School for Dictators

Issue Date October 2012
Volume 23
Issue 4
Page Numbers 170-173
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The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. By William J. Dobson. New York: Doubleday, 2012. 341 pp.

Today’s most influential authoritarian states present a mass of contradictions. They are open for business, but closed for politics. Their media are diverse, often remarkably so, but not politically plural. They hold elections, but to showcase authoritarian dominance rather than to reflect real voter preferences. They harbor ambitions to modernize economically, but strangle civil society, the judiciary, and other institutions that might propel such modernization.

Beyond their borders, these regimes court international acceptance. They take part in many of the key institutions forged by the United States and the countries of Europe that have been integral to the establishment of a liberal order, but they vilify the West and its values. Governments in Beijing, Moscow, and Caracas like to use the language of democracy, but that is clearly for show; these regimes undercut the human-rights standards and rules-based features of institutions such

About the Author

Christopher Walker is vice-president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. He is coeditor with Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (2016), and coeditor of the report Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence (2017).

View all work by Christopher Walker

as the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and, more recently, the Internet Governance Forum.

Flawed assumptions have clouded the study of these regimes. With the passage of time and the benefits of economic growth, the prevailing thinking has held, Russia, China, and other rising authoritarian modernizers will inevitably liberalize their politics. Although this reform may still come to pass, it has not happened quite yet. In fact, these states are [End Page 170] turning such assumptions on their heads. Rather than spurring authoritarians to embrace or at least tolerate liberalization, the new economic resources now at the disposal of these regimes have allowed them to inject a strange vitality into their authoritarianism. For the time being, then, we are faced with ambitious, well-funded states whose values and preferences are at distinct odds with those of the democracies.

Given the democratic world’s uncertain understanding of the new authoritarian phenomenon, the arrival of William J. Dobson’s book must be counted as timely indeed.

In Dobson’s view, the world has changed. The environment for tyrants has become far trickier. “Not long ago, an autocrat   . . . could use blunt weapons to keep his people under his thumb” (2). There was, in other words, no need for subtlety or sophistication to maintain power. Today, by contrast, “the world’s dictators can surrender any hope of keeping their worst deeds secret . . . The costs of tyranny have never been this high” (3).

As the costs have gone up, the authoritarians have recalibrated their repression. Mass brutality has given way to the selective use of tax and safety investigations, an array of arbitrarily applied laws and regulations, and other quasi-legal impediments that can serve to hobble the work of oppositionists and independent civil society. The secret-police roundup and the train to the gulag have given way to death by a thousand administrative and regulatory cuts, but freedom still lies bleeding.

Dobson reckons that he traveled more than 90,000 miles, interviewing a range of activists, officials, and experts in diverse authoritarian and semiauthoritarian settings from Russia, Egypt, and China to Venezuela and Malaysia.

Dobson’s account of the machinery of modern authoritarianism begins in Russia, where he leads us through the regulatory gauntlet that the authorities have devised with the aim of crippling NGOs. In the first year after enactment of a harsh 2006 civil society law, Russia’s Justice Ministry undertook more than 13,000 NGO inspections, forcing many already financially strapped groups to respond to a host of new bureaucratic demands. Since then, the Kremlin has layered on other tax and regulatory measures to shackle organizations working on press freedom, human rights, and governmental transparency.

In July 2012, Russian authorities upped the ante, calling NGOs that receive funding from international donors “foreign agents” as part of a larger, retrograde effort to demonize civil society in the wake of protests over the fraudulent December 2011 parliamentary elections.

Demonizing civil society and other sources of criticism is a standard trick from the authoritarian playbook. Compliant, state-dominated media are key to the ploy. Dobson writes that in Egypt authorities were calling protesters in Tahrir Square “foreign agents” five months after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, continuing a practice that had been part and parcel of [End Page 171] Mubarakism, and signaling deeper troubles to come. The Egyptian military council’s decision to smear civil society was gravely misguided and undoubtedly has set back democratic progress. The damaging campaign to tarnish the NGO sector, which culminated with criminal charges being filed against a number of NGO staffers, would have been impossible without the relentless state-media barrage.

