by Thomas R. Wells
Tyrants like Vladamir Putin and Kim Jong Un seem to win a lot of their geopolitical contests against democratic governments. How do they do it?
A common explanation is that these tyrants are better at playing the game. They are strategic geniuses leading governments with decades of experience in foreign affairs and characterised by single-mindedness and a long-term horizon. Of course they are going to make better geopolitical moves than democratic governments riven by political factionalism and only able to think as far ahead as the next election.
This explanation is wrong. Tyrants don’t succeed because they are especially skilled at the game of geopolitics, but because they are baddies. Tyrants make bold moves because they are willing to subject their country (and the whole world) to more risk. They can do that because they care less than democrats, and hence worry less, about bringing harms to their people. Like a hedge fund manager, they can afford to take big risks because they are not playing with their own money. When tyrants win it is because of luck, not brilliance. This is easier to see when tyrants lose – as they nearly all do in the end, when their luck runs out.
I. The Clownish Incompetence of Tyranny
The myth of the strategic brilliance of tyrants is driven by cognitive biases. There is the assumption that significant events must have significant agency behind them (the same bias that drives conspiracy thinking). And there is the tendency to fill in the murky mysteries of tyrants’ decision-making by projecting our own worst fears. But if you actually think it through it is rather unlikely that tyrannies would be more competent than democracies, let alone bastions of brilliance.
Take Vladimir Putin. Under his rule Russia once again dominates, bullies, and even invades its neighbours – with apparent impunity. New techniques of ‘hybrid warfare’ and cyber misinformation have put NATO on the defensive. In Syria he successfully defied the international moral consensus and showed off the reach and capabilities of Russia’s revamped military by saving the regime of his fellow tyrant, Bashar al-Assad.
Such achievements create a worldwide demand for explanation to which experts respond by increasing the supply of analysis (and even non-experts like me are drawn in). But most of that analysis begins from the myth of Putin’s strategic brilliance. His regime’s actions and pronouncements are analysed with the respect and care one might apply to fathoming the intentions behind a chess grand master’s unorthodox move.
The assumption of incompetence is a better starting point for analysis. It is eminently plausible that an undistinguished junior KGB officer like Putin would be good at scheming. It is not really credible that he is some kind of strategic genius.
Of course I am not claiming that democracies are led by geniuses either! Democracies are led by politicians who were good at winning elections, which does not automatically make them good at running countries or winning geopolitical disputes against other governments. However, the governments of democratic countries are not one-man bands. Elected politicians can recruit competent people with the relevant expertise to advise, devise and implement policy.
In contrast, tyrants have trouble building competent governments because they have a built in suspicion of competence. Competent people are loyal to values such as truth and patriotism which are independent of the regime and can conflict with its interests. Instead tyrants recruit cronies bound to them by personal loyalty.
This is why most of Putin’s government is made up of people with a personal connection to him. At first, he looked for people he could trust from among those with a similar background to him – former employees of the security state. This was the ‘Siloviki’ phase of Putin’s reign. As those retired or failed him, they have been replaced from within the small pool of people that Putin associates with inside the bubble and whose loyalty he can feel sure of. In this phase we see members of his judo club, bodyguards, and the guy who carried his umbrella taking on major roles. Even if it is possible for some individuals to combine high personal loyalty and high competence, it is unlikely that many such people would be found in such a small pool.
Tyrannical regimes do not consider themselves answerable to the people they rule over. Their working is deliberately cloaked in mystery so as to defy scrutiny and accountability. As a result, the true farcical buffoonery of tyrannies is hidden from view, allowing flattering comparisons with the public gaffes and peccadilloes of democratic politicians.
However, a hint at the true clownishness of tyrannical regimes may be found in Trump’s administration. Trump has the character of a tyrant, but he rules within a constitutional democracy that requires much more public exposure than at his previous businesses. In line with the clown theory of tyranny, Trump only appoints people he can trust for their personal loyalty to him. And these cronies are manifestly incompetent: a shower of fools, criminals and wingnuts. (The handful of mildly competent people he initially appointed have mostly already been replaced – exactly because they were too loyal to America, not Trump.)
II. Tyrants Care About Power, Not Good Government
Good government requires institutional competence, popular legitimacy and trust – all things that tyrannical regimes struggle with. It also takes time away from the tyrant’s more important concerns. First, organising the brutalities needed to maintain their power. Second, enjoying the rewards of power without constraint: the godlike pleasures of dominating others to your will. (A hint of this may be found in Randall Collins’ analysis of North Koreans competing to echo and amplify whatever emotion their dear tyrant shows.)
Tyrants therefore have difficulty using their power of government to advance the interests of their country and people. However, they do have one advantage over democrats that makes the challenge of government easier for them: They are bad guys.
Tyrants only really care about their interests. Their concern for the people they rule over is calculating and extractive, like a farmer’s concern for his chickens. The point here is that we should not identify tyrants with the countries unlucky enough to be under their rule. Realpolitik analysis fails. Tyrants pursue their own interests with more or less competence, but these are not the interests of their people.
The most basic conflict is between short and long term interests. The long term success of a country rests upon constructing and maintaining a moral order both within the country and with its international partners. For example, just laws are passed and impartially enforced. Such a moral order is incompatible with the rule of a tyrant, so he has no compunction about trading off long term flourishing for short term gains, such as demonstrations of (unsustainable) military prowess that make him seem to be a champion of the nation’s interests rather than merely his own.
Tyrants are more willing than responsible governments to take risks with their country’s future because they do not really value their country’s prosperity – or even survival – independently of themselves. Worse, tyrants may even prefer to keep their subjects poor and oppressed because they are easier to control that way. A peaceful prosperous reunited Korea is of no interest to Kim Jong Un if it would not be his anymore. Indeed, N. Korea’s tyrants have routinely used their captive population as hostages to extract money and food aid with which to support their regime. (Kim Jong Un now seems to be experimenting with Deng Xiao Ping style market liberalization. But only because the regime he inherited was not sustainable and China has shown how capitalism may be combined with tyranny.)
