Ukraine’s Just Coup

As Ukraine’s newly appointed government confronts a deepening separatist challenge in Crimea, Viktor Yanukovych continues to describe his removal from office as a “coup d’etat” (here). According to a recent poll by a reputable firm, roughly one-quarter of Russians agree. A month earlier, 84 percent of respondents in a similar poll saw the protests against Yanukovich as a coup attempt.

But that’s all spin and propaganda, right? Yanukovych is a friend of Moscow’s, which presumably views his ouster as part of a broader Western plot against it, and state-guided Russian media have been peddling this line from the start of the EuroMaidan protests a few months ago.

Well, pedantically, Yanukovych is correct. Academic definitions of coups d’etat generally include four criteria: 1) they replace the chief executive; 2) they do not follow constitutional procedure; 3) they are led or facilitated by political insiders; and 4) they involve the use or threat of force. Sometimes we attach modifiers to signify which political insiders strike the blow—military, palace, parliamentary, or judicial—and the criterion regarding the use or threat of force is often interpreted broadly to include arrest or even credibly menacing statements. When political outsiders topple a ruler, we call it a successful rebellion, not a coup. When political insiders remove a sitting leader by constitutional means, we call it politics.

Ukraine unambiguously satisfies at least a few of these criteria. The sitting chief executive was removed from office in a vote by parliamentarians, who qualify as political insiders. Those parliamentarians were encouraged by a popular uprising that represents a form of coercion. Even if we assume, as I do, that most participants in that uprising would not have physically harmed Yanukovich had they captured him, their forceful attempts to seize and occupy government buildings and their clashes with state security forces are clearly coercive acts.

And, crucially, the vote to remove Yanukovych doesn’t seem to have followed constitutional procedures. Under Articles 108-112 of Ukraine’s constitution (here), there are four ways a sitting president may leave office between elections: resignation, incapacitation, death, and impeachment. None of the first three happened—early rumors to the contrary, Yanukovych has vehemently denied that he resigned—so that leaves the fourth, impeachment. According to Article 111, impeachment must follow a specific set of procedures: Parliament must vote to impeach and then convene a committee to investigate. That committee must investigate and report back to parliament, which must then vote to bring charges. A final vote to convict may only come after receipt of a judgment from the Constitutional Court that “the acts, of which the President of Ukraine is accused, contain elements of treason or other crime.” Best I can tell, though, those procedures were not followed in this case. Instead, parliament simply voted—380 to 0, in a body with 450 seats—to dismiss Yanukovych and then to hand executive authority on an interim basis to its own speaker (here).

The apparent extra-constitutionality of this process gives us the last of the four criteria listed above. So, technically speaking, Yanukovych’s removal checks all of the boxes for what we would conventionally call a coup. We can quibble about how relevant the threat of force was to this outcome, and thus whether or not the label “parliamentary coup” might fit better than plain old coup, but the basic issue doesn’t seem especially ambiguous.

All of this should sound very familiar to Egyptians. Twice in the past three years, they’ve seen sitting presidents toppled by political insiders while protesters massed nearby. In both instances, the applicability of the “coup” label became a point of intense political debate. People cared, in part, because perceptions affect political outcomes, and what we call an event shapes how people perceive it. We shout over each other until one voice finally drowns out the rest, and what that voice says becomes the history we remember. In a world where “the will of the people” is seen by many as the only legitimate source of state authority, a whiff of illegitimacy hangs about “coup” that doesn’t adhere to “revolution.” In a peculiar twist of logic and semantics, many Egyptians insisted that President Morsi’s removal in July 2013 could not have been a coup because millions of people supported it. The end was right, so the means must have been, too. Coup doesn’t sound right, so it couldn’t have been one of those.

It’s easy to deride that thinking from a distance. It’s even easier with the benefit of a hindsight that can take in all the terrible things Egypt’s ruling junta has done since it seized power last July.

Before we sneer too hard at those gullible Egyptian liberals, though, we might pause to consider how we’re now describing events in Ukraine, and why. Most of the people I know personally or follow on social media believe that Yanukovych was a rotten menace whose removal from office was justified by his corruption and, more recently, his responsibility for the use of disproportionate force against activists massed on the Maidan. I agree, and I’m sure the documents his accomplices dumped in the Dnipro River on the way out of town will only clarify and strengthen that impression. Yanukovych’s election win in 2010 and his continuing popularity among a large (but dwindling) segment of the population weighed in his favor before 19-20 February, but the shooting to death of scores of unarmed or crudely armed protesters undoubtedly qualifies as the sort of crime that should trigger an impeachment and might even win a conviction. That is, those shootings qualify as an impeachable offense, but impeachment is not what happened.

As moral beings, we can recognize all of those things, and we can and should weigh them in our judgments about the justice of what’s transpired in Ukraine in the past week. Moral and analytical thinking aren’t the same thing, however, and they don’t always point in the same direction, or even occur on the same plane. I’d like to believe that, as analytical thinkers, we’re capable of acknowledging the parallels between Yanukovich’s removal from power and the things we usually call coups without presuming that this acknowledgement negates our moral judgment about the righteousness of that turn of events. Those two streams of thought can and should and inevitably will inform each other, but they don’t have to move deterministically together. Let there be such a thing as a just coup, and let this be an instance of it.

PS. For an excellent discussion of the philosophical issues I gloss over in that final declaration, see Zack Beauchamp’s “The Political Theory Behind Egypt’s Coup” (here).

Will Unarmed Civilians Soon Get Massacred in Ukraine?

According to one pool of forecasters, most probably not.

