A Dictators' Dead Pool for 2012: Predicting Crisis or Forecasting Opportunity?

12/01/2011 07:39 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2012
  • Philip N. Howard Author of Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up (Yale, 2015)

The world seems to have more aging dictators than ever before. It may seem crass to make a dictators' dead pool. But given the murderous history of some of strongmen who might be on the list, it is not unreasonable to think through the means and implications of their departure.

The recent passing of the Saudi Crown Prince was a kind of "predictable surprise", but there are other countries with aging dictators. Saudi Arabia is an important ally for Western democracies, but the relationship is complex. The regime is a constitutional monarchy, and even though the family tree of succession is also complex at least it is bounded in some way. What other countries have sick or aging dictators, whether or not they are Western allies?

Recently, I made a list of countries with similar features to those countries that have experienced political upheaval in the last year. There are at least 13 authoritarian regimes where the government has promised to hold national elections in the next few years, but where young-tech savvy voters will probably use social media to organize against the bald-faced lie of rigged elections. Here is a list of authoritarian rulers who will be at least 70 years old next year, in order of how tough each regime is (toughest at the top):

  • Saudi Arabia, ABDALLAH bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, 87
  • Korea North, KIM Jong Il, 70
  • Oman, QABOOS bin Said Al-Said , 71
  • China, HU Jintao, 68
  • Cuba, Raul CASTRO Ruz, 80
  • Iran, Ali Hoseini-KHAMENEI, 72
  • Kuwait, SABAH al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah, 85
  • Laos, CHOUMMALI Saignason, 75
  • Kazakhstan, Nursultan A. NAZARBAYEV, 71
  • Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro OBIANG NGUEMA MBASOGO, 69
  • Cameroon, Paul BIYA, 78
  • Congo Brazzaville, Denis SASSOU-Nguesso, 68
  • Fiji, Ratu Epeli NAILATIKAU, 70
  • Angola, Jose Eduardo DOS SANTOS, 69
  • Singapore, Tony TAN Keng Yam, 71
  • Yemen, Ali Abdallah SALIH, 69
  • Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta MUSEVENI, 72
  • Ivory Coast, Alassane OUATTARA, 69

In some of these cases the succession line may seem obvious. Iran's Mullahs have a succession system, and Fidel has effectively deferred to Raul. But the deaths of these leaders will still be sensitive moments of transition, and actually there are other cases we could worry about. Venezuela's Chavez is sick. Zimbabwe's Mugabe is 87, and even though he is collaborating with opposition parties the collaboration is not going well. Algeria's Abdelaziz has enacted modest reforms, but is 75.

Some of these characters have been around for decades, and most historical examples of an authoritarian ruler's passing do not end well. New dictators arise, civil wars erupt, or public resources are plundered. Many of these guys simply jailed and outlived their opponents. In some of these regimes, the succession issues are already being thought out by local elites. In the case of Turkmenistan, the recent succession of dictators was pretty smooth. Still, the death of a charismatic authoritarian leader can afford an opportunity to redesign a political system.

What can Western democracies do? At the very least, foreign policy makers need to be aware of these "predictable surprises". The nice thing about the cold war is that strategists worked with one major opponent, and global politics turned less on particular authoritarian rulers. Ideologies outlived particular mouthpieces and opponents. Today, the death of a charismatic dictator not only leaves a domestic political vacuum, it can have varied implications for neighbors. If international relations has more aging dictators than ever before, we need to strategize not only about the impact in-country, about the impact that the simultaneous loss of multiple authoritarian rulers.

Authoritarian regimes have their own strange network relations, as Chavez and Ahmadinejad demonstrate whenever they do a curious "world tour". The links between authoritarian regimes involve fuel, loans, and immigration (often also drugs, smuggling, piracy, and money laundering). I would argue that rather than be focusing on the sudden loss of multiple individual dictators, the Western democracies have an opportunity to strategize about the network effect of the loss--within a few months--of multiple nodes in authoritarian networks.

It is difficult to know what such a strategy could be. Identifying transnational civil society networks with the credibility and talent to support democratic movements in multiple countries? Figuring out which diaspora communities would play some role in building a new civil society, and which would do more damage by returning home? More global engagement, by being ready with credit support for the transitional governments that move quickly to put their authoritarian past behind them? It would help to have a national security plan for a consistent, credible and transportable response that supports local groups interested in democracy, gives them time for the difficult process of writing a constitution, and rewards militaries for supporting transition and bureaucrats for minding the public till. It is quite possible that multiple nodes in the global network of authoritarianism will disappear in the next year.

Western governments spend a lot of time trying to predict crises and strategize about risks. We could spend as much time looking for opportunities and strategizing about how to take advantage of them. If 1989 was about the cascading effects of collapse among communist authoritarian regimes, 2011 was about the cascading effects of collapse among dictatorships in the Muslim world. Will next year be about the simultaneous loss of a dozen petty dictators?

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