The Dynamics of Despotism

by John Derbyshire

Tablet ran an interview with Edward Luttwak, from which the following little gem of a poli-sci discussion point:

Interviewer: Here’s an easily falsifiable statement, but there’s something in it that interests me and I want you to pick it apart. I would start with the moment when George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin and said, “I looked into his eyes and saw this was a man I could really trust.” So, my thesis is this: If you’re Vladimir Putin, and you rise to the top of this chaotic and brutal society after going through the KGB, you must be some kind of strategic genius with amazing survival skills, because the penalty for failure may be torture or death. This kind of Darwinian set-up exists in many countries around the world. What does it mean to be head of the security services in Egypt? It means that you had to betray your friends but only at the right time, and you had to survive many vicious predators who would have loved to kill you or torture you, or otherwise derail your career. By the time you become Vladimir Putin or Omar Suleiman, your ability to think ahead and analyze threats has been adequately tested.

By contrast, what does it take to become a U.S. Senator? You have to eat rubber chicken dinners, you have to impress some rich people who are generally pretty stupid about politics, and smile in TV commercials. The penalties for failure are hardly so dire. And so, American leadership generally sucks, and America is perennially in the position of being the sucker in the global poker game. That’s the thesis. So, tell me why it’s wrong.

Luttwak: Even if your analysis is totally correct, your conclusion is wrong. Think about what it means to work for a Putin, whose natural approach to any problem is deception. For example, he had an affair with this athlete, a gymnast, and he went through two phases. Phase one: He concealed it from his wife. Phase two: He launched a public campaign showing himself to be a macho man. He had photographs of him shooting a rifle, and as a Judo champion, and therefore had the news leaked that he was having an affair. Not only an affair with a young woman, but a gymnast, an athlete. Obviously such a person is much more wily and cunning and able to handle conflict than his American counterpart. But when such a person is the head of a department, the whole department is actually paralyzed and they are all reduced to serfs and valets. Therefore, what gets applied to a problem is only the wisdom of the aforementioned wily head of the department. All the other talent is wasted, all the other knowledge is wasted.

Now you have a choice: You can have a non-wily head of a department and the collective knowledge and wisdom of the whole department, or else you can have a wily head and zero functioning. And that is how the Russian government is currently working. Putin and Medvedev have very little control of the Russian bureaucracy. When you want to deal with them, and I dealt with them this morning, they act in very uncooperative, cagey, and deceptive ways because they are first of all trying to protect their security and stability and benefits from their boss. They have to deceive you because they are deceiving their boss before he even shows up to work. And they are all running little games. So, that’s the alternative. You can have a wily Putin and a stupid government. Or an intelligent government and an innocent head. There’s always is a trade-off. A Putin cannot be an inspiring leader.

I recall Robert Conquest making a similar argument about the late U.S.S.R.

Imagine the leadership of a despotism graded on their “merit” (intelligence + energy + will-to-power + amoral ruthlessness + . . .) from 01 to 99. Of course, 01 is in charge — Stalin, maybe. He surrounds himself with capable yes-men. These will not be 02s, 03, or 04s — too dangerously competitive. On the other hand, they do need the skills to run their departments, and they have emerged from the same Darwinian process as himself. So the 01 leader surrounds himself with yes-men in the 05 to 10 zone.

Then 01 dies. The new leader is the head yes-man, an 05. On the same principle as before, he culls out the 06s, 07s, and 08s. His circle of yes-men are 09s through 14s.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Conquest offered Konstantin Chernenko as evidence for his argument.

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