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Why autocrats usually fail

Narendra Modi in Washington last week. Win McNamee/Getty

Each generation in the West must confront the idea that the autocrats might be doing a better job, says Janan Ganesh in the FT. For those who are tempted by the myth of the “masterful, cat-stroking strongman”, this past week has been one to mark. Not only does the farrago in Russia make Vladimir Putin look foolish, though it certainly does. More importantly, China has pushed the once-ambivalent India “into America’s muscular embrace”. As unforced errors go, it’s hard to think of another with such “century-shaping potential”. But it should also be no surprise.

“Almost all of the world’s richest countries are democracies.” So are nearly all the countries people want to move to. As Amartya Sen has noted, famine never happens in a “functioning democracy”. No two democracies have ever gone to war. In fact, it’s incredible that there are any takers for autocracy at all. The one thing it does well – lift nations “from hardship to middle-income” – isn’t unique to dictatorships. (Democratic Japan did it just fine after 1945.) And the aggression they require, “so intimidating to observe from afar”, is almost always turned on each other. Hitler’s war on Stalin and the Sino-Soviet split were both cases of “existential threats to the free world” fracturing of their own accord. The same can happen within regimes. The wonder is not that Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin fell out, but that it took them so long. And without the looming threat of humiliation in front of a select committee, what incentive is there to stop “autocratic misadventures” like the botched war in Ukraine or the alienation of India? Not long ago, the West’s autocratic enemies “exuded a severe competence”. Recent events are “rather humanising them”.