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How dictators have become `modern' and what that means

Modern Dictators: Third World Coup Makers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants, by Barry Rubin. New York: McGraw-Hill. 385 pp. $17.95. Over the past few decades, it has become especially difficult for American leaders to form constant and successful relations with many third-world governments. One can trace this difficulty to third-world leaders themselves, who differ from their predecessors.

Most of these leaders are dictators, but today's dictators are modern; they have created a new, more sophisticated form of dictatorship, and the difficulties experienced by the United States have arisen from misunderstanding this new type of government.

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This is a major premise behind Barry Rubin's book, ``Modern Dictators.'' Certainly timely, the book is a welcome addition to studies in comparative politics, and in it Rubin explains just what changes have taken place and why. Looking at differences and similarities between dictators, he categorizes them as ``modern'' (most notably, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Castro, and the Latin American juntas) and ``traditional'' (Marcos, the Shah of Iran, and Somoza). While this book is sometimes diffuse, it provides some genuine historical nuggets, and, more important, a good overall analysis of how dictatorships have grown to be ``modern'' and what that means for the rest of the world.

To summarize Rubin: All dictators are interested in power and survival; the difference is how they go about it. Modern dictators have institutionalized a process which has, until recent times, been conducted more haphazardly. Traditional dictators - and I think ``old-fashioned'' would be a better epithet - are interested in self-enrichment. They use power directly to promote their own wealth along with the wealth of a select circle of friends. Such dictators (Marcos and Joseph Mobutu, for example) seem at times to be dedicated to unbridled opulence.

Modern dictators, Rubin says, are different. Yes, they increase their own wealth, but not in the same way or degree as traditional dictators. Moreover, rather than relying on family and cronies for political and physical survival, they develop and later rule by a national one-party system. This system creates several implications. First, spoils and wealth must be shared among many elite party members - especially military leaders. One method is to purchase or appropriate vacation homes, limousines, Western goods, etc., in the name of the party - to be used freely by those in good standing. In this way, those out of favor with the party, and, of course, the dictator, retain no personal wealth. This also avoids the embarrassing displays of consumption that traditional dictators are noted for.

But party members are not sycophants. They are crucial to the regime's stability in providing a network whereby the dictator can control nearly all aspects of life before any opposition forms.

In reality, modern dictators can be just as repressive as traditional ones, but there is a broader political picture. By their own maneuverings, modern dictators have become populists. Their support is based on loyalty to the nation - even if embodied in the dictator - rather than personal loyalty. It is the one-party system that makes this possible, and this is the crux of the difference.

A second, and more important, implication is that modern dictators often turn to Marxist ideology. Rubin believes this is because the instruments needed for repression and control (an uncontested party, secret police, neighborhood watch groups) have direct parallels in communist countries.

Rubin writes, ``Castro did not become a dictator because he was a Communist, but rather became a Communist because he saw it as the only way to ensure ... his regime's survival. [Communism supplied] a ready-made blueprint for a vanguard party, ideology, and development program that would ensure his total, lifetime rule.''

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Rubin closes the book with a look at US and third-world relations. American leaders are befuddled by the actions of modern dictators and US policies appear inept. This results, Rubin says, from not understanding how dictators have changed their power base. Modern dictators can take extreme and seemingly irrational positions, yet they maintain what is necessary for staying in power. Domestic political needs are not the same as international needs.

``These dictatorships operate on different criteria from those of democracies because their internal politics are different,'' says Rubin, and he claims that ``the American belief in the illegitimacy of dictatorship as a form of government may also lead to underestimating its staying power.''

In the end, I am confused by Rubin's prescription for the United States: Use economic pressures to erode the living standards of the people, thus challenging the popularity of the dictator; conduct such operations with minimal publicity; and couple this with diplomacy that allows the dictator a face-saving option. Isn't Rubin also underestimating the staying power of modern dictators?

Ralph Braccio is a political science specialist.