Dealing with Dictatorships: The Paradox of Great Power Support | Sean Yom


During President Biden’s first month in office, the US raised the possibility that relations with Saudi Arabia would need “recalibration,” given its harrowing record of recent human rights violations. This move signaled a familiar scene that plays out in Washington whenever a non-democratic American ally commits egregious human rights abuses. Think of South Vietnam in the 1960s, Iran in the 1970s, or Chile in the 1980s; or in the post-Cold War era, major Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The question arises on whether the US should continue supporting pro-Western autocrats that commit distasteful acts. 

The Kirkpatrick Doctrine

Moral idealists clash with hard-nosed realists, but like clockwork, the latter camp wins out, as Biden’s own stance on Saudi Arabia proves. While the US might publicly raise its discomfort, the alliance with an unsavory partner persists. The US continues to give diplomatic cover, deliver economic aid, or provide military assistance. Such thinking in formal parlance is called the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, so-called after its espousal by Jeane Kirkpatrick, the outspoken US Ambassador to the United Nations under President Reagan. It holds that supporting authoritarian allies should always be the default position of American foreign policy, because stable dictatorships enable the US to achieve essential national interests, such as battling terrorist movements and protecting the global oil supply. Above all, however distasteful the dictatorship is, the alternative is far worse: US abandonment would allow communists, Islamists, or radicals to take over the country.

The debate between moral idealism and strategic interests will be with us for some time. For America, dealing with the “necessary evil” of non-democratic associates is the unavoidable byproduct of being both a liberal democracy and a great power. But in this debate lurks a very troubling assumption – that American support actually ensures the survival of its autocratic allies. My research on this topic, and work from other scholars, suggests it does not. And this game-changing fact upends the entire discussion, particularly since untrammeled US assistance may actually harm its allies.

The Nature of Authoritarian Regimes

There are two aspects of authoritarianism that need clarifying. First, non-democratic governments seldom represent the majority opinion of their societies. If they did, they would hold competitive elections to prove it. Instead, they attain power with the backing of only a subset of their society – often a very narrow segment, such as wealthy elites, ethnic minorities, or the military. Second, once in power, no dictatorship can operate purely through repression. If their sole tool were violence, then autocrats would have to coerce everyone all the time just to achieve the simplest goals, from pumping water to building streets. They must give their supporters special privileges while ensuring a “good enough” equilibrium for everyone else, such as providing a minimal degree of prosperity or appearing to be caring and sensitive rulers.

The problem is that authoritarian regimes are victims of their own success. Because they have so much power, they are prone to making bad, self-aggrandizing decisions that neglect their supporters and alienate the masses. For instance, autocrats may not respond swiftly to an economic crisis that suddenly reduces their ability to pay public salaries. They may overreact to protests by killing demonstrators on the street or torturing too many people. They may descend into a mess of corruption, focusing only upon enriching their cronies while ignoring worsening poverty in urban areas.

Great Power Involvement: Protection or Self-Sabotage?

So when do dictators make these bad decisions? They often do so when they enjoy massive external support from great powers, which gives a false sense of invincibility. Under American hegemony, those countries on the receiving end of US diplomatic sponsorship, economic aid, or military assistance are given an implicit signal from Washington: you are important to the greatest power in the world, and we commit to preserving your stability. From the perspective of either naked rationality or social psychology, it is easy to imagine why a nervous king or tinpot tyrant might feel reassured, year after year, when such help comes through. They are never punished for committing repressive abuses or impoverishing their nations.

Herein lays the rub. Such dictatorships are precisely the ones that end up stirring revolution or suffering overthrow. Their sense of invulnerability blinds them to what is necessary to keep any non-democratic regime in place – keep supporters happy and give everyone else a decent reason to not rebel. Worse, in their moment of need, all the vaunted protection they believed America offered never materializes. The US military does not suddenly invade the country to protect the palace; no billion-dollar gift is wired, overnight, to the Central Bank. Of course, the US has intervened in plenty of countries before – but largely to knock down rulers who threaten its interests, such as Sukarno in Indonesia (1965) and Saddam Hussein in Iraq (2003). It seldom expends American lives to prop up a friend. The Kirkpatrick Doctrine, indeed.

The history of authoritarian client states under American patronage, therefore, is largely a history of failure. South Vietnam, Chile under Pinochet, Cuba under Batista, the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, Zaire under Mobutu – the list goes on. The irony is that the very reactionary forces that American realists feared in the first place are often the ones that seize power, which ultimately undermines US strategic interests anyway. Iran’s Islamist regime that arose through its 1978-79 revolution is an iconic example. Yet more cases are surely to come, as the Arab Spring of 2011-12 showed. Generations of American aid and arms did not prevent Egypt’s Mubarak regime from being toppled. Neither did unwavering US diplomatic support insulate the Bahraini monarchy, which was saved only by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s military intervention.

Policy Implications

The policy implication from such reflection is clear. For a great power like the US, helping allied dictatorships often hurts them, and fears of anti-Western radicalism taking power become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When autocratic allies, therefore, commit human rights abuses, but American policymakers fear losing a vital pillar of their grand strategy, then reducing US support is actually the most sensible option. Options like downgrading diplomatic relations, threatening economic sanctions, or cutting off arms sales should be on the table. These options appeal to the moral concerns invoked by democratic ideals and human rights, because no regime should brutalize its people under American cover. Yet equally important, such punishments maximize the chances that the dictatorship might reform itself, or at least make better decisions in a way that would keep itself in power and hence protect core US interest.

Cynics may doubt this approach, and understandably so. They often deploy terms like “abandonment” or “betrayal” to justify why, for instance, the Saudi monarchy deserves unwavering American encouragement rather than castigation over human rights. Yet, they should remember the fundamental logic of dictatorship, which holds the seeds to its own demise or preservation. The saving grace of democracy lies not in the wisdom of any elected leaders, but in the guarantee that even the worst of them have only a limited time in office. The crippling flaw of authoritarianism is that when leaders get to rule forever, they are prone to their worst foibles and follies. Only when they are at their most vulnerable, such as being denuded of great power patronage, can they grasp this, and perhaps learn to make better decisions.


Sean Yom is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University and Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  He focuses on political regimes and foreign policy in the Middle East.  He is the author of From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East, editor of The Societies of the Middle East and North Africa and The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, and numerous essays and articles in venues like European Journal of International Relations, Global Policy Journal, and Journal of Democracy.  His latest research is posted on his website.

Photo Credit: Shealah Craighead from White House Official
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights. 

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