Asia

Why Dictators Are Dumb but Can Still Outsmart Others

Sorpong Peou |Ryerson University | Canada

When I say that dictators are dumb, I do not mean to suggest that they do not know how to dictate the way their citizens live or society function. Dictators can be very smart people with high IQ scores. But they tend to become dumb over time because of their tendency to err on the side of relying on too much force rather than too little of it and just do not know when to stop or how to call it quits.

We may need to give dictators a lot of credit for behaving the way they do, and for holding to power when no one else is willing or able to do the same. World history is filled with dictators, the first of whom came to power in Rome around 510 B.C. Until Julius Caesar became dictator for life, however, most dictators left office when their tasks given to them during emergencies were completed.

Oftentimes, dictators’ reigns of terror end tragically. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. Napoleon Bonaparte of France has been considered by historians to be the first modern dictator. He enjoyed popularity because he did some good things for his country, such as balancing the budget, reforming state institutions, and writing the Civil Code that laid the foundation of France’s current civil law. Sadly, he did not seem to know when to stop or call its quits. In 1804, he crowned himself emperor, established a network of spies to tighten his control over the government and the press, and pursued his political ambition by invading other countries across Europe. He could not be stopped until Great Britain, Prussia, Spain and Portugal surrounded his empire and when his generals rebelled against him. He was forced to give up his throne and was exiled for good in 1815, after a brief return to power.

More recent dictators also did not know when to call it quits until they were removed from power by force or execution. Adolf Hitler started WWII, was defeated by the Allied Powers and then committed suicide. His ally, Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was shot to death and stoned. Pol Pot of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror was known as Brother Number One but ended up as Brother Number Zero. His regime kept slaughtering innocent people and many of his party’s members, but was then driven out of power and eventually arrested by those who served under him. His life was put to an end. Saddam Hussein of Iraq was executed after he had been found in a muddy foxhole. More can be said about Gadhafi of Libya whose fate was sealed after NATO destroyed his armed loyalists.

Health-related death can be another cause of dictators’ demise. The first two Soviet dictators, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, died after strokes. Mao Zedong of China died at the age of 82, after a heart attack more severe than the previous ones. Fidel Castro of Cuba was replaced by his younger brother because of his worsening health. Dictators do not seem to enjoy good health – and a happy life!

With that said, it is not easy to get rid of dictators because they do not know when to stop until their defeat or death stops their reign of terror. This fact further suggests that they are usually dumb because they think they have no choice but to fight to the death because of their insecurity, if not insanity. Dictators usually come to power amidst chaos and turmoil or violence and war, rely on terror and intimidation to maintain their power bases, instead of building democratic and rule-of-law institutions to enhance their legitimacy. Sadly, they live in fear of subversion, retribution, and assassination.

This insight further explains why any efforts to bring them to justice are likely to fail if doing so without any preponderant power to defeat them decisively. Because of their paranoia and insecurity, they usually develop the strategy of ‘preemptive strike’ against any foes (real or perceived) before any threat to their survival grows stronger. The best counter-strategy for anyone to adopt when not having the level of hard power that can overwhelm that of the dictator also would not be one based on a violent threat to him. Dictators do not like threats, and they balance against them. Economic sanctions, however smart they may be, are more likely to harm civilian populations more than they hurt dictators. Appeasement does not work either because this strategy tends to embolden dictators. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement did not work with Hitler after he had consolidated power in the 1930s, though it might have worked in the 1920s when Germany was weak following WWI.

The only viable strategy when dealing with dictators in our globalized world is one that assures their security through power-sharing arrangements or credible amnesty. Dictators believe they will lose everything if they lose power. They have no reason to trust any promise that any loss of power would still keep them safe and secure. It is worth remembering that dictators are dumb because they do not know when to stop, but they can still outsmart their opponents when their survival is under threat and can stay in power for a very long time. The dictatorship of North Korea has proved this point.

Citation: Peou, S. (2020). Why dictators are dumb but can still outsmart others. Insights on Southeast Asia. Retrieved from https://sea-insights.com/2020/12/15/why-dictators-are-dumb-but-can-still-outsmart-others/

Sorpong Peou is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies. He was formerly Chair of the Department of Political Science, University of Winnipeg (Manitoba), and Chair of the Advisory and Recruitment Committee for The Manitoba Chair of Global Governance Studies – a joint program between the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. His major books include Human Security Studies: Theories, Methods and Themes (World Scientific and Imperial College Press, 2014); Peace and Security in the Asia-Pacific (Praeger 2010), Human Security in East Asia: Challenges for Collaborative Action, ed. (Routledge 2008), International Democracy Assistance for Peacebuilding: Cambodia and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan 2007), Intervention and Change in Cambodia: Toward Democracy (St. Martin’s Press, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Silkworms, 2001); and Conflict Neutralization in the Cambodia War: From Battlefield to Ballot-box (Oxford University Press, 1997).

This article was originally published by his personal page: http://www.sorpongpeou.com on May 04, 2020

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