Democracy Lab

The Dictators Are Smarter Than You Think

Don't count the tyrants out. They've still got plenty of tricks up their sleeves.

Dictators are supposed to be dumb, or at least crazy. Muammar al-Qaddafi was a ranting lunatic with a goofy fashion sense. Kim Jong Il had a weird hairstyle and a penchant for surreal sloganeering. Those generals in Burma were brutes given to consulting soothsayers on major decisions and shooting people at the drop of a hat.

But these caricatures -- for that is what they are -- actually tend to obscure some unpleasant facts about modern life. Qaddafi reigned for 41 years in a country where fractiousness and rivalry were the order of the day in the era that preceded him. Kim Jong Il died in his bed after ruling North Korea for 17 years -- despite policies that condemned his country to humiliating poverty even while its neighbors rose to new heights of prosperity. And those generals in Burma? They came to power in 1962, and though they've started loosening their grip a bit lately, they still clearly call the shots.

All of these dictators managed to cling to power far longer than they or their people had any right to expect. They were evil, all right. But you can't call them dumb. Measured by their own criteria, they were actually pretty successful.

This is something that we'd be advised to keep in mind if we're going to help the forces of freedom to prevail in the world. And this, indeed, is one of the lessons of Will Dobson's fascinating new book, The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Dobson, a former FP editor who now works for Slate, got the idea a few years back when he was invited to a strategy game with some pro-democracy activists who were trying to undermine an authoritarian regime in their home country. When Dobson asked if he could play the role of the dictator, he was met with blank stares. "We're not in the business of teaching people to repress other people," he was told.

The problem, of course, is that you probably won't have much luck beating despots unless you understand what they're up to. In his book, Dobson sets out to rectify that error by exploring five current authoritarian regimes and their strategies for maintaining control. He interviews Chinese Communist Party members and Russian dissidents. He follows Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim on a frenetic day of campaigning that dramatizes the challenges of organizing a unified opposition in a country riven by ethnic divides. In Venezuela, he records a memorable encounter with a once high-ranking ally of Hugo Chávez now doing time in jail -- a striking testimony to the capriciousness (or, perhaps, ruthless flexibility) of the regime. And even though much of his reporting from Egypt predates the fall of the Mubarak regime, his sharp analysis of the disposition of forces there is as illuminating as many of the accounts that have come out since the revolution.

The key message that emerges from Dobson's investigations is that today's autocrats are not idiots. They have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Putin is not Stalin, and Hu Jintao is not Mao Zedong. In many cases, Dobson writes, modern dictators understand that it's in their interest to observe the appearance of democratic norms even while they're subverting them.

Chávez, for example, loves holding elections, and on election day you can pretty much vote for whom you want. That most Venezuelans end up voting for the president reflects the enormous effort he has put into manipulating the media, the courts, and the bureaucracy every other day of the year. "Election day is not a problem," a former Venezuelan election official tells Dobson. "All the damage -- the use of money, goods, excess power, communications -- happens beforehand."

As Dobson notes, Chávez has implanted these black arts into Venezuela's political culture so effectively that it's hard to imagine how even the admirably revitalized opposition can compete. The president's control of the airwaves is so deft that he appears to have suffered little political damage from soaring inflation and a skyrocketing murder rate. It could well be that only nature, in the form of the cancer now ravaging the leader's body, is capable of putting an end to chavismo.

Some of Dobson's most astute observations come from his reporting about China. The Chinese communists, he concludes, are the least complacent of today's modern authoritarians. They've devoted intense study to the collapse of previous dictatorial regimes, from Ceausescu to Suharto, and they've worked hard to draw corresponding lessons -- so far with remarkable success. As Dobson points out, most observers in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square in 1989 would have been shocked to learn that the Communist Party is not only still in power today, but thriving. "The Chinese Communist Party understands what its vulnerabilities are," Dobson told me recently. "No one needs to lecture that government on what they need to worry about at night." (Hint: Corruption and inequality lead the list.)

