The Dictator's Learning Curve
Inside the Global Battle for Democracy
By William J. Dobson
(Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385533355, 352pp.)
Publication Date: June 5, 2012
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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In this riveting portrait of authoritarianism in peril, acclaimed journalist William Dobson takes us inside the relentless battle between dictators and the people challenging their rule.
We are witnessing an incredible moment in the war between dictators and democracy—waves of protests are sweeping Syria and Yemen, and despots have fallen in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. But the Arab Spring is only the latest front in a worldwide battle between freedom and repression, a battle that also rages in a dozen other countries from Venezuela to China, Russia to Malaysia. It is a struggle that, until recently, dictators have been winning hands-down. The reason is that today’s authoritarian regimes are nothing like the frozen-in-time government of North Korea. They are ever-morphing, technologically savvy, and internationally connected, and they have replaced more brutal forms of intimidation with seemingly “free” elections and talk of human rights. Facing off against modern dictators is an unlikely army of democracy advocates—students, bloggers, environmentalists, lawyers, activists, and millionaires—who are growing increasingly savvy themselves. The result is a global game of cat-and-mouse, where the future of freedom hangs in the balance. Dobson takes us behind the scenes in both camps, and reveals how each side is honing its strategies for the war that will define our age.
WILLIAM J. DOBSON is politics and foreign affairs editor for Slate. He has been an editor at Foreign Affairs, Newsweek International, and Foreign Policy. During his tenure at Foreign Policy, the magazine was nominated for the coveted National Magazine Award for General Excellence each year and won top honors in 2007 and 2009. His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and he has provided analysis for ABC, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, and NPR. He lives in Washington, DC.
Praise for The Dictator’s Learning Curve
“Intelligent and absorbing…Dobson has interviewed more than 200 people, and his closely observed accounts of dictators’ increasingly sly methods to control their populations are haunting….The Dictator’s Learning Curve is agile and light on its feet, but among its salient points is that pro-democracy movements need to be more than that. Happy thoughts and hippie clothes are not enough….Mr. Dobson’s book, with luck, will find its way into the hands of people who aspire to be free. They’ll find optimism here, but hard realities as well.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Tough-minded without being cynical, and hopeful without being optimistic, The Dictator’s Learning Curve is a rare book—and a bracing read.”
“Dobson has invested time and insight, from China to Venezuela, and Egypt to Russia, trying to capture the shape-changing nature of modern authoritarianism, and the resourcefulness and wit of its opponents….[He] captures empathetically the skill and insight of modern neo-despots – in much the way their more successful opponents do….Rare is the book on dictatorship that can end on an uplifting note that its narrative carefully substantiates."
“When Dobson is in conversation with the people who are finding new ways to work against the more 'nimble' systems of today’s autocrats, the book is at its best. We meet a Chinese free-speech lawyer, a Russian environmental activist, and an Egyptian cop-turned-human-rights-lawyer-turned-exiled-dissident, who offers tips to youth activists on what police response they can expect. We meet Egyptian protesters who take the brunt of later-2011 military violence, and we join in an afternoon walk that’s actually a political protest in Beijing. We watch with Dobson as the Chinese use not tanks and guns, as in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but 'street repair' closures and sidewalk-washing tasks to clear crowds who’d thought they might try a 'Jasmine Revolution.' It’s a far subtler form of power, but just as effective.”
—Christian Science Monitor
"After a remarkable year in which citizens of a dozen countries have challenged their authoritarian governments, readers will welcome veteran journalist Dobson’s overview of the complicated dance of adaptation by the world’s dictators and those who resist their oppressive power....A timely, valuable contribution to readers’ understanding of global unrest."
"[Dobson] writes with exemplary clarity and a sharp eye for color....Timely, authoritative, and as readable as a novel, this is one of the season's most resonant books—not least because it ends on a note of guarded hope for the future."
“William J. Dobson’s exploration of the contest between contemporary dictatorships and those who rebel against them is valuable because it offers a sober analysis of both sides. Dobson traveled nearly 100,000 miles researching this book, which takes a close look at the face of modern authoritarianism....His book may be about the struggle for freedom of other countries’ citizens, but there are lessons in it for the preservation of our own.”
“[A] thoughtful journey through formidable dictatorships of our time...Instead of offering caricatures of vintage dictators, Dobson observes the more dangerous trend – of dictators adopting the form of democratic governance, while draining it of any substance.”
“Colorful and sharply reported.”
“Fascinating...Some of Dobson's most astute observations come from his reporting about China. The Chinese communists, he concludes, are the least complacent of today's modern authoritarians.”
"Fascinating...What makes Dobson's book truly outstanding is that there is none of the naive optimism that accompanied much of the reporting...about the Arab Spring....[A] brilliant book."
“William J. Dobson vividly portrays [the] struggle against authoritarian rule....Dobson’s coverage of Venezuela’s internal political struggles is particularly fascinating. He had spectacular access to well-placed sources in this oil-rich country, including political prisoners.”
“Dobson’s book ends up not only a sophisticated but also a wonderfully readable account of the latest installments in an age-old type of struggle.”
“Dobson has interviewed scores of protesters, security experts, opposition political candidates, elite power brokers, and a former Egyptian police officer who, from his computer in the United States, guided protesters occupying Tahrir Square....As a result, the reader gets a wide-ranging overview of political strife as we live it now.”
—The Weekly Standard
“Timely...Dobson chronicles in detail the ingenious but sinister ways in which modern authoritarian regimes are suppressing dissent.”
—The Journal of Democracy
"[A] deft, incisive book....The mix of perspectives results in an impressive overview of the global struggle between authoritarian power and determined advocates of political freedom."
—Publishers Weekly starred review
“A brilliant and original analysis of the nature of modern authoritarianism.”
—Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“William Dobson is that rare thinker who combines a gift for storytelling with an understanding of how the world works. Marrying a historian’s judgment with a journalist’s eye for detail, he spots the emerging trends that others miss. The Dictator’s Learning Curve offers an essential perspective on a crucial struggle.”
—Fareed Zakaria, author of The Future of Freedom and The Post-American World
“A vivid real-time portrait of the movement for democracy. Among its virtues, Dobson’s book clarifies the ways in which the recent challenge to dictatorship represents a coordinated worldwide effort, and the ways in which each country's struggle is unique.”
—James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of China Airborne
“It is hard to imagine a timelier book than this one. William Dobson provides a new framework and a new vocabulary for understanding modern authoritarianism, backed up by detailed and gripping stories of dictators and their citizen opponents in Russia, China, Venezuela, Egypt, and Malaysia. Anyone seeking to make sense of the extraordinary tide of revolutions and protests sweeping around the world will find The Dictator’s Learning Curve an indispensable read.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University, and former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department