The rot appeared to set in for autocrats with the fall of the Soviet Union. Democracy became the only respectable way to govern. It was the "end of history." For the following decade, prospects looked bleak as new democracies took root in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. But gradually, autocracy rallied. Dictators and strongmen learned how to go through the motions of an election while maintaining power.
The techniques were not so complicated once you got the hang of them. If you had sufficient money you could bribe enough swing voters: Think the 2007 Nigerian elections. Failing that, your army could intimidate the supporters of your opponent into staying at home: (Zimbabwe, 2008). As a default option you could always miscount the votes, à la Kenya in 2007.
While these techniques were sufficient to frustrate the "end of history," they did not challenge it intellectually. But the rise of China did just that: Autocracy appeared to outperform democracy at delivering economic development and social peace. Once-failed states like Rwanda put up impressive numbers by following the Chinese model: plenty of state-led growth, but very little freedom. Authoritarian city-states like Singapore and Dubai surged to global prominence. In Africa, autocrats saw that they could not just resort to skulduggery to win elections; they could hold their heads high while doing so.
By 2010, autocracy looked to be so firmly back in business that Laurent Gbagbo, the dictator of Ivory Coast, felt emboldened to take the final step in the degradation of democracy. Gbagbo succumbed to the Achilles' heel of autocrats: sycophancy. Any informed observer could have told him that he stood no chance of winning a fair election. But his entourage did not dare to tell truth to power. So duped was Gbagbo by his toadies that he actually invited the United Nations to observe the election and pronounce on the result. The United Nations duly announced that he had lost. What followed was the logical culmination to a decade in which democracy had been undermined both by incumbents' low tricks and China's high growth. In what might have been the coup de grâce for democracy in Africa, Gbagbo declared himself to be the winner despite the vote.
And then came the disaster of 2011, which in its first few months was already a dark year in the annals of autocracy. Out of the blue, the two helpful forces of cheating and China were countered by two new and utterly different forces: one from the top down, the other from the bottom up.
The top-down force was the international community. This was a surprise. Although after the genocide in Rwanda the United Nations had been embarrassed into adopting the "responsibility to protect" doctrine -- the idea that countries lose their sovereignty when they kill their own people -- it had remained a dead letter. Partly as a reaction to the Iraq war, most governments have been hyperallergic to international interference in other countries' internal barbarisms. Autocrats were lulled into a belief that the international community was made of jelly. But at some point even jelly solidifies.
In 2011, the international community was at last faced with actions that it found intolerable. In Ivory Coast its interventions, while far short of heroic, were sufficiently resolute to weaken Gbagbo to the point at which the modest military force available to the winning candidate, Alassane Ouattara, was sufficient for victory. One might quibble with the pace of intervention, but the amazing thing was that sufficient action was taken to trigger the regime's downfall. The world has drawn a new line in the sand. And it happened just in time: In the coming months Africa faces 19 elections. Incumbents will now be more cautious about overriding election results.
And that is not the only shift: The bottom-up force of information technology, which has shifted the balance of power between governments and their citizens, is making it much harder for governments to keep things secret and is radically lowering the cost of citizen coordination. This is the extraordinary implication of the North African revolutions: Young people can mass in huge numbers through channels that the state cannot control. Autocrats now fear the street in the way that they once feared the IMF. Although the organization of the street may be inchoate, its message to government is unambiguous: jobs and justice. For all but a few autocracies, it's a chilling demand. They lack the technical competence to deliver jobs, and to deliver justice would strike at their raison d'être, which is the preservation of privilege.
All this has combined to produce an excruciating squeeze even on the world's seemingly most secure incumbents of power, from Sudan's Omar Hassan al-Bashir to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe to Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, all of whom have amassed some of the worst governance records of the last several decades, as the Failed States Index shows in devastating numerical detail. If repression can no longer be relied upon, the only remaining models for autocrats are generosity and efficiency. Government handouts can probably still buy off citizens, but the scale needed probably makes it viable only in truly resource-rich states. Efficiency is so difficult that it is simply beyond the capacity of most autocrats. China's astounding growth can probably underpin its autocracy, but even this carries risks. It may be that income growth eventually brings with it pressures that destabilize autocracy: Whereas political violence appears to decline at higher income in democracies, in autocracies it actually appears to increase.
Last year, I wrote in Foreign Policy, "Bad guys matter, and when they rule, they make weak states weaker." Failed states like Zimbabwe aren't simply the product of bad luck; they're invariably the result of terrible decisions made by terrible men.
What we have seen in 2011 is not the end of autocrats. But perhaps history will shortly be over after all.