As for Putin, Dobson grudgingly credits him with figuring out how to maintain control without resorting to Soviet-style extremes. Twenty-first-century Russians can travel abroad or avail themselves of the Internet largely to their heart's content, since Putin understands that completely isolating his citizens from the world at large is a game with rapidly diminishing returns. Instead, like Chávez, he's focused on controlling the media that matter (like national TV) and carefully manipulating laws to tilt the political playing field in favor of the state. And so far, at least, he's managed to pull the whole thing off without putting large numbers of opponents into concentration camps.

Putin, says Dobson, also appreciates that one of the biggest dangers to any autocracy comes at the moment when it loses touch with popular sentiment. So what do you do when you've tamed parliament so thoroughly that you can no longer use it to generate useful feedback about the needs and fears of the citizenry? In Putin's case, you create a new body called the "Public Chamber," a sort of large-scale advisory panel -- including representatives from authentic non-government organizations -- that offers "the advice, counsel, and criticism that a toothless Duma cannot." It just doesn't have any power.

And this, of course, is precisely where modern autocrats run into trouble. The fact that authoritarian regimes feel compelled to act like they're really listening to voters reflects the extent to which democratic norms have become part of the woodwork. It's no coincidence that Russia's new culture of civic protest has been galvanized precisely by government vote-rigging. Nowadays Russians actually expect their votes to count, so going through the motions of an election no longer suffices. Malaysians, meanwhile, have been voting in more or less real elections for years -- but the evidence is mounting that people there want their votes to be more than a legitimizing rubber stamp for a benignly despotic state. The political landscape is shifting accordingly.

Even for the most savvy of autocrats, then, these are testing times. Despite his cold-eyed assessment of the relative maneuverability of today's undemocratic regimes, Dobson firmly believes that the forces of democracy are in the ascendance. "The Arab Spring is just a blink," he says. "The tide has clearly been in the direction of freedom and pluralistic societies." The rapid spread of information is making it harder for governments to concentrate power, thus chipping away at the very essence of authoritarianism. A rumor of government misbehavior in one part of China can immediately trigger riots in another place thousands of miles away. "This is not something the Ming Dynasty had to worry about," Dobson observes. "So you can't tell me that the tasks these regimes have to worry about haven't become more complicated."

Dobson might well be right. But even if he is, that's certainly no reason for democrats to rest on their laurels. For the moment, at least, there are plenty of dictators to go around. And they're still learning.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

In the Crosshairs

Why controlling the international arms trade can help to build stable societies.

When we talk about promoting democracy or defending human rights, we tend to dwell on factors like constitutions and voting procedures and media freedom. We usually don't spend much time discussing the availability of assault rifles. But this is a mistake.

I've been thinking about this because I just took a part in a conference sponsored by United Nations diplomats to discuss plans for something called the Arms Trade Treaty. In July, the U.N. will start negotiations on the ATT, which aims to establish a framework for controlling the international arms market.

It's a good idea. It seems nonsensical that the international community already maintains rules for broad swathes of global trade -- but somehow hasn't ever managed to do the same thing for a category of products that kill global citizens on a regular basis. (As Anna Macdonald of the British charity Oxfam memorably put it: "How can the sale of bananas be more tightly controlled than the sale of machine guns?") Meanwhile, weapons of mass destruction have been subject to international treaties for many years now. We no longer regard this as something unusual; it's just part of the background noise. Yet WMD have killed very few people in the decades after World War II. The overwhelming majority of the millions of people who have died in conflicts since 1945 were killed by bullets, bombs, and artillery. And most of these casualties, in turn, are caused not by tanks or planes but small arms -- which nowadays usually means assault rifles.

War is not going to end tomorrow, of course. But that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about drawing up rules of the road for a global business that often operates in the shadows. The denizens of this murky world -- people like Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms trader recently convicted to 25 years in jail -- rely on elusive middlemen, bogus documents, and shell companies to cover their tracks and evade accountability. As often as not their black-market wares end up in the hands of terrorists, thugs, or vicious warlords, the Charles Taylors and Joseph Konys of the world. The ATT could be an important tool in drying out this swamp.

