, among other countries. Armed struggle, in contrast, has been less effective.

Despite the successes of popular nonviolent action, this option has received hardly any funding for research and development.

We need to know more about areas such as the psychology of resistance, the social dynamics of protest, and the use of communication technology in the face of repression.

Although militaries are commonly thought of as defending against external threats, actually they are more likely to be used against the people they are supposed to defend. Citizens in places like Fiji, Burma and Rhodesia have been subjected to violence by their own militaries.

The most important use of nonviolent strategies is against authoritarian actions by people's own governments. However, few governments want their citizens to develop the skills to be better protesters.

Australia is well placed to support nonviolent alternatives and make available skills and technologies to support popular nonviolent action.

The best way to improve Australia's security would be to enable people in countries such as Indonesia and China to act against their own militaries.

University of Wollongong students are protesting against military research on campus. They might also advocate for research on nonviolent alternatives.


Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong and author of several books on nonviolence. [See especially Technology for Nonviolent Struggle.]

Thanks to Sharon Callaghan, Rae Campbell, Ian Miles and Kirsti Rawstron for helpful comments on drafts.

Go to

Brian Martin's newspaper articles

Brian Martin's publications on peace, war and nonviolence

Brian Martin's website