The Age of Leaderless Revolution

Mass protest movements are roiling politics around the globe. Over the past several days, the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq have agreed to resign and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile was cancelled—all due to massive, leaderless protest movements. At this very moment, protesters are out on the streets of not only Lebanon, Iraq, and Chile but also Hong Kong, Spain, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Haiti, Egypt, and Algeria. They have been out in force as well in recent months in Russia, France, Indonesia, and Thailand. In recent years, the restlessness of citizens has been channeled elsewhere into the ballot box for political populists from the United Kingdom to the United States, Brazil to the Philippines, Poland to India. And at the outset of the decade, the Arab Spring tore through 15 countries.

Citizen grievances are many but share a common theme: the failure of ruling elites and political institutions to meet expectations of dignity and betterment. Protesters are frustrated with perceived corruption and economic inequality. Often young, angry, and urban, protesters are not an organized opposition proposing the substitution of their party or ideology for an existing one but a leaderless movement demanding their voices are heard. In some cases, protesters’ demands are clear; more often they are muddled. Across the board the aggrieved want change in systems that feel outdated, broken, or nonresponsive.

The world is experiencing the volatility of what my late colleague Zbigniew Brzezinski identified in 2008 as a “global political awakening”—a sweeping revolution the likes of which we had never before seen. In his words: “For the first time in history almost all of humanity is politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive. Global activism is generating a surge in the quest for cultural respect and economic opportunity in a world scarred by memories of colonial or imperial domination.”

This awakening has been amplified by the digital information age with more than half of the planet—4 billion people—now connected to the internet. Facebook alone counts 2.4 billion active users. And among the most popular topics for users is politics. More people than ever before are more exposed to a torrential and ceaseless news cycle—much of it negative, some of it fake. And the ways in which people can connect locally and globally and draw comparisons and inspiration from events elsewhere is unmatched. The ability for individuals to connect, to inspire and coordinate millions onto the streets, is without precedent.

Parallel to this phenomenon of surging political awareness and rising expectations, Brzezinski pointed to a change in global order in the relative decline of Western powers and the rise of China and Asia. He worried especially what the absence of U.S. leadership could mean in such a rapidly transforming environment, prophetically warning, “In this dynamically changing world, the crisis of American leadership could become the crisis of global stability.”

This is a critical insight: leaderless revolutions grow in perceived voids of leadership at the national and international levels around the globe. Cities, where wealth and knowledge are increasingly concentrated, are the engines of these mass protests. Social media is accelerating and enabling them. We are in a new age of leaderless revolution. The accelerating trendline is clear, and we would be wise to look for its further intensification in years and perhaps decades ahead.

The risks and implications are mounting for governments, businesses, and organizations of every type. It is a question of when, not if, the digital flash mob comes for those in power. Leaderless movements are a tidal wave washing over our planet. The energy that creates them does not dissipate even when they are crushed by authoritarian governments. Rather, it regathers strength. It cannot be ignored, but it can be co-opted for harm or good.

While ethno-nationalists, populists, and extremists are clearly demonstrating the damage they can do by tapping into this latent energy, there are fewer examples of the good that can come from harnessing these forces. This is where efforts should be concentrated to think about how to address legitimate grievances and turn youth political engagement to beneficial national purpose. The energy on the streets could be channeled into dialogue and participation in electoral politics if political parties and elites can find ways to meaningfully engage in dialogue and show effectiveness in creating change. Positive leadership should be asserted, with meaningful proposals for reform of deteriorating systems of government and paths charted to shared prosperity in societies. The ability to demonstrate dynamism and responsiveness in democratic societies could in turn ignite calls for reform in non-democratic countries and stop the backsliding of freedoms worldwide. This global awakening is a pivot point in human history we cannot ignore.

Sam Brannen leads the Risk and Foresight Group and is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Samuel Brannen