In a conversation with French right-wing politician Pierre Laval in 1935, Joseph Stalin famously inquired when told that the pope had endorsed a certain point of view in international affairs, “The pope? How many divisions has he got?”
Such was the power of global public opinion one hundred years ago.
But it’s very different now. We are watching as the British monarchy, the Kremlin autocracy, and the authoritarian government in China are each hobbled by global public opinion, unable to ignore its devastating political effect.
In the U.K., a member of the royal family — the Queen’s younger son — has been laid low by a public outraged by his involvement with Jeffrey Epstein and his public debauchery on his private island in the Caribbean.
While Prince Andrew’s personal guilt or innocence in Epstein’s practice of blatant sex with underage girls, the formerly third in line to the throne has been de-royaled by a Queen forced by public opinion to act.
His very friendship with the mogul, the frequency of their visits, and his degree of involvement have all created a perfect storm that has led the Queen to strip him of his royal income and status. The common people of the UK have ousted a Royal in a bloodless coup.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have stood up to the Beijing powers as millions have poured into the streets to protest usurpation of their democratic rights by the communist regime.
Allowed to hold a referendum on the issue, right under China’s nose and despite her outspoken threats and objections, three million people voted to sustain their democracy.
No tanks rolled into Hong Kong. Though troops massed threateningly at the border, none crossed it and the masses have, at least for now, won. Their victory was made possible, of course, by the power of the Trump administration’s strong stand against Beijing in its bilateral trade war with America.
Suffering badly (and unilaterally) against America’s economic might and our demand for trade fairness, the rulers in Beijing were loath to provoke an even stronger reaction from the U.S. — again driven by public opinion here — by military action in Hong Kong.
And Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has made no new moves against Ukraine since the moment Trump took office. His brazen fomenting of a civil war there has stopped and there are no more Georgia-style or Crimea-like invasions and occupations by Russian forces.
While President Trump’s strong impositions of sanctions to punish Putin’s past incursions have a lot to do with Moscow’s passivity, so does the flow of American military aid (also only started by Trump). With Trump solidly behind the democratic forces in Ukraine, global public opinion is enough to stay Putin’s hand.
In both China and Russia, America’s economic and sanction pressure have combined with public opinion to stay the hand of the tyrant.
Public opinion would not have had much power without Trump’s backing, nor would the president have had any mandate for bold action without public sentiment being so vigorously expressed.
And who can doubt that the Me Too movement and the outrage at the victimization of women have not played a big role in keeping Hillary Clinton at bay even as opportunity beckons her into the Democratic primaries?
But with the internet to help to galvanize and catalyze public opinion and to bring it to bear on decision-makers, the tyrants of the world are learning to listen. We are making great progress as a civilization when the number of divisions a force has means less than its power to enlist and persuade the world.
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