Is democracy always a good thing? Sometimes an autocrat can solve problems that stymie a democracy. That’s why history sometimes shows a nation welcoming an autocrat to power.
So it was with Vladimir Putin, who in 2004 made a deal with the Russian oligarchs for him to turn a blind eye to their corrupt practices in exchange for their political support. With their help, he was able to bring order to an economy that had been in chaos, turning their corruption to his and to his country’s advantage. This was a brilliant success, and it led to the high approval ratings he has enjoyed ever since. This high approval has allowed him to become more and more autocratic. So, what’s wrong with that?
The great Italian political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli saw that autocracy has one huge weakness. It can’t easily retire old rulers and bring in new ones when they are needed. History has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of this insight and is doing so again in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A republic, on the other hand, can call on citizens of different character to take turns leading the nation as circumstances require.
Machiavelli especially admired the Roman Republic for its ability to deploy different leaders for differing circumstances. In his book “Discourses on Livy,” he wrote of how early in the republic’s war with Hannibal (218-201 B.C.), Fabius Maximus was the one leader who knew how to avoid defeat. He held back from combat when Hannibal was strong in Italy, thus saving the republic from destruction. He became an inspiration for George Washington, both for his tactics and for his graceful way of stepping down from power.
When the time came to go on the attack in Africa (204 B.C.), another general — Scipio Africanus — became the leader Rome needed. Fabius would have been a disaster. He could not have made the change to attack mode. When one leader cannot change, and the needs of the nation change, then the country must change leadership. But this it cannot do when it is under the sole power of a monarch or dictator.
Machiavelli gives another reason leaders should take turns. A person’s character can be solidified by success in such a way that it leads to failure in the future. This has happened in the case of Putin. His tolerance for corruption — so successful in dealing with economic chaos — has led to military failure. Corruption has weakened the Russian military, which is now not adequately armed, trained or led. Their recent failures in Ukraine have made this obvious to the world.
Putin’s success with the economy and his firm grip on power have blinded him to the possibility of such a failure. Moreover, he has been unable to see how the freedom enjoyed by the people of Ukraine has made them strong. An army of soldiers fighting for their people’s freedom has a kind of power that cannot be matched by a mass of soldiers forced into battle who are, in effect, mercenaries. This is one reason why Ukraine, despite its deficit in resources relative to Russia, has been able to hold its own.
Why then have the people of Russia been so loyal to their autocratic government? Human nature appears to be such that many of us accept autocracy when it seems effective and serves our interests — even when the autocrat’s methods are cruel or lawless or both. What we often fail to realize is that an autocratic method that works in one circumstance may fail in another. That is why regime change in Russia is unlikely any time soon. Autocrats do not easily give up their power.
Every nation should pay heed to Machiavelli’s wisdom on this point: Success over the long term depends on the ability to change leadership as needed smoothly and peacefully. Democracy depends on this, but so does success on the international stage over the long term.
Paul Woodruff is a professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. His books include “The Garden of Leaders,” a study of education for leadership.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.