As part of a public atrocities early-warning system I am currently helping to build for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide (see here), we are running a kind of always-on forecasting survey called an opinion pool. An opinion pool is similar in spirit to a prediction market, but instead of having participants trade shares tied the occurrence of some future event, we simply ask participants to estimate the probability of each event’s occurrence. In contrast to a traditional survey, every question remains open until the event occurs or the forecasting window closes. This way, participants can update their forecasts as often as they like, as they see or hear relevant information or just change their minds.

With generous support from Inkling, we started up our opinion pool in October, aiming to test and refine it before our larger early-warning system makes its public debut this spring (we hope). So far, we have only recruited opportunistically among colleagues and professional acquaintances, but we already have more than 70 registered participants. In the first four months of operation, we have used the system to ask more than two dozen questions, two of which have since closed because the relevant events occurred (mass killing in CAR and the Geneva II talks on Syria).

Over the next few years, we aim to recruit a large and diverse pool of volunteer forecasters from around the world with some claim to topical expertise or relevant local knowledge. The larger and more diverse our pool, the more accurate we expect our forecasts to be, and the wider the array of questions we can ask. (If you are interested in participating, please drop me a line at ulfelder <at> gmail <dot> com.)

A few days ago and prompted by a couple of our more active members, I posted a question to our pool asking, “Before 1 March 2014, will any massacres occur in Ukraine?” As of this morning, our pool had made a total of 13 forecasts, and the unweighted average of the latest of those estimates from each participating forecaster was just 15 percent. Under the criteria we specified (see Background Information below), this forecast does not address the risk of large-scale violence against or among armed civilians, nor does it exclude the possibility of a series of small but violent encounters that cumulatively produce a comparable or larger death toll. Still, for those of us concerned that security forces or militias will soon kill nonviolent protesters in Ukraine on a large scale, our initial forecast implies that those fears are probably unwarranted.

Crowd-Estimated Probability of Any Massacres in Ukraine Before 1 March 2014

Crowd-Estimated Probability of Any Massacres in Ukraine Before 1 March 2014

Obviously, we don’t have a crystal ball, and this is just an aggregation of subjective estimates from a small pool of people, none of whom (I think) is on the scene in Ukraine or has inside knowledge of the decision-making of relevant groups. Still, a growing body of evidence shows that aggregations of subjective forecasts like this one can often be usefully accurate (see here), even with a small number of contributing forecasters (see here). On this particular question, I very much hope our crowd is right. Whatever happens in Ukraine over the next few weeks, though, principle and evidence suggest that the method is sound, and we soon expect to be using this system to help assess risks of mass atrocities all over the world in real time.

Background Information

We define a “massacre” as an event that has the following features:

  • At least 10 noncombatant civilians are killed in one location (e.g., neighborhood, town, or village) in less than 48 hours. A noncombatant civilian is any person who is not a current member of a formal or irregular military organization and who does not apparently pose an immediate threat to the life, physical safety, or property of other people.
  • The victims appear to have been the primary target of the violence that killed them.
  • The victims do not appear to have been engaged in violent action or criminal activity when they were killed, unless that violent action was apparently in self-defense.
  • The relevant killings were carried out by individuals affiliated with a social group or organization engaged in a wider political conflict and appear to be connected to each other and to that wider conflict.

Those features will not always be self-evident or uncontroversial, so we use the following series of ad hoc rules to make more consistent judgments about ambiguous events.

  • Police, soldiers, prison guards, and other agents of state security are never considered noncombatant civilians, even if they are killed while off duty or out of uniform.
  • State officials and bureaucrats are not considered civilians when they are apparently targeted because of their professional status (e.g., assassinated).
  • Civilian deaths that occur in the context of operations by uniformed military-service members against enemy combatants are considered collateral damage, not atrocities, and should be excluded unless there is strong evidence that the civilians were targeted deliberately. We will err on the side of assuming that they were not.
  • Deaths from state repression of civilians engaged in nonviolent forms of protest are considered atrocities. Deaths resulting from state repression targeting civilians who were clearly engaged in rioting, looting, attacks on property, or other forms of collective aggression or violence are not.
  • Non-state militant or paramilitary groups, such as militias, gangs, vigilante groups, or raiding parties, are considered combatants, not civilians.

We will use contextual knowledge to determine whether or not a discrete event is linked to a wider conflict or campaign of violence, and we will err on the side of assuming that it is.

Determinations of whether or not a massacre has occurred will be made by the administrator of this system using publicly available secondary sources. Relevant evidence will be summarized in a blog post published when the determination is announced, and any dissenting views will be discussed as well.

Disclosure

I have argued on this blog that scholars have an obligation to disclose potential conflicts of interest when discussing their research, so let me do that again here: For the past two years, I have been paid as a contractor by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for my work on the atrocities early-warning system discussed in this post. Since the spring of 2013, I have also been paid to write questions for the Good Judgment Project, in which I participated as a forecaster the year before. To the best of my knowledge, I have no financial interests in, and have never received any payments from, any companies that commercially operate prediction markets or opinion pools.

Why More Mass Killings in 2013, and What It Portends for This Year

In a recent post, I noted that 2013 had distinguished itself in a dismal way, by producing more new episodes of mass killing than any other year since the early 1990s. Now let’s talk about why.

Each of these mass killings surely involves some unique and specific local processes, and people who study in depth the societies where mass killings are occurring can say much better than I what those are. As someone who believes local politics is always embedded in a global system, however, I don’t think we can fully understand these situations by considering only those idiosyncratic features, either. Sometimes we see “clusters” where they aren’t, but evidence that we live in a global system leads me to think that isn’t what’s happening here.

To fully understand why a spate of mass killings is happening now, I think it helps to recognize that this cluster is occurring alongside—or, in some cases, in concert with—a spate of state collapses and during a period of unusually high social unrest. Systemic thinking leads me to believe that these processes are interrelated in explicable ways.

