It may seem counterintuitive to support a dictator or tyrant, but the reality of foreign policy states that those who tread cautiously and slowly are more likely to claim the ultimate victory


Neo-realist thinking states that political weakness occurs when: ‘the self-help attempts of states to look after their security needs … lead to rising insecurity for others as each interprets its own measures as defensive and the measures of others as potentially threatening’.

Additionally, we may attribute it to the spreading of revolutionary ideas across borders from one nation to another. The spread of revolutionary turmoil across North Africa in 2011 during the Arab Spring may be analogous to the Cold War concept of ‘domino theory’. Civil unrest in one country inspires political discontent in neighbouring states and, in conjunction with this, extremist groups aid the dispersal of revolutionary thought effectively to widen the path of national insurrection, and hence regional instability.

However, regardless of its basis, political theorists agree that the consequences of regional instability are wholly negative with potentially extreme humanitarian ramifications. Democracies must do everything within their power to promote regional stability even if it means supporting authoritarian regimes. In fact, democracies must see authoritarian regimes as a factor that aids the promotion of regional stability in volatile nations in the short term. In short, it is expedient for democracies to be driven towards promoting regional stability, primarily to eliminate the negative consequences of a failure to do so.

On a national level, instability threatens to reduce personal freedoms and liberties, and allows the growth of ‘economic vulnerability, institutional deficiencies, conflict and poverty’ causing standards of living to fall. Indeed, the consequences of this are particularly profound in underdeveloped nations where public services and infrastructure are inefficient and under-resourced. Hospitals and schools for example are often unable to function under the pressure of political conflict. In 2014 the Human Development Index, measuring standards of living based on life expectancy, literacy rates and GNI per capita, placed Syria at 118th out of 187 countries for standard of living with a value of 0.658.

While impinging on the economic growth of host states, volatility also halts the development of surrounding nations subject to the effects of political turbulence. The flight of Syrian refugees into Turkey and Jordan as a result of widening conflict in the Middle East has placed financial strain on these countries and tested their ability to maintain law and order in times of political turbulence. It is probable that the continuation of such a strain on government services will lead to an expansion of instability.

In supporting regional stability, the motives of the West cannot be purely altruistic. The ongoing security and economic development of established democracies relies on continuing political and commercial relationships with countries at risk of turmoil, and hence there is a vested interest in achieving regional stability. On a visit to Lagos in January 2015, John Kerry expressed the US’ desire to see fair elections across Nigeria and in India, while Obama spoke of a ‘new vision’ for relations with the Asia Pacific region. This continued support of such nations by the US is testament of the latter’s desire to reduce the growth of religious extremism as a means of reducing the threat posed to the country’s own national security.

Separately, US support of supposedly stabilising regimes, such as that of the regency in Saudi Arabia, has been continued in order maintain strong commercial links. In 2013, Saudi Arabia was the US’ second largest external provider of oil after Canada, importing 485 million barrels throughout the year. Here then, we see the US supporting Saudi Arabia politically to ensure a stable supply of oil to the US market.

Despite the fact that it is in the interests of democracies to promote regional stability, many are reluctant to promote political advancement if that equates to supporting authoritarian regimes. Liberal political thought assumes that democracies are unlikely to attack other democracies; Western powers, fearing authoritarianism, are reluctant to support regimes ideologically opposed to their own. Nonetheless, the question to consider is whether or not the benefits of regional stability, on a local and international level, outweigh the negative aspects of authoritarianism. In the interests of national security and to reduce the negative consequences of unrest, the promotion of regional stability should be prioritised over a fear of the power of dictatorial rule.

Democracies must promote regional stability even if it means supporting authoritarian regimes. Indeed, in the short run, authoritarianism acts as an aid to the attainment of regional stability. Prior to 2010 and the Arab Spring, political regime was not considered a predictor of instability, and in many cases authoritarianism was viewed as a stabilising factor to enhance Western-style democracy in developing nations. This is certainly highlighted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which, in its ranking of nations’ stability based on various political indicators, judges authoritarian regimes to be equally as stable as democracies.

Such views resemble the popular political belief of the 17th century that the strongest form of rule is monarchy. Developed by Hobbes in Leviathan, a meditation on the structure of society and government, his support for a supreme monarch is derived from his basic understanding of the social benefits of rule by an individual sovereign as opposed to a committee of representatives. Whilst Hobbes states that governance by a monarch, or single ruler, is conducive to stability due to the fact that a monarch understands the needs of the people, he explicitly argues that rule by democracy is weak as a consequence of its need to combine the varying ideologies of its members. Rule by a sovereign, or authoritarian leader, is strong in its consistency of ideology and policy.

Arguably, it is this type of acknowledgement of the benefits of authoritarianism that encourages democratic support for dictatorial regimes in volatile areas today. The development of Indonesian society under authoritarianism following the rule of Soekarno supports this. Soekarno oversaw the creation of an unstable Parliament composed of nationalists, communists, and various religious factions, leaving it vulnerable to attack by the military. Violence in the 1960s by the left against those who intended to subvert the rule of Soekarno gave rise to Suharto, heralded to be the force to return peace to Indonesia.

Suharto’s rule was totalitarian, and between the years 1967 and 1998 he banned the communist PKI party and cleansed the army of left-wing elements. However, in spite of the Cold War and the international spread of Communism, he reduced the threat of violence nationally and on a regional scale. Moreover, it was under Suharto that Indonesia began to develop economically as a nation. Foreign investment grew dramatically and health and education services improved, boosting the productive potential of Indonesia. Now classed as a MINT country, Indonesia’s continuing development is arguably testament to Suharto’s governance and, despite his rule being authoritarian, over a 30-year period, stability in Indonesia and Southeast Asia as a whole was established from within.

