The Authoritarian Illusion

The Authoritarian Illusion

Mini Teaser: Authoritarian states are judged to be the breeding grounds of poverty, resentment and terrorism, but this is not always the case. What kind of despot fosters extremism?

by Author(s): Gerard Alexander

Opportunity Costs

Why not pursue democratization anyway? There are two important reasons for the United States to pursue a highly selective democratization policy rather than an urgent and universalistic one. Jeane Kirkpatrick long ago offered the first of these. Her 1979 essay emphasized not only that non-democracies are highly varied, but also that America was--and remains today--unsure how to fine-tune either regime changes or regime-stabilization. In combination, these points mean that when a dictatorship falls (including when pushed), it can be followed by a regime that is better, the same, or much worse, and we often cannot do much to influence which it will be. In Iraq in 1958, Cuba in 1959, Iran during 1978-79, and Nicaragua during 1979-80, non-democratic regimes were replaced by even worse ones. This is not a reason to abandon democratization. But it is a reason to pursue democratization carefully and selectively.

Finally, high opportunity costs should give us pause. If democracy really could undercut popular support for anti-Western extremism, the United States might well be justified in mounting a resource-, time- and attention-consuming project of worldwide democratization. But as we have seen, Al-Qaeda-style extremism has drawn strong support in some authoritarian-ruled Muslim countries but not in many others. This suggests that something (or things) other than regime type is crucial to fuelling violent anti-Western extremism. In that case, a costly democratization project could easily leave that "something" unaddressed. At the very least, acknowledging that the causes of violent extremism transcend regime type would free us up to ask what they might be.

Soviet-dissident-turned-Israeli-politician, Natan Sharansky offers a parallel. He had long believed that antisemitism in the USSR was caused by totalitarianism. If Russia democratized, he expected it to disappear. But the resilience of antisemitism in post-Soviet Russia--not to mention in western Europe--has forced Sharansky to conclude that the causes of antisemitism lay elsewhere, in places left undiscovered while he was mistakenly focused on regime type.

This analysis has three implications. First, it suggests that democratization should not be raised to the level of urgent, universal principle and should instead be pursued selectively (as, it must be acknowledged, the Bush Administration has done so far). In 1979, Kirkpatrick argued that pressures to democratize were characterized by too much of a double standard, since more was being done to undermine authoritarian regimes friendly to the United States than more brutal and hostile totalitarian regimes. The risk today is rather of a single standard, treating all non-democratic regimes as sources of security threats, when in fact non-democratic regimes are as varied as ever. What is needed now is a sharp distinction between non-democratic regimes that are incubators of radicalism and ones that are not.

Second, it means that alongside highly selective democratization, we need to investigate what causes we really do think are generating extremist ideologies. It is critical to remember that Islamic extremism, for example, has found fertile soil within most of Europe's advanced industrial democracies. This debate is today only in its infancy, but it is no less urgent than fighting already-crystallized terrorist groups. Rather than focusing solely on regime type, it might concern Wahhabi proselytizing; or dangerously reduced levels of American public diplomacy; or the peculiar dynamics of authoritarianism or democratization in certain countries that either advances or retards radicalization. We will not come to firmer conclusions until we make this a central focus of our thinking.

Ironically, all this is actually good news for U.S. policy in Iraq. Even if U.S. intervention does not create a stable democracy there, U.S. security may well be substantially enhanced even if Iraq develops a relatively benign though authoritarian regime. Such a regime could easily maintain durably peaceful relations with the United States, would not support terrorism, and might well not incubate extremism. And Iraq was an inspired candidate for selective democratization, since it would be very difficult to result in a worse regime. Saddam was not a run-of-the-mill dictator but one of the pre-eminent genocidal rulers of the second half of the 20th century, who posed a real threat to the well-being of his neighbors and the entire international system. In at least some cases, giving a tyrant a push is undeniably a good thing.

Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and the author of The Sources of Democratic Consolidation (2002).

Essay Types: Essay