.
S

ince the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy appeared to be irrevocably on the march. Even after 9/11, America sought to reduce instability via democratic expansion in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab Spring saw dictatorships across the Middle East overthrown and replaced with, unfortunately, other flavors of authoritarians. Russia under President Putin showed its soul, was overcharged, but arguably never deviated from its strongman type, despite the trappings of democracy. At the same time, China successfully bided its time and hid its capabilities, now offering its authoritarian-capitalist model to the world. 

It would seem that liberal democracy, however, managed to achieve some semblance of success as the traditional dictators of the world are markedly reduced in number. To be sure Kim Jong-Un presides over North Korea and Bashar al-Assad dominates Syria, but the golden age of the dictator seems to have passed. Or has it? 

In their new book, “Spin Dictators,” Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman suggest that the once famously violent dictators have just become savvier, jettisoning the military uniforms and overt repression for polling and polish. Often coming to power via the ballot box, this new breed of dictator stays in power through manipulation as opposed to murder. In “Spin Dictators,” Guriev and Treisman argue, successfully, that the nature of dictatorships has fundamentally changed from a preponderance of “fear dictators”—that maintain power through violence and intimidation to sustain their rule—to “spin dictators,” leaders that leverage the tools of influence and narrative to maintain power. 

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny Sergei Guriev & Daniel Treisman Princeton University Press
Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny | Sergei Guriev & Daniel Treisman | Princeton University Press

“Spin Dictators” provides a structural and intellectual framework for understanding just how much the dictatorial game has changed. It is a development that arguably most are aware of, but Guriev and Treisman provide needed academic (but eminently readable and enjoyable) heft to that awareness. 

“Instead of fear” spin dictators “project an image of competence,” they write. “Instead of ideology, a kaleidoscope of appeals” appears. “Instead of a cult of personality,” the spin dictators “cultivate celebrity.” Rather than outright censorship, which would be too obvious, the spin dictators “harass critical media with enforcement action and regulatory fines.” Instead of outright ballot stuffing (though there is that, to be sure), gerrymander your electorate and create the image of democracy through a loyal opposition, but one that is coopted yet just obstinate enough to make it look like they are independent. 

Why are these spin dictators emerging? Guriev and Treisman argue that it is due to a “modernization cocktail” of shifts to a post-industrial society— the globalization of economics and information, and the rise of a liberal world order that make “fear dictatorships” unpalatable and unsustainable. 

The spin dictators still retain the ability to use fear and violence to achieve their ends. While perhaps not as widespread as in generations past, these figures can and do use violence or threaten it when it suits their ends. Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, for example, was recently profiled in Michela Wrong’s “Do Not Disturb,” which explored how the widely hailed president’s regime was based on political murder and intimidation. Putin’s opponents have also been killed—journalists, former spies, opposition figures, and dissidents. While it is far from clear that Russia’s president ordered all of the executions, it is reflective of a regime that sees political murder as a viable option.  

The Economist rightly notes, too, that the longer these spin dictators remain in power, the more their regimes ossify, the more likely the resort to violence or traditional tools of control. Or, should those regimes feel increasing pressure, the greater the allure of using batons over ballots. Indeed, one need look no further than Russia. In the wake of Putin’s return to office in 2011 and allegations of significant electoral fraud, widespread protests (for Russia) erupted across the country, prompting the deployment of riot police, large-scale arrests, and a decidedly draconian turn in the Kremlin’s already paranoid worldview. 

Guriev and Treisman's  chapter “Global Pillage” is particularly interesting and discusses how spin dictators seek to gain legitimacy through international celebrity endorsements, cooperation with the West, validation via foreign electoral observers, and the global lobbying ecosystem. This final element would be of particular interest for further exploration. Were there not so many willing enablers, the efficacy of these figures’ campaigns would likely be considerably diminished. As they note, “Without the help of armies of western lawyers, bankers, lobbyists, and other elite fixers, autocrats would have a harder time exploiting the west.” 

That same argument applies at home— the same tactics that wash political figures’ reputations in Washington are certainly being used in Budapest and Kigali. What is permissive in the West sends signals to the spin dictators’ populations at home. If the dictators can get away with legal action (lawfare), money laundering, reputational cleaning, or be welcomed into the halls of power in Western capitals, what hope can dissidents or opposition figures have?

