Dictatorships and the coercive dilemma


in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Security, Writing

Coercive institutions are a dictator’s final defense in pursuit of political survival, but also his chief obstacle to achieving that goal. This book argues that autocrats face a coercive dilemma: whether to organize their internal security apparatus to protect against a coup, or to deal with the threat of popular unrest. Because coup-proofing calls for fragmented and socially exclusive organizations, while protecting against popular unrest demands unitary and inclusive ones, autocrats cannot simultaneously maximize their defenses against both threats. When dictators assume power, then, they must (and often do) choose which threat to prioritize. That choice, in turn, has profound consequences for the citizens who live under their rule. A fragmented, exclusive coercive apparatus gives its agents social and material incentives to escalate rather than dampen violence, and also hampers agents from collecting the intelligence necessary to engaged in targeted, discriminate, and pre-emptive repression. A unitary and inclusive apparatus configured to address significant mass unrest, however, has much better intelligence capability vis-a-vis its own citizens, and creates incentives for agents to minimize the use of violence and to rely instead on alternative means of repression, including surveillance and targeted pre-emption. Given its stronger intelligence capability, the mass-oriented coercive apparatus is also better at detecting and responding to changes in the nature of threats than its coup-proofed counterpart, leading to predictable patterns of institutional change that are neither entirely path dependent nor entirely in keeping with the optimization predicted by rational design.

Greitens, Sheena Chestnut. Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence. Cambridge University Press. 2016. p. 4-5

Sheena was in the Oxford M.Phil in International Relations program during the same two years as I was, and we both served on the executive of the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan February 25, 2017 at 11:58 am

To clarify, “fragmented” as opposed to “unified” refers to internal security services with intentionally overlapping jurisdictions, set in competition with one another without an over-arching coordinating body.

“Exclusive” versus “inclusive” organizations are those that closely select members based on ethnic or regional identity (generally, to correspond with that of the autocrat) versus those that generally reflect the demographics of the state as a whole.

. April 5, 2021 at 12:20 pm

But if Putin is unrivaled at home, he is not omnipotent. Like all autocrats, he faces the dual threats of a coup from elites around him and a popular revolt from below. And because of the compromises he has had to make to consolidate his personal control over the state, Putin’s tools for balancing the competing goals of rewarding elites who might otherwise conspire against him and appeasing the public are becoming less and less effective. He has weakened institutions such as courts, bureaucracies, elections, parties, and legislatures so that they cannot constrain him, meaning that he cannot rely on them to generate economic growth, resolve social conflicts, or even facilitate his peaceful exit from office. This leaves Putin dependent on the fleeting commodity of personal popularity and the hazardous methods of repression and propaganda.


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