Global Political Protests and the Future of Democracy

Almost one year ago, the world entered its first Covid-19 lockdowns and political protesters nearly vanished from the streets. During those first months, protesters experimented with online activism, drive-by and drive-in events, and other forms of socially distanced engagement. But, as one of us wrote last April, it was apparent that mass protests would rapidly return despite the exceptional public health situation. The negative effects of Covid-19 actively aggravated the principal grievances that had brought protesters to the streets in growing numbers over the past decade.

And return they did by late spring 2020 in countries around the globe, first with growing protests over the lockdowns themselves, then catalyzed once more by a raft of social, economic, and political grievances tied to inequality, corruption, and violence from police forces. Over the course of last year, 68 countries experienced mass protest movements, with violence erupting around protests in more than 18 countries—a sharp and worrisome uptick from 2019.In 2021, as global mass political protests continue to increase in scale and frequency across continents and countries, two critical questions come to the fore. Will these movements achieve meaningful political change? And which will turn more violent—especially in the response by state security forces?

Both questions have unique salience to the foreign policy objectives of the Biden-Harris administration and its priority of elevating human rights and revitalizing democracy at home and abroad. The answers to these questions also are central to the contest for lasting influence in a post-Covid-19 world between democracies and authoritarian states—especially China and Russia.

Political protests have become the most visible sign of the struggle for democracy in countries around the world, and they deserve special notice and support. This year could mark a turning point in what has been a multi-decade era of rising global political protests (as one of us examined in depth here). The global contest over whether citizens may advocate publicly for their political rights or must submit to the will of unelected or corrupt governments is being determined in real time from Yangon to Minsk. It is not hyperbole to state that this is the contest for the emerging world order. And amid the pandemic, the backsliding of democracies and growth of authoritarianism has accelerated worldwide.

As the Covid-19 pandemic crisis intensified across 2020, and with the United States and European Union largely distracted and divided from one another, the Chinese Communist Party seized an opportunity to crush current and future protests in Hong Kong. Over the summer, Beijing enacted a new national security law, under which the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong government and its security forces have either arrested or forced into exile nearly all opposition leaders while remaking youth reeducation to stifle future generations of dissent. This legislation marked the totalitarian conclusion of a mass political movement that began one year earlier when an estimated 1 million people marched in the streets of Hong Kong on June 9, 2019 to protest creeping mainland-style authoritarianism and spelled an end to the “one country, two systems” principle China had agreed to decades prior.

In January and February of this year, protests swept across Russia in a show of support for political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was detained upon his return from Germany where he spent nearly five months recovering from a poisoning attack attributed to the Russian government. Despite the broadly peaceful nature of the protests, which drew more than 100,000 demonstrators in at least 120 cities, Russian police exerted ruthless force in cracking down on the movement. Images and videos of demonstrators being beaten and dragged through the snow circulated across social media as reports emerged that more than 10,000 people were arrested in connection to the protests.

The dark turn of these protests and underlying pro-democracy movements over recent months is a menacing vision of what could come for ongoing protest movements elsewhere, where the legitimate grievances of citizens is driving record numbers to the streets but often with little to show for their bravery and belief. Certainly, the hope in Moscow and Beijing is that the flame of popular protest and democratic reform can be extinguished, first at home and then globally.

In response, the Biden administration has shown a starkly different face at home and abroad on the subject of mass political protests compared to the Trump administration. On the campaign trail and in office, President Biden and other top national security officials have routinely expressed support for the fundamental right of peaceful political protest. This has included strong support for the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States that occurred in May and June 2020, including the important step of adopting key elements of protesters’ requests for political action to address systemic racism and police brutality. In this way, the new administration has set the example that protesters’ demands can create change when formal political processes have failed, setting in motion necessary reforms in a multiethnic democracy and keeping intact the compact between citizens and their government. (NB: The authors of this paper find no reasonable basis of comparison between the Black Lives Matter protests, which were likely the largest in U.S. history and were overwhelmingly peaceful, and the January 6, 2021 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, which FBI Director Christopher Wray said his organization views as terrorism.)

As a result, the United States is uniquely positioned to make its own handling of political dissent and protest a centerpiece of U.S. outreach to the world, fulfilling the pledge by President Biden in his inaugural address to “lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” The Biden administration well understands that the United States must continue to make domestic progress in addressing racial inequity to show the world by its example that the essential superiority of democracies is in their ability to continually improve and strive for a more perfect union.

There are also a number of the steps the United States can take to actively promote and defend the rights of peaceful protesters globally. The United States should continue to work closely with other democracies to align policies in support of the right to the freedom of protest and to swiftly condemn violence where it does occur. More joint statements and actions with like-minded governments could increase the impact of support for protesters and reform movements. The recent sanctions levied in tandem by the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union against Russia and Russian officials in response to the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny are a step in the right direction. The Biden administration should also elevate the attention and support it gives to the fundamental right to political protests in its upcoming strategic guidance documents, including the National Security Strategy (no specific mention was made of protests in the newly released Interim National Security Strategic Guidance).

Likewise, the Biden administration is wise to press forward with its intent to return the United States to its role as a leader and coalition-builder in the international institutions that play a central role in the creation and prosecution of international laws and norms related to freedom of expression and human rights, such as the United Nations. Further, the White House, State Department, and intelligence community should explore deeper and more transparent coordination with the major technology companies that provide global online platforms critical to the organization of political demonstrations. The U.S. government should think creatively about public-private partnerships that can expand its toolkit to defend the legitimate rights of political protestors globally, including preserving the digital rights of peaceful democratic activists while muting harmful mis- and disinformation from violent state and nonstate actors seeking to tip the balance in various countries.

Samuel 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 (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Riley McCabe is a research intern with the CSIS Risk and Foresight Group.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Riley McCabe
Program Manager and Research Associate, Transnational Threats Project

Samuel Brannen