Jack A. Goldstone, the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel professor of public policy at George Mason University and global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, discusses the looming risks of revolution around the world in the coming decade.
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FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org.
We’re delighted to have Jack Goldstone with us today to talk about the looming risks of revolution around the world in the coming decades. Dr. Goldstone is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel professor of public policy at George Mason University, and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Prior to that, he was on the faculty of Northwestern University and the University of California, and has been a visiting scholar at Cambridge University and the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of “Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World” and nine other books, as well as more than a hundred research articles.
Having worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank on providing democracy assistance to fragile states, his current research focuses on conditions for building democracy and stability in developing nations, the impact of population change on the global economy and international security, and the cultural origins of modern economic growth. Dr. Goldstone is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. And he serves on the advisory board of the Council’s Center for Preventive Action. He blogs regularly on global trends and world events at www.newpopluationbomb.com. And you can also follow him on Twitter at @JGoldsto, almost all of his name.
So, Jack, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate it. I thought you could get us started by talking about the risks of potential revolutions around the world in the coming years and how these revolutions might affect global politics.
GOLDSTONE: Thank you, Irina. And thanks to everyone for joining us here today. I appreciate the Council giving us this opportunity to talk about international relations and the risks of revolution around the world. We thought that those risks might be gone by the early 20th century, because it seemed that the world was heading for an embrace of democratic and constitutional government. At least, that’s what we thought when the Cold War ended and the Communist and Soviet revolutions—anti-Soviet revolutions occurred. But that is not what has happened. Instead, what we’ve seen is a decline in democratic government around the world, and a reassertion of different kinds of authoritarian rule.
Now, that increases the risks of revolution somewhat generally because democratic states do not have revolutions. They’re pretty much invulnerable, simply because if people want to change the character of their government they can do so at the ballot box with much less risk than is required to challenge an authoritarian regime. It is true, of course, that even in democracies people can get very upset with their government. We’ve seen that around the world. And people can then embrace alternative political parties. They can vote for radical change by rejecting all of the mainstream candidates.
And in fact, we’ve seen something like that certainly in the French election, where the previous mainstream parties were banished to the margins, in the United States where Donald Trump came out of nowhere and vanquished all of the mainstream establishment political candidates. And even in Great Britain, where the United Kingdom Independence Party persuaded a majority of the electorate to vote against Britain remaining in the European Union. And all of these are huge political changes, but they were accomplished without the violent organization or even the non-violent mass movements that we associate with revolution.
So why is the risk for revolution, in my view, going up? Well, we have an increasing number of authoritarian regimes, even countries that we thought were on a democratic trajectory, like Turkey, Thailand, Venezuela, have shifted into the authoritarian column. Now, from about the end of the Cold War into the mid-2000s, the world enjoyed a fast-growing economy, a lot of global connections, a lot of opportunities for businesses to make money and for states to gain revenue. And it has been, in general, a period of state strengthening. But after the global recession hit in 2007 to 2009, we started to see more and more governments around the world facing fiscal strains, conflicts with their own elites, demands from their people. And we saw a wave of revolutions explode across the Middle East—the famous Arab uprisings.
Now, these were not as peaceful or as successful in bringing democracy as the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 to 1991. And a lot of people were disappointed. They thought, oh. Oh, my gosh. What happened? What went wrong? Well, unfortunately, the reality is political life is that revolutions don’t always operate in a pleasant, relatively peaceful and productive manner. The history of revolutions is a very diversified one. A lot of revolutions have led to more ruthless, more autocratic regimes than the old governments that they replaced. Only in some cases have revolutions led to more open and democratic government.
Now, what can we say about what kind of revolution we’re likely to get? It turns out that there is one fairly consistent rule. And that is countries with older, more mature populations—that is, an average population age in the late 20s, early 30s—those countries, when they have uprisings against dictators do tend to be more peaceful, mass demonstrations, less violence, and more likely to make a transition toward democracy. Countries that have younger populations—more people forming a youth bulge in the late teens, early 20s, they tend to be more prone to violence.
