Democracy Lab

What Strongmen Have to Fear

Autocrats have increasing reason to fear the power of people in the streets. Here's why the leaders of democracies should take note.

Since January 2010, mass protests have contributed to the ousting of autocratic leaders from Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. These events caused many political observers to celebrate the ability of the masses to topple dictators and spur political change. And in our most recent study, we find that these movements are indicative of a broader shift in the politics of authoritarian regimes: Revolts (leader exits due to mass protests, uprisings, strikes, or riots) are unseating a greater proportion of autocrats than ever before.

Using data from political scientist Milan Svolik that capture autocratic exits from 1948 to 2008, and our own updates through 2012, we find that the percentage of autocrats ousted in revolts has tripled from 4 percent to 12 percent since the end of the Cold War. In fact, from 2010-2012, a quarter of dictators who lost power did so via revolt. At the same time, coups have declined considerably in the post-Cold War era. The proportion of autocrats ousted via coup -- which accounted for as much as half of all autocrat ousters in the 1960s and ‘70s, for example -- has fallen to less than 10 percent in the last decade. Revolts have now overtaken coups as the most common way in which autocrats exit from power.

So why does this trend matter? The way that an autocrat exits office affects the political trajectory of a country. The underwhelming performance of democracy in the wake of the Arab Awakening and pessimism about Ukraine's future after President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster have led some to claim that people-powered revolutions are overrated. While it is true that autocratic ousters lead to democratization only 20 percent of the time, our research shows that the prospects for democracy are actually highest when ousters occur via revolt. Revolts were followed by transitions to democracy 45 percent of the time from 1946 to 2012. Successful coups, in contrast, resulted in democracy in only 10 percent of autocrat ousters.

This is not to say that Western actors seeking to support democracy should endorse revolt across the board; uprisings come with their own significant costs and caveats. Revolts capable of threatening a leader's position are usually violent events that put citizens' lives on the line. Furthermore, revolt is far from a surefire way to topple an autocrat -- as the protests following the 2010 Belarusian presidential election, the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections, and the underwhelming Arab Spring protests of Algeria and Jordan underscore. And even in the cases where such revolts do result in autocrat exit, democracy follows less than half of the time. These results hardly constitute a definitive recommendation for democracy promoters -- but they do shape our understanding of how political change happens, and can shape democracy-promotion strategies going forward.

The growing vulnerability of autocrats to revolts marks a pronounced rise in the importance of the people in the survival of dictators. Historically, autocrats have been most concerned with threats emanating from the elite, and therefore relied on strategies such as elite rotation and other coup-proofing tactics to mitigate such threats. As more dictators are being toppled by revolt, these leaders must go to greater lengths, playing an increasingly complex game to remain in control. In other words, today's dictators have to contend not only with threats emanating from the elite, but increasingly from those they govern. This trend is something current autocrats are surely attuned to, and is affecting the political dynamics at play in these regimes in ways that generate at least three key implications for Western engagement with authoritarian governments.

First, autocrats are becoming more unpredictable partners. Authoritarian leaders who feel most at risk of popular revolt are factoring public opinion into their decisions to a greater extent than they have in years past. This means that leaders who previously felt unconstrained in their abilities to pursue sometimes publicly unpopular initiatives with the United States, such as counter-terrorism or counter-narcotics cooperation, may be less willing to do so for fear of popular blowback. In other words, some of our most important "frenemies" could become unreliable partners. Alternatively, public sentiment that aligns with Western interests may prompt some autocrats to increase their level of engagement in certain domains to enhance their standing with their countrymen.

Next, Western engagement with the political opposition and the public is becoming ever more difficult. The vivid images of revolts featured in the media provide autocrats with convenient "examples" of Western efforts to destabilize their countries. Anti-Western narratives, particularly dominant since the Color Revolutions, have featured prominently in the survival strategies of autocrats in Russia, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, just to name a few. Most recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly blamed the West for orchestrating Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has used his state controlled media to blame the United States for ongoing protests in his country. (In the photo above Venezuelan opposition protesters face off with security forces in San Cristobal.) The rise of revolts, therefore, makes it easier for autocrats to discredit members of their political opposition or other pro-democracy advocates by labeling them puppets of the West. This increases the risk that Western involvement could actually undermine local pro-democracy efforts. Moreover, in many cases, local activists may eschew Western support, preferring to go it alone or to forge their own ties with non-Western opposition leaders with experience leading successful movements of their own. In such an environment, it is likely that the West will find it increasingly difficult to plug-in to local democracy promotion efforts.     

