Is somebody putting this on Instagram?

Photographer: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

The Postmodern Autocrat's Handbook

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and author of the forthcoming "In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond."
Read More.
a | A

The concept of dictatorship is badly in need of revision. The old model of remote tyrants inflicting arbitrary, often eccentric, edicts on their cowed or indoctrinated subjects, with few constraints on their behavior and few threats to their survival, no longer applies. North Korea's Kim Jong Un and Syria's Bashar al-Assad are two of the few remaining exceptions to a positive trend that stretches from the rubble of the Reichstag and the Berlin Wall to the drainage culvert that was the last redoubt of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Yet large and critical swaths of the earth still feature dictatorial rulers, for whom we need a new model.

This new model must be based on a clear understanding about the rise of public opinion, which now matters more to dictators than it does even to democrats. Democratic rulers have only elections to lose if they miscalculate public opinion. Today's autocrats, on the other hand, risk their lives, their power structures, families, assets and loyal advisers if they don't satisfy their publics.

Poor information once led to self-justifying delusions on the part of dictators, who tended to assume exaggerated levels of popular support. Today, thanks to the refinement of scientific polling and the ubiquitous penetration of social media and digital devices, public mood need not be assumed; it can be known, by the day, if not by the hour. Moreover, after witnessing the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring, 21st-century autocrats know all too well that they can be replaced. That combination of hard truths can be a powerful constraint on dictatorial behavior.

This dilution of authoritarianism is part of a global transition to more democracy, one that will take time. Yet there are dangers to the rise of public opinion in autocracies as well. Publics (as well as media) can be more nationalistic and more populist than those who govern them. Wars may start because of how publics push nonelected rulers to act based on nationalism and militarism, even if it is self-defeating.

Just look, for instance, at China.

Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping must contend with social media and a policy elite that are fiercely nationalistic about depredations against China by the West and Japan in the late-19th and 20th centuries. This widespread, deep-seated feeling of grievance encourages more aggressive posturing in disputes over territories in the South and East China seas.

If Xi were inclined and able to govern as a totalitarian -- as Mao Zedong did -- he would not have to consider this nationalist public opinion. Pragmatic about-faces in policy, as when Mao welcomed Richard Nixon, might be more possible, and China's foreign and defense policy might conceivably be less aggressive, even as it continued quietly to amass a great navy and air force. But public opinion in China makes it necessary for the regime to advertise its ambitions more often and openly. That, in turn, has not only stoked clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines, but also made allies from Japan to Australia more appreciative of the U.S. role in balancing against China. And as China goes further into a tumultuous economic transition characterized by slower growth, the incentive for Xi to dial up nationalism in order to assuage the public mood will increase.

Public opinion may also constrain the nationalist ambitions of today's autocrats. After the pro-Russian regime in Kiev was toppled in early 2014, Vladimir Putin immediately annexed Crimea, an ethnic Russian peninsula that, since 1954, had been formally part of Ukraine: After all, Russian public opinion had demanded no less. Throughout the early stages of the Ukraine crisis, the more aggressive Putin became, the more his approval rating went up. Yet the polls also showed that the Russian people were against an all-out war in Ukraine that risked a substantial loss of life, which Putin has done nothing to precipitate. Even with the recent upsurge in fighting, falling energy revenue and a tumbling currency have made Putin more hesitant to stoke more trouble in Ukraine, Moldova and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, for fear of tighter economic sanctions that could undermine his public support.

Meanwhile, in Iran, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has to tolerate the relatively softer approach toward the West of democratically elected President Hassan Rouhani. Make no mistake, Iran is an authoritarian theocracy, but there are today competing elite and public views about domestic and foreign affairs.

In Egypt, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi must work assiduously to ease economic hardship on the average Egyptian because the population has already demonstrated its ability to help remove a ruler. For good reason, El-Sisi is a far more nervous man than toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak was for much of his tenure. And in spite of El-Sisi’s best efforts to jail opposition leaders, it is almost inevitable that eventually public discontent will trigger the return of protesters to Tahrir Square.

The good news for insecure autocrats is that their people are becoming, on the whole, more selfish and consequently more averse to struggle. Uprisings and revolution have occurred in recent years, but in China, Russia and the Gulf states, as the public becomes more literate, more educated and more wired into the outside world, they might be reticent to join revolutions. People may be harder to satisfy, but they still may prefer order over uncertainty.

Because absolute control of the media is hard to accomplish in all but authentically totalitarian regimes such as North Korea, autocrats will rely on media strategies that increasingly resemble those of Western politicians. Blogs and social media platforms such as Twitter are harder to censor than traditional print media, because of the diffusion of power within this new media itself and because fast-moving electronic discussions can quickly turn political. Even as they explore new ways to control the Internet that do not rely on overt, heavy-handed suppression, autocrats face unprecedented pressure to compete with other voices in the marketplace of ideas.

In fact, what we are heading toward are mixed regimes that combine elements of autocracy and democracy, where central power over time becomes more diluted but individual freedoms are still limited. The traditional, consultative monarchies of Morocco, Jordan and Oman are supreme examples of this. They go back decades and hundreds of years, yet are postmodern in their way. Decisions are made only after consultations with tribal and other power centers. Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, these types of regimes have fared much better than the presidential tyrannies of Libya, Syria and Iraq that eviscerated all forms of political and communal expression except for the regime at the top and the family and tribe at the bottom.

Despite the trend toward mixed regimes, the West will continue to find it difficult to engineer freer political systems from afar. To prod these mixed regimes in the right direction, Western actors need to encourage the hard work of consultative institution-building and the willingness to rule through compromise. The development of these governance skills, which takes time, is critical to ensure the endurance of transitioning governments.

The choice is not between toppling dictatorships and going home. We cannot invent stabilizing traditions simply by exporting our principles, but we should work over time with local actors -- citizens, civil society, judges, lawyers, police, journalists -- to make these systems more free, and to encourage the transition to mixed regimes that advance individual opportunity. Ultimately, even in a world where public opinion has greater sway, democracy's advocates will have to nudge a bit, in order to create an environment where the dilution of dictatorship happens internally, forced by public pressures and changing global norms.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Robert D Kaplan at rkaplan@cnas.org
Dafna H Rand at drand@cnas.org

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net