And so from that perspective, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the anti-Communist and color revolutions, which took place in older countries, were relatively non-violent, but the uprisings that occurred across the Arab Middle East, most of whose populations were younger, led to violence. The one exception in the Arab world, Tunisia, also happens to be the country in that region that has the most mature, oldest population. And so that exception kind of confirms this rule.
Now, what this means is that if and when uprisings come to places like Russia or China or even Thailand or Vietnam, those countries—which have been rapidly aging—are more likely to have political conflicts take the form of peaceful mass movements and are more likely to make a transition to democracy. But when revolutions arise in the younger countries—especially in sub-Saharan Africa, but also parts of the Middle East, some parts of South Asia—there, we are more likely, tragically, to see a high risk of violent revolution and outcomes that are a rebirth of dictatorship, rather than a shift to democracy.
Now, I’m going to be resistant to saying, Professor Goldstone, can you give me three countries that are likely to have a revolution in the next five years? I’ve tried to do this, but that’s a little bit like trying to pick next year’s Super Bowl winner or World Series champion. You can identify what teams are strong and which are weak, but the outcome of a baseball season—which is a kind of well-organized, rule-driven, refereed competition—is still very hard to call. And the outcome in any particular country in any particular year, where hundreds of thousands or millions of people are involved, there are no rules, is a very difficult thing to predict.
Social scientists have done our best. We were pretty confident that Yemen was going to have a revolutionary crisis, that Venezuela would have a revolutionary crisis. And those things are, indeed, underway. But people like myself were ringing alarm bells about those countries even before things started to break down. And there was no guarantee that we would see a crisis in a certain year. I think that China, for all of the great effort that the new leader—great leader Xi Jinping is making to firm up his position, probably makes him more vulnerable in the longer run, because we have learned that governments that depend more and more on one person and accumulate higher levels of debt are at higher risk, because that one person gets all the blame if a debt crisis or a debt bubble arise.
Now, for the moment, as long as economic growth is strong in China, Xi has a good chance to consolidate his position. But if things slow down, he will be at risk. Same in true in Russia. Vladimir Putin looks very secure right now, and will almost certainly be comfortably reelected next year. But toward the end of his six-year term questions will arise about who will be his successor. Can it be a smooth transition? Will there be changes? What shape will the Russian economy be in five years hence, if it continues to struggle with sanctions and low oil and gas prices? So let me be a little bit cryptic and say even the two countries that seem to be the most stable and the more important dictatorships in the world—Russia and China—may be creeping up on revolution-type crises within the next five to 10 years. I don’t think it’s going to happen next year or the year after, but 10 years from now I would be surprised of those countries had continued to enjoy a smooth political trajectory.
I’m ready to stop there and take people’s questions. I’d like to hear from you in the audience.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thanks so much, Jack, for that overview. Let’s go now to the students.
OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. At this time, we’ll open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We are now holding for questions.
FASKIANOS: So, while we’re waiting for the group to queue up, I will ask the first question. What are the U.S. foreign policy options for countries in which revolutions have not produced stable democracies? I mean, what would you recommend? How would you approach those specific cases?
GOLDSTONE: In those specific cases, the best advice for the United States is get out of the way and protect yourself. (Laughs.) The history of U.S. intervention in unfriendly or unstable regimes has been a very unhappy one. As we’ve learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult if not impossible for an outside power—no matter how strong—to impose order on a country whose own government has lost legitimacy. There’s no way for an outsider to simply say: OK, this is the new government, and everybody will accept it as legitimate. You literally have to occupy the country with military force for a significant period—a decade or more—while the country that’s experiencing a turmoil or revolution sorts out a new social and political order.