However, whilst reflecting on the successes of authoritarian regimes in promoting regional stability, it is important also to consider the price paid for such political security; namely, is stability worth more than the freedoms that authoritarian regimes restrict?

The success of dictatorial governments relies on the suppression of the individual will and the rights of the people. Whilst Suharto successfully achieved stability in Indonesia and paved the way for a reduction in the threat of violence and terror, he also oversaw the ‘depoliticisation’ of Indonesian society. Under his authoritarian regime, freedom of political expression was limited and totalitarian order was adopted.

Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, authoritarianism, as maintained by King Salman, is supported by the USA and considered a stabilising force. Arguably it is stable governance that has aided the growth of a new class of wealthy Saudis. However, from a Western perspective, Saudi Arabia is not without faults. The highly Islamic nation is ruled under Sharia Law, which brutally punishes citizens for crimes that in the West would often go without castigation. Unlawful sex, the consumption of alcohol and theft are punished by brutal means under laws deriving from the Quran.

Despite the understanding that authoritarian regimes promote stability, it is surprising to some perhaps that democratic nations continue to support their prominence. The benefits they bestow upon the regions they rule are effective only in the short term. Indeed, in the long term, it appears that the obvious flaws of authoritarianism emerge as being greater than the peace it promotes, causing widespread discontent and in many cases leading to uprising and revolution. The nature of dictatorial regimes is such that it allows for the development of corruption over an extended period of time, provoking discontent and hence instability.

The 2014 Corruption Perception Index compiled by Transparency International ranked Syria as the 14th most corrupt nation in the world. The data suggests that in countries where democracy is lacking, the rule of law and political accountability are of far less significance. For example, in Indonesia, the rule of Suharto came to an end in 1998 following violent protests on the streets of Jakarta, with more than 1,000 estimated to have been killed in an outpouring of anger against the undemocratic style of rule by the leader. Similarly, the people of Syria, under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, have spoken out against the dictatorial leader and the Ba’ath Party whose ideologies are supposedly based on the principles of ‘unity, freedom and socialism’. In early 2011, nationwide protests against the regime were met with violent crackdowns by the Syrian Army, supported by the Islamic group Hezbollah, and in response, the formation of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front was initiated. The conflict grew in regional significance when, in 2012, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) entered Syria taking large gains in the east of the state and clashing with other rebel forces. As of April 2014, the death toll in Syria was estimated to be over 210,000, highlighting the significant humanitarian consequences of authoritarian regimes in attempting to maintain power.

Additionally, the Syrian conflict has had a major effect on neighbouring countries and the Western world. Violence in Syria has encouraged revolution across national borders, and moreover, it is estimated that 3 million displaced Syrian citizens have fled to safer neighbouring lands. The UN now defines the conflict in Syria as ‘overtly sectarian in nature’, however, it is evident that the roots of the battle are firmly based in a civil discontent at the rule by the dictatorial President Assad.

The case of Syria highlights that a rule devoid of democracy, although implementing peace in the short run, will ultimately lead to national conflict and regional instability. Hence, Western nations are in favour of imposing democracy on previously undemocratic states in place of authoritarianism. The concept of ‘national self-determination’, as advocated by Woodrow Wilson and central to ‘Wilsonianism’ as a political ideology, is based on the belief that in states newly liberated from the grips of imperialism, a form of liberal democracy should be imposed to promote peace and stability. In 1997, Robin Cook of the newly elected Labour Government laid out his plans to update British foreign policy. He stated first that foreign policy would take on an ‘ethical dimension’ and continued on to express the British desire to ‘support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves’. Cook, like Wilson, believed that the imposition of democracy would result in increased regional stability. However, the act of forcing a Western-style form of government on less developed nations is not without consequences.

It is naïve to presume that the imposition of a Western-style form of rule will immediately spark stability. In fact, the forceful implementation of egalitarianism leads to civil discontent and hence political volatility. In Egypt, the overthrow of the long-standing leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011 followed by the democratic election of a new leader did not eliminate regional instability. Under the rule of the new President, Mohamed Morsi, sectarian violence continued and it was feared that this would cause a return to widespread turbulence. Morsi was removed from power by a popularly supported military coup in July 2013. Though democracy is desired in Egypt, the uncertainties of parliamentary rule have caused many people to prefer governance by semi-authoritarian military forces to ensure stability.

The same has been the case in Bahrain where, despite the introduction of a democratically elected Parliament in 2002, in 2011 military forces moved in to crush demonstrators protesting for greater political representation. Although a form of democracy was implemented, the limited extent to which it functioned led to public discontent and political volatility. The evidence shows then, that the imposition of a Western-style form of rule certainly is not successful in achieving stability.

In conclusion, and based on the understanding that instability is a negative force, it is essential that democracies promote regional stability and, in the short term, authoritarianism may be seen as an aid to this. However, it is clear that dictatorial regimes, in the corrupt form that they take today, are not conducive to the creation of long-term stability. Therefore, democracies must encourage a gradual shift within authoritarian states towards greater egalitarianism. Mechanisms to achieve this are already in place: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank lend money to developing nations on the basis that this presupposes the application of democratic political reforms. Nonetheless, it is essential that democracies ensure the promotion of regional stability even if that means supporting dictatorial governments. It is certainly more beneficial for democracies to support authoritarian regimes than the imposition of democracy. As stated by Hobbes and proved by events in Indonesia, authoritarianism promotes the successful attainment of peace and stability in the short term.