Just as there are boom and bust cycles within economies, there seem to be cycles of political (dis)order in the global political economy, too. Economic crunches help spur popular unrest. Economic crunches are often regional or global in nature, and unrest can inspire imitation. These reverberating challenges can shove open doors to institutional change, but they also tend to inspire harsh responses from incumbents intent on preserving the status quo ante. The ensuing clashes present exactly the conditions that are ripest for mass killing. Foreign governments react to these clashes in various ways, sometimes to try to quell the conflict and sometimes to back a favored side. These reactions often beget further reactions, however, and efforts to manufacture a resolution can end up catalyzing wider disorder instead.

In hindsight, I don’t think it’s an accident that the last phase of comparable disorder—the early 1990s—produced two iconic yet seemingly contradictory pieces of writing on political order: Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, and Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy.” A similar dynamic seems to be happening now. Periods of heightened disorder bring heightened uncertainty, with many possibilities both good and bad. All good things do not necessarily arrive together, and the disruptions that are producing some encouraging changes in political institutions at the national and global levels also open the door to horrifying violence.

Of course, in political terms, calendar years are an entirely arbitrary delineation of time. The mass killings I called out in that earlier post weren’t all new in 2013, and the processes generating them don’t reset with the arrival of a new year. In light of the intensification and spread of the now-regional war in Syria; escalating civil wars in Pakistan, Iraq, and AfghanistanChina’s increasingly precarious condition; and the persistence of economic malaise in Europe, among other things, I think there’s a good chance that we still haven’t reached the peak of the current phase of global disorder. And, on mass killing in particular, I suspect that the persistence of this phase will probably continue to produce new episodes at a faster rate than we saw in the previous 20 years.

That’s the bad news. The slightly better news is that, while we (humanity) still aren’t nearly as effective at preventing mass killings as we’d like to be, there are signs that we’re getting better at it. In a recent post on United to End Genocide’s blog, Daniel Sullivan noted “five successes in genocide prevention in 2013,” and I think his list is a good one. Political scientist Bear Braumoeller encourages us to think of the structure of the international system as distributions of features deemed important by the major actors in it. Refracting Sullivan’s post through that lens, we can see how changes in the global distribution of political regime types, of formal and informal interdependencies among states, of ideas about atrocities prevention, and of organizations devoted to advocating for that cause seem to be enabling changes in responses to these episodes that are helping to stop or slow some of them sooner, making them somewhat less deadly on the whole.

The Central African Republic is a telling example. Attacks and clashes there have probably killed thousands over the past year, and even with deeper foreign intervention, the fighting hasn’t yet stopped. Still, in light of the reports we were receiving from people on the scene in early December (see here and here, for example), it’s easy to imagine this situation having spiraled much further downward already, had French forces and additional international assistance not arrived when they did. A similar process may be occurring now in South Sudan. Both cases already involve terrible violence on a large scale, but we should also acknowledge that both could have become much worse—and very likely will, if the braking efforts underway are not sustained or even intensified.

Why Yanukovych Has the Advantage

This is a guest post by Lucan Way, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Lucan originally posted this on Facebook, and I am reproducing it here with his permission.

I am in Kyiv right now. It is truly an inspiring scene. The level of spontaneous self organization is truly unprecedented. No one who is here can avoid rooting for those on the street fighting for their ideals. The protesters have been far less violent than other protests in the world – including the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. Simultaneously, Yanukovych is weak. His support has plummeted such that just about any opposition candidate wins against him in polls inthe 2nd round. His oligarchic support is also soft – as evidenced by the relatively balanced coverage on oligarchic TV channels. In 2004, only channel 5 was presenting protests in a positive light. Now it is many channels. This suggests that oligarchs are reluctant to put all their chits behind Yanukovych.

Nevertheless, in my view a sober analysis of the situation suggests that Yanukovych has the clear advantage—despite reports that momentum is on the opposition’s side. He has the advantage (at least until 2015) for the following reasons:

1. The opposition lacks a plausible politician who can clearly claim leadership of the movement.

Most opposition is fairly close in the polls to Yanukovych. But first round polls are still fairly close to Yanukovych – who in many polls has a plurality of support. The important thing is that there is no clear consensus on who is dominant – the way that Yushchenko was sufficiently dominant in 2002/2003 to convince Tymoshenko to back him. This creates a situation in which too many cooks spoil the broth. Many complain that the opposition lacks a clear strategy. But this is not the opposition’s fault – there is simply no way any one of them can dictate such a unified strategy.

2. Civil society as great traffic cop but not a powerful mobilizer of crowds:

The opposition has limited control over the crowds. The opposition/civil society has done a miraculous job of organizing food etc. for the protests. But a survey of protesters by Democratic Initiatives suggests that a full 90% of protesters came to Kiev on their own – not as part of an initiative by civil society groups or parties. In other words, civil society is clearly good at organizing those who make it to Kiev. But it is less obvious that civil society is able to actually bring them here.

Partly as a result, the “leaders” of the protests seem to have limited central control over the crowds. Thus, an initiative by leaders to protest the Central Election Commission tonight (over 5 obviously fraudulent by-elections by the regime) resulted in a miserly 150-200 protesters maximum (I just came back from there).

3. Rats will only jump a sinking ship if there is another boat to go to.

In a nutshell, there is no viable force for the Party of Regions to defect TO. Right now, the oligarchs are obviously not enthusiastic about Yanukovych. Most people here think that oligarchs would jump ship. But the opposition is not a clear bet the way Yushchenko was in 2002/2003. History shows that autocrats can survive for a long time in this situation – when the regime has weak support within but the opposition is even more fragmented.

