Grading Dictators: A Top Task for the Next President

It's not inconsistent to oppose some dictators and tolerate others.

It’s not easy being the shining city on the hill. The need to deal with dictatorships has bedeviled American foreign policy since the birth of the nation. Our track record in this arena is definitely mixed.

Our most recent presidents have made a particularly poor job of it. George W. Bush inveighed against his Axis of Evil, but had some unsavory foreign friends as well. Perhaps most famously, Bush looked in Putin’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul.”

President Obama has tried awkward—and arguably unsuccessful—bear hugs with Moscow, Havana, Tehran and Beijing. There were strongmen he didn’t embrace, but his interactions with leaders like Gaddafi, Mubarak and Assad ended badly as well.

The next occupant of the Oval Office will have to do better. Dictators at War and Peace, a recent book by Jessica L. P. Weeks, has some good tips.

Authoritarian regimes have always been a bit of bugbear for the leader of the free world. On the one hand, we are the country described by Alexis de Tocqueville as the “exceptional nation.” Americans find everything dictatorships stand for abhorrent. On the other hand, we are also the children of Machiavelli. The first duty of government is to defend the vital interests of the state. The demands of defense, on occasion, require doing business with authoritarian governments.

Further, out of respect for the sovereignty of other nations (and because of the practical limitations in intervention and nation-building) there is a natural reluctance to interfere in the affairs of other countries and skepticism regarding doctrines like “right to protect” that would supersede the authority of states and require nations to act like the world’s policeman.

However, there are times when it is necessary to go “over there,” to safeguard those over here. Regime change can be an unavoidable necessity.

Figuring out how to handle hard-to-handle nation-states has been the acme of American presidential leadership in the modern era. Our record is an admixture of success, failure and questionable calls, from handling Imperial Japan before World War II to managing relations with apartheid South Africa. When history failed to end with the end of the Cold War, dealing with difficult nondemocratic states became a common post–Cold War problem as well.

The next president will inevitably have to practice statecraft with disagreeable states. There are three regions critical to American security: Europe, the greater Middle East and Asia. The chief threat to European stability remains meddling from a Russian strongman. The Middle East has more than its fair share of unfair states. According to the Freedom House Index, only 5 percent of the region’s population lives in freedom. Security concerns in Asia are dominated by worries about authoritarian governments in Beijing and Pyongyang.

There are concerns in our own hemisphere, as well. While the Freedom House Index finds that “[t]he Americas are second only to Western Europe in levels of freedom and respect for human rights,” there is a growing divide in Latin America—between unfree regimes in countries like Venezuela and Cuba, and states committed to democracy and free markets.

In Dictators at War and Peace, Weeks, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, offers guidelines for determining which autocratic leaders to worry about. “Existing scholarship,” she notes, “. . . tends to focus on the differences between democracies and dictatorships rather than variation among dictatorships. . . .” And that focus “provides relatively few answers,” she argues.

Weeks observes that some despotic regimes can be as peaceful as democratic states. That simple fact, she says, challenges popular assumptions that “democracy promotion” has to be an essential component of foreign policy, or that converting all states to freedom-loving regimes is crucial for achieving a stable international order.

Weeks suggests that we classify authoritarian regimes according to the way in which internal forces constrain the leaders who decide the issues of war and peace. She stresses the importance of determining whether there is a domestic audience that can hold the leader accountable, and whether the influencers and leaders are civilian or military.

The least aggressive and most cautious states, she finds, are civilian-led “machines”—regimes controlled by civilian dictators answering to nonmilitary elites. “[W]hen it comes to promoting international peace,” Weeks concludes, “mass-level democratization may be no more important than making sure the government is led by civilians and that no single all-powerful leader emerges.”