These weapons don't just kill individual people; they can devastate entire societies. New York Times reporter C. J. Chivers provides a whole host of examples of this principle at work in his excellent book The Gun. The weapon referred to in the title is the Kalashnikov assault rifle. As Chivers explains, the simple and robust design of the AK-47 (and its myriad variants) has made it the weapon of choice for poorly trained peasant armies around the world. It's also ubiquitous. The Soviet Union produced huge stocks of rifles that dispersed into international trading networks when the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. Official production licenses and illicit knockoffs have also furthered the Kalashnikov's spread.

The proliferation of high-powered assault rifles in societies with weak institutions can have devastating effects. One of the most striking examples cited by Chivers comes from Uganda. When the regime of dictator Idi Amin collapsed at the end of the 1970s, Karomojong tribesman in the country's restive north seized the opportunity to loot government arsenals. For eons, the Karomojong had lived by rustling the cattle of their neighbors. But the introduction of modern assault rifle dramatically changed the equation. As Chivers writes:

The introduction of Kalashnikovs to the Karomojong multiplied their firepower by a much larger factor than had the introduction of AK-47s to Soviet infantry squads, because the rustlers were not graduating from rifles and submachine guns. They were moving up from spears. In the ensuing years, traditional Karamojong power arrangements eroded, and the elderly leaders were supplanted by younger men leading bands of rustlers equipped with assault rifles. Warlords became a force.

So it's not just about the people who are killed by these weapons. Assault rifles in the hands of youthful thugs or gangsters often end up dissolving the fabric of society itself, condemning the survivors of violence to live with the long-term consequences of weakened institutions and Hobbesian anarchy.

It's a process I've seen at work during my stints reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After the invasion in 2003, the government of the U.S. occupation in Iraq dissolved the Iraqi Army and the security forces. So Saddam's soldiers and spies were sent home without pay -- but they kept their weapons. Meanwhile, the relatively small occupation force didn't have the manpower to control the vast armories and weapons dumps built up by Saddam, so they were quickly looted. All this combined to combustive effect. By 2007, those assault rifles could be found in the hands of Iraqis in their early teens.

Afghan society has passed through a more extreme version of the same process. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States and Saudi Arabia responded by pouring weapons into Pakistan, which then passed them along to the mujahideen, who were determined to fight against the Russian interlopers. But the Pakistanis didn't distribute the bounty impartially to all the Afghans; they favored radical new Islamist political parties while shutting out traditional Afghan tribal leaders and religious leaders. It was a policy calculated to undermine the old elites, who watched helplessly as their followers deserted them for the groups that boasted more effective means for fighting the Soviets. The Pakistanis and their Islamist allies thus finished the destruction of traditional Afghan society that the Kremlin had begun -- with all the consequences that we see today.

Will the ATT prevent such things from happening in the future? Probably not entirely. But it's certainly a step in the right direction. One version of the treaty would outlaw arms shipments to countries threatened by civil war or suspected of abusing the human rights of their own citizens. And by compelling producer countries to come clean on their exports, it would shine some much-needed light into dark corners of the global arms bazaar.

For the moment, of course, such considerations remain theoretical. It's not clear that the ATT will ever get off the ground. Russia and China, both big weapons manufacturers, are cool to the idea. Some developing countries worry that they won't be able to get the arms they need for self-defense if present channels are closed off. And there's also plenty of resistance in the United States, whose companies make it the world's biggest arms exporter (it accounts for about one-third of the global trade). The anti-gun-control lobby in the United States has already prevailed upon many members of the Senate (which would have to ratify the treaty) to declare their opposition -- even though the argument that the ATT would restrict the rights of U.S. gun owners is highly questionable.

And yet many countries -- including even some major arms exporters like Britain -- have declared their support. And that suggests that some in the international community are beginning to see the light. It will be interesting to see if the ATT can beat the odds.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images