The twenty-first-century autocrat is not the same as his Cold War predecessor.

Globalisation, shifting power dynamics and the growing availability of the internet and other communication technologies have significantly changed the environment in which autocrats operate. Some observers have concluded from these changes that citizens now hold the upper hand, and that dictators’ days are numbered.1 The centralisation of power, according to this argument, is a requisite of dictatorship. In a world in which power is diffusing across NGOs, corporations, and wealthy and technology-empowered individuals, dictators will soon find themselves unable to build and maintain the power needed to uphold their repressive systems of rule. 

Although twenty-first-century autocrats face more – and increasingly complex – challenges to their rule, the adaptability and resilience of authoritarian systems should not be underestimated. Since the end of the Cold War, dictators have evolved to survive and even thrive amid changes in their domestic and international environments. Even a casual scan of international news headlines – featuring stories of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest international feats, the political hardening under Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Iran’s attempts to reassert its regional influence, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidation of power – reinforces the notion that today’s autocrats are not waning, but making a comeback.

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Erica Frantz is an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University. Andrea Kendall-Taylor is Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October–November 2017

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