4. Yanukovych was democratically elected.

It is sometimes forgotten that Yanukovych was elected in a relatively fair election – and was in the opposition in 2010 – which meant that he had far less access to administrative resources as in 2004. This puts the opposition in a far less advantageous position than in 2004. Of course, Yanukovych has engaged in all sorts of serious abuse. But (as many admit), the opposition does not have a clear legal rationale for holding early elections This puts Western actors in a somewhat difficult position regarding the opposition and Yanukovych.

5. There is no obvious clear majority for Europe in Ukraine.

Polls vary but the most optimistic ones show just above 50% for the EU. Most recent respected polls (by Razumkov and the Kyiv Institute for International Sociology show about 40% for the EU and 30% for the Customs Union – an advantage for the EU but hardly a clear majority.

6. Protests can’t go on forever.

Protesters have been brought to the streets mainly by Yanukovych’s stupidity – violently clearing protesters on Nov 30 etc. However, in principle there is nothing stopping Yanukovych from sitting on his hands, not giving anything serious and letting the protests peter out. Right now, it seems impossible to imagine this happening – but comparative cases suggest that protests are likely to peter out if they aren’t either provoked or obtain clear victories. (think Serbia 1996/1997; Iran 2009)

In sum, I sincerely hope I am wrong. And this thing is clearly not over. But I think there are unfortunately a lot of reasons to be pessimistic.

One Outsider’s Take on Thailand

Justin Heifetz at the Bangkok Post asked me this morning for some comments on the current political situation in Thailand. Here is a slightly modified version of what I wrote in response to his questions.

I won’t speak to the specifics of Thai culture or social psychological theories of political behavior, because those things are outside my areas of expertise. What I can talk about are the strategic dilemmas that make some countries more susceptible to coups and other breakdowns of democracy than others. Instead of thinking in terms of a “coup culture”, I think it’s useful to ask why the military in the past and opposition parties now might prefer an unelected government to an elected one.

In the case of Thailand, it’s clear that some opposition factions recognize that they cannot win power through fair elections, and those factions are very unhappy with the policies enacted by the party that can. There are two paths out of that conundrum: either seize power directly through rebellion, or find a way to provoke or facilitate a seizure of power by another faction more sympathetic to your interests—in this and many other cases, the military. Rebellions are very hard to pull off, especially for minority factions, so that often leaves them with trying to provoke a coup as their only viable option. Apparently, Suthep Thaugsuban and his supporters recognize this logic and are now pursuing just such a strategy.

The big question now is whether or not the military leadership will respond as desired. They would be very likely to do so if they coveted power for themselves, but I think it’s pretty clear from their actions that many of them don’t. I suspect that’s partly because they saw after 2006 that seizing power didn’t really fix anything and carried all kinds of additional economic and reputational costs. If that’s right, then the military will only seize power again if the situation degenerates enough to make the costs of inaction even worse—say, into sustained fighting between rival factions, like we see in Bangladesh right now.

So far, Pheu Thai and its supporters seem to understand this risk and have mostly avoided direct confrontation in the streets. According to Reuters this morning, though, some “red shirt” activists are now threatening to mobilize anew if Suthep & co. do not back down soon. A peaceful demonstration of their numbers would remind the military and other fence-sitters of the electoral and physical power they hold, but it could also devolve into the kind of open conflict that might tempt the military to reassert itself as the guarantor of national order. Back on 1 December, red shirts cut short a rally in a Bangkok stadium after aggressive actions by their anti-government rivals led to two deaths and dozens of injuries, and there is some risk that fresh demonstrations could produce a similar situation.

On how or why this situation has escalated so quickly, I’d say that it didn’t really. This is just the latest flare-up of an underlying process of deep socio-economic and political transformation in Thailand that accelerated in the early 2000s and probably isn’t going to reach a new equilibrium of sorts for at least a few more years. Earlier in this process, the military clearly sided with conservative factions struggling to beat back the political consequences of this transformation for reasons that close observers of Thai politics surely understand much better than I. We’ll see soon if they’ve finally given up on that quixotic project.

Whatever happens this time around, though, the good news is that within a decade or so, Thai politics will probably stabilize into a new normal in which the military no longer acts directly in politics and parts of what’s now Pheu Thai and its coalition compete against each other and the remnants of today’s conservative forces for power through the ballot box.

China’s Accumulating Risk of Crisis

Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer has a long piece in the new issue of The National Interest that foretells continued political stability in China in spite of all the recent turbulence in the international system and at home. After cataloging various messes of the past few years—the global financial crisis and U.S. recession, war in Syria, and unrest in the other BRICS, to name a few—Bremmer says

It is all the more remarkable that there’s been so little noise from China, especially since the rising giant has experienced a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, slowing growth and a show trial involving one of the country’s best-known political personalities—all in just the past few months.

Given that Europe and America, China’s largest trade partners, are still struggling to recover their footing, growth is slowing across much of the once-dynamic developing world, and the pace of economic and social change within China itself is gathering speed, it’s easy to wonder if this moment is merely the calm before China’s storm.

Don’t bet on it. For the moment, China is more stable and resilient than many realize, and its political leaders have the tools and resources they need to manage a cooling economy and contain the unrest it might provoke.

Me, I’m not so sure. Every time I peek under another corner of the “authoritarian stability” narrative that blankets many discussions of China, I feel like I see another mess in the making.

