U.S. sociologist Jack Goldstone talks to Russia Direct about the details of his visit to Moscow, the consequences of the Arab Spring and the future of global governance. 

A recent political and economic upheval in Egypt turned into the military coup. Photo: Reuters

American sociologist and political scientist Jack Goldstone arrived in Moscow on June 24. He is best known for his studies of social movements and revolutions. Russia Direct sat down with Goldstone to discuss the goal of his visit to Moscow, global governance and the implications of the Arab Spring.

Russia Direct: What was the purpose of your visit to Russia?

Jack Goldstone: I’m working with the academy [the Russian Academy of Sciences] here to set up a new research laboratory. There are a lot of very important changes taking place in the world now, both in population and in the global economy, and we’re setting up a center to try and conduct new research and perhaps even provide some advice on how to cope with all of these changes.

It would be called the Research Laboratory in Political Demography and Social Macrodynamics.

Jack A. Goldstone. Photo: RIA Novosti

R.D.: When commenting on the massive protests in Turkey, you compared them with the 1968 riots in Chicago, and said that these events were a sign of a maturing democracy. How do you suppose the situation will develop in Turkey?

J. G.: Well, it’s always difficult to predict the outcome of a match between two people. You know, it’s hard to predict the outcome of a football match, and what we have in Turkey is a match between Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his party, and the middle-class citizens of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities.

So I don’t want to predict what will happen, because you may see that one side will push harder than we expect. But I do think that the match will continue. That is, the middle class in Turkey is getting larger, becoming more confident, wants to make sure that the democratic government listens to the people in the cities.

And so they will continue to exert pressure with protests, with silent protests, with sit-ins and marches.

This is very common in democracies. We have this all over Europe. We have it in the United States. And you might ask: “why does this happen if there are elections?”

But elections only happen once every four to five years, and in between elections, citizens often need to say, “this policy is one that we support, or this policy causes us trouble.” In order to respond to particular policies, in order to remind the government that this is what they want, it’s necessary for the citizens to protest.

Jack Goldstone talks to Russia Direct talks on Arab Spring and future protests. Source: RBTH

I think we will simply see both elections and protests in Turkey, in Brazil and in other countries as democracies there mature.

R.D.: Can street protests in Russia at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 be explained by a maturing democracy as well? Or was this a completely different trend?

J.G.: I think it’s a very similar trend. What you see in Russia, as you saw in Turkey and Brazil, is that economic growth is a good thing, it leads to a larger middle class, especially in the cities, and this new middle class is more cosmopolitan, it is interested in the values that it shares with the rest of the world.

As people become more comfortable with democracy, they want to speak their minds; they want to call the attention of the government to things that bother them.

It may be an environmental issue, it may be an urban planning issue, it maybe welfare, it may be spending on pensions, it may be a particular law that the government is changing that troubles people.

But in all of these cases, a protest is the normal way that people who are active participants in democracy express themselves.

I expect that there will be less violence and continued peaceful protests everywhere where there is a growing middle class and democracy is starting to expand.

R.D.: To what extent is this trend applicable to Russia?

J.G.: Russian people are very tolerant, they are comfortable with authority and they are very passive. Americans, Koreans, Chinese, Russians, they all have these strong ideas that this is how the Russian people are, this is how the Chinese people are, this is how the Korean people are.

But usually those ideas are based on the past. Yes, when Russia was a poor country and had a very strong government, people were accustomed to accepting a great deal. The same was true in China; the same was true in Korea.

But what we’ve seen in both Korea and China is that as the countries get richer and people move to the cities, they want more control over their own lives, they are willing to engage in protest.

Now, in fact, if we really look at the history of these countries, we see that there was a lot of protest in the past. There were huge peasant uprisings in Russia; there were big peasant uprisings in China.

So, it has not been the case that people always accept things quietly, but it was the case in the past that big riots were fewer and more difficult, and today, with modern communication, the spread of global democratic values and a middle class that is more assertive, you see a more modern protest, that is, demonstrations, assemblies, rallies and marches.

And these modern protests have become just as much a part of the political scene in Taiwan and China and Korea as they have been in the United States, and I think they will also be a part of the social fabric in Russia.

R.D.: You have worked extensively with the U.S. intelligence community, forecasting global conflicts. Where should we expect new conflicts in the next five to 10 years? Did you predict the Arab Spring?

J.G.: The task of trying to predict conflicts is something that all countries are interested in, and we hope that the new research laboratory here will help provide advice to the Russian government on where to expect conflict.

But it is not an exact science; it’s somewhat more like trying to predict an earthquake. We can say: “here’s an area that has a lot of vulnerability, instability, but we don’t know exactly when a crisis will emerge,” just as we can say: “here’s an earthquake fault, we know that there’s stress, but we don’t know exactly when things will move.”

We did not predict the entire Arab Spring, because it was a surprise that some countries like Tunisia, which we did not expect to be violent, had an uprising.

In Egypt, however, we did predict that there would be some kind of crisis because we saw a conflict in the government of Hosni Mubarak, who was becoming more emphatic about trying to place his son in the president’s seat.

He had been working harder to control elections. There were conflicts between Mubarak and the military, and we saw the Muslim Brotherhood getting stronger on the streets but being kept out of power in the government.

So we saw that in Egypt, the risks were very high. Then, after the initial flurries, we did expect that there would be trouble in Libya and Syria, because in both cases you had dictators, and we knew that they were going to be vulnerable.

R.D.: So what political and economic factors can catalyze another Arab Spring elsewhere?

J.G.: The main ingredients that lead to conflict are a weak government, economic difficulty and a very large urban population of young people that can be mobilized.

I think the area that we have to watch for conflict will be in the Middle East and in sub-Saharan Africa. There is trouble building up in places like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola. There is already trouble in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Two years ago, if you had asked me about Africa, I would have said that Africa could be the next China. It has the natural resource wealth, it has the young people, and it is enjoying good economic growth. But since the global economic crisis, we have seen a sustained slowdown in the global economy.

With the world economy remaining relatively stagnant, it’s now much harder for this very rapidly growing African population to find the money and the jobs they need to grow. So now I’m much more worried about conflict coming to Africa because I see that economic opportunities have been reduced.

R.D.: As globalization progresses, the significance of global governance also grows. What major challenges should global governance tackle?

J.G.: I think we’re going to have to explore very new systems of global governance. I think instead of having one system, like the United Nations Security Council, that covers everything, we will have different agreements for different purposes.

We will have a new set of agreements for the Arctic, for example, that includes all the countries with an interest in the Arctic. We’re probably going to have to re-negotiate climate controls for countries that are producing large amounts of carbon dioxide.

We’re very far from that agreement right now, of course, because China and India see things very differently from the United States. But I’m hoping that we will negotiate and create new agreements.

In the global banking sector, we’ll probably need a G20, maybe a G25, because you have more countries whose banking sector is important, globally. Turkish banks are important now, Brazilian, Spanish banks. So what I think we are going to see is that there is no magic number.

Ten years ago everyone was talking about the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. But now, Pakistan, Nigeria, Turkey, Indonesia are also becoming important. So I think the world will simply adjust as more countries become larger and more important, their voices will be heard in global governance and new organizations. I don’t know where this will end; maybe there will be a G50 come 2050.

Jack A. Goldstone is an American sociologist and political scientist, specializing in studies of social movements, revolutions, and international politics. He is currently a professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. He has also worked as a consultant of the U.S. government, for example, serving as chair of the National Research Council's evaluation of USAID Democracy Assistance Programs. He is an author or editor of nine books and nearly 100 research articles.