Finally, autocrats are striking back against the masses with even greater restrictions on civil and political liberties. The prevalence of revolt and anti-Western narratives provides authoritarian leaders with justification for greater repression. Autocrats afraid of revolt are using anti-NGO laws and other legislation to limit the space for opposition. Following the 2011 protests in Russia -- which brought tens of thousands out onto the streets in the largest anti-Kremlin protests since the 1990s -- Putin proposed (and subsequently passed) a new treason act and a "foreign agent law." The latter requires NGOs engaging in political activity and accepting funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents," severely restricting the ability of Western actors to engage in Russia. The turmoil in Ukraine and Putin's probable fear that such unrest could spark opposition in his own country has pushed him even further in his pursuit to limit domestic political freedoms. If revolts continue to unseat autocrats, observers and practitioners are likely to have even less space for engagement.

Should these trends continue, effective democratization efforts will require both an understanding of these dynamics and a new and innovative set of strategies. In the past, the West has worked with political opposition or local democracy advocates, including by publicly backing opposition movements to enhance their domestic legitimacy (as was the course in the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, in South Korea under Syngman Rhee, and in Chile under Augusto Pinochet). This strategy may have limited applicability in today's environment. By offering overt support for the political opposition in many autocracies, Western countries would risk undermining local pro-democracy efforts.

Instead, the United States will have to pay more attention to public sentiment in autocratic countries. It must put forth greater effort to neutralize anti-Western attitudes and frame U.S. cooperation with autocracies in ways that highlight the benefits to the local population. Another effective strategy would be to leverage the rising threat of the masses through indirect engagement. For example, sustained international media attention to regime abuses increases the likelihood that autocrats will avoid actions that could breed public discontent or elicit domestic backlash. In addition, autocrats are likely to be attuned to the public perception of their legitimacy, which, even in autocracies, is largely shaped by citizens' views of procedural fairness. Efforts to publicize government failures to comply with their own legal system, to track the unjust application of laws (including the use of tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down the opposition), or to criticize new legislation that threatens domestic rights could be particularly effective.

In this new political climate, the United States and its partners in democracy must find creative ways to level the playing field for the political opposition and other activists. That may be its best bet for advancing their causes in a world where autocrats increasingly fear the power of the masses.

George CASTELLANO/AFP/Getty Images


Obama's Big, New Counterterrorism Plan Is a Hot Mess

The White House is promising to give allies around the world $5 billion to fight terrorists. But America’s been doing that for years -- and no one seems to know what this new program is.

President Barack Obama defended his foreign policy this week, speaking to the graduating cadets at West Point. For the most part, it was a re-articulation of things he has said before. We can't go to war every time there is a problem around the world, and we can't retreat from the world. But we are still the "indispensible" and "exceptional" nation, with global responsibilities.

The president asserted that "our military has no peer" and "the odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War." Despite the acknowledgement that the nation has never been more secure, the president went straight for the tried-and-true theme that "terrorism" is the gravest danger facing the nation.

In fact, the only new, substantive proposal he put forward in the entire speech was to create a "Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund" (CPF) of up to $5 billion to strengthen U.S. partners in what can only be seen as a plan to revive George W. Bush's Global War on Terrorism, a label the Obama administration disavowed when it first came into office. And oddly, the proposal appears to contradict the president's own previous policy views on security assistance programs, in general.

According to my conversations with the executive branch and the Hill, this new fund was sprung on an uninformed nation and an un-consulted Congress without a lot of warning. In fact, it seems neither the Defense Department (DoD) nor the State Department knew much about the idea until very late in the game; the White House and its budget office seem to be doing the work. 

But even more to the point, there are two big problems with this new 600-pound counterterrorism gorilla. First, the CPF is stepping all over previously created authorities and accelerates a decade-long trend toward the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. It asks the military to solve this global security dilemma regardless of existing authorities and programs -- or the military's own competence outside its combat lane.

Apparently, the White House paid scant attention to the past when it came to this new "plan." There are already four existing programs, created over the past decade, for global counterterrorism assistance: Section 1206, Section 1208, Global Lift and Sustain, and the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF). And then there's the large security assistance program called Foreign Military Financing, which the State Department has overseen (and the Pentagon has implemented) for decades.

Section 1206 was created 10 years ago to provide counterterrorism assistance on a global basis, by supporting equipment, training, and services for security forces in other countries. It is funded through the defense budget, but the projects are developed by the "country team" in the embassies and approved by the ambassador and, ultimately by Defense and State together. In fact, it seems to be working well, leading the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) this year to legislate it as a permanent statutory authority, with up to $500 million in resources. 

Section 1208 was created at the same time to allow the Special Operations forces to spend up to $50 million a year (upped to $60 million in the SASC bill) on counterterrorism support globally. (That said, the Pentagon's Special Operations command, according to my conversations, would want even more.)