III. Tyrants Prefer Gambling to Governing
Because good government is practically unattainable and intrinsically unattractive, tyrannical regimes often prefer the easier approach of gambling that things will turn out as they would like. For example, instead of investing in food security and agricultural technologies and education, they simply assume that the weather will be good and harvests will be high.
The key point is that even if the bet fails and the people suffer, the tyrant may still escape the consequences – because of their foundational refusal to be accountable to their people. For example, Stalin saw the famines produced by collectivization as an opportunity to destroy possible centres of opposition (such as Ukrainian nationalism). He actually doubled down on the famine in particular areas and used it as a weapon to kill millions of extra people who might have become troublesome in future (by making some effort to hold his regime accountable).
Long lived tyrants like Stalin often impress with their ability to seize such opportunities to save or even strengthen their regime in the face of adversity. But it is questionable how much credit they should receive for their Machiavellian cunning and how much for their simple callousness. They are in the situation of someone who walks into a casino and is given a huge pile of gambling chips for free (the lives of those they rule over). It is not a strategic choice of staggering genius to be willing put a bet on black and spin the wheel. It is merely the recognition by an evil mind that they have much to win and little to lose.
If one looks at government from the tyrant’s perspective, husbanding scarce governmental competence for core tasks (such as internal security forces to suppress dissent) and leaving others to chance is rational. You could remove the fuel subsidies burning a hole in the budget, for example, but that would seriously enrage a lot of middle class people who don’t trust you to spend the money saved any better. So why not just put it off again and bet on the price of oil going back down next year?
But the richest payoffs of gambling with your people’s future come when dealing with responsible governments. It gives tyrants a geopolitical advantage whenever they can convert a dispute into a game of chicken by plausibly threatening escalation. North Korea’s tyrants have a long history of military aggression and rule-breaking, from assassination attempts on the South Korean president to counterfeiting billions of dollars of US currency to breaking every promise they have ever made about nuclear weapons. But they get away with it (except in 1950) because responsible governments are mostly not prepared to risk escalation to full scale war and just swallow their losses.
Unfortunately there are two big problems with tyrants’ reliance on gambling. The first mostly affects them. The other affects all of us.
IV. Regression to the Mean: Luck Runs Out
Relying on luck is a poor substitute for good government. In the long run, you can’t win them all. Harvests fail; allies desert you; global downturns reduce income from oil exports; a powerful government refuses to back down when you cheat it. The more that tyrants rely on luck, the more and bigger bets they make and the more of those bets they will lose. If they lose enough bets their regime will suffer, not just their people.
For example, right now in Nicaragua, Ortega’s tyranny may be drawing to a close. He had the good luck to finance his incompetent rule with billions of dollars in donations from oil rich Venezuela. But his luck ran out when the incompetence of Venezuela’s tyranny destroyed its own economy and the subsidies dried up. Attempting to fill budget holes by plundering the public pension system created predictable outrage and a legitimacy gap that terrorising and murdering protesters has so far failed to close.
The apparent geopolitical success of tyrannies is mostly due to the higher visibility of successful bets. The combination of bold moves and success catches out attention, such as Putin’s little green men invasion of Crimea. We don’t pay so much attention to the failures, such as Putin’s conversion of Russia’s closest ally into its bitterest enemy and the rearming of his NATO neighbours.
It is not surprising that whatever the short run gains of the gambling approach to government, from Ortega to the Marcos to Maduro to Mugabe to Qadaffi most tyrannies run out of luck in the end. Even where those regimes survive and continue to defy the international community and its moral standards about things like human rights, it is hard to see them as ‘winners’.
V. Just Because Tyrants are Incompetent Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Dangerous.
Brinkmanship is a dangerous game even when you have the advantage of caring less about it all blowing up. Again there is a problem of competence. Tyrants who have achieved gains using the chicken technique may not be able to recognize the size of the risks they are taking because they lack insight into the reasoning of their opponents.
For example, Kim Jong Un used a banned chemical weapon to assassinate a half-brother who was under the protection of his only military ally (China) inside one of the only other countries on which N. Korea was on friendly terms (Malaysia). As a response, China appeared to seriously enforce UN sanctions on trade with N. Korea for the first time, putting a very severe economic pressure on the regime. (Though Kim Jong Un’s luck seemed to return: he was granted an audience with China’s tyrant in Beijing in March, suggesting some reconciliation.)
For another case, Putin appears to encourage his loyal retainers to compete for his favour by murdering troublesome people inside and outside Russia. These murders for favour included radiation and nerve agent attacks in Britain so insanely reckless that they have convinced many responsible governments that the risks of not pushing back and containing Putin outweigh the risks of action.
The problem here is that the realpolitik game of brinkmanship has become confused in the tyrant’s mind with a delusion of invulnerability, or, worse, a sense of entitlement to respect and fear by other powers (see my previous Asshole Theory of International Relations). That puts us all in danger since it becomes more likely that tyrants will go too far and trigger a full sized war, such as the million-death war Kim Il Sung started by invading the south in 1950.
What makes this tendency to misjudge risk even more dangerous is that the most powerful country in the world has elected a would be tyrant. Though constitutionally constrained at home, Trump is free to play at brinkmanship abroad unencumbered by competence or facts. And he has made it clear that chicken is the only negotiating strategy he believes in. The competitive interaction of so many incompetent but heavily armed states all using the threat of escalation as their main tool of international diplomacy is a recipe for very dangerous times.
Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at at Tilburg University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher’s Beard.