By Krisztian Simon
Jan. 23 — “Dictators come in different shapes and sizes,” Peter Godwin told the audience at the Journal of International Affairs Thought Leadership Forum on Authoritarian States. The author and war correspondent, born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), claimed authoritarian regimes are hard to recognize as they’re emerging. Often their leaders win elections and the support of the international community in their early years. Only when they are afraid to lose power did their people find out that their democracy was in fact a “dictatorship in waiting.”
Godwin urged the audience to see that many of today’s dictators are smart people. He gave the example of Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe. Godwin argued that Mugabe got away with the murder of thousands of his people in the 1980s because he understood the international politics of the Cold War. Mugabe realized, said Godwin, that the international community only cared which superpower was backing which African state. No one worried what dictators did at home.
SIPA Adjunct Professor Andrew Exum pointed that powerful non-state actors mimic the characteristics of more power authoritarian regimes. He offered the example of the Lebanese political party and guerilla group Hezbollah. Exum says that despite not being a proper state, Hezbollah has successfully utilized forceful coercion and mass propaganda.
The panelists resisted all attempts by the audience to get them to foretell the future of authoritarian states in the international system. “My crystal ball broke on my way here tonight,” quipped Professor Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. During his speech, Sick was less cautious. He predicted that U.S. sanctions against Iran would increase the price of oil and maybe even provoke cyber-attacks. He expressed his belief that even though Iran’s authoritarian system is facing problems, it was highly unlikely that it would give up power. Sick reminded the audience that the Soviet Union persisted for several decades after everyone knew that Stalin’s system was about keeping power, not reaching some utopian ideal.
Krisztian Simon is a first-year Master of International Affairs student. This article first appeared in the January 31 issue of Communiqué.