And as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ability of the United States to, you know, improve that process or shorten it, or accelerate it, is not good. Where the United States can be effective is in helping countries that have had democratic revolutions consolidate or stabilize those regimes. That assistance can take the form of technical and financial support. It can take the form of diplomatic mediation to help budding governments resolve controversies and build alliances between different factions, which is crucial to maintaining the peace. It can help those countries improve their international trade and encourage foreign investment. So in the case of the Arab revolutions, the United States probably could still do more to help Tunisia, which is moving toward a democracy despite the difficulties. Probably should have done more to try and support the infant democratic government in Libya. And failure to do so allowed a civil war to develop with jihadist forces having a chance to mobilize.
But in Syria, as we’ve seen, there simply was not much the United States could do. That conflict is simply going to continue until what looks like the likely victory of the existing Syrian government in some portions of Syria, and the continued control of other portions of the old Syrian territory by Kurdish or other forces. In these cases, the United States probably is best off trying to join with other international actors to help stabilize ceasefires or mediate peace agreements, but not to invest a great deal of America’s own money, force, and arms in trying to somehow put a Humpty Dumpty situation back together. That can’t be done.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Washington and Lee University.
Q: Hello. So you mention—you drew a correlation between age and the likelihood of success in revolution. Do you think it’s more likely that these—the successes that we’re seeing in older populations is due to, like, just a maturity in the revolutionaries, or is it a symptom of a—of underlying socioeconomic factors that also play into how—like the age distribution of a specific population?
GOLDSTONE: Yeah. That’s a wonderful question. Now, to clarify, age is not determinant of the success of revolutions. We’ve had successful revolutions in countries that are very young and those that are older. Rather, what the age structure shapes is the outcome and the trajectory of the revolution. So older countries tend to have less violent revolutions with more democratic outcomes. That’s partly because older actors are less likely to take up arms. They are less easily conscripted into extreme ideological movements. So that age structure by itself is part of the explanation.
But you’re quite right to ask is there anything else behind that. The answer is yes. The way countries transition from being very young to having an older age structure is by having a lower birthrate, smaller families. The reason that people choose to have smaller families is they no longer feel so dependent upon kinship and family or local patronage ties. Instead, they’ve learned to depend more on the market, they’ve learned to depend more on voluntary associations, and they’ve learned more to depend on government and impersonal institutions to meet their daily needs.
And because they have learned that they can depend on impersonal institutions and rule of law to organize their lives, they’re more likely to see solutions to a revolutionary situation by rebuilding rule of law-type organizations. Whereas younger people and people who live in societies that depend much more on family and extended kin and patronage units, they’re more likely to look for an ideological leader and a strong boss to fix their problems. And in those situations, the revolution leads to more of an open power struggle, more violence, and an authoritarian outcome.
But thank you for that question. That was very helpful.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Central Florida.
Q: Hello. My name is Catalina Udani from the Global Perspectives Office in the University of Central Florida.
You mentioned your observations about youth and extreme ideologies. Do you have any observations about the role of technology and emergent media that plays in use on their relationship with emergent—with radical ideology and perhaps with revolutions?
GOLDSTONE: Thank you. Another good question. And I believe I’m coming to visit the University of Central Florida next spring. So I hope I’ll see you there.
The changing media landscape and the increased access to social media tools has gained a lot of attention. People are asking, is this going to make it easier for harder to organize revolutionary movements? I think the answer is a little bit of both, and I’ll tell you why. The way to understand any communication media – whether it’s telephone, telegraph, television, internet, cable TV, social media, is to think of it as a competition space. In this space, where messages are being transmitted, one group that tries to control the message space would be anti-government elites and organizations. The other agent that tries to control the information space is the authoritarian regime. And throughout history, whenever a new instrument of communication has been invented, you’ll find both popular groups and governments scrambling to figure out, how do we control the message space created by this new technology?
I remember when television was—became a mass medium in the 1950s, and a number of intellectuals said, oh, you know, this television allowing broadcasts into everybody’s home that are lifelike will be the greatest tool for education and democracy that the world has ever seen. But it turned out otherwise. Television turned out to be much more for entertainment than for education. And authoritarian regimes, like that of the Soviet Union, used how to use television broadcast as an incredibly effective medium for state propaganda. Something like that is also going on with the internet. In the beginning, young people, people who were early adopters, people who became experts in building up social media followings, they were able to use social media to communicate in ways that governments didn’t see coming.
