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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.

More examples:

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.