Being a dictator is suddenly very topical. Not since the days of Julius Caesar and maybe the 1930s have dictators been discussed so much. The late Colonel Mohammed Ghadaffi and his mad antics certainly helped fuel the discourse last year, not to mention the succession of Dear Leaders in North Korea. And funnyman Sascha Baron-Cohen has just released his new film ‘The Dictator’, I hope it’s at least half as funny as Charlie Chaplin’s movie from the days of Hitler and Mussolini.
This post contains my thoughts about a book I just finished reading called The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. As soon as I saw this title I knew I had to read it. Not sure where the fascination of dictators comes from, apart from watching hundreds of hours of WWII documentaries on telly as a young boy.
Some tips for aspiring dictators:
Remember your coalition
One thing I’ve learnt from this book is the power of the coalition. No matter how ruthless a ruler is, they can’t go around torturing every dissident. There is always a need for a strong coalition, people and groups that you keep sweet in return for their loyalty. For dictators this is typically the armed forces, the very rich, corporations etc – where the real power lies. Democratic leaders on the other hand will need to keep a large groups of people happy in order to stay in power (think religion, race, industries), as everyone has the right to vote.
As the coalition expands and more people are added, the initial members will not be happy. More coalition members means there is less money to go around and you’ll get internal power struggles. There comes a time when you might have to do a trim and either exile people or worse. Stalin did a great purge of officers, Hitler did something similar with his SA troops.
If you upset your coalition too much (like stopping payments), the people around you will start to think about an alternative leader and this is not good. Which leads us nicely onto the next point…
Always borrow as much money as possible
The authors write that borrowing is a wonderful thing for leaders. They get to spend the money to make their supporters happy today, and, if they are sensible set some aside for themselves. The problem of actually repaying all that debt will be someone else’s (unless the leader manages to stay in power for that long of course). ‘Autocratic leaders borrow as much as they can, and democratic leaders are enthusiastic borrowers as well.’
The book contains and interesting example of Nigeria, a country with plenty of oil revenues and a small coalition. When Nigeria started making some serious money from their oil you would think they would stop borrowing. Oh no, instead the higher revenue meant they could now service a larger debt so instead increased the borrowing.
Let’s face it, if you know you’re not staying in power for too long why not borrow as much as you can? As a dictator you’re always looking over your shoulder and you have to keep money stashed away in Switzerland or somewhere for a very rainy day.
Democracy is sometimes good for business
Small coalitions can be kept in power for decades as long as they know where the money is. By money, the authors mean natural resources like oil or minerals and more crucially foreign aid from wealthier nations. As long as the dictator can convince rich nations to keep sending money, the coalition can divvy up the cash and make sure as little as possible reaches the people. Examples of this would be African nations during the cold war who either got handouts from the Americans or Soviets. Once the political climate changes and when there’s no need to support small nations, that money will dry up.
When a dictator can’t rely on foreign money pouring in, the second best thing is to get the economy going so that they can tax companies and people. This is more difficult of course and would require reforms towards (what looks like) democracy. Think of Burma at the moment, the junta there has realised they need to get the economy going and now making baby steps towards a free society.
Keep infrastructure to a minimum
This book also taught me why roads are crap in some countries. I recently flew into a country which has been plagued by guerrillas and it took five hours to drive to the hotel from the airport. This journey should have taken about one hour if there were a proper road. The reason? Authoritarian leaders never build good infrastructure out of fear that their enemies can use them to mobilise their forces. Vital supply routes (from the diamond mines to the port) will stay open, as well as a safe passage for the leader in case he needs to go into exile. Everyone else will have to struggle along on dirt roads.
Infrastructure will be bad in small-coalition countries, where a dictator has a small clique around him and has no need to keep the rest of the country happy. As soon as the dictator does require support of more people, he’ll have to expand infrastructure to the regions they inhabit. This is why democracies tend to have excellent railways and roads, the leader needs support from the whole country to get re-elected.
Only start wars you know you’ll win
Here’s something dictators tend to get very wrong. The authors have looked at all wars for nearly the past two centuries, they found that about 93% of wars started by democratic countries were won. In contrast, only about 60% of wars started by nondemocracies (dictators would be in this category) were won by them.
Why might this be then? It’s because dictators take risks and hope for a quick win. Look at the 6-day war in 1967 between Egypt (et al) and Israel for instance. Egypt started it and hoped for a quick surrender by Israel. When this didn’t happen immediately and the Egyptian forces started taking heavy losses, its army completely lost interest and effectively gave up. The authors explain that this is because the army are more interested in their own interests, either getting some loot from the enemy (which wasn’t happening) or controlling their own territory and making money at home. When they started losing, they found it easier to go back and resume their other duties like terrorising normal Egyptians.
On the other hand, look at when democracies go into war. It’s only when they have carefully considered it and weighed up their options. A democratic country that does go to war does so with all it’s got. Look at Britain standing alone against fascism in Europe for years, it was a battle of good and evil and one that had to be won. Nazi Germany didn’t actually switch its economy onto a full war footing until the later stages of the war when it was clear to Hitler and his cronies that their government’s survival – and their personal survival – was at risk. It was too late of course and Britain and allies won after throwing the kitchen sink at the war effort from day one.
Another clear example is the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands about 30 years ago now. Argentina, ruled by a dictator, was looking for a quick victory somewhere to keep his people content. So he started a war by sending in troops to ‘liberate’ islanders who had no desire to be part of Argentina. Things went well initially but when democratic Britain decided to fight back, it did so with all its might as opposed to the Argentinian forces which were made up of conscripts and other poorly trained forces (remember they were expecting an easy win). The invading force was no match for the superior British forces once they did get to the islands. So if you’re a dictator and pick on a democratic nation, you can expect fierce resistance.
This book isn’t just about dictators and autocrats, it’s about human behaviour. The authors write that states don’t have interests. People do. At the end of the day we’re all looking out for ourselves and although Obama seems like a peacenik when withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, he’s actually doing what’s needed to keep the electorate happy.
I found this book a really interesting read, sometimes a little bit wordy and academic. I would have liked to read more case studies, but then again this isn’t primarily a history book. It’s an important book in that it says it how it is, there is no sugar coating of dictator’s actions and no moral preachings.