We’ve now seen a good twenty-five years of autocrats backing down, ceding power, and refusing to escalate, starting around 1989 if not earlier. Arguably North Korea and Saddam Hussein have been partial exceptions, but even there North Korea has stayed in its shell and Saddam had in fact largely disarmed his WMD. We also see many autocrats — most notably those of China — who pursue remarkably sophisticated courses of action. Just think how much more deftly they handled Occupy Hong Kong than the Ferguson police dealt with their situation. Even the Iranian leaders seem quite sophisticated, even though most of us do not share their goals or endorse their means.
I call it The Great Autocrat Moderation.
If we look back in history, are autocrats generally this rational and conciliatory? I am struck reading the new Andrew Roberts biography of Napoleon how he grew drunk with success and overreached and of course eventually failed (twice). Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are some additional obvious examples of autocrats who, in terms of procedural rationality, simply collapsed at some point and very dramatically overreached.
Of course these are tricky examples. The most famous autocrats are arguably going to be more subject to overreach, which in part drives their fame (infamy), and so if we consult our historical memories we may be selecting for overreach. Your typical earlier autocrat may have been more rational than this list of ambitious tyrants might imply. Was the typical dictator of Paraguay, historically speaking, really so irrational? Still, it does seem that autocrats have been relatively benign as of late.
So how about Putin? Is he like the autocrats of the last twenty-five years, or he is more like Napoleon and Mussolini with regard to his long-term procedural rationality?
I do not myself expect The Great Autocrat Moderation to continue for much longer. Let us not forget that some autocratic “tournaments” select for overreach, namely the autocrat had to think he could, against long odds, rise to the top and stay there.
I am indebted to a conversation with John Nye about the topics of this blog post.