And we’ve seen this with revolutionary movements, like those that started organizing in the Middle East. We’ve also seen it with a kind of right-wing or reactionary revolutionary movements, the Islamic State, hate groups, very reactionary anti-immigrant groups in Europe and the United States. They’ve all used the internet effectively to find fellow thinkers and to organize themselves. At the same time, however, governments have become increasingly adept at managing internet and social media to serve the purposes of government. China, as you’ve probably heard, has put together the great wall to control internet communication within China. People who are smart and used virtual personal networks used to be able to get around it, but now China is requiring people to register when they use a virtual network. And that looks to give the government, again, more control.
Both Russia and China have found out that they can effectively flood social media with pro-government messages, and thereby drown out dissident or opposition voices. One of the articles I had people read for this was one that said, you know, the real essence of modern dictatorships is control of information rather than just coercive force. And authoritarian governments have gotten much better at taking control of that information space. So I think what we have to say overall is that we’ve seen people use social media, and they’ll continue to use social media, just like they’ll use print media, telephone, cable TV, to spread their message. But governments are fighting back. And the more authoritarian governments are being more creative and more effective in exercising their own control. And as long as those governments have loyal elites and are strong and are able to pay armies of trolls and hackers to turn the internet to their advantage, it will be operating in their favor.
But revolutions occur when governments start to lose their authority and their financial resources become strained. So what I expect is that when governments—even in Russia or China, weaken, for reasons that might be a financial crisis or a factional conflict internally— when they start to weaken, their iron grip on the internet and social media will start to weaken as well. And at those times, we’ll see new and creative uses of social media to organize opposition.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Stockton University.
Q: What role can regional or international actors play to reduce the likelihood of violent revolution toward more peaceful movements?
GOLDSTONE: Well, hi there, Stockton. I’m from San Francisco originally, so it’s nice to hear from you.
To some degree, violent revolutions cannot be stopped from outside. If it’s the case that a government is corrupt, unjust, alienates its own military or bureaucratic administration by egregious corruption or by acts of personal effort—for example, just last night it appears the military took control of the country of Zimbabwe, in part because the dictator, Robert Mugabe, instead of creating a stable succession that would incorporate the military leadership, he got rid of his vice president, who had a lot of support in the military, apparently for the purpose of clearing the way for his wife to take over as leader of Zimbabwe after him. The military didn’t tolerate that, and so we have a coup. And if the military is not able to keep control of the situation, we might see a popular mobilization and even a risk of revolution.
So there’s not much that other countries can do to stop the self-destructive behavior of a government that often leads to revolution, because they’ve focused on the short-term interests of the leader rather than how to build a stable and legitimate regime. Now, that said, we have seen—for example, in Latin America, the Organization of American States put a strong emphasis on trying to defend democracy throughout the region. And their efforts have helped make leaders who wanted to go against that think twice. And when there have been conflicts in countries in Latin America that could perhaps have led to revolution, the Organization of American States has sometimes been able to mediate the conflict and arrange a more peaceful transition of power.
So a lot, I would say, depends on do you have good regional unity. Can an organization like the OAS really bring almost all of its members to agree on what is a desirable outcome? In those cases, you could have a positive effect. But in areas like Asia, where ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has no political unity and has avoided any political role, they will not have any impact. In Africa, where the Organization for African Unity has tried to at least preserve borders, they also have not been in agreement on whether leaders should limit themselves in power, and therefore have also played a very limited role. So I would say unfortunately the degree of unity required for a regional organization to be effective has not generally been achieved. It could have. It could get better, but it hasn’t yet.
FASKIANOS: Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Washington and Lee University.
Q: Yeah. So we’ve talked a lot about how other—foreign powers can promote stability. But if another nation wanted to create instability in a nation? How would they go about doing that?