Here it is striking to reflect on how much has changed rhetorically, if not yet substantively, of London’s attitude toward oligarchs and dirty money. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was little incentive or interest in addressing the inflow of ill-gotten gains into the city’s financial institutions or property market. That has changed, at least rhetorically. Perhaps most strikingly, a member of the House of Commons actually stood up and named names of those aiding Russia’s oligarchs and helping launder their reputations. London has become a destination of choice not just for laundering money, but also reputations. This has included the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAAPs—litigation designed to intimidate journalists and researchers. Two authors, with whom Diplomatic Courier readers will undoubtedly be familiar, Catherine Belton (“Putin’s People”) and Tom Burgis (“Kleptopia”) were the target of such lawsuits in response to their reporting. 

The authors propose “adversarial engagement” to address the spin dictators of the world. It is an interesting proposition and one that addresses a shortcoming of Rachman’s “Age of the Strongman”—the fact that as odious as the behaviors in question may be, the West will still need to work with many of these countries, not the least of which is China. The model proposes nudging the spin dictators toward more democratic alignments through engagement, domestic political reform (at home in the West), support for the liberal democratic order, and supporting “democracy democratically” in lieu of wholesale regime change.

How effective would this model be? It is difficult to tell. Interests and hard power matter far more in geopolitics than tone or style. The West will continue to find it necessary to engage with regimes whose behavior is lamentable or even detestable. Why? Because interests matter more. Washington engages with Riyadh despite its human rights record or the fact that the Crown Prince had a journalist executed. Why? Because the United States needs Saudi Arabia. If that calculus changes, then the utility of Saudi Arabia may change, but I doubt that will be the case as a spin dictatorship in the Kingdom is more palatable and predictable than a nuclear Tehran.

Reflecting on “Spin Dictators” and  “Age of the Strongman,” I was torn as to whether I would recommend reading these books together or separate. While they do have different core theses—the former focusing on non-democracies and the latter looking at the erosion of liberal democracy—they do touch on a similar thread. Reading them back-to-back can be a lot. I absolutely enjoyed both books, but would have enjoyed them more if I gave each a bit more breathing room. They have a sort of echo, which can either be welcome or unwelcome depending on one’s mood.

Whilst Rachman is very much a book one imagines discussing over brunch (accompanied by the FT, of course), “Spin Dictators” is very much a graduate seminar (with tables and graphs, no less), but a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening one nonetheless.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Trading Iron Fists for Instagram & the Future of Dictatorships

Photo by Niv Singer via Unsplash.

May 21, 2022

In his latest book review, Joshua Huminski talks about Guriev's and Treisman's "Spin Dictators," which explores how traditional dictatorships are on their way out, but a new and savvier kind of dictatorship that works through brand burnishing and social media is on the rise.

S

ince the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy appeared to be irrevocably on the march. Even after 9/11, America sought to reduce instability via democratic expansion in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab Spring saw dictatorships across the Middle East overthrown and replaced with, unfortunately, other flavors of authoritarians. Russia under President Putin showed its soul, was overcharged, but arguably never deviated from its strongman type, despite the trappings of democracy. At the same time, China successfully bided its time and hid its capabilities, now offering its authoritarian-capitalist model to the world. 

It would seem that liberal democracy, however, managed to achieve some semblance of success as the traditional dictators of the world are markedly reduced in number. To be sure Kim Jong-Un presides over North Korea and Bashar al-Assad dominates Syria, but the golden age of the dictator seems to have passed. Or has it? 

In their new book, “Spin Dictators,” Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman suggest that the once famously violent dictators have just become savvier, jettisoning the military uniforms and overt repression for polling and polish. Often coming to power via the ballot box, this new breed of dictator stays in power through manipulation as opposed to murder. In “Spin Dictators,” Guriev and Treisman argue, successfully, that the nature of dictatorships has fundamentally changed from a preponderance of “fear dictators”—that maintain power through violence and intimidation to sustain their rule—to “spin dictators,” leaders that leverage the tools of influence and narrative to maintain power. 

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny Sergei Guriev & Daniel Treisman Princeton University Press
Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny | Sergei Guriev & Daniel Treisman | Princeton University Press

“Spin Dictators” provides a structural and intellectual framework for understanding just how much the dictatorial game has changed. It is a development that arguably most are aware of, but Guriev and Treisman provide needed academic (but eminently readable and enjoyable) heft to that awareness. 

“Instead of fear” spin dictators “project an image of competence,” they write. “Instead of ideology, a kaleidoscope of appeals” appears. “Instead of a cult of personality,” the spin dictators “cultivate celebrity.” Rather than outright censorship, which would be too obvious, the spin dictators “harass critical media with enforcement action and regulatory fines.” Instead of outright ballot stuffing (though there is that, to be sure), gerrymander your electorate and create the image of democracy through a loyal opposition, but one that is coopted yet just obstinate enough to make it look like they are independent. 

