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Sep 20, 2012 | 05:57 GMT

4 mins read

The Geopolitical Significance of Social Unrest

An anti-Japanese protest in Shenzhen, China.
(Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Protests took place across the entire Eastern Hemisphere on Wednesday, from the eastern coast of Japan to the western coast of Mauritania. Protests have erupted in Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The Islamic world is engulfed in protests against a religiously controversial film produced in the United States. And now a French magazine's caricature of the Prophet Mohammed has provoked Muslims into directing widespread anger toward Europe.

On such a day, discussions at Stratfor turn to the geopolitical significance of social unrest, its utility in domestic and foreign policy, and the risks inherent in using such a tool. Political actors both internal and external can create such unrest, capitalize on it, be constrained by it, manipulate it to serve their own agendas or risk pitting the state apparatus against popular will.

Protests are not just tools used against governments; they can also be useful tools of statecraft. Because the threat of mob violence attracts attention to an issue, demonstrations can force a response from the side protesters are contesting. Protests are emotionally gripping because they appear to present the popular will. In a way, the act of protesting represents politics in its most primitive form. It is the direct action of the individual asserting his will against national or international forces that he could otherwise not influence. Protests evoke a Machiavellian sense of power in that they manipulate public sentiment for political gain.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

Politicians draw on patriotism to increase nationalist sentiment and distract from domestic problems, as we are seeing currently in China and Japan. This strategy, hardening the public against a foreign enemy while increasing popular support for the domestic government, is also used effectively by states under international sanctions, such as Iran and North Korea.

Allowing a degree of anti-Western or anti-U.S. protests can increase the credibility of governments in Islamic states, where appearing to promote American or Western interests above the values of a country's Muslim constituencies can quickly turn popular support against the state. However, the reality of the international system currently is such that these same governments cannot afford to alienate the United States and its allies. For example, while newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is working to secure a stronger political base at home, he was quick to distance the state from the protests in Cairo and extend conciliatory gestures to the United States.

Protests are inherent to the politics of the individual, and individuals can quickly move beyond the control of the government. Once a protest or demonstration has started, it's very hard to direct or quell it or even predict its trajectory. Protests are an emotionally charged means of achieving a political end. Individuals with grievances of any kind can use protests to escalate violence targeted at the government, other segments of society or foreign actors. In other words, anti-Japanese protests in China could spin out of state control and spark a new movement that threatens the state itself.

Now that French magazine Charlie Hebdo has published satirical depictions of Mohammed, European countries could be in the most politically difficult condition of all the countries currently experiencing protests. Social tensions are already running high as xenophobic sentiment has increased across Europe as a result of the economic crisis. Unemployment is at record highs, and governments across the Continent have little choice but to impose increasingly harsh austerity measures on an already struggling public as they attempt to prevent the EU system from breaking down. The imposition of such unpopular measures has already led to the collapse of multiple governments as the democratic integrity of the EU structure is being called into question. This is no easy time for any government to take an unpopular stance on other liberal values, such as freedom of speech, but with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, Paris could be creating an opening for a battle that it currently does not have the capacity to fight.

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