William J. Dobson’s exploration of the contest between contemporary dictatorshipsand those who rebel against them is valuable because it offers a sober analysis of both sides.

Dobson traveled nearly 100,000 miles researching this book, which takes a close look at the face of modern authoritarianism in Russia, Venezuela and Egypt, with passing attention toChina and Malaysia. He concludes that dictators have become more selective in the restrictions they impose on their subjects and more cunning in their use of democratic guises to suppress opposition while still resorting to brutal means as needed.

To be sure, an attentive reader of the news will find little new in Dobson’s account of how Vladi­mir Putin’s Russia uses a servile judiciary to squelch dissidents, or how Hugo Chavez has maintained his grip on power through demagogy and ruinously expensive handouts, or how Chinese technocrats stay dominant despite the ludicrous facade of a communist government in a capitalist society. But Dobson skillfully shows how similar themes shoot through these different authoritarian societies.

Most interesting is his portrayal of the regimes’ opponents — the activists and young people, professionals and subversives — who have subverted control with varying degrees of success. Dobson pays particular attention to the doctrines of Gene Sharp, a scholar who has made a life’s work of thinking in hard-headed ways about the strategy of nonviolence. Dobson admires the work of the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, founded by young Serbs who struggled against the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic, which has taught the techniques of anti-authoritarian struggle to activists from around the world.

Dobson is cautiously optimistic about what nonviolent struggle can do. In the early phases of the Arab Spring, he marveled at the largely peaceful revolutions that swept Tunisia and Egypt. He recognizes the increasing sophistication of the techniques of repression in countries such as Russia, Venezuela, China and Iran, but suggests that the balance in the long run favors the opposition. This is so not because Twitter and Facebook have some miraculous solvent effect on truncheon-wielding riot police and corrupt judges, but because those who use the new social media are aware of alternatives to the systems in which they find themselves; they are increasingly intolerant of the regimes and savvier about how to undermine them.

‘The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy’ by William J. Dobson (Doubleday)

The problem in the Arab world, however, is what follows the overthrow of Pharoah. The business of constructing free governments is at least as difficult as shunting dictatorship aside.The challenge for Egyptian liberals is how to cope with the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, which may practice a form of tyranny that will prove more insidious and effective than the ossified regime of Hosni Mubarak. Nor can it be taken for granted that nonviolence will work. The resistance to Bashar al-Assad in Syria began with an extraordinary commitment to peaceful demonstration, but the rebels had to pick up arms to battle the hideous cruelty of a regime that has placed no limits on the violence it uses against its citizens. From the ensuing civil war it is hard to see how a decent, stable order can be created.

The months of escalating violence, which have left tens of thousands dead and many more refugees in Turkey and Jordan, are a stark reminder that for a time, at any rate, snipers, helicopter gunships and torture basements beat social media and peaceful protests. Syria’s descent into a hell of massacre and proxy war — with Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and China siding with the regime and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and assorted jihadists attempting to overthrow it — reminds us that the old rules of civil conflict are, alas, not obsolete. At some point, in the face of violence without limits, rebels will throw away their copies of Sharp’s compelling books and pick up assault rifles and plastic explosives. At that point the gods of war, rather than the better angels of our nature, will have their way.

For the United States, two conclusions may be drawn from Dobson’s book. The first is that a commitment to decent government and fundamental freedoms should play a role in the making of American foreign policy. The George W. Bush administration may be criticized for having weighted too heavily the conduct of elections, as opposed to all the underpinnings of decent government — rule of law, religious and civil liberties, freedom of speech and assembly, rights of women. One may even argue that in some ways the Bush administration retreated from its own “freedom agenda” in Egypt, for example, by failing to keep pressure on the Mubarak regime to change.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, in its eagerness to distinguish itself from its predecessor, sought to work with authoritarian governments rather than encourage their opponents. How to develop and implement a freedom agenda that is practical and effective, and that does not involve a calamitous sacrifice of other interests, remains a challenge for U.S. foreign policy.

The other conclusion is broader. Dobson describes a variety of ways in which the forms of free government can be sustained even as unscrupulous politicians or parties undermine or manipulate them. Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that American habits and customs, no less than our institutions, have kept us free. Although Dobson does not write about democracy in America, his book reminds us that laws and institutions alone do not sustain free government, but that self-restraint on the part of those in public office and vigilance by citizens are also necessary. His book may be about the struggle for freedom of other countries’ citizens, but there are lessons in it for the preservation of our own.


Eliot A. Cohen teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of “Conquered Into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath That Made the American Way of War.”


Inside the Global Battle for Democracy

By William J. Dobson

Doubleday. 341 pp. $28.95