03 March 2011

Why the world needs virtuous autocrats

Why the world needs virtuous autocrats

Financial Times (UK). [Op-Ed]. Robert Kaplan 03/03/2011.

Analysis is built on distinctions. And in these times of upheaval in the Arab world, distinctions are being lost. All autocrats are not bad, as some neoconservatives are proclaiming, and should not be overthrown. The moral differences between one dictator and another are as vast as those between dictators and democrats. There is such a thing as a benevolent dictator - and we should not turn our back on all those that remain.

Vision, perceived legitimacy, the existence of a social contract and the ability to make society more institutionally complex - and thus ready for more freedom - are the distinguishing characteristics of good dictators. Libya's Muammer Gaddafi, for example, is not remotely in the same category as Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id, whose kingdom has seen violent youth demonstrations in recent days. Egypt's former Brezhnevite dictator Hosni Mubarak should not be compared to Jordan's energetic King Abdullah.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos has built roads and schools throughout the rural interior, advanced the status of women and protected the environment. He governs with a vision similar to that of many erstwhile Asian dictators such as China's Deng Xiaoping, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's more problematic Mahathir Mohamad, who lifted their societies out of poverty and made them aspiring middle-class dynamos. Like the monarchs of Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, Sultan Qaboos's legitimacy is also built on royal tradition - which cannot be said of the security heavies of north African police states, who utterly lacked tradition and were equally void of vision.

This legitimacy depends on a social contract that treats the population as citizens rather than subjects, and has as its primary goal the economic and social advancement of society. China's leaders know they must generate at least 7 per cent economic growth per year to avoid widespread unrest. Yet even if they do, the social contract peters out as the society advances: citizens, and especially the young, demand political freedoms to go along with their economic liberty.

For this reason the restive youth of China and Oman are different from those of north Africa. They have been conditioned to expect more and more from their rulers: thus when their rulers cannot quite deliver, they rebel. In Tunisia and Egypt the youth have rebelled because they have been conditioned to accept less and less, and have waited patiently for a moment of weakness in the palace in order to unleash their fury.

Libya, of course, represents a level of megalomania and social pulverisation straight out of antiquity that has few recent parallels. Colonel Gaddafi built no institutions, whereas benevolent despots do. In the Gulf states ministries work. In Tunisia and Egypt they work, albeit not as well. In Libya they barely exist. As the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington noted in the 1960s, the more complex a society is, the more institutions are needed to govern it. The dictator's job should be to make society more hierarchically complex, so that various economic classes emerge and citizens can climb from one level to the next. Development and the advancement of personal freedoms do this.

But the very success of a benevolent dictator - his abjuration of tyranny - indicates his own eventual downfall. Political freedoms must accompany a certain level of social complexity. A dictator's only respite from tragedy at the end of a successful reign is to see his people move beyond his rule without chaos ensuing. He is unlikely to get credit in his lifetime. It is only now being recognised in Indonesia that the long-standing late dictator Suharto helped to prepare his country for a decade of successful democracy. He was corrupt, but his rule was not without benefit for his people.

Sultan Qaboos must realise that in advancing Oman's social complexity as he has, the crowning jewel of his rule would be a modicum of real democracy. If he can appease the demonstrators by doing that, he could emerge as the Arab world's Lee, who brought Singapore from African levels of development into the first world. At a moment of democratic upheaval, such a thought seems out of fashion. But as the present rapture passes, it will become apparent that defeating tyranny is about much more than holding elections.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power