The news out of Saudi Arabia has been startling. A country famous for its stability to the point of stagnation is watching a 32-year-old crown prince arrest his relatives, freeze their bank accounts and dismiss them from key posts. But on closer examination, it should not be so surprising. Mohammed bin Salman is now applying to Saudi Arabia what has become the new standard operating procedure for strongmen around the world.
The formula was honed by Vladimir Putin after he came to power in Russia. First, amplify foreign threats so as to rally the country around the regime and give it extraordinary powers. Putin did this with the Chechen war and the danger of terrorism. Then, move against rival centers of influence within the society, which in Russia meant the oligarchs — who at that time were more powerful than the state itself. Then talk about the need to end corruption, reform the economy and provide benefits for ordinary people. Putin was able to succeed on the last front largely because of the quadrupling of oil prices over the next decade. Finally, control the media through formal and informal means. Russia has gone from having a thriving free media in 2000 to a level of state control that is effectively similar to the Soviet Union.
Naturally, not every element of this formula applies elsewhere. Perhaps the crown prince will prove to be a reformer. But the formula for political success that he’s following is similar to what’s been applied in countries as disparate as China, Turkey and the Philippines. Leaders have taken to using the same ingredients — nationalism, foreign threats, anti-corruption and populism — to tighten their grip on power. Where the judiciary and media are seen as obstacles to a ruler’s untrammeled authority, they are systematically weakened.
In his 2012 book "The Dictator's Learning Curve," William J. Dobson presciently explained that the new breed of strongmen around the world have learned a set of tricks to maintain control that are far more clever and sophisticated than in the past. "Rather than forcibly arrest members of a human rights group, today's most effective despots deploy tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down dissident groups. Laws are written broadly, then used like a scalpel to target the groups the government deems a threat." Dobson quoted a Venezuelan activist who described Hugo Chávez's wily blend of patronage and selective prosecution with an adage: "For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law."
Classic centralized dictatorships were a 20th-century phenomenon — born of the centralizing forces and technologies of the era. “Modern dictators work in the more ambiguous spectrum that exists between democracy and authoritarianism,” wrote Dobson. They maintain the forms of democracy — constitutions, elections, media — but work to gut them of any meaning. They work to keep the majority content, using patronage, populism and external threats to maintain national solidarity and their popularity. Of course, stoking nationalism can spiral out of control, as it has in Russia and might in Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in a fierce cold war with Iran, complete with a very hot proxy war in Yemen.
Dobson, however, did end the book expressing optimism that, in many countries, people were resisting and outmaneuvering the dictators. Yet what has happened since he wrote the book is depressing. Instead of the despots being influenced by democrats, it is the democrats who are moving up the learning curve.
Consider Turkey, a country that in the early 2000s seemed on a firm path toward democracy and liberalism, anchored in a desire to become a full-fledged member of the European Union. Today, its ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has eliminated almost all obstacles to total control. He has defanged the military and the bureaucracy, launched various kinds of tax and regulatory actions against opponents in the media, and declared one potential opposition group, the Gulenists, to be terrorists. The rulers of the Philippines and Malaysia appear to be copying from that same playbook.
This is not the picture of democracy everywhere, of course, but these tendencies can be spotted in far-flung areas of the world. In countries such as India and Japan, which remain vibrant democracies in most respects, there are elements of this new system creeping in — crude nationalism and populism, and increasing measures to intimidate and neuter the free press.
President Trump, for his part, has threatened NBC, CNN (where I work) and other outlets with various forms of government action. He has attacked judges and independent agencies. He has disregarded long-established democratic norms. So perhaps even in the United States, some people are moving up this dangerous learning curve as well.
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