GOLDSTONE: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting that you ask that, because we always assume that countries want to create stability or preserve stability. But that’s not true. The United States, for example, has long had an interest in trying to undermine the Islamic regime in Iran, and has at least thought about what could be done to try and weaken that regime.
But the example of Iran demonstrates that if a government has the support of the military, the support of the religious and business elite, and is able to make effective nationalist appeal to the majority of its population, it’s difficult for an outside country to somehow foment conditions for revolution. The conditions for revolution are that a government lose its legitimacy, that is lose people’s respect for what that government stands for, that the military and the administration not be willing to carry out the orders of that government, not be willing to defend it with force. Those conditions are very difficult to manipulate. It can be done if a government is already kind of weak and losing support. I would say foreign intervention can sometimes push a weak government over the edge. But a government that has got pretty solid internal stability, very hard to overthrow from the outside short of an armed invasion.
In general, what we’ve seen is that, except in cases where a government is willing to use a high degree of force, external action is kind of a second-order effect. So a weak government can either be shored up and strengthened or may be pushed over the edge by an outside power that wants to change the outcome. But a government that is kind of weak and going down or a government that is strong, that is a government that, for internal reasons is already pretty committed to a good or a bad trajectory, those cases you can’t do very much from the outside.
And that’s why I say, in a lot of foreign policy situations the best thing for the United States or the United Nations or any other actor, the best thing to be done is to be reactive, try and limit the spread of damage, try and reinforce any positive trends, but don’t believe that you can somehow dictate or control the outcome.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from St. Edwards University in Austin.
Q: You mentioned that young populations tend to move towards more violent and radical revolutions. In what way does the age of government systems tend to affect the trajectory and outcome of upcoming and in past revolutions?
GOLDSTONE: OK, good question. Again, that age is the demographic age of the population. The age of the government itself also has an effect. What we find is that governments that are relatively young are more vulnerable to change. But equally important is, how long has it been since the government last had an episode of some kind of democratic governance?
It may not surprise you to learn that countries that have a history of democratic governance that is longer tend to be more likely to continue as democratic or to recover democracy. Whereas countries that have a government that has only been democratic for less than 10 years or has never been democratic at all are much less likely to make a transition to a democratic government.
So, for example, in the years before World War I, a number of countries started transitioning to democracy. But in the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of European countries lost their democracy to various kinds of fascist or communist or national socialist uprisings. In those cases, the countries of Western and Northern Europe that had the most democratic experience were the ones that either stayed democratic or returned to democracy after the ’20s and ’30s. Whereas the countries that had little or no democratic experience, they were the most likely to suffer from a radical ideological mass movement that extinguished democracy, and they were least likely to recover democracy after the war.
So the question you raise is a very good one. Yes, not only countries that are demographically young, but also countries whose democratic experience is relatively small and few in years are more prone to suffer ideologically extreme governments.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: (Give queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Washington University.
GOLDSTONE: Hi. Oh, my name is Jane Li. And I’m from Washington University, but originally I come from China.
So I was—sorry if I was not aware of some of your points made earlier. I was late to this listening session. So I’m interested in your comments on China and Russia. You predicted that if economics go down in the next 10 to 15 years, it’s difficult to foresee them, like, maintaining the stability that they are—the leaders are enjoying now.
And you also mentioned, like, age structure is an important element to launching a successful movement, as well as social media and democratic experience. And I think in China’s case, all of them seem to be pointing to China not likely to have revolutions coming maybe in the recent decades.
And then I was wondering, what do you think will—if that’s ever going to happen, what would be the ultimate reason that it happens and how long it will take?
And to me, it looks like, other than the dominant communist party, there is no other alternatives to that. And also, I think the Chinese government is being quite responsive to addressing many of the grievances, although in a way that’s probably not understood as being fairly democratic. But I think that’s—so some people call it responsive authoritarianism, and I would like to hear your points on that. Thank you.
