Did the Arab Spring Really Spark a Wave of Global Protests?

The world may look like it's roiling now, but the 1980s were far worse.

As the remnants of the Arab Spring's wave of uprisings continue to wrack the Middle East, as Thailand and Venezuela convulse, and as Ukraine spirals into possible civil war, a question heard ever more frequently in the halls of Washington is whether the world is coming apart at the seams. That may well be hyperbole, but more analytical minds that I've spoken to recently still wonder whether the Arab Spring was the catalyst that tipped populations across the world to rise up against their governments. While political pundits and subject matter experts have responded with a myriad of thought pieces, there has been a lack of quantitative data placing the recent protests into historical context.

Turning to the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT Project), the timeline below is perhaps the first global chronology ever created of protests worldwide over the past 30 years, compiled from print, broadcast, and web news media from over 100 languages in nearly every country. In all, more than 2.4 million protest records from January 1979 to April 2014 are cataloged in its archive. The number of protests each month is divided by the total number of all events recorded in GDELT that month to create a "protest intensity" score that tracks just how prevalent worldwide protest activity has been month-by-month over the last quarter-century (this corrects for the exponential rise in media coverage over the last 30 years and the imperfect nature of computer processing of the news). To make it easier to spot the macro-level patterns, a black 12-month moving average trend line is drawn on top of the graph to help clarify the major temporal shifts.

Figure 1 - Intensity of protest activity worldwide 1979-April 2014 (black line is 12-month moving average)

One of the most striking features of this timeline is the sharp rise in global protest activity beginning in January 2011 as the Arab Spring washed over the Middle East, followed by a steady state of elevated protest activity over the following three years. In short, the Arab Spring indeed appears to have kicked off a 25 percent increase in protest activity around the world. This elevated level of protests appears to be stabilizing after a period of slight decrease, suggesting a future in which citizen protests play a larger role in global politics. However, it is important to put the current protests in historical context: The uprisings of recent years are still less prevalent than they were through most of the 1980s. In fact, the elevated protest activity of the last three years is only noticeable because it comes on the heels of two decades of relatively reduced protest action.

Looking at the spikes in the graph above, a number of major world events are instantly recognizable. One of the largest peaks in the trend line is the international boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games, in which more than 60 nations withdrew from the games in protest of Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. The May 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and global anti-war movement after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 are also both clearly visible. But the single most intense moment in global dissent over the last 30 years, as measured by GDELT, was the February 2006 Danish cartoon controversy, which triggered violent protests across the globe and left more than 250 dead, over 800 wounded, and several Western embassies damaged. While this event may not have had the long-lasting impact of other events, its global nature, with a physical footprint in so many countries, appears to have led to its heightened intensity. In third place is February 2011 -- when the Arab Spring was in full swing, with protesters from Tahrir Square to Manama's Pearl Roundabout, a period that also saw the beginning of the Libyan Civil War, the toppling of Tunisia's tyrant, and turmoil from Algeria to Yemen. Roughly a year and a half later, we can see a spike again -- denoting the reaction to the "Innocence of Muslims" video in September 2012 that fueled protests in over 60 countries. Compared against this baseline, the current outbreaks of violence in Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela, while captivating the American news media, are far more localized in their impact.

Turning to Ukraine as a country-level case study, there is relatively little recorded protest activity until the middle of 1989, when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe began. The next spike -- a burst of anti-Ukrainian protests in Crimea in October 1995, after Kiev abolished Crimea's constitution and dissolved its presidency -- foreshadows recent events. The next spike marks the "Ukraine without Kuchma" protests of March 2001, while the uptick in September 2002 saw opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's "Rise Up, Ukraine!" movement take hold. The Orange Revolution in November 2004 capped off this period of elevated unrest in Ukraine, leading to a lull in widespread protests from 2007 through 2010, at which point the country began to become agitated once again, culminating in the Euromaidan protests of November 2013 to present -- the biggest spike to date.

Figure 2 - Intensity of Ukraine protest activity 1979-April 2014 (black line is 12-month moving average)

Never before have we been able to answer a policy question like "did the Arab Spring catalyze a surge in protests around the world." But by making a timeline of worldwide protests spanning 30 years, we can now see, with some perspective, the effect of the cause. Looking across the news media of every country, we can see beyond the attention biases of any one country or culture to get a far more holistic view of global protest activity. This ability to use big data to scan increasingly high-resolution records of our human society is providing the first glimpse of what the future of data-driven diplomacy may look like, moving from anecdote to actuality.



What We Talk About When We Talk About Leadership

Why is President Obama afraid to talk about the real levers of American exceptionalism?

What started as a partisan attack line has turned into a full-fledged national lament: America under Obama is in retreat, having lost its willingness to lead and its appetite to do great things. The "international order" is coming apart as a result. The Russians dismantle Ukraine, the Chinese send drill rigs into disputed waters, the North Koreans flout nuclear norms, and the Syrians ignore American redlines -- and all the president of the United States can do is complain to reporters that no one understands him while his constituents tell pollsters they're sick of having to care.