The regimes that Dobson examines are smart enough to know that they cannot squelch all dissent and should not even try. Instead, they focus on what counts. “What the [authorities] do not want to tolerate are those critics of the government getting to talk to people, getting support in society, getting their messages out,” observes Russian activist Tanya Lokshina. In other words, meaningful political coordination and information-sharing is what these regimes fear most and target most energetically.

The most important single country for the future of authoritarianism is almost certainly China. If Dobson’s book has a weakness, it is that it gives China less attention than, say, Venezuela or Egypt. The book would have benefited by taking a closer look at how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has modernized its repressive arsenal and put itself at the leading edge of authoritarian innovation worldwide.

When it comes to being authoritarian, Beijing is in a class of its own. At home, Chinese authorities have managed to prevent meaningful political pluralism despite the mind-boggling growth of the Internet and other new media. A complex, multilayered set of measures and regulations manages the country’s half a billion (and counting) Internet users.

But Beijing is also active abroad. While Dobson does an excellent job of explaining the crucial domestic features of modern authoritarianism, he does not seriously address the efforts of major authoritarian powers to influence institutions and indeed whole nations beyond their borders. What distinguishes China, Russia, and Venezuela from Egypt and Malaysia, as well as from less influential authoritarian regimes such as Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Zimbabwe, is the former group’s willingness—and ability—to corrupt the international order.

China is increasingly looking to bend decisions at the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, and other international rules-based bodies. Most recently, and worryingly, the Chinese authorities are seeking to shape international Internet governance. Indeed, an even more expansive and dynamic strategy of suppressing dissent beyond China’s borders has come into view. This includes seeking to cow organizers of international film festivals and book fairs at which “undesirable” content (meaning content critical of the CCP) may be presented. The CCP is investing billions of dollars to expand its state-run media globally. Its repression of free speech has far-reaching implications. China has emerged as an incubator for media-suppression techniques, and some features of its system (legal requirements, surveillance technologies, schemes for manipulating online public opinion) have begun to appear elsewhere. [End Page 172]

Although the regimes that Dobson examines are much more tactically subtle and adaptive than the old-school communist regimes and military juntas of the past, at their core these systems are still about maintaining power through coercion. The Chinese government operates a vast “reeducation through labor” system that brutally punishes politically independent thinkers or any others who dare to challenge the CCP’s preeminence. In Russia, meanwhile, independent journalists and civil society activists can still find themselves beaten or murdered. And Iran, which receives relatively little attention in the book, is believed to have tortured hundreds and executed dozens since the onset of the Green Movement in 2009.

This reliance on coercion speaks to what China scholar Andrew Nathan describes as the incurable “birth defect” of nondemocratic systems. An alternative form of government, based on the consent of the governed, is always more legitimate. The new authoritarians may be smoothing out some wrinkles, but in the end they are not seeking the consent of their own people.

Dobson chronicles in detail the ingenious but sinister ways in which modern authoritarian regimes are suppressing dissent. He provokes thought on the ambiguous role of these regimes at a time when established democracies are wrestling with profound economic challenges and are inclined to adopt an accepting posture toward such deeply illiberal states.

Despite the trying circumstances in which courageous activists operate, Dobson remains optimistic. He comes away from his time spent with democracy activists and groups that support them with the sense that the fragile legitimacy of these authoritarian regimes will ultimately allow democracy to prevail.

One can share this optimism. There are ample imponderables that could upend these inherently unstable systems. The more difficult questions are when and under what circumstances democratic forces might achieve breakthroughs.

Yet even as we contemplate such questions, we are left with the challenge of how to respond to the more nimble, adaptable regimes that are still with us. Their track record suggests that they will continue to suppress rights and make corruption worse at home while chipping away at human-rights norms abroad. The terrain that Dobson covers raises serious questions for a democratic world that both seems increasingly unsure of its own values and has a good deal riding on the stability of its economic, energy, and security relationships with these unfree and inherently unstable regimes. [End Page 173]