Why are these spin dictators emerging? Guriev and Treisman argue that it is due to a “modernization cocktail” of shifts to a post-industrial society— the globalization of economics and information, and the rise of a liberal world order that make “fear dictatorships” unpalatable and unsustainable. 

The spin dictators still retain the ability to use fear and violence to achieve their ends. While perhaps not as widespread as in generations past, these figures can and do use violence or threaten it when it suits their ends. Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, for example, was recently profiled in Michela Wrong’s “Do Not Disturb,” which explored how the widely hailed president’s regime was based on political murder and intimidation. Putin’s opponents have also been killed—journalists, former spies, opposition figures, and dissidents. While it is far from clear that Russia’s president ordered all of the executions, it is reflective of a regime that sees political murder as a viable option.  

The Economist rightly notes, too, that the longer these spin dictators remain in power, the more their regimes ossify, the more likely the resort to violence or traditional tools of control. Or, should those regimes feel increasing pressure, the greater the allure of using batons over ballots. Indeed, one need look no further than Russia. In the wake of Putin’s return to office in 2011 and allegations of significant electoral fraud, widespread protests (for Russia) erupted across the country, prompting the deployment of riot police, large-scale arrests, and a decidedly draconian turn in the Kremlin’s already paranoid worldview. 

Guriev and Treisman's  chapter “Global Pillage” is particularly interesting and discusses how spin dictators seek to gain legitimacy through international celebrity endorsements, cooperation with the West, validation via foreign electoral observers, and the global lobbying ecosystem. This final element would be of particular interest for further exploration. Were there not so many willing enablers, the efficacy of these figures’ campaigns would likely be considerably diminished. As they note, “Without the help of armies of western lawyers, bankers, lobbyists, and other elite fixers, autocrats would have a harder time exploiting the west.” 

That same argument applies at home— the same tactics that wash political figures’ reputations in Washington are certainly being used in Budapest and Kigali. What is permissive in the West sends signals to the spin dictators’ populations at home. If the dictators can get away with legal action (lawfare), money laundering, reputational cleaning, or be welcomed into the halls of power in Western capitals, what hope can dissidents or opposition figures have?

Here it is striking to reflect on how much has changed rhetorically, if not yet substantively, of London’s attitude toward oligarchs and dirty money. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was little incentive or interest in addressing the inflow of ill-gotten gains into the city’s financial institutions or property market. That has changed, at least rhetorically. Perhaps most strikingly, a member of the House of Commons actually stood up and named names of those aiding Russia’s oligarchs and helping launder their reputations. London has become a destination of choice not just for laundering money, but also reputations. This has included the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAAPs—litigation designed to intimidate journalists and researchers. Two authors, with whom Diplomatic Courier readers will undoubtedly be familiar, Catherine Belton (“Putin’s People”) and Tom Burgis (“Kleptopia”) were the target of such lawsuits in response to their reporting. 

The authors propose “adversarial engagement” to address the spin dictators of the world. It is an interesting proposition and one that addresses a shortcoming of Rachman’s “Age of the Strongman”—the fact that as odious as the behaviors in question may be, the West will still need to work with many of these countries, not the least of which is China. The model proposes nudging the spin dictators toward more democratic alignments through engagement, domestic political reform (at home in the West), support for the liberal democratic order, and supporting “democracy democratically” in lieu of wholesale regime change.

How effective would this model be? It is difficult to tell. Interests and hard power matter far more in geopolitics than tone or style. The West will continue to find it necessary to engage with regimes whose behavior is lamentable or even detestable. Why? Because interests matter more. Washington engages with Riyadh despite its human rights record or the fact that the Crown Prince had a journalist executed. Why? Because the United States needs Saudi Arabia. If that calculus changes, then the utility of Saudi Arabia may change, but I doubt that will be the case as a spin dictatorship in the Kingdom is more palatable and predictable than a nuclear Tehran.

Reflecting on “Spin Dictators” and  “Age of the Strongman,” I was torn as to whether I would recommend reading these books together or separate. While they do have different core theses—the former focusing on non-democracies and the latter looking at the erosion of liberal democracy—they do touch on a similar thread. Reading them back-to-back can be a lot. I absolutely enjoyed both books, but would have enjoyed them more if I gave each a bit more breathing room. They have a sort of echo, which can either be welcome or unwelcome depending on one’s mood.

Whilst Rachman is very much a book one imagines discussing over brunch (accompanied by the FT, of course), “Spin Dictators” is very much a graduate seminar (with tables and graphs, no less), but a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening one nonetheless.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.