The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

Motto by Liz West

Frequently quoted to describe the effectiveness of the written word compared to violence, this line comes from the historical play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy written in 1839 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an English politician and writer. In Act II, Scene II of the play, Cardinal Richlieu, a very influential 17th century French statesman and church leader, makes the statement to explain how he can achieve his goals without the need for violence using the written word. There were multiple predecessors to this saying throughout ancient history, but this was a particularly clever and concise expression of the concept.

But is it true? Is there evidence to support that the best way to achieve change is through nonviolent means compared to the use of force?

Power vs. Influence

Let us first define “power” as a means to achieve an outcome utilizing authority, direct force or the threat of force, and “influence” as a means to achieve an outcome using persuasion, negotiation, or public opinion. While they are not perfect definitions (one could argue that influence is a form of power, for example), for the purposes of our discussion they should be sufficient. We’ll examine the results when using violent and non-violent approaches and determine which is more effective.

In a study conducted by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, and published in their book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, the authors collected data1 on 323 political campaigns since 1900, each involving at least 1,000 people active in the movement. Each event was categorized as a success, partial success, or a failure, and as violent or non-violent.

According to the summary data above, when it comes to successful movements, about half were violent and about half were nonviolent. However, when it comes to failed movements, they were mostly violent. This means that at a summary level, violent movements have a much higher percentage of failure. Although the sample size is relatively small, even when taking error rates and geopolitical situational variables into account, the evidence is fairly conclusive that violent revolutions have a higher chance of failure.

Naturally, this brings into question the effectiveness of using force when it comes to foreign policy. History is replete with stories of regimes with superior military powers attacking, intimidating, or threatening another state to further economic, military, or political interests. But so far, the limited evidence we have (323 data points are not that many) seems to indicate that diplomacy is a more effective tool of change.

This is not to say that military action or armament is not sometimes necessary. Sometimes it is the best choice when it comes to defending against a direct attack or an attack on citizens. The data just suggests that a diplomacy-first approach is going to achieve greater results over the course of time.


  1. Online Methodological Appendix Accompanying “Why Civil Resistance Works”