That list is not exhaustive. No one of these situations seems especially likely to turn into a full-blown rebellion very soon, but that doesn’t mean that rebellion in China remains unlikely. That might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

To see why, it helps to think statistically. Because of its size and complexity, China is like a big machine with lots of different modules, any one of which could break down and potentially set off a systemic failure. Think of the prospects for failure in each of those modules as an annual draw from a deck of cards: pull the ace of spades and you get a rebellion; pull anything else and you get more of the same. At 51:1 or about 2 percent, the chances that any one module will fail are quite small. If there are ten modules, though, you’re repeating the draw ten times, and your chances of pulling the ace of spades at least once (assuming the draws are independent) are more like 20 percent than 2. Increase the chances in any one draw—say, count both the king and the ace of spades as a “hit”—and the cumulative probability goes up accordingly. In short, when the risks are additive as I think they are here, it doesn’t take a ton of small probabilities to accumulate into a pretty sizable risk at the systemic level.

What’s more, the likelihoods of these particular events are actually connected in ways that further increase the chances of systemic trouble. As social movement theorists like Sidney Tarrow and Marc Beissinger have shown, successful mobilization in one part of an interconnected system can increase the likelihood of more action elsewhere by changing would-be rebels’ beliefs about the vulnerability of the system, and by starting to change the system itself.

As Bremmer points out, the Communist Party of China has done a remarkable job sustaining its political authority and goosing economic growth as long as it has. One important source of that success has been the Party’s willingness and capacity to learn and adapt as it goes, as evidenced by its sophisticated and always-evolving approach to censorship of social media and its increasing willingness to acknowledge and try to improve on its poor performance on things like air pollution and natural disasters.

Still, when I think of all the ways that system could start to fail and catalog the signs of increased stress on so many of those fronts, I have to conclude that the chances of a wider crisis in China are no longer so small and will only continue to grow. If Bremmer wanted to put a friendly wager on the prospect that China will be governed more or less as it is today to and through the Communist Party’s next National Congress, I’d take that bet.

Watch Locally, Think Globally

In the Central African Republic, an assemblage of rebel groups has toppled the government and installed a new one but now refuses to follow its writ. As those rebels loot and maraud, new armed groups have formed to resist them, and militias loyal to the old government have struck back, too. All of this has happened on the watch of a 2,000-person peacekeeping force from neighboring states. With U.N. backing, those neighbors are now sending more men with guns in hopes that another 1,500 soldiers will finally help restore some sense of order.

This is what full-blown state collapse looks like—as close to Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all” as you’re ever likely to see. As I wrote at the start of the year, though, CAR is hardly the only country in such shambles. By my reckoning, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia still, and maybe DRC and South Sudan qualify as collapsed states, too, and if Mali doesn’t anymore, it only just squeaked back over the line.

As the very act of listing implies, we often think of these situations as discrete cases. In our social-scientific imaginations, countries are a bit like petri dishes lined up on a laboratory countertop. Each undergoes a similar set of experiments, and our job is to explain the diversity of their outcomes.

The longer I watch world affairs, though, the less apt that experimental metaphor seems. We can only really understand processes like state collapses—and the civil wars that usually produce them, and the regime transformations that  often precede and succeed them, and virtually everything else we study in international studies—by thinking of these “cases” as local manifestations of system-level dynamics, or at least the product of interactions between local and global processes that are inseparable and mutually causal.

If we think on a systemic scale, it’s easier to see that we are now living through a period of global disorder matched in recent history only by the years surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and possibly exceeding it. Importantly, it’s not just the spate of state collapses through which this disorder becomes evident, but also the wider wave of protest activity and institutional transformation to which some of those collapses are connected. These streams of change are distinct in some ways, but they also shape each other and share some common causes.

And what are those common causes? The 2007 financial crisis surely played a significant role. The resulting recessions in the U.S. and Europe rippled outward, shrinking trade flows and remittances to smaller and poorer countries and pulling down demand for commodities on which some of their economies heavily depend.

Those recessions also seem to have accelerated shifts in relative power among larger countries, or at least perceptions of them. Those perceptions—see here and here, for example—may matter even more than the underlying reality because they shape governments’ propensity to intervene abroad, the forms those interventions take, and, crucially, other governments’ beliefs about what kinds of intervention might occur in the future. In this instance, those perceptions have only been reinforced by popular concerns about the cost and wisdom of foreign intervention when so many are suffering through hard times at home. This amalgamation of forces seems to have found its sharpest expression yet in the muddled and then withdrawn American threat to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons, but the trends that crystallized in that moment have been evident for a while.

The financial crisis also coincided with, and contributed to, a global run-up in food prices that still hasn’t abated by much (see the chart below, from the FAO). As I mentioned in another recent post, a growing body of evidence supports the claim that high food prices help produce waves of civil unrest. This link is evident at the level of the global system and in specific cases, from the countries involved in the Arab Spring to South Africa. Because food prices are so influential, I think it’s likely that climate change is contributing to the current disorder, too, as another force putting upward pressure on those prices and sometimes dislodging large numbers of people who have to pay them.

As Peter Turchin and others have argued, it’s possible that generic oscillations in human social order—perhaps the political analogue of the business cycle—are also part of the story. I’m not confident that these patterns are distinct from the forces I’ve already mentioned, but they could be, at least in part. In any case, those patterns seem sufficiently robust that they deserve more attention than most of us give them now.

Last but not least, the systemic character of these processes is also evident in the forms of negative and positive feedback that arise to try to reverse or accelerate the slide into entropy. Powerful players with a stake in extant structures—mostly states, but also private corporations and even transnational NGOs—work to restore local forms of order that reinforce rather than challenge those structures. At the same time, other actors try to leverage the entropy to their own advantage. Governments less invested in the prior order may see new opportunities to weaken rivals or husband allies. Transnational criminal enterprises often find ways to expand revenue streams and develop new ones by smuggling arms and other contraband to and through societies that have fallen apart. Since the late 2000s, for example, “there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks on vessels by pirates,” Interpol claims, and I don’t think this concurrence of this trend with the spikes in popular unrest and state collapse is purely coincidental.

