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Why it’s good for dictators to have dictator friends

- September 15, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Konstantin Palace, Russia, on Aug. 9. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

On Aug. 9, following the failed July 15 coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Vladimir Putin as part of his rapprochement with Russia. During the meeting, Erdogan lauded Russia’s solidarity in the face of the coup attempt in contrast to United States and European reactions more critical of the government response.

And Erdogan may have been on to something. Autocrats are less likely to pester other autocrats about political niceties such as human rights or due process. This is not to say that democratic governments always make such lofty ideals a foreign policy priority — as evidenced by the European Union’s refugee deal with Turkey. Nevertheless, support from fellow autocrats comes with fewer strings attached, and when push comes to shove, autocratic allies are more dependable friends for dictators.

In a recent article (ungated), we explain how these ties between autocratic regimes, or autocratic linkage, facilitates transnational diffusion and cooperation and increases autocrats’ chances of survival. In their well-known work, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way argued that ties to the West could undermine authoritarian rule. While relations between many Middle Eastern and Western states seem to fly in the face of this argument, our work shows that ties to the rest can help stabilize authoritarian rule.

What is autocratic linkage?

In our work, we understand autocratic linkage as the density of ties and cross-border flows between autocracies, which we conceptualize as the volume of trade exchanged, number of migrants sent and received, existence and intensity of diplomatic exchange and geographical distance. The more trade and refugees, the more cordial diplomatic ties, and the closer two autocracies are geographically, the higher the autocratic linkage.

Autocratic linkage is important because it facilitates cooperation and diffusion. Strong trade relationships between countries create vested interests and make leaders more likely to cooperate. Elites are more likely to learn from experiences in other places if they are in regular diplomatic contact with leaders. Migrant flows are conduits for information and exchange.

While these effects are generally true about all linkage, autocratic linkage comes with the additional benefit of fewer or no provisions on domestic policies. Massive support for Egypt’s military regime from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, for example, was not tied to any political conditionality, much less to concerns about human rights or political freedoms. Instead of being tied by potentially destabilizing conditionality, autocratic linkage stabilizes nondemocratic regimes.

Autocracies have been increasing linkages for decades

Our analysis also discovered a trend that has so far escaped attention. We note a marked increase in linkage density between autocratic countries in the last few decades. As Figure 1 suggests, nondemocratic regimes are closing ranks globally.

Table 1: Linkage by Trade and Migration

Linkage Levels 1948-2009

This intensification of autocratic linkage is all the more significant given that the number of autocratic regimes has decreased over the same period. Increasing trade volumes and migration flows between autocracies are therefore not due to a larger number of autocratic partners. They represent an intensification of intra-autocratic trade and migration.

What are the implications of increased linkages?

On average, nondemocratic regimes with dense linkage to other autocracies survive longer. Based on survival analysis, we estimate that a one standard deviation increase of trade, migration and diplomatic ties with other autocracies decreases the risk of regime breakdown by 86 percent, 24 percent and 39 percent, respectively. These results hold in a variety of robustness checks, leading us to conclude that autocratic linkage density is indeed a factor supporting autocratic regime stability.

While processes of diffusion and learning are generally hard to observe, one visible effect of autocratic linkage is autocrats’ increased support of other dictators with whom they share dense ties. Consider Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the Arab uprisings. As is well known, the kingdom was not a proponent of political change in the Middle East. Yet this generally conservative outlook notwithstanding, Saudi responses varied greatly from opposition against Libya’s Gaddafi, to benign neglect toward Tunisia’s Ben Ali, full support for Egypt’s Mubarak, and military intervention in Bahrain.

These different reactions align well with linkage density. Low linkage density between Saudi Arabia and Libya ­— and outright dislike between Gaddafi and King Abdullah — translated into Saudi opposition. Similarly, low linkage in Tunisia meant that the Saudis did not go beyond rather general statements of solidarity with the “Tunisian people.” In Egypt, by contrast, relatively high linkage density with Saudi Arabia meant the Saudis did intervene on behalf of Mubarak, although the situation at that time was broadly similar to the one in Tunisia. In Bahrain, finally, the country with by far the highest linkage density with Saudi Arabia, Saudi-led military intervention helped put down the uprising.

Saudi Arabia intervened in favor of embattled incumbents if linkage density was high but remained detached or even took an oppositional stance where linkage density was low.

Of course, autocratic linkage is just one part of the explanation. Though linkage density had been relatively high in Syria, for example, Saudi Arabia did not come out in support of President Bashar al-Assad, and even started to support the armed opposition. However, this important exception notwithstanding, autocratic linkage increases the chances that autocrats will rush to support their peers and facilitates cooperation and diffusion among autocracies. A larger pool of autocratic friends increases a dictator’s chances of survival. As we witness these connections increasing, further study of linkages will be crucial to understanding autocratic resilience in the Middle East and beyond.

Kevin Koehler is an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. Follow him @kev_koehler. Alexander Schmotz is a research associate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Oisín Tansey is a senior lecturer in international relations at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.