GOLDSTONE: China is the world’s greatest enigma right now. The Chinese leadership has to be congratulated for having done a brilliant job presiding over decades of rapid economic growth and doing so while preserving a high degree of order and harmony within Chinese society.
Although there certainly has been an increase in economic inequality as the number of millionaires and billionaires in China’s coastal cities has grown, the Chinese government has also been very attentive to make sure that the benefits of China’s economic growth do reach to the interior, to the countryside, to the lowest levels of income in the population. And so China has moved more people out of poverty and has given more people control over their own lives than any other country in the last 30 years. And I really applaud their achievement.
However, in the course of doing so, China has recently been changing direction. Under Deng Xiaoping, the authorities freed much of the economy. Yes, they kept the communist party in charge as the only organ of government, but they allowed private companies, housing organizations and lots and lots of individuals and professionals to learn about the world, make their own agreements, settle their own contracts, acquire a sense of autonomy and power that was completely lacking under the rule of Mao Zedong when people were dependent on the party for everything, for their jobs, for their income, for information, for finding a spouse, for where they were allowed to live and so on.
So China today is much more free and prosperous than it was in the ’70s or 1980s, and that is good and that has given the government a great deal of support and a great deal of latitude. However, President Xi Jinping seems to be concerned that the result of this freedom has been for party officials to grow corrupt, for private businesses to not maintain sufficient allegiance to the national goals of China, and for individuals to become unfortunately too aware of alternative systems of government.
What Xi Jinping has presented in the most recent Party Congress is an argument, if you will, or a claim that the right course for China is a government, society, and economy in which the Chinese Communist Party is completely dominant and present everywhere. He has called for the party to be strong in the media, in business, in academics. Now, this is going to require a bit of a turnaround from the tendency toward greater openness and greater personal freedom that the Chinese people had been enjoying over the last couple of decades as they’ve built this economy and extended China’s role in the world.
I think that Xi Jinping has done a very good job putting himself and his supporters in charge of the government. He’s done a good job in making the argument that the control of the party is important for the future of China. But I think that going forward, Chinese people, professionals, businesspeople, scientists, ordinary workers will not be happy to accept this larger role of the communist party in everything. They may go along with it for a while and as long as the economy is booming and the party can offer advancement and favors, you’ll find plenty of people willing to sign up.
But I think it’s already the case that a lot of Chinese scientists and students who have gone abroad are wondering whether they should return to China and put up with the more restrictive party controls that seem to be coming. The social credit mechanism by which everyone in China will have a social credit rating, that may hinder initiative. It may make people hesitant about being willing to take risks in business or in academic work. And the global economy and China’s economy will probably continue to slow down because the population is getting older. China in fact is aging very rapidly. The workforce is already shrinking. And it will be a challenge to maintain the kind of booming growth rates that China had for the last few decades.
So what I see happening in China is I see a government that is trying to restrict freedom, to assert more control, and for Xi Jinping to concentrate more power in his own hands as an individual leader at the same time that the economy is going to be facing headwinds, so I see that as a recipe for increasing conflict, challenges to the party. And although I don’t think we’re going to see any open conflict in the next one, two, or three years, five years from now when Xi Jinping is either going to have to hand off power to a successor or assert himself as the third-term leader and break precedents and maybe kind of claim a leadership for life, I think at that point we are going to see a lot of uproar in China as to whether they want to go back to the kind of Mao Zedong leadership for a lifetime or whether people want to assert the ability to hold even communist party leaders more accountable. And if enough people decide accountability is important, then you may see the kind of social mobilization and protests that would lead to a dramatic change.
Now, like I said, prediction is difficult. I’m not saying this will certainly happen. All I’m saying is we should be aware that even governments that look extremely strong and durable, as the Arab governments did not too long ago, can, within a few years, find themselves in unexpected difficulties.