This system-level view finds linkages between a host of recent trends that we usually only consider in isolation from each other. It also suggests that this, too, shall pass—and then occur again. If Turchin & co. are correct, the current wave of disorder won’t peak for another several years, and we can expect the next iteration to arrive in the latter half of the current century. I’m not convinced the cycles are as tidy as that, and I wonder if the nature of the system itself is now changing in ways that will produce new patterns in the future. Either way, though, I hope it’s now clear that the miseries besetting CAR aren’t as disconnected from the collapses of Libya, Syria, and Yemen or the eruptions of mass protest in a host of countries over the past several years as our compartmentalized reading and theorizing usually entices us to think.

Some Thoughts on the Causes of Mass Protest

A lot of ink has been spilled of late about what causes mass protests, and what connects episodes of protest across different countries. Economic inequality, unemployment, corruption, middle-class rage, youth, social media…the lists go on.

Availability bias and selection bias are real problems in many of these on-the-fly analyses. Often, we see mass protests erupt in one country, search our minds for relevant examples, and then deduce the causes of those events from the things we notice they have in common. The set of potentially relevant examples is constrained by our memory, which is usually pretty limited. At the same time, the supposed relevance of those other examples is often affected by their emotional salience, which, in turn, is influenced by the amount and kind of news coverage they received. When we try to impose some structure on this thought process, we usually start with, and often don’t get past, geographic and temporal proximity. Equally important, we rarely stop to think about similar cases in which protests didn’t occur, a crucial step in causal inference.

I think we can get a better handle on why episodes of mass protest happen where and when they do—and how episodes in different countries are connected to each other—by taking a broader view from the start. We live in a global system. This means that large-scale political actions result from interactions between structural features and processes at the local and larger levels.

Local structural features don’t determine whether or not societies will experience specific types of political action, but they do shape a society’s propensity for them. Borrowing a phrase from John Miller and Scott Page (p. 96), these features “mediate agent interactions by constraining the flow of information and action.” In the case of mass protest, evidence indicates that number of relatively simple and obvious things have powerful effects on the likelihood that large numbers of people will take to the streets to make political demands. Among those things are population size, urbanization, and what political sociologists call the “political opportunity structure,” which is mostly but not entirely about the scope of civil liberties and state repression.

Sugarscape 3 Wealth Distribution

Notably absent from that short list are structural sources of grievance, like income inequality or corruption. I’ve left inequality off the list because I’ve seen and discussed evidence that its effects are weak (here). It’s harder to test the claim that corruption causes mass protest because we don’t have great cross-national time-series data on corruption, but my hunch is that it’s not especially powerful, either. Instead and like Fabio Rojas, I think participants and observers often select these issues as framing devices for protests that are already underway, but that doesn’t mean those issues actually caused the action in the first place.

Whatever the true set is, though, these structural features change slowly, and many societies exhibit many of them, yet mass protest is rare. So, to explain why protests happen, we need some more dynamic elements in our model. Based on empirical evidence, I see a few as especially important: economic downturns; austerity; inflation, especially for basics like food and fuel; and elections.

As we’ve seen in the past few years, these processes often have common underlying causes and are interconnected. Shifts in global oil markets can cause fuel prices to rise; rising fuel prices often drive food prices up; inflation can trigger recessions; recessions can compel governments to adopt austerity measures; frustrations over austerity can catalyze no-confidence votes that trigger early elections; elections can spur spending that produces inflation; and, crucially, swings in one market or one country’s economy can reverberate across many others. These interrelationships help to explain why mass protest seems to occur in waves, or episodes that cluster in time and space.

The systemic character of those common “triggers” isn’t the only thing that can connect mass protests across space and time, however. Contagion plays a role, too, and it comes in various forms. As Marc Beissinger observes, apparently successful protests can inspire imitators, a process he calls emulation. Protest may also spread through the deliberate efforts of interested parties, including but not limited to foreign governments and transnational activist organizations like Avaaz and the Open Society Foundations. (Just because dictators are often paranoid about “foreign agents” doesn’t mean someone isn’t really out to get them.)

All of the dynamic processes discussed so far are sources of positive feedback. They amplify earlier changes, pushing the system toward greater instability. Of course, would-be protesters aren’t the only ones imitating and teaching. As Beissinger observes and Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow also argue (see here), state officials, soldiers, police, and other counter-revolutionary forces also watch and talk to each other and adapt their tactics in response to the forms and patterns they see elsewhere. While economic reverberations and contagion produce positive feedback, adaptation by groups invested in the status quo produces negative feedback. What the former amplifies, the latter dampens. Coupled with structural sources of friction and inertia, these negative feedback loops help explain why mass protest doesn’t spiral into local and then global chaos.

New communications infrastructures and technologies aren’t triggering the protests we’re seeing, but they’re probably making them easier. Other things being equal, easier and broader communication creates larger networks with less friction. Governments and police also use and adapt to these technologies, however, so they aren’t always and automatically facilitators of collective action and sources of positive feedback for activism already underway.

Mass protest surely involves many causal mechanisms, at least some of which reside at the level of the (potential) participant. Importantly, though, those mechanisms need not be the same for everyone. One of the most important feature of human societies is their heterogeneity, and that heterogeneity means that there can be many different paths to choosing to participate or to stay home.

