Robert Kaplan proffers a deceptively appealing argument that is a basic summary of Samuel Huntington’s thesis in Political Order in Changing Societies. He argues against the American (or broadly, Western) “[belief] that the way to develop [legitimate national] institutions is by holding elections and establishing democracy.” Instead, Kaplan thinks the authoritarian approach, as exemplified in Taiwan, South Korea and Chile, is the better way. It calls for, first, establishing institutions and government writ and then building responsive, democratic institutions. This is a soothing and easy solution to the problems of developing countries: why not just support authoritarian regimes and expect democracies to flow out of them later?

Alas, what Kaplan discounts are the numerous examples of authoritarian governments that have failed to develop stable societies and advance global security despite Hobbesian authority. If you consider the cases of Myanmmar, North Korea and Iran, where brutal regimes show little signs of budging–whilst also posing international security concerns (nukes, etc.)–you become skeptical of the idea that authoritarian rule is a panacea for fragile societies. Developing countries in Africa and Central Asia do need stronger institutions but supporting dictatorships will yield little in the way of a safer world or more stable societies. The better bet is to continue pushing for democratic reform and yet recognize that the world is indeed an ugly place.

An apt metaphor that underlines the flawed approach of not allowing democracy its course to take place: If you rip out a planted tree from its roots every so often to check if it’s grown, then it’ll never grow. That is, if you disrupt the course of democracy, don’t expect it to grow.

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