Maria J. Stephan directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which conducts research, training & education, and informs policymakers on the roles played by civil resistance and people power movements in advancing human rights and sustainable peace.

Stephan is a leading expert on civil resistance, authoritarianism, and conflict transformation whose career has straddled the academic, government, and non-governmental sectors. Stephan is the co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011), which was awarded the 2012 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Prize by the American Political Science Association for the best book published in political science and the 2012 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. She is the co-author of Bolstering Democracy: Lessons Learned and the Path Forward (Atlantic Council, 2018); the co-editor of Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback? (Atlantic Council, 2015); and the editor of Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East (Palgrave, 2009). Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Defense One, War on the Rocks, and NPR.

Previously, Stephan co-led the Future of Authoritarianism project at the Atlantic Council, a DC-based think tank. She was lead foreign affairs officer in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, where she worked on both policy and operations for Afghanistan (at U.S. Embassy, Kabul) and Syria (from Turkey). Earlier, Stephan directed policy and research at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, a private foundation dedicated to developing and disseminating knowledge about nonviolent struggle. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on human rights and civil resistance at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and American University’s School of International Service.

Stephan has worked in the Europe/NATO policy office of the U.S. Department of Defense, and at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. She is the recipient of Harry S. Truman national scholarship dedicated to public service and was a J. William Fulbright scholar in Germany. She holds an MALD and PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a BA degree from Boston College. Stephan, a proud Vermonter, is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Publications By Maria

Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding: Contradictory or Complementary?

Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding: Contradictory or Complementary?

Monday, January 27, 2020

By: Maria J. Stephan; Jonathan Pinckney

Since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day last week, the nonviolent action team here at USIP has been reflecting on what Dr. King’s life and legacy teach us about the deep links between nonviolent action and peacebuilding. As we watch protesters in Hong Kong, Iraq, or Lebanon directly confront their governments, there may not seem to be much connection between people hitting the streets and building lasting peace. But for King, the connection was inevitable and inseparable, and practitioners of both disciplines have much to offer one another.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action

The Latest on Iran’s Evolving Protests

The Latest on Iran’s Evolving Protests

Thursday, January 16, 2020

By: Garrett Nada; Maria J. Stephan

Iran has been rocked by a series of developments in recent months, from the mass protests over raised fuel prices to the killing of powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. Over the weekend, protesters returned to the streets, spurred by the military’s mistaken downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet. As in past protests, like 2009, the government has met demonstrators with a draconian and violent response. USIP’s Garrett Nada and Maria Stephan explain how the protests have evolved over time and how demonstrators could use nonviolent tactics against the repressive regime.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance; Nonviolent Action

Five Myths About Protest Movements

Five Myths About Protest Movements

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

By: Maria J. Stephan; Adam Gallagher

This year saw protests across the globe, as citizens bridled under what they consider the tyranny of their governments. From Iraq to Zimbabwe, Hong Kong to Chile, demonstrators even in places with ample surveillance and retributive regimes have worked to make their voices heard. But alongside these movements, misconceptions about how they work persist—and plague our understanding of their goals, their methods and their outcomes.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Nonviolent Action

People Power Can Boost the Afghan Peace Process

People Power Can Boost the Afghan Peace Process

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

By: Maria J. Stephan

I recently visited Afghanistan for the first time since serving at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 2009-2011. When I was last there, the fighting was intense and peace seemed far off. My days were spent working long hours at the embassy, and my nights were spent working on a book about violent and nonviolent resistance, a project which changed my life. Today, talks between the Taliban and the U.S.—and recently between the Taliban and Afghan leaders—have renewed hope for peace after decades of conflict. What role can civil resistance play amid the steady stream of violence in Afghanistan?

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action

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