That said, one of the individual-level mechanisms that probably plays a role in many mass protests is loss aversion. As summarized in Tversky and Kahneman’s prospect theory, when making decisions in the face of risk, humans tend to think in terms of changes from the status quo instead of final states, and in their thinking about those changes, losses are weighted more heavily than gains. The resulting loss aversion helps explain why economic losses caused by recessions, austerity, and inflation can spur people to protest in ways that opportunities for economic gain rarely do. The threat of those losses has a psychological effect that is stronger than the prospect of similar gains and is not strictly determined by the likelihood of the ensuing protests’ success.

Risk-seeking behavior may be another important causal mechanism. While many individuals prefer to avoid risky situations, others seek them out (see here for relevant evidence). This is one place where the aforementioned heterogeneity plays an important role. Risk-embracing individuals are more likely to become the “early risers” whose daring actions change the information others have about their predicament, and thus their willingness to act out.

As Deborah Minkoff shows, the function early risers serve isn’t just informational. At a level in between individuals and the global system, early risers can also catalyze changes in the density of relevant organizations. These changes in organizational density, in turn, can help carve out a resource niche and create an infrastructure that allows protests to persist and expand over time. As the niche becomes increasingly crowded, however, barriers to entry rise, and the resulting feedback can tip from positive to negative. Along with the aforementioned Red Queen’s Race between protesters and police, this organizational ecology helps explain why mass protests eventually peter out, even in cases where relevant organizations survive and perhaps even continue to grow.

Finally, and I hope obviously, there is also a healthy dose of randomness in this system. We can recognize that mass protests unfold and interconnect in ways that exhibit patterns without believing that the system as a whole is deterministic.

More Shots Fired in Egypt’s Transitional “Truel”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets on June 30 to press for the resignation of President Morsi and his government, and the impending confrontation between these protesters, the government’s supporters, and state security forces has lots of people on edge. Here’s how Tarek Radwan set the scene in a recent post on Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel blog:

What began as a humble attempt to translate countrywide discontent with the way President Mohamed Morsi has governed Egypt, the Tamarod – or “Rebel” campaign — has mobilized millions of Egyptians for a protest that promises to be epic on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Although opposition forces initially kept the signature drive that demands Morsi’s removal from office and early elections at arms length, nearly all of the relevant players in Egypt’s transitional drama now recognize the campaign’s significance and potential to affect change. Movement within the political opposition, including coordination meetings with the campaign and youth groups for a post-Morsi transition plan, suggests a fundamental belief that the June 30 protests could realize Tamarod’s goal of replacing the president.

Islamists who support Morsi’s government, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood, responded with a counter-signature drive of their own called Tagarrod – or “Impartiality” — to reiterate their faith (no pun intended) in the political system and the elections that brought him to power. Supportive Islamist groups have also called for a June 21 protest against violence. However, the counter-campaign’s attempt to balance the scales only seems to accentuate the country’s deeply divided polity.

Meanwhile, the army has responded ominously to the planned mass protests, issuing a public warning that it will “not allow an attack on the will of the people” and a calling instead for dialogue and (ha!) consensus.

tamarod.campaign.in.action

In a recent column for Egypt’s online Daily News, activist and one-time candidate for parliament Mahmoud Salem sketched three scenarios for how this latest confrontation ends: 1) a clear victory for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), 2) a clear victory for the Tamarod campaign, or 3) a military coup. The forms the latter two outcomes would take are clearest: the government resigns and fresh elections are held, or the military tosses out the government and installs itself or a government of its choosing in power. It’s less clear to me what an “outright victory” for the MB would look like, but Salem seems to have in mind a violent routing of the organized opposition with the cooperation or at least complicity of the military. Salem sees the third scenario (military intervention) as the most likely one but acknowledges that the situation is highly uncertain.

For reasons that are probably narcissistic but I’d like to think are intellectual, I’m struck by how closely Salem’s scenarios and outcomes match up with the game-theoretic model I use to analyze the politics of democratic consolidation and breakdown. This model portrays politics in newer democracies as a kind of “truel“—a lousy neologism for a three-way version of a duel—involving two rival political factions and the military. In principle, any of those three groups can usurp power at at any time. Election winners can rig the game to ensure that they keep winning; election losers can overthrow the government by revolutionary means; and the military can carry out a coup.

In the metaphor of a truel, attempts to usurp or defend power are like shots fired at different rivals. As in a real gunfight, those shots don’t always hit or kill, and rivals can also choose not to fire. In many new democracies and other “transitional” cases, it’s easy to imagine one or two or even all three of these actors attempting to hoard or usurp power (i.e., take a shot) at almost any time, and it’s also easy to imagine most of those attempts failing.

Democracy is effectively consolidated when all of those actors routinely abide by and uphold democratic procedures, especially but not limited to fair elections and freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The risk of these usurpations of power never gets to zero, but in some long-standing democracies it’s awfully close to it. That’s the truel equivalent of everyone agreeing to put their guns away and resolve their disputes in other ways. In the real world, military coups have become less common than they were during the Cold War, and revolutions rarely succeed in overthrowing elected governments. Consolidations of incumbent advantage aren’t hard to find, though, and attempts at all three forms of usurpation are still common in the “life courses” of newer democracies.

So what can the truel metaphor tell us about Egypt? First, it’s evident that Salem’s three scenarios exclude an important fourth scenario in which everyone either misses or holds his fire. If the June 30 protests don’t force out the Morsi government, inspire a military coup, or lure MB supporters into widespread counterrevolutionary violence, this latest round could come and go without producing dramatic changes in the political landscape. Based on the outcome of the last couple of confrontational moments in Egyptian politics and the fractiousness of the Tamarod coalition, I’d say this is probably the most likely outcome.