Just as an aside, I’ll say I was just reading an academic paper that was published about leadership in the Arab world that was published in 2005. And the task that paper set itself was, how do we explain what looks like unlimited stability of authoritarian governments in places like Egypt, Syria, Libya, countries that five years later would all be in turmoil. So I would say, yes, China looks very strong now, but that very concentration of strength may render it more vulnerable in the five-to-10-year frontier.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Berman Academy.
Berman Academy, your line is open. Please go ahead.
OPERATOR: Please make sure your phone is not on mute.
Q: Hi. My name is Meshulam, and this is extremely interesting.
My question is, what is the role of the platforms that all these things are happening? What’s the role of the social media companies? What are they supposed to do in this—in this future that we’re not sure what to do with?
GOLDSTONE: That’s a wonderful question. I’m teaching a course on democracy in which we’re going to be talking very soon about the impact of the new platforms. Here’s the thing. As I said, you have to think of communication space as an arena in which different organizations and groups are competing for control. Now, the best way to keep competition from getting out of hand is to have agreed-upon rules that are fairly enforced. So in the United States with television and magazine publications, there are rules about political advertising, hate speech. And these rules basically say that advertisements have to be reasonably honest, that is you can have things pulled off and lose your broadcast privileges if you broadcast things that are shown to be knowingly false. In advertising, advertisers have to be honest in saying who paid for the advertisement if it’s a political ad. Advertisers of various products have to give information about who is the company that is responsible for the product.
So we have certain rules that were designed to keep the airways or the print and television media reliable, redressable. But for the internet platforms, those rules don’t exist. The media are new and legislation, of course, has been late to the party. Now, of course, Facebook and Google and their supporters said initially these are new ventures, they should not be regulated, that if government tries to impose rules and regulations, it will strangle these babies in the crib and that would be a terrible loss for society. That argument made sense, enough so that Facebook and Google and the Chinese versions of all of these things have grown spectacularly with relatively little regulation.
Now, as I said, there’s a difference. China, their government has been very aggressive in entering that space and laying down rules for internet content, social media, and in fact the Chinese government has become a very active player and participant in social media.
As you probably know, Google—I’m sorry, Google and Facebook are not allowed to operate in China precisely because the government feels it cannot control those companies if they’re not based there. So China has set up rules that all internet content that’s accessible from Chinese websites has to be based on servers in China. And Tencent and WeChat, Baidu, Alibaba all have to operate according to rules and supervision that are fairly strict.
Now, that’s not true in the West. Because our platforms are wide open, anyone can use them. There’s no editing or checking for content. So you can have ISIS recruit people for terrorist organizations. You can have Russian or Chinese or North Korean agents put up material on YouTube or Facebook without acknowledging their presence. They can in fact pretend to be Americans or pretend to be Canadians or pretend to be anyone they want. They can set up robo-callers. In other words, if we have this open space in social media platforms with no rules and no regulations, yes, it’s nice to think, oh, we can unite the world, everyone can come together, we can all find friends, we can all, you know, do great. And isn’t that going to be wonderful for democracy and community?
Well, it could be, but, again, it’s like the Wild West. It’s an unregulated open space with no rules, then you can have bad actors come in and they can take advantage. They can take advantage by pretending to be good actors or they can take advantage by proclaiming their patriot of groups and simply encouraging people to reach out to others who share those hatreds.
Mark Zuckerberg certainly did not expect that Facebook would be a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists or that it would be a platform to bring together enemies of democracy or enemies of equality. But it has become that because anybody is free to use these media platforms for whatever purposes they wish.
Now, I believe that that is now going to change. I think Western governments recognize that the economic survival of Facebook or Google is no longer at risk, these are now some of the largest and wealthiest corporations on the planet, and they can certainly survive with some of the regulation that has been applied to other media publications—that is, the rules that apply to television, radio, and magazine content and advertising.
