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The State of the Union revealed one of Trump’s biggest foreign affairs dilemmas

President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on Jan. 30. He touted his "clear vision and righteous mission" for America. (Video: The Washington Post)

During his closely watched State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Trump presented a multifaceted vision of his worldview. At times he aimed to unify, only to return to some of his most contentious issues shortly afterward. Those seemingly contradictory points also extended into his remarks on foreign affairs.

He praised those who have stood up for regime change in nations such as North Korea and Iran, at one point saying that  “America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom,” and applauded a North Korean defector who was present in Congress.

Trump went on to highlight the need for more coercive measures. He said he was “waging a campaign of maximum pressure” against North Korea and stressed the need to “modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal.” On Iran, Trump urged Congress to “address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.” He also praised “tough sanctions on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela.”

What he didn’t say was that in many of those countries, coercive U.S. measures — by Trump or some of his predecessors — may have played into the hands of the rulers, according to his critics. When Trump recently voiced public support for Iranian protesters, some observers immediately worried that Trump’s remarks could become the pretext for a regime crackdown. And soon thereafter, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei indeed accused foreign enemies of “meddling” in the country’s affairs, blaming the United States for allegedly being behind the protests.

The scholar who would have been able to raise concerns over foreign meddling in domestic uprisings perhaps most adequately, Gene Sharp, wasn’t able to listen to Trump’s Tuesday address. Hours before, it was announced that the former University of Massachusetts professor had passed away three days earlier, at the age of 90, on Jan. 28.

Sharp’s writing — especially his most famous book “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” — had a major influence on the Arab Spring about seven years ago and other uprisings, such as the Burmese resistance struggle, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and many other protests in Africa, Russia or Latin America. With Sharp's  belief in nonviolent regime change from within a nation, the Boston-based academic also became an important voice at a time when the United States began considering a more disruptive approach in the first years of the 21st century: regime change through invasion.

Influenced by Gandhi and other proponents of civil disobedience, Sharp suggested tactics such as parades, marches and vigils — essentially symbolic actions that show the strength of the opposition without provoking the authorities. He described methods that could easily be implemented by protesters without disrupting their everyday routines, such as the wearing of symbols, and those involving more extensive preparation like marches or mock elections. Sharp acknowledged that preventing violence may not always be possible, but he urged protesters to clearly distance themselves from any individuals or groups resorting to that option.

His work fills thousands of pages (he wrote more than 30 books), but some of his most frequently cited conclusions can be summarized in three points.

Violence provokes more violence

Sharp said that regime and opposition were trapped in a cycle of violence in many authoritarian countries. If protesters resorted to violence, this would serve only as a pretext for regimes to deploy even more brutal tactics.

“Since nonviolent struggle and violence operate in fundamentally different ways, even limited resistance violence during a political defiance campaign will be counterproductive, for it will shift the struggle to one in which the dictators have an overwhelming advantage (military warfare). Nonviolent discipline is a key to success and must be maintained despite provocations and brutalities by the dictators and their agents,” Sharp wrote in his seminal book, in which he also referred to his list of 198 methods of resistance, including mock awards, “teach-ins” and walkouts.

Choosing the right response, case by case

In talks and interviews, Sharp frequently pointed out that his list of methods should not be used in just any context, as this dialogue in London — published by CNN in 2012 — indicates:

A young Iranian asks a question: “The youth in Iran are very disillusioned by the brutality of the violence used against them . . . It has stopped all the street protest,” she says. “What would you say to them? How can they get themselves organized again?” (...)
“You don’t march down the street towards soldiers with machine guns . . . That’s not a wise thing to do,” (Sharp responds). “But there are other things that are much more extreme . . . You could have everybody stay at home . . . Total silence of the city.”

Sharp may have been more of a theorist than an activist, but he also lived by his own principles. He spent several months in jail after objecting to the draft during the Korean War in what he said was an act of civil disobedience.

“An outsider like me can't tell you what to do”

Sharp frequently cautioned that his words of advice and his influence on protest movements worldwide were limited. Even though this may have been an understatement, his point was clear: “An outsider like me can’t tell you what to do,” he said at the same London event in 2012, responding to an Iranian who asked whether freedom groups should accept government defectors among their ranks.

“An outsider like me can’t tell you what to do . . . and if I did, you shouldn’t believe me. Trust yourselves. . . . You've got to be smart. This takes time and energy . . . know your situation in depth,” he said.

But as Trump's remarks on Iran and other countries have shown, the president appears to lack a similar reluctance.

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