The truel metaphor also raises some questions about the wisdom of the opposition’s decision to press revolutionary demands through mass unrest. This is the political equivalent of shooting at the incumbent, but game theorists will tell you that the optimal strategy for the weakest player in a truel is often to hold fire or to miss on purpose. That’s because the dominant strategy for the two strongest players is usually going to be to try to eliminate the other, so the weakest player can often do well by letting that confrontation play out, leaving him in a showdown with the lone survivor, possibly even with the advantage of getting to shoot first at a now-damaged rival.

In Egypt right now, I’d say the MB and the military are clearly the two strongest players, while the groups behind the Tamarod campaign are still the weakest. If that’s right, then the maximalist strategy Salem and his cohort are pursuing is probably quixotic. As Salem acknowledges, this attempt to oust the MB is unlikely to succeed, but the act of trying is probably increasing the risks of both a military coup and a deeper consolidation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power by strengthening those groups’ fear of a revolution, and thus their incentives to preempt or respond to that threat with a crackdown or coup of their own.

Of course, that might be exactly what some of the participants in the Tamarod campaign are hoping for. Some of the MB’s rivals have openly called for a military coup against the Morsi government as their best hope for a “reset” of Egypt’s transition, and the occurrence of sustained mass unrest is, at this point, probably the only thing capable of making that happen. By attempting another revolution—or a counter-counterrevolution, depending on whom you ask—these factions are probably looking to draw the Brotherhood’s supporters into a fight that would, in turn, lure the military into a coup. What looks a little crazy on the surface may turn out to be crazy like a fox.

Last but not least, careful consideration of the current moment in Egyptian politics shows how the truel metaphor elides the possibility of bargaining among the players. After writing a draft of this post yesterday, I discussed it with Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. As Michael pointed out to me, there’s really a fifth scenario here, too, in which the military uses the credible threat of a coup to compel the MB government into a political deal designed to halt the spiral of polarization that keeps producing these showdowns. The military seems like it really doesn’t want to be responsible for governing Egypt right now, but it probably wants even less to see the country descend into a period of sustained mass violence. One way to try to achieve both of those goals would be to give the government an ultimatum: accept a compromise with the opposition or get shot at from two sides at once. If I had to lay odds, I’d say this is probably the second-most-likely outcome, after the “everyone misses or holds his fire” scenario described earlier.

So that’s what my analytical self makes of this remarkable moment. All the while, my emotional self continues to marvel at the courage and tenacity of the many people who keep struggling to make the most of this historic opportunity to democratize Egypt, and to sympathize with the fatigue and frustration this seemingly endless transition and its accompanying economic woes must be producing. Honestly, I have no idea what that’s like, and it’s infinitely easier to comment from afar.

What Causes Social Unrest? Apparently, Everything

What causes people in large numbers to step outside their daily routines and gather in public to voice demands on issues that affect a group much larger than themselves?

If we’re to believe a recent article in Time on the protests bursting across Brazil, then the answer is, well, a lot of things. Here’s a list of all the “causes” of the recent Brazilian protests identified in the space of just a few hundred words:

  • Social inequality
  • World Cup spending
  • Police violence
  • A nine-cent rise in bus fares
  • Corruption
  • A lack of return on high taxes
  • Inadequate government spending on infrastructure, education, and health care
  • “The country’s dramatic rise on the world stage”
  • “The incapacity of traditional political representation to deal with the new and unheard of demands of a changing society”
  • Youth
  • Inflation

I don’t mean to pick on Time, which does a lot of solid international reporting, or on the authors of that particular piece. As Christian Davenport observes in a recent post on the blog Political Violence @ a Glance, press coverage of social unrest often gives us “a blow-by-blow account of the street battles taking place” without carefully connecting those events or their alleged causes to prior theory or empirical research. When comparisons are made, it’s usually by analogy, with strong bias toward cases that are recent, geographically proximate, and emotionally salient. As a result, “It all just seems to be new and eventful without much rhyme or reason.”

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I realize that journalism isn’t rigorous social science, and it’s not supposed to be. Still, one of the intellectual dangers of laundry-list explanations is that they make it even easier to succumb to confirmation bias—that is, to pick through the list and pull out the items that support our prior beliefs. In the Time piece on Brazil alone, for example, there’s “evidence” to support many different and potentially competing hypotheses about causes of mass protest, from neo-Marxist claims about the centrality of economic inequality to socio-demographic theories emphasizing youth bulges and an expanding middle class to “homo economicus” models focused on price hikes and public spending.

We can’t learn a whole lot about the causes of mass protest by simply cataloging the conditions and things participants tell us about their motivations in cases where they occur. That information is useful, but not so much on its own.

To make real headway on causal analysis, we have to engage in contrasts. To learn about the origins of mass protest, for example, we need to compare cases where uprisings occur with ones where they don’t. Yes, income inequality is high in Brazil, but the same can be said for many of its regional neighbors. If inequality foments uprisings, why aren’t we seeing waves of mass protest in Honduras or Bolivia or Colombia or Paraguay? Meanwhile, inequality was comparatively low in many countries touched by the “Arab awakening.” According to World Bank data, income inequality is lower in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria than in virtually every country in Latin America. Together, these contrasts imply that high inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient for mass protest, but that’s probably not what you’d expect if you saw the Time headline proclaiming that “Social Inequality and World Cup Spending Fuel Mass Unrest.”

In general, laundry lists of concerns and plausible causes like the one proffered in that Time article can be useful as fodder for what Alex George and Andrew Bennett call “heuristic case studies,” which “inductively identify new variables, hypotheses, causal mechanisms, and causal paths.” What they most certainly don’t do is test theory. These analyses are the social-science equivalent of ambulance chasing. When we hear the noise of the crowd, we rush toward it, ask the participants why they’re angry, read their signs and banners, and try to spin a coherent story from what we see and hear. That’s fine as far as it goes—which, it turns out, isn’t very far.

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