Rebel Power: Why National Movements Compete, Fight, and Win

  • Published

Rebel Power: Why National Movements Compete, Fight, and Win by Peter Krause. Cornell University Press, 2017, 248 pp.

Rebel Power by Peter Krause, assistant professor of political science at Boston University, compellingly applies elements of power politics to the internal dynamics of national independence movements. Given that national movements produced most new states in the past century, many of which exist today, the question of how and why some succeed and others do not is a key question for scholars and policy makers. While previous efforts assumed that independence movements were unitary actors or composed of smaller homogenous groups, Krause outlines the logic by which groups within movements compete to lead the movement at the expense of their rivals. His resulting theory largely explains why groups within movements sometimes undermine their own stated goals and the movement’s success overall.

Krause argues that the balance of power among groups in a national movement determines how groups behave and the movement’s likelihood of success. The leading group in a movement benefits more from victory than the others since it gets to determine the makeup of the new state. Therefore, leading groups devote their resources to winning independence through low-risk strategies, such as negotiated withdrawals with the host government. Challenging groups have an incentive to adopt high-risk behaviors, such as escalating violence and spoiling negotiations, to become leaders before independence is won. When challengers are strong enough to potentially unseat the leading group, leaders devote resources to maintaining their position at the top of the movement—even to the point of informing on their rivals to the government. Hegemonic groups, meanwhile, can selectively apply violence and credibly negotiate without fear of losing supporters to a rival. The balance of power within a movement therefore determines whether resources go toward internal competition or the goal of independence. Krause labels this pattern of interaction Movement Structure Theory.

Krause tests his theory by looking at four independence movements in Palestine, Israel, Algeria, and Ireland. In each case, he convincingly demonstrates that the behavior of the group is based on whether it is leading the movement or challenging the leaders. Fatah, for instance, frequently escalated violence to win supporters who felt the leading group was not forceful enough. However, once Fatah became a leader, it also reduced violence and sought political solutions. The implication is that purported differences in ideology and personality among group members matter less than their pursuit of power. The author uses the cases to explain complex, decades-long movements for those not familiar and then to frame the changes to movements over time in relation to the theory. Some readers may take issue with Krause’s occasional counterfactual assertions that had a movement been more or less fragmented, it would have succeeded or failed. Others might quibble with the cases, such as Krause’s assertion that the Republicans and Nationalists in Northern Ireland were wings of the same movement that produced two simultaneous “leaders” in Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), but complications like these do not fundamentally undermine Krause’s framework.

Movement Structure Theory is therefore a good way to evaluate past, but not necessarily ongoing, movements. While Krause’s theory elegantly describes cases after the dust settles, the theory is not as predictive as he sometimes claims. Krause paints a picture of complicated conflicts in which groups send mixed signals, attacks are not always attributable, and public support within and outside the conflict zone varies wildly. To make matters worse, Krause argues that the most violent actors are smaller groups, meaning that the government and general public do not always have a sense of who is conducting attacks and why. With so much information asymmetry, predicting the outcome of an ongoing movement—or even assessing the relative strength of the groups at any given time—is extraordinarily challenging and often requires information possessed only by the groups themselves.

Numerous implications stem from Krause’s theory, notably that movements dominated by a single group are more likely to succeed and less likely to be democratic immediately after independence. Ironically, the plurality that produces healthy democracies often impedes the unity of effort needed to become independent. The tension between fostering democracy and achieving victory is likely to give pause to proponents of external or covert aid to opposition groups. Krause’s theory further implies that states giving aid to a group need to consider the group’s position in the movement hierarchy versus its stated ideology or extremism, as gaining leadership shifts group behavior.

One missing piece of the puzzle is what governments opposed to national movements can do to undermine them. While Krause highlights instances where governments encouraged movement fragmentation, the French in Algeria failed to facilitate notable fragmentation through direct arms transfers although the British periodically succeeded by allowing intergroup violence to play out and taking covert action. Of Krause’s cases, no host state managed to create enough fragmentation itself to doom the movement. Krause’s policy recommendations emphasize that governments face a trade-off between a more violent fragmented movement and a less violent hegemonic movement that is more likely to win, but the ways in which a government might create either situation is not clear.

Rebel Power is a key text for those interested in security studies, counterinsurgency, and peace studies. Scholars and practitioners focused on irregular warfare and popular movements will find particular value in the book’s discussion of how hierarchy positions affect group incentives. Krause’s lesson that external aid to groups should take into account their position within the movement hierarchy is relevant to those who study the geopolitical implications of foreign aid to rebellions.

Overall, Krause offers a compelling argument for the impact of a movement’s internal balance of power on movement success. Krause compellingly moves the field forward by taking a nuanced approach toward national movements and embracing the heterogeneity of their constituent groups.

Marcel Plichta
DOD Strategic All-Source Analyst


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."