What is a dictator, or an authoritarian? I’ll bet you think you know. But perhaps you don’t. Sure, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong were dictators. So were Saddam Hussein and both Hafez and Bashar al Assad. But in many cases the situation is not that simple and stark. In many cases the reality — and the morality — of the situation is far more complex.
Deng Xiaoping was a dictator, right? After all, he was the Communist Party boss of China from 1978 to 1992. He was not elected. He ruled through fear. He approved the massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. But he also led China in the direction of a market economy that raised the standard of living and the degree of personal freedoms for more people in a shorter period of time than perhaps ever before in recorded economic history. For that achievement, one could arguably rate Deng as one of the greatest men of the 20th century, on par with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
So is it fair to put Deng in the same category as Saddam Hussein, or even Hosni Mubarak, the leader of Egypt, whose sterile rule did little to prepare his people for a more open society? After all, none of the three men were ever elected. And they all ruled through fear. So why not put them all in the same category?
Or what about Lee Kuan Yew and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? During the early phases of Lee’s rule in Singapore he certainly behaved in an authoritarian style, as did Ben Ali throughout his entire rule in Tunisia. So don’t they both deserve to be called authoritarians? Yet Lee raised the standard of living and quality of life in Singapore from the equivalent of some of the poorest African countries in the 1960s to that of the wealthiest countries in the West by the early 1990s. He also instituted meritocracy, good governance, and world-class urban planning. Lee’s two-volume memoir reads like the pages in Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Ben Ali, by contrast, was merely a security service thug who combined brutality and extreme levels of corruption, and whose rule was largely absent of reform. Like Mubarak, he offered stability but little else.
You get the point. Dividing the world in black and white terms between dictators and democrats completely misses the political and moral complexity of the situation on the ground in many dozens of countries. The twin categories of democrats and dictators are simply too broad for an adequate understanding of many places and their rulers — and thus for an adequate understanding of geopolitics. There is surely a virtue in blunt, simple thinking and pronouncements. Simplifying complex patterns allows people to see underlying critical truths they might otherwise have missed. But because reality is by its very nature complex, too much simplification leads to an unsophisticated view of the world. One of the strong suits of the best intellectuals and geopoliticians is their tendency to reward complex thinking and their attendant ability to draw fine distinctions.
Fine distinctions should be what geopolitics and political science are about. It means that we recognize a world in which, just as there are bad democrats, there are good dictators. World leaders in many cases should not be classified in black and white terms, but in many indeterminate shades, covering the spectrum from black to white.
Nawaz Sharif and his rival, the late Benazir Bhutto, when they alternately ruled Pakistan in the 1990s were terrible administrators. They were both elected by voters, but each governed in a thoroughly corrupt, undisciplined and unwise manner that made their country less stable and laid the foundation for military rule. They were democrats, but illiberal ones.
The late King Hussein of Jordan and the late Park Chung Hee of South Korea were both dictators, but their dynamic, enlightened rules took unstable pieces of geography and provided them with development and consequent relative stability. They were dictators, but liberal ones.
Amid this political and moral complexity that spans disparate regions of the Earth, some patterns do emerge. On the whole, Asian dictators have performed better than Middle Eastern ones. Deng of China, Lee of Singapore, Park of South Korea, Mahathir bin Mohammad of Malaysia, Chiang Kai-Shek of Taiwan were all authoritarians to one degree or another. But their autocracies led to economic and technological development, to better governance, and to an improved quality of life. Most important, their rules, however imperfect, have overall better positioned their societies for democratic reforms later on. All of these men, including the Muslim Mahathir, were influenced, however indirectly and vaguely, by a body of values known as Confucianism: respect for hierarchy, elders, and, in general, ethical living in the here-and-now of this world.
Contrast that with Arab dictators such as Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Saddam of Iraq, and the al Assads of Syria. Ben Ali and Mubarak, it is true, were far less repressive than Saddam and the elder Assad. Moreover, Ben Ali and Mubarak did encourage some development of a middle class in their countries. But they were not ethical reformers by any means. Of course, Saddam and al Assad were altogether brutal. They ran states so suffocating in their levels of repression that they replicated prison yards. Rather than Confucianism, Saddam and al Assad were motivated by Baathism, a half-baked Arab socialism so viciously opposed to Western colonialism that it created a far worse tyranny of its own.
Beyond the Middle East and Asia there is the case of Russia. In the 1990s, Russia was ruled by Boris Yeltsin, a man lauded in the West for being a democrat. But his undisciplined rule led to sheer economic and social chaos. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is much closer to an authoritarian — and is increasingly so — and is consequently despised in the West. But, helped by energy prices, he has restored Russia tosome measure of stability, and thus dramatically improved the quality of life of average Russians. And he has done this without resorting to the level of authoritarianism — with the mass disappearances and constellation of Siberian labor camps — of the czars and commissars of old.
Finally, there is the most morally vexing case of all: that of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In the 1970s and 1980s, Pinochet created more than a million new jobs, reduced the poverty rate from a third of the population to as low as a tenth, and the infant mortality rate from 78 per 1,000 to 18. Pinochet’s Chile was one of the few non-Asian countries in the world to experience double-digit Asian levels of economic growth at the time. Pinochet prepared his country well for eventual democracy, even as his economic policy became a model for the developing and post-Communist worlds. But Pinochet is also rightly the object of intense hatred among liberals and humanitarians the world over for perpetrating years of systematic torture against tens of thousands of victims. So where does he fall on the spectrum from black to white?
Not only is the world of international affairs one of many indeterminate shades, but it is also one in which, sometimes, it is impossible to know just where to locate someone on that spectrum. The question of whether ends justify means should not only be answered by metaphysical doctrine, but also by empirical observation — sometimes ends do justify means, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the means are unconnected to the ends, and are therefore to be condemned, as is the case with Chile. Such is the intricacy of the political and moral universe. Complexity and fine distinctions are things to be embraced; otherwise geopolitics, political science, and related disciplines distort rather than illuminate.
Robert Kaplan is is Chief Geopolitical Analyst for Stratfor, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC and has been a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic for over 25 years. What is a Dictator? is republished with permission of Stratfor.