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The Dictator’s Learning Curve: David and Goliath Tales for Our Times

William J. Dobson's The Dictator's Learning Curve is an invaluable look at how strongmen hold onto power, and continue to repress their people—but it's also a primer for how to chuck those dictators out.

"Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy," By William J. Dobson (Doubleday) $28.95


How have struggles between authoritarian governments and their challengers changed since the Cold War? And why do moves toward democratization proceed smoothly in some settings but stall out or get reversed in others? These are the kinds of questions that veteran journalist William J. Dobson, an editor at Slate, sets out to answer in The Dictator’s Learning Curve, his intelligent and informative first book.

They are certainly timely ones. Events such as Arab Spring led TIME Magazine to dub 2011 the “Year of the Protester”; headlines from a few months ago told of a loosening of control in Burma and crackdowns in Syria. More recently we’ve followed reports of the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s inspiring escape from a brutal if unofficial form of house arrest and of the military in Cairo striving to stifle Egypt’s democratization.

Given the relevance and weightiness of the topics Dobson addresses and how astutely he handles them, his book deserves the kind of serious, positive reviews it has been getting. Still, two frivolous thoughts came to mind as I read it.

Frivolous Thought 1: I hope Dobson signed up for a good frequent flyer program. Why? Because tracking the individuals and movements that interested him required an enormous amount of travel. In about 300 pages, he takes us with him from Cairo to Caracas and back again, with stops everywhere from Moscow to Malaysia. We go to Boston, where Dobson meets an influential theorist of non-violent resistance. And to Beijing, where he visits a McDonalds that has more security personnel than ordinary customers in it on a February day in 2011 after foreign websites called for Chinese protesters to stage Arab Spring-style demonstrations nearby (these never materialize).

Frivolous Thought 2: I must be one of the least interesting people Dobson has met in a café in recent years. Our first email exchange took place more than a decade ago, when he was an editor at and I a contributor to Newsweek International, but we didn’t meet face-to-face until 2010, when we got together at a Georgetown coffee shop. We had a good talk, but nothing I said earned a mention in The Dictator’s Learning Curve, which is filled with tidbits from conversations held in similar settings. This is hardly surprising given how much less interesting my life has been than those of many of the people he does quote. Like Yevgenia Chirikova, a woman Dobson dubs “the accidental activist.” She told him over a cappuccino about the clever strategies she had developed to thwart efforts by corrupt Russian officials and developers to destroy a treasured forest near her home.

These asides out of the way, I’ll get down to the proper business of a reviewer.

Style and pacing are key attractions of The Dictator’s Learning Curve. Dobson has big points to make about, for example, how intently Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Hu Jintao have borrowed pages from one another’s playbooks to avoid suffering the fate of fallen autocrats such as Mubarak. Dobson never forgets, though, that the best way to keep the attention of readers while driving broad arguments home is to fill the book with dramatic incidents, including his own efforts to evade security forces in Venezuela, and sketches of memorable individuals, from an arrogant Putin propagandist to a charismatic Serbian onetime youth movement leader who travels the globe speaking at workshops designed to help protesters topple their Milosevics.

Dobson’s book ends up not only a sophisticated but also a wonderfully readable account of the latest installments in an age-old type of struggle. On the one side stand 21st century counterparts of the Old Testament’s Goliath: autocrats backed by armies who have the deck stacked in their favor. On the other side stand activists, intent on defeating or at least gaining concessions from these foes—and sometimes managing, like David, to do just that.

One major theme Dobson addresses is how lingering Cold War era visions of totalitarianism hinder our efforts to get clear-eyed views of today’s most protean populists (think: Chavez) and most adaptable authoritarian parties (think: that of Hu Jintao and co.). We need, he says, to update our assumptions for an era when Goliaths cloak authoritarian moves in democratic rhetoric, use high-tech public relations to convince their subject that the only alternative to the status quo is chaos, and forge pragmatic partnerships that have little to do with formal ideologies.

He pairs this big idea with a complementary one: challengers to autocratic rule have also been adapting to new challenges, establishing new alliances, and studying and taking cues from one another. The book’s title may suggest an exclusive interest in Goliaths, but Dobson also has valuable things to say about Davids. The book could almost as easily have been titled "The Activist’s Learning Curve."

As a China specialist, I paid particular attention to Dobson’s treatment of that country. If I didn’t find it convincing, I’d be skeptical of Dobson’s comments on other settings. I give him high marks on China. His presentation of the official paranoia generated by Mubarak’s fall is just right, for instance, and his discussion of how intent China’s leaders have been at figuring out why color revolutions took place in Eastern Europe and Central Asia—and how to avoid them unfolding at home—is not original, as a footnote to political scientist David Shambaugh’s work shows, but is right on target.

I also like his approach to comparing China with other countries. He stresses that in seeking analogies we need to look beyond the formal name of the organization holding power in Beijing, a crucial point now that China is in some ways more like post-Communist Russia than like still-Communist North Korea. Earlier this year, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, I made an argument along similar lines describing how curious it was to feel, when reading accounts of life under Putin, that the authors might have been describing scenes set in China. Had Dobson’s book been published six months earlier, I could have drawn on it to make that essay richer by adding an “accidental activists” section on Chinese counterparts to Yevgenia Chirikova.

This said, I found one part of the book’s handling of China problematic: how little Dobson says about Singapore. China is exponentially larger than that city-state, but Singapore has nevertheless been an important model for Beijing. Deng Xiaoping and his successors admired not only its economic rise, but also the way its leaders have reined in the Internet and promoted “Asian values” arguments to defend limiting some kinds of freedom and promoting stable single party rule.

One more general criticism I have is that Dobson’s framework ignores the David-and-Goliath battles occurring in countries run by elected officials. His tendency to posit a clean break between “democratic” and “non-democratic” settings proves too limiting at times. Surely Indian officials dealing with Kashmir in an autocratic fashion are not unaware of what their counterparts in Beijing are doing in Tibet and Xinjiang, and vice versa.

My larger quarrel with Dobson, though, lies not in his treatment of the present but the past. He only rarely looks back further than the Cold War era, especially the period Samuel Huntington called the “third wave” of democratization. This foreshortened view of history makes it too easy for the casual reader to imagine that recent trends are completely new, rather than merely novel in their particulars.

In light of this, a good follow-up to The Dictator’s Learning Curve would be Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment, an important study of an earlier “Year of the Protester,” 1919, during which independence movements broke out nearly simultaneously in many places. There were no formal workshops for protesters held in the wake of World War I, but freedom fighters from different lands crossed paths in Paris cafés and gave speeches to the same crowds at meetings of international anticolonial associations. Meanwhile, defenders of formal and informal empires under threat were as keenly interested as their opponents in learning from one another.

And long before Putin’s spokesmen, Egyptian generals and Chinese Communist Party technocrats began harping on these themes, there were defenders of order who went to great lengths to explain that, while they would dearly love to see ordinary people play a more central role in decision-making processes, it was crucial to move very slowly, since any other course would result in chaos and risk having power fall into the hands of the “wrong” kinds of people.