Global Lift and Sustain emerged in the same time frame as a global authority, capped at $100 million a year, to support using U.S. lift and logistical capabilities to get less-well funded partners come to the counterterrorism party, largely in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF) was created in 2011 to provide up to $200 million in support to the security sectors of other countries. Projects are to be jointly developed by State and the Pentagon, thus easing the tension between the two departments about who had the lead in security assistance. That tension grew out of expanding DoD involvement in training and equipping security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. (See this report by the Stimson Center, where my co-author and I discuss this jungle of programs.)

The relationship of the proposed CPF to the rest of this organizational muddle and to the president's existing security assistance policy is entirely unclear. In fact, it seems like that question was not even considered as the CPF proposal was put together. Moreover, there are absolutely no details available in this $5 billion proposal. The "Fact Sheet" on the proposal -- one paragraph long -- makes it clear that this is a DoD effort (it would be part of the Pentagon's budget request for war costs) called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget. (At the last minute and after State objections, the White House fact sheet added that some of the funds could be spent on security and stabilization assistance "together with the State Department.")

Nor are there any details on what the $5 billion will be spent on. Is it anything different from the roughly $1 billion that DoD already spends providing counterterrorism and security sector assistance? Who gets to decide on the projects or pick the partners? Will the CPF seek new legislative authority or simply pour a lot of new money into existing pockets (which would require asking Congress to raise all those funding ceilings noted above or allow transfers from DoD funds for operations into the activities those other funds already support)? I wish I had some answers.

In other words, the CPF proposal smacks of a top-down, half-baked initiative that is unrelated to existing programs. Moreover, it runs directly counter to the president's own policy directive on security assistance (PPD-23) issued only a year ago.

At the risk of unloading a long quote, that directive made it clear that U.S. security assistance programs should: "[F]oster United States Government policy coherence and interagency collaboration. Transparency and coordination across the United States Government are needed to integrate security sector assistance into broader strategies, synchronize agency efforts, reduce redundancies, minimize assistance-delivery timelines, ensure considerations of the full range of policy and operational equities, improve data collection, measure effectiveness, enhance and sustain the United States Government's security sector assistance knowledge and skills, and identify gaps." 

That's a mouthful of Washingtonese. And clearly the administration's new proposal pays no heed to this pile of words. The White House is scrambling now to do the prep work and the interagency coordination they should have done before the proposal was made.

Presidential speechmaking needs seem to have trumped policy in the case of the CPF. The single paragraph in the fact sheet makes it clear that this new fund would dramatically accelerate the trend toward the military becoming a global counterterrorism avenging angel and the hub for security assistance funding, a responsibility that once belonged to the State Department and was slowly making its way back to Foggy Bottom.

But there's an even more serious issue at stake here: the revival of Bush's Global War on Terror. Terror, after all, is a tactic -- not an "ism." It appears for different reasons in different countries. One size does not fit all. Not every terror-using organization, awful as the tactic is, constitutes a threat, directly or indirectly to the United States. But now the administration seems to be stepping out on a global fight. In other words, the White House is dangerously overreaching here, and using the wrong department to execute its overreach.

There are at least three reasons why this poorly conceived blunt instrument is a bad idea. First, it is not clear the U.S. military does this job very well. Seven decades of U.S. security assistance, most of it provided by DoD and the military, have never been subjected to systematic evaluation. So we have no idea, over time, whether any of these programs have accomplished the goals originally set out, whatever they were (and mostly they have not been set out at all). If the performance over the past three years of Iraqi forces and the likely performance of Afghan security forces is any guide, don't expect stability, transparency, effectiveness, and a lack of corruption to spring forth from the barren soil of the CPF's new partners. The track record is not great; now the administration wants to quintuple down on the existing counterterrorism security assistance investment.

Second, announcing a global mission supported by $5 billion in resources could very easily lead to the opposite of what is intended. Instead of strengthening U.S. partners, such programs could drag Washington into the internal affairs of an ever-expanding series of relationships with troubling governments abroad, whose weaknesses and failures could entail further, and deeper, U.S. involvement. This trend is already emerging in the rapid growth of U.S. involvement in the internal security situations of more than 20 African countries.

Third, counterterror, security-sector assistance programs run a strong risk of empowering forces in recipient countries that, in turn, become problems for underpowered civilian governments. History suggests that, all too often, well-armed, somewhat trained security forces in countries with unstable or weak governance become the government themselves, with negative consequences for stability and the health of the population. Just take the case of Mali, where a U.S.-trained captain, Amadou Sanogo, carried out a coup in 2012, leading to the disintegration of the Malian military, a nearly successful Islamic extremist revolt, and the need for foreign intervention.  

The sudden appearance of a new security assistance program that seems to shift U.S. policy and program attention even more toward support for foreign security forces increases the risk of this outcome. In the long run, this is not in the national security interests of the United States. And I can't imagine the Pentagon will be entirely thrilled with the responsibility for executing it either.

Alex Wong/Getty Images