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Do Dictators Care About Economies?

One of the greatest analytical mistakes that diplomats and policymakers can commit is projection: Assuming that adversaries share the same values and concerns that we do. Alas, projection was on full display today in President Obama’s remarks on Ukraine. “The international community will continue to stand together to oppose any violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and continued Russian military intervention in Ukraine will only deepen Russia’s diplomatic isolation and exact a greater toll on the Russian economy,” Obama said.

Russia’s economy has been stagnating for years and, prior to the Crimea crisis, Russians mocked Putin as a later-day Leonid Brezhnev. Fixing the anemic economy might have been too great for someone like Putin, but who cares about the economy if he can rally the people by fanning the flames of Russian nationalism? As such, finger wagging that Putin’s actions might undercut the Russian economy are risible.

The problem is not just with Obama and Putin, however. For too many years, American policy toward the Middle East has been premised on the idea that Arab leaders cared about the best interest of their countries. But if Arab leaders incorporated a desire for economic growth and trade into their calculations, there would not have been an Arab boycott, nor would states like Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Libya have invested so much money into huge armies, proxy groups, or foreign adventures. Sometimes rather than encourage responsibility, funding development projects only frees up money for regional regimes to dabble in terrorism. Likewise, when the European Union more than doubled aid to Iran during the Khatami era in the hopes of tying the Islamic Republic into the world economy, the Iranian leadership instead decided to invest the hard currency windfall into Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama may believe himself a level-headed, practical man and not an ideologue. That’s all well and good. But to assume that Vladimir Putin cares about the economic welfare of his people is naïve. Indeed, it’s long past time to put an end to the notion that dictators and autocrats subordinate practicalities to ideology or give any consideration to their peoples’ well-being. Refusing to recognize reality simply undercuts policy insight and crafts solutions which have no bearing on reality.


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