So I think what we’re going to see in the next decade is an increase in things like antitrust in content regulation, in attribution regulation. And I actually think and hope that all of these will make the media platforms more trustworthy so that when you go online and you see news on Facebook, you’ll have some faith that it’s been checked or edited for source and you’re not seeing someone who’s trying to, sadly, as has happened a few times in the past, you know, you’re not seeing someone who’s trying to lure people into child slavery or be a front for a Russian or North Korean agent. These things that happen now without any awareness or warning shouldn’t happen in the future and I hope will not happen in the future to the same extent they are happening now.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I think we have time for one last question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last question will come from University of Southern Mississippi.
Q: Hi. Thank you very much for talking with us today.
My question deals with history and colonization. How much would you say that the French Revolution of the 18th and 19th century serves as a model or inspiration for some of these countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, many of which were former French or other European colonies?
GOLDSTONE: Thank you, excellent question. People who make revolution are always looking for models to guide them. For a long time, you’re right, the French Revolution of the 18th century was an attractive model. True, it was violent, but the ideals of liberty, fraternity, equality, the idea that all people have natural rights, that they all should enjoy those rights as citizens under a republican government, those are very attractive ideals and they did in fact inspire revolutions in Haiti, in Latin America, in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
But there are now other models. For a long time, the Russian and Cuban Revolutions also seemed to offer an attractive model. They also offered a model of equality, although it was under communist rule. But if communism was understood as the dictatorship of the working class, good things could be said about it. People who didn’t know about the famines under Stalin or under Mao and emphasized the positive parts of the communist model pointed to the fact that Russia became an industrial world power under communism, and provided improvements in literacy and female rights, and therefore was a good model to follow.
I think countries that are looking to get out from under an unjust government now are a bit puzzled. The French Revolution is very distant. The communist revolutions of the 20th century also seem distant. And so, if you want to change from a military dictatorship to something else, what is your model today? And I think there’s no automatic answer.
The Western democracies, whether it’s the United States or Great Britain or France, don’t seem as attractive today as they once did. You come to the United States today, you see people being killed by gunfire almost every month, it seems, if not every week. Infrastructure is in decay. The government seems divided, dysfunctional. The debates are embarrassing, to some degree, that occur in the news. It’s hard to point to an inspiring story or even an inspiring figure that would make people say, if I want to bring justice and equality to my country as a revolutionary leader, who do I see in the United States who does that?
The more compelling example today probably is China. The leadership of China has announced that they would like to present their Chinese solution to the world, that they believe they have a good system. It’s a system of centralized party authority, but it’s a system that produced strong economic growth, has produced a relatively low violence, orderly society. They’re willing to say governments around the world should think about the Chinese model and look to that as an inspiration, as an alternative to the Western constitutional democracies like that produced by the French Revolution. The Chinese would say, you know, those constitutional democracies, they’ve become dysfunctional. They allow the wealthy to control everything. They allow people to suffer. They have terrible problems with drugs, opioids, terrorism, racial conflict—not a good model.
And so, you know, in answer to your question, I would say the example of the French Revolution is now old. And if we expect the fight against dictatorship and for justice around the world to lean in the direction of Western constitutional democracy, those of us who live in these democracies need to do a better job of making that model attractive. We need to do a better job of showing that this kind of government leads to a general increase in prosperity and security. Otherwise, we’re going to find revolutions in the next dozen years, whether in Africa or Middle East, following more of a(n) authoritarian party model as they search for something that works. I think that would be a shame, but that seems to be where we’re headed.
FASKIANOS: Jack, thanks very much for this terrific call and sharing your insights with us today. We really appreciated it.
GOLDSTONE: It’s been my pleasure.
FASKIANOS: Really great questions from all of you.
As I said at the top, I hope that you will follow Jack Goldstone on Twitter at @JGoldsto. So take advantage of that. Also, please do come to CFR’s website for resources on these topics and more, CFR.org.
Our next and final call of the semester will be on Wednesday, November 29th, at noon Eastern time again. Richard Haass, the president of CFR, will lead a conversation on the state of the world. So I hope that you will join us for that. And you can also follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Campus—actually, it’s @CFR-underscore-Campus—for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events.
So thank you all again, and enjoy the Thanksgiving break.