The only antidote to this weakness, the lament goes, is a demonstration of might. The only way to reverse our retreat is to assert our power. And unless we do, the international order -- one built out of the wreckage of World War II and then sustained through victory in the Cold War, one that kept Americans secure at home even as it spread freedom and prosperity abroad -- has little hope of survival.

At West Point on Wednesday, in his biggest speech on foreign policy in a year, President Obama attempted to silence this lament. He rejected its pernicious opposition: intervention or retreat, assertions of power abroad or withdrawal behind our borders at home. (When the question is put to them in those terms, most Americans today -- weary and wary of intervention -- choose Option B.) But while he pointed out that we must "strengthen and enforce international order," he did too little to emphasize what many of his detractors ignore. For Obama, six years into his presidency, much more essential than reiterating criticisms of his predecessor is condemning his current critics for what they're missing: By neglecting, and often opposing, the most powerful steps the administration could take to renew the international order, they offer a vision of American leadership that is disastrously distorted.

If the question is not just whether to lead, but how, the starting point must be building on what we've done well in the past -- what makes the international order worth saving in the first place. America has been successful in shaping and sustaining order over the past 70 years because our strength rests on a global political foundation, not just on military might. In the decades after World War II, Washington led the way in building a distinctly liberal international system, defined by multilateral bodies, alliances, open trade, and political partnerships. This system tied liberal democracies together through rules and institutions that fostered both economic advancement and security cooperation -- from NATO to the Marshall Plan, from the United Nations to Bretton Woods. 

These partnerships and institutions sometimes limited our freedom of action, but ultimately they made us stronger. By binding American power in a broader system, they helped ensure it was legitimate, durable, and far-reaching, able both to deter great-power rivals and to avert counterbalancing coalitions of frightened smaller countries. They helped win broad global appeal for democracy, openness, the rule of law, and human rights.

This order does face strains, for reasons that have become familiar: the ambitions of a rising China, the emergence of headstrong new players in every region, the growing dangers of transnational threats. (It is not Pollyannaish to point out that many of these problems are byproducts of success: rising powers are rising because they have embraced the advantages of the existing order; we confront climate change because of unprecedented global growth, terrorism because of unprecedented global interdependence.) And there is undeniable cause for concern about Americans' lack of willingness to back an active foreign policy, after the traumas of failed intervention abroad and of stagnant economic prospects at home. But building on what we've done right in the past points to the best way both to repair those strains and to overcome the entirely understandable popular skepticism about the advantages of foreign-policy ambition.

That would mean decrying and overcoming congressional opposition to reform of the International Monetary Fund, a key institution of the current order. The Obama administration has won international support for restructuring the institution's governance to give new powers a larger role -- mostly at the expense of European, not American, influence -- thus ensuring their continued involvement. But opponents in Congress have stalled it, while the BRICS, denied a leadership stake that reflects their current heft, have moved ahead with plans to create financial institutions of their own.

It would mean rallying support for ratification of international treaties like the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea. We invoke the Law of the Sea to defend core principles of the global order -- when, say, China aggressively asserts its control of contested waters. But as Obama noted, America has not actually ratified it: two years ago, 34 Senate Republicans beat back the most recent effort to get congressional approval.

It would mean building a domestic consensus for ambitious trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (between the United States and the European Union). If passed, they would cement U.S. economic leadership in blocs that together represent nearly two-thirds of the global economy. But in the face of congressional paralysis and of anemic efforts to broadly distribute the gains from trade, the prospects of both deals are in doubt.

It would mean never again allowing dysfunction in Washington to keep the president of the United States from attending key international gatherings in Asia. When President Obama missed last year's East Asia Summit during the government shutdown -- just a few years after the United States joined the summit to show its commitment to playing an ongoing role in Asian politics -- it spooked allies and partners, undermined faith in U.S. staying power, and had Chinese hawks gloating. Doubt about our "credibility" has more to do with this kind of domestic dysfunction than any specific foreign-policy decision.

It would mean supporting the kinds of humanitarian initiatives that have always been a hallmark of American power. We may, for example, have a limited ability to successfully end the violence in Syria, through means either diplomatic or military, but, as Obama's speech noted, we can play the leading role in an expanded international response to the humanitarian crises that have spilled out of it, at great cost to both millions of Syrians and to the stability of its neighbors.

President Obama and his defenders don't help themselves by downplaying steps like these as "singles and doubles," as he did last month -- an analogy gleefully seized upon by detractors. Those critics, meanwhile, are wrong to belittle such measures as weak or fancifully utopian. Efforts like these, as much as military power, account for the past successes of American leadership and the international order we built. They have been, and remain, some of our most powerful weapons.

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