Springtime for Dictators

Robert Kagan
The Washington Post
June 25, 2000

Something called the Community of Democracies Conference opened in Warsaw today. It seems a bit anachronistic, though. These days it is the dictators who are in vogue, not the democrats. In life and in death, the Kim Jong Ils and Hafez Assads get more respectful, even celebratory press than the world's elected leaders.

Not so long ago, being a tyrant was hazardous to your health. The fall of the Soviet empire in 1991 capped a decade and a half during which more than a dozen dictatorships collapsed under various forms of American and West European pressure--from Marcos, Pinochet, Duvalier, Somoza and Noriega on the right to Ortega, Jaruzelski, Honecker, Ceaucescu and Gorbachev on the left.

In the intermediate aftermath of the Cold War it was commonly assumed that the world's remaining dictators would soon be swept away, too. But since the early 1990s only a handful have lost their jobs. Croatia's Franjo Tudjman, Nigeria's Sani Abacha, and now Assad conveniently died. Indonesia's Suharto fell victim to the impersonal forces of the international economy--the United States didn't even lift a finger to ease him out the door. Only Haiti's Raoul Cedras managed to get himself ousted by the Americans. Cedras must feel like an idiot, because the rest of the world's dictators have sailed through the storm and see brighter skies ahead. Even the embattled and despised Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic are about to survive their second American president.

The truth is, the democratic world has become a bit flaccid and is in a more forgiving mood than it was a decade ago. This week's democracy conference has the worthy goal of fostering cooperation to consolidate the many democracies born in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s--in the so-called Third Wave of democratization. But promoting democracy where it doesn't exist? Setting off a Fourth Wave? That's not part of the agenda.

Indeed, the conference organizers were hesitant to make clear distinctions between real and phony democracies. Attendees include such notable democracies as Algeria, Egypt, Kenya and Yemen. Meanwhile, Jiang Zemin is the toast of the corporate world and of the governments that do its bidding. Alberto Fujimori is deemed too valuable to be lost to a mere election, and so his recent electoral theft is winked at by his Latin neighbors. Fidel Castro is the great reuniter of broken families. Presidents-for-Life Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Aliyev of Azerbaijan are accorded the respect appropriate to 21st-century sultans. And as Vladimir Putin clamps down on the Russian press, after stomping on Chechen throats, his chief punishment is to be slobbered over by Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair.

Even pariahs are getting a chance at redemption. Kim Jong Il's smile has the American press swooning and the State Department dropping the word "rogue" from its vocabulary. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has learned that Kim is "jovial and forthcoming and interested and knowledgeable." And who imparted this insight to her? The famously jovial and forthcoming party bosses in Beijing.

The new, softer approach to dictators is buttressed by grand theories about life in the post-Cold War world. The idea of forcing dictators to open their political systems now seems so 1980s. American conservatives fret about "cultural imperialism"; the left, such as it is, cares more about punishing the old Pinochet than about stopping a new Pinochet from emerging in Peru. In respectable circles the "inevitability thesis" reigns. The forces of globalization and the modern international economic system must spell doom for all dictatorships, regardless of what the United States and its allies do. So why do anything? Liberals who once demanded that the United States topple right-wing dictators, and conservatives who once toiled to undo communist governments, now worship at the same shrine of economic determinism, insisting that commerce and trade are the great solvent of international tyranny.

Republicans and Democrats alike put their faith in an imagined "iron law," according to which democracy must follow inexorably in the wake of economic development. Focus less on elections, they say, and more on building the "institutions" of democracy--as if the institutions of democracy in, say, Peru could be of much use when the elections are rigged or stolen.

Whether anyone actually believes all this is an open question. These are comfortable doctrines of passivity, well suited to these comfortable and complacent times. How nice to imagine that merely by enriching ourselves we can spread the blessings of democracy to everyone else. How much easier to provide endless democracy assistance to oppressed peoples than to confront their oppressors.

Someday we may pay a price for our present lassitude. The community of dictators works together at least as effectively as the community of democracies. Chinese hard-liner Li Peng just paid a friendly visit to Belgrade bearing millions of dollars in credits for Milosevic's starving economy. Milosevic, meanwhile, may be contemplating a sale of uranium to Iraq. Russia and China routinely defend both Iraq and Serbia in the U.N. Security Council. North Korea shares its missile technology with Iran. Iran buys cruise missiles from China. It's all very chummy.

And who says you can successfully consolidate existing democracies while giving a pass to the dictatorships in their midst? Would-be autocrats around the world won't abide by democratic norms if there is no penalty for flouting them. We may already be seeing a "Fujimori effect" in Venezuela.

Even in this globalized age of economic and technological miracles, the international club of dictators may well get bigger and more firmly entrenched. According to the Chinese press, Jiang Zemin recently offered Kim Jong Il some sage advice on how to evade the West's iron law: "Snuff out all [political] challenges when they are still at the embryonic stage." The son of Kim Il Sung probably doesn't need any lessons in snuffing. Nor does any other dictator canny and ruthless enough to have survived the 1980s intact. As the democracies consolidate, so do the dictators.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.