2011 Was A Bad Year For Dictators

Dec 23, 2011
Originally published on December 23, 2011 5:50 am
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And of course nobody predicted the death of his father or the events which pushed several other harsh leaders out of power. 2011 was a bad year for dictators. The world's remaining strong men, names including Syria's Bashir al-Assad and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, must be a little less comfortable today. We ask Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, about the somewhat shorter list of the world's worst rulers.

SUSAN GLASSER: We did a list of the worst of the worst in the summer of 2010, and number one on the list, for many years, really, was Kim Jong Il of North Korea. Four out of the top 20 on our list have fallen this year. So it's been a pretty extraordinary year of change. That being said, as of the summer of 2010, I think it is important to point out that there were still 40 tyrants, give or take, ruling countries around the world, an estimated two billion people living under a dictatorship still. So that number has changed but there's still a lot of bad guys on the list.

WERTHEIMER: But still, if someone had told you at the start of 2011 that we'd be talking about a world without Kim Jong Il or Moammar Gadhafi, would you have imagined that could come about?

GLASSER: Absolutely. I think it's been an astonishing year, very quick change. Not only that but also on the list, let's not forget, was Hosni Mubarak, who ran Egypt in a very heavy-handed way for more than 30 years. That's a pretty enormous change. At number three on our list very recently was Than Shwe of Burma. Now, we don't quite know what's happening in Burma but clearly a new era has come into power. He's resigned his position as the head of the military junta that has ruled that country for many years, and there are very interesting sides. That's why Hillary Clinton just went there. So these are not changes that anybody predicted at the beginning of 2011.

WERTHEIMER: Certainly the world's focus shifted to Bashir al-Assad in Syria after the fall of Gadhafi. Do you think that he is going to, that the demonstrations, the Arab Spring, all of that is going to finally reach him?

GLASSER: If you look at the list of the world's authoritarian leaders, you have to say that Assad is pretty near the top of ones facing a serious existential threat to their rule right now, and not only because of the challenges from within Syrian society, but also because the geopolitics of the region have shifted pretty significantly. Turkey, which for years has been a partner with Syria, has very dramatically changed sides. And I think that really weakens the regime from outside as well as from within.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think dictatorships are on their way out or do you think there are so many of them left that we can't possibly say that?

GLASSER: You know, there's a very powerful and engaging new book by Harvard Professor Steven Pinker this year where he's documenting what he calls the end of violence in modern society. And there's a very compelling case to be made that over the last couple of centuries what you've seen is dramatic cultural and therefore political shift away from both individual violence and also state-sanctioned violence and that the tolerance that once existed for using this kind of violent repression and other heavy-handed state measures is just dramatically on its way out in the grand sweep of history. But you know, when there are still several dozen tyrannical leaders in the world, you have to be sanguine about that.

WERTHEIMER: Susan Glasser, thank you.

GLASSER: Thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Susan Glasser is the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine. She joined me in our studios in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.