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Under What Conditions Should We Expect to See Weak States?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Intae Choi
August 26, 2022

First, compared to democracy, autocratic or dictatorship states are likely to be in poor political conditions which weak states have. It is difficult to expect that these autocratic nations will appropriately deliver public goods, like national defense, to the public. Some can argue that autocracy provides political goods which are demanded by the public. Dictators of autocratic nations may have rational and self-interested incentives to prosper their nations, which could in turn deliver public service to the people since the autocrats can obtain continuous private profits as the states are developing. Thus, the dictators are imposing taxes on the public for national development and the public can get civil service from the governments. However, dictators are likely to increase tax rates to the point where tax revenues are maximized but they are less likely to properly expend tax revenues for providing public goods or services to the public. Thus, autocratic states cannot be ideal strong states.

Furthermore, autocratic states represent partial characteristics rather than universal democratic legitimacy. This situation is also associated with poor political conditions. A lot of autocracies are less likely to accept diversity of religion or race. Dominating elites of autocracy often have aligned values when it comes to religion, ethnicity and political background. Some maintain that autocracy has democratic legitimacy to govern the public because they are representing a certain religion or race. However, the autocratic states which do not accept other political backgrounds could not gain universal democratic legitimacy. In this situation, autocratic states could not make favorable relationships with other democratic states making autocratic states weak nations in international communities.

It is unavoidable for autocratic states to be influenced by other democratic nations and it makes the autocracy weak states. From an international politics perspective, this also implies poor political conditions. North Korea is restrained often by the policies of other democratic nations, and this autocratic state is hard to survive as a strong and sound nation. Some can argue that these policies initially meant to impact autocratic states, are adversely affected by dictators’ behaviors. However, in reality, it is difficult to find autocratic states that can resist such policies. Most dictators find it difficult to get through disadvantageous situations caused by democratic states’ policies such as sanction policies. Meanwhile, the dictators might not have strong powers to change policies of democratic nations unless they are showing their willingness to alter their dictatorship to democratic-friendly leadership. In this regard, compared to democracy, adhering to autocracy would lead to weak states.

Second, regarding economic conditions, autocratic states have unreliable conditions that make becoming a strong state all the more challenging. Within a dictatorship, individual economic rights and contracts are less likely to be secured by governments. Autocratic governments might deprive individual properties and vest them in the dictator’s private wealth. On the contrary, there may be contention that rational and competent dictators would guarantee individual property rights and contracts in order to impose taxes and gain revenue. This argument might be reasonable. However, it seems difficult for individual citizens to predict when autocratic governments would secure their economic rights. Autocracies devise economic policies with short-term perspectives and these policies can be changed easily depending on dictators’ will and situation. This means that autocracies have uncertain economic conditions and they could not expect or attract capital investments from citizens or foreign stakeholders. Under this unreliable economic condition, autocracies could not gain the economic power or influence that would allow them to become strong states. 

Third, with respect to unstable social conditions, a specific case for this condition is when there are severe collective conflicts among social groups. Like democracies, autocracies can have unstable social conditions, but types of social conflicts might not be various because autocracies are less likely to accept diversity of social groups. If unstable social conditions remain unresolved, states with split social groups may not be considered strong since, if governments implement policies which would benefit certain social groups, opposing groups may make strong collective action to interrupt government operations in order to paralyze the government. The difference between democracy and autocracy is that democratic nations can have reasonable ways to mitigate social conflicts by way of consensus contracts. Conflict stakeholders can have confidence in these contracts in democracy because democratic societies guarantee contracts. There can be contention that autocracy also can easily unravel unstable social conditions caused by conflicts within social groups since dictators have strong and powerful authority to control the public. However, the way autocracies handle this issue is close to suppressing the public’s voice rather than solving fundamental causes of social conflicts. Thus, conflicts among social groups in an autocracy can occur again when dictators die or become too weak to control the public. In turn, the weakened state of many autocratic countries stems from the weakened authority of dictators in unstable social conditions.  


Author: Intae Choi is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @intaechoi_ 

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