Xi Jinping’s efforts to finesse a climb down from his “zero-Covid” lockups, and Iran’s attempts to appease protestors against religious oppression and abuse, remind us that dictators do face political constraints.
This fact, and the diverse politics that different dictators must play, point out the complexities of dealing with dictators. Clearly we can never espouse government against the consent of the governed. But absolute rules or “one size fits all” approaches will not work as policy guides.
The first problem with this attitude is that we have no consensus on what any absolute rule should be. Some take Iran’s and China’s problems as a cue to enable those regimes’ overthrow. Others will ignore the nature of any regime, saying we need to get whatever we need to have, from whoever has it – if democracies don’t attend to their security and basic well-being first, they will not last. Yet others will say our own shortcomings disqualify us from judging. This view overlaps with isolationism. And some would treat any regime according to its fit with our international order, which they view as our achievement and expression of our nature.
The disparate policy stances rise and fall with our politics. And no matter what politics enabled which policy scheme, inconsistency and incoherence make for unprincipled national conduct. This is itself undermines a nation founded on a principle. When we declare support for democracy in Ukraine but do nothing when democracy is crushed in Bahrain or Hong Kong, democracy looks like a false priority. if we oppose China on every front but cozy up to Vietnam for its military support, what differentiates the two Communist dictatorships except that one threatens our hegemony and the other does not? If we shun Venezuela’s junta and the House of Saud then re-friend them when we need their oil, we look craven.
A second problem is that quite a few dictatorships have proven deeply resilient. A coup against the Hugo Chavez failed even with US support; Saddam Hussein lasted a dozen years after a devastating defeat; and the Myanmar army has outmaneuvered Aung San Suu Kyi. Xi Jinping looks very strong, regardless of today’s protests; Alexei Navalny is not heard from; and we are going back to Venezuela for oil. Only overwhelming invasive force overthrew Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, and the aftermaths suggest why dictators can keep their seats for so long. Just as the dictators have limits on “how far” they can go in oppressive measures, often there is only “so far” that opponents can go in defying them.
Third, are all dictatorships the same? Is a “cause” that takes dictatorial power, like the Shi’ite revolution in Iran or Chinese Communism, the same as non-ideological or self-serving autocrats like Putin, Myanmar’s generals, or the House of Saud? Do such differences call for different approaches from U.S. policy? In the 1980s Jeanne Kirkpatrick differentiated totalitarian dictatorships from non-ideological ones. The latter were crooks who would work with a dominant power, the latter were zealots who usually opposed us on ideological grounds, and invaded their constituents’ lives. Are there analogous distinctions today? How would we draw the lines?
Rather than a simplistic rule, we need a coherent thought process to sort out which dictators we might seek to overthrow; which we must work with – and how and why; and which we might try to influence to modify their behavior. Coherence needs to come from our own deepest principle, voiced in the creed of unalienable rights equally endowed in all, and government dedicated to secure those rights, with consent of the governed.
The variegated regimes and circumstances we encounter will create much uncertainty and demand many judgment calls. A few guidelines may help us align judgment to creed.
To start, there may be cases where external intervention against a dictator is necessary to stop extreme, endemic humanitarian abuse. But the abuse must be so egregious, widespread and baked into the regime that non-intervention would be immoral. Second, any intervention must be based on the widest possible global consensus, not a move to secure any country’s vested interests. If we must act to depose a regime, it is an existential requirement for this nation that the action be strictly and clearly a matter of principle.
And, yes, we must oppose any dictator’s expansion of power and influence over other countries, and particularly over freer societies. Thus, we rolled back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and give strong sustained support to Ukraine’s fight against Putin. We further commit to the principle that cross-border, unprovoked military aggression is completely beyond acceptable bounds; only dictators have done this – Iraq in 2003 was still under the regime that had invaded Kuwait. We may not always succeed as we did against Saddam in 1991, and our options may be limited in some cases. But our actions must aim primarily to curb despotism, and other interests are subordinate to that end.
Last, we can aim to incentivize “cause” dictators to evolve away from autocracy. The CCP is backing off from Covid lock downs because they have to manage China successfully, and cannot completely ignore the population’s needs. We likely cannot overthrow this regime, and we need not aim to undermine it by external pressure. They had once encouraged private enterprise – the logic of economic growth gives them some motivation to allow personal prerogatives. If they again loosen their grip on liberty, modulating our opposition to their development would then project our deep purpose.
Our creed is abstract; it allows for flexibility and even political fluctuations, but its common bedrock sets our foundation. We must exercise judgement, but we keep faith with our nature if we keep congruence with that foundation.