Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Stanley Renshon

Committee Members

Peter Romaniuk

Thomas Halper

Subject Categories

African History | African Languages and Societies | African Studies | Asian History | Asian Studies | Cognitive Science | Comparative Politics | Cultural History | European History | History | International and Area Studies | International Relations | Islamic World and Near East History | Military History | Models and Methods | Near and Middle Eastern Studies | Organization Development | Other Languages, Societies, and Cultures | Other Social and Behavioral Sciences | Political Science


terrorism, insurgency, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, nonstate violence


Under what conditions do violent nonstate actors (VNA) succeed against states? Why does David sometimes beat Goliath? Since at least the time of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian Wars, the realist narrative in international relations measures power primarily in relative, coercive, and deterrent terms. Strong states should accordingly face fewer constraints and enjoy more options while pursuing their national interests. Unconventional warfare, and its subsets of terrorism and insurgency, should—given these circumstances, end in VNA failure. Sometimes, however, VNAs find success. By comparing the literature on historical and current case studies, I propose that a set of preconditions and two mechanisms help explain “the power of weakness.” After it decides to abandon peaceful conflict resolution, the weak side must cultivate the cause that inspires its members to kill and die, to torture and suffer. Next, it requires safe havens. If the VNA cannot avoid the state’s reach, its initial wave of attacks may likely constitute its final wave of attacks. Inspiration and sanctuary thus provide the weak side enough space and time for a stalemate. The state’s daunting power advantages, however, make space and time necessary but not sufficient conditions for weak side success. The first mechanism that can begin to transform the existing power balance combines state miscalculation and VNA competitive adaptation. The strong side’s blunders must border on the spectacular. For the weak side to survive the state’s initial onslaught, it must harden its organization, coerce and cajole its community, eliminate rivals, and generate a range of goals. Although the VNA may grow and even evolve into a proto-state, it may still not achieve its political goals until external pressures intervene. My second mechanism accordingly examines how other states, international institutions, diasporas, and international norms finalize VNA success. The paradox that power does not necessarily translate to success may help clarify why states that lose unconventional conflicts often retain vast reserves of soldiers and resources. The power of weakness implies that terrorism and insurgency are forms of politics, and hence not to be understood strictly, or even primarily in military terms. Finally, the potential power of weakness can explain asymmetric warfare’s persistence throughout history. Why do groups with guns and grievances, across successive generations, make the seemingly “futile” decision to fight states? A general theory of VNA success can inform analysis of when, and under what circumstances weak sides may, or may not prevail.