Sending Dictators to a Luxury Retirement? More Practical Than You ThinkRoundup
tags: foreign policy, dictatorship, international relations, Autocracy
Brian Klaas is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and a global-politics professor at University College London. He is the author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.
A tiny tropical paradise known as Contadora Island is a blip in the Gulf of Panama. Here, two disgraced dictators, brutal men who fled from certain death when their people turned against them, lived in exile. Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, and Raoul Cédras, the military dictator of Haiti, both once called Contadora home.
It was a fate better than both men deserved. Life in the tropics is not exactly punishment. But given that the U.S. and its allies are losing the global battle against autocracy, and that past strategies to rid the world of dictators haven’t worked, we should take the Contadora option seriously, imperfect and indeed odious as it may be. Every once in a while, the least-bad, realistic option may be to coax dictators into exile, letting them escape the justice they deserve so that the broken countries they leave behind can have a democratic fresh start.
A top foreign-policy priority for any democratic government should be reducing the number of autocrats and their influence. Look around and you can almost always trace global crises back to an autocrat. The war in Ukraine and global inflation lead back to Vladimir Putin. To avoid funding Putin’s war requires buying oil from Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia or Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela instead. Theocratic tyrants in Iran are trying to get world-destabilizing nuclear weapons and Kim Jong Un in North Korea already has them. World War III could be triggered in the Taiwan Strait by China’s Xi Jinping, who changed the constitution, allowing him to become president for life.
Why don’t dictators just quit while they’re ahead? Most of them have millions or even billions stashed away in untraceable bank accounts. Many have yachts on several seas and villas on multiple continents. They could cash in for a few years while tasting the thrill of absolute power, then sip sangria into old age.
Most dictators don’t have that choice, however. To stay in power, autocrats develop complex networks of elites whom they pay off, a phenomenon that political scientists sometimes call “patronage.” Despots are the linchpin of those networks; if they go, the money may dry up, or worse, go to rivals within the elite, which means that many oligarchs and generals would fight back against any proposed retirement scheme. More significant, dictators must be ruthless and make enemies to stay in power. The second an autocrat loses power, those adversaries will pounce.
Transitions don’t generally end well for the autocrat. In sub-Saharan Africa over the past 50 years, for example, close to half of autocrats who lost power have ended up in prison, in another country for the remainder of their life, or in a casket. Most therefore cling to palace life, rigging elections, killing opponents, and crushing dissent. The more likely they are to face jail or death if they leave office, the stronger the incentive to fight to stay in power forever.
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