The Dictator’s Learning Curve by William J. Dobson

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Jun 04, 2012
by Louise Hallman
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The Dictator’s Learning Curve by William J. Dobson

‘Ever-morphing, technologically savvy, and internationally connected’ William J. Dobson’s book The Dictator’s Learning Curve is available from June 5

“Brilliant”, “original”, “indispensable”, “incisive”: all words being used to describe Slate magazine politics and foreign affairs editor and Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow, William J Dobson’s new book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve, to be published on June 5, 2012 in the USA.

Dobson gave up his position with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2009 to concrete on writing his book, and it is now being hailed by his American publishers Doubleday as a “riveting portrait of authoritarianism in peril.”

“We are witnessing an incredible moment in the war between dictators and democracy—waves of protests are sweeping Syria and Yemen, and despots have fallen in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

"But the Arab Spring is only the latest front in a worldwide battle between freedom and repression, a battle that also rages in a dozen other countries from Venezuela to China, Russia to Malaysia.

"It is a struggle that, until recently, dictators have been winning hands-down. The reason is that today’s authoritarian regimes are nothing like the frozen-in-time government of North Korea.

"They are ever-morphing, technologically savvy, and internationally connected, and they have replaced more brutal forms of intimidation with seemingly ‘free’ elections and talk of human rights.

"Facing off against modern dictators is an unlikely army of democracy advocates—students, bloggers, environmentalists, lawyers, activists, and millionaires—who are growing increasingly savvy themselves.

"The result is a global game of cat-and-mouse, where the future of freedom hangs in the balance. Dobson takes us behind the scenes in both camps, and reveals how each side is honing its strategies for the war that will define our age.” – Doubleday Publishing Group

Dobson is a Fellow of the sessions East Asian Security: The Role and Impact of United States Foreign Policy, Changing Concepts of Security in East Asia and East Asia - The United States: A Search for Common Values as well as a one-time Salzburg Global Seminar intern during his studies at Middlebury College almost 20 years ago.

Fellow Newsweek alum Fareed Zakaria – once Newsweek columnist and editor of Newsweek International, and now editor-at-large of Time magazine and host of CNN’s flagship foreign affairs show – said of Dobson and his book: “William Dobson is that rare thinker who combines a gift for storytelling with an understanding of how the world works.

"Marrying a historian’s judgment with a journalist’s eye for detail, he spots the emerging trends that others miss. The Dictator’s Learning Curve offers an essential perspective on a crucial struggle.”

Dobson holds a Master’s degree in East Asian studies from Harvard University, and as well as receiving acclaim for his journalism – as senior editor, Asia, Newsweek International, managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, and now politics and foreign affairs editor for Slate magazine – he has also lectured in Chinese politics and foreign policy at Middlebury College, Vermont, and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He has written numerous articles on Chinese foreign policy and Sino-American relations for American newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic.

Dobson will be signing copies of his book at Politics & Prose bookshop (5015 Connecticut Ave, Washington, DC) on June 23, at 1pm.

The book is available to buy in the USA from Tuesday, June 5 and is available for pre-order online for its autumn release in the UK.

Dobson corresponded with SGS Editor Louise Hallman via email about the inspiration for his book:

SGS: What prompted you to write the book?

WJD: I started observing these trends back in 2005 and 2006. The initial backlash against the color revolutions [such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and Rose Revolution in Georgia] made me curious, and I repeatedly saw evidence of both the regimes and the people who challenge the regimes experimenting, innovating, and testing each other in new ways.

I decided this was something I wanted to investigate, and it could best be done up close.

SGS: Your academic specialism is Chinese politics; what led you to widen your focus to Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, and Malaysia?

WJD: One of the aspects that most fascinated me was that this did not seem to be a trend or a story limited to one place or moment.

It was by its very nature a global story. Indeed, much of the learning occurs across countries. So I knew that if I were to do this properly, I would need to look at a collection of places, ideally from very different places.

Ideally, I would have looked at even more, but at some point you only have so much time to do first-person reporting from so many places.

SGS: Your book’s been noted for its ‘timeliness’; when did you start writing the book and did you extend your writing to incorporate the recent unrest in the Middle East?

WJD: I started doing the reporting in late 2009 and continued reporting until mid-2011, with occasional updates afterward.

I had initially planned on finishing the book about 6-8 months earlier. But when events began to pick up pace, I knew that those deadlines would need to be revised and I would want to return to some places for additional reporting.

For example, I returned to Egypt in March 2011. The Mubarak advisers I had met with a year earlier were no longer to be found.

The young leaders who had spoken to me in hushed voices were now prominent figures.

SGS: How much of a challenge was it to write a 350+ page book as opposed to shorter journalistic articles?

WJD: It's an entirely different enterprise, and it presents unique challenges. The length itself isn't the daunting part.

SGS: Fareed Zakaria said of you: “he spots the emerging trends that others miss”; what trends do you currently see emerging for democracy? Has the North Africa/Arab revolt made you more or less optimistic?

WJD: Ultimately, I finished this book more optimistic than I started it. I am concerned about the direction events are taking in Egypt, for example, but any democratic future for it or the other countries that experienced change in 2011 require the stages they are living through today.

The greatest source of optimism for me was the people I met who were risking so much to challenge these regimes. There were no romantics. They were intelligent, sharp, and deliberate tacticians. Time and again, I left saying to myself, “I would not want to be in opposition to these people.”

SGS: Are you planning on writing any further books or will you be concentrating on your editorship at Slate for the time being?

WJD: I have spent three years working on this book. I haven't given any thought yet to the sequel.