Thursday, December 13, 2007

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The nine lives of autocrats

My latest column for Newsweek is now available online. It's about how authoritarian leaders have innovated at keeping themselves in power. The opening paragraphs:

Ten years ago the autocrat was an endangered species. According to the conventional wisdom, authoritarian regimes were incapable of adjusting to a world of globalization and global civil society. Autocrats recognized the need to exploit the economic benefits of globalization, but how could they keep out intrusive NGOs and censor the Internet? Policymakers also jumped on this bandwagon. Soon after George W. Bush delivered his second inaugural address, his administration exulted in a wave of democratic uprisings. By the spring of 2005, "color" revolutions took place in Georgia (Rose), Ukraine (Orange), and Lebanon (Cedar). Even totalitarian societies like Belarus faced unrest. Freedom seemed to be on the march.

These hopes now seem quaint. The democratic aspirations articulated by so many in the past decade overlooked some important facts. Democracy, for instance, is easy to demand but hard to sustain. The color revolutions have faded quickly. Last month Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili declared a state of emergency for nine days. In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko's election has been followed by fracturing and squabbling within the reform coalition.

A more important overlooked fact is that nondemocratic regimes have proved themselves adept at perfecting techniques to cement their hold on power.

You'll have to read the whole thing to find out why. Go check it out.

UPDATE: One point I should have made but couldn't shoehorn into the essay because of space constraints (yes, they exist in cyberspace). Many of the regimes (though not all) discussed in the article are genunely popular in their countries, because they've been seen as delivering various economic, social, and political benefits. These regimes are still not democratic -- but democracy is not the only source of political legitimacy.

posted by Dan on 12.13.07 at 06:42 PM


I observe that neither Dan's Newsweek blurb nor the one read on his Marketplace commentaries mentions the blog. Am I wrong to think that he would not be holding forth in either forum without it?

posted by: Zathras on 12.13.07 at 06:42 PM [permalink]

As a professional historian, I am always somewhat amazed by the lack of historical perspective to be found among the general population and even among the leadership of this country. Democracies are normally fractious and difficult to sustain. It is much easier to encourage downtrodden populations to revolt than it is to compromise with each other once the revolt has been successful. The United States has been the exception rather than the norm. And our forefathers had the benefit of centuries of English custom and law to guide them. There were many, many times when our democracy could easily have decayed in the face of squabbling and division--the Civil War being the most obvious. Our efforts in Iraq should remind us that the easy part of democracy is the revolution, the hard part is sustaining it through the normal trials. Much the same may be said for most human endeavors.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 12.13.07 at 06:42 PM [permalink]


We just published a paper detailing this phenomenon in the Arab world. See the link below to Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World by Steven Heydemann.

posted by: Tamara Wittes on 12.13.07 at 06:42 PM [permalink]

Perhaps some of the difficulty the ' new democracies' are facing is the 'color revolutions' were astroturf movements organised and funded by the 'international community' , i.e. the West. It may be that the likes of Putin are more genuine expressions of democracy than are the Saakashvili's of this world.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 12.13.07 at 06:42 PM [permalink]

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