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The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy Hardcover – June 5, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for The Dictator’s Learning Curve
“Intelligent and absorbing…Dobson has interviewed more than 200 people, and his closely observed accounts of dictators’ increasingly sly methods to control their populations are haunting….The Dictator’s Learning Curve is agile and light on its feet, but among its salient points is that pro-democracy movements need to be more than that. Happy thoughts and hippie clothes are not enough….Mr. Dobson’s book, with luck, will find its way into the hands of people who aspire to be free. They’ll find optimism here, but hard realities as well.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Tough-minded without being cynical, and hopeful without being optimistic, The Dictator’s Learning Curve is a rare book—and a bracing read.”
The Atlantic

“Dobson has invested time and insight, from China to Venezuela, and Egypt to Russia, trying to capture the shape-changing nature of modern authoritarianism, and the resourcefulness and wit of its opponents….[He] captures empathetically the skill and insight of modern neo-despots – in much the way their more successful opponents do….Rare is the book on dictatorship that can end on an uplifting note that its narrative carefully substantiates."
Financial Times

“When Dobson is in conversation with the people who are finding new ways to work against the more 'nimble' systems of today’s autocrats, the book is at its best. We meet a Chinese free-speech lawyer, a Russian environmental activist, and an Egyptian cop-turned-human-rights-lawyer-turned-exiled-dissident, who offers tips to youth activists on what police response they can expect. We meet Egyptian protesters who take the brunt of later-2011 military violence, and we join in an afternoon walk that’s actually a political protest in Beijing. We watch with Dobson as the Chinese use not tanks and guns, as in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but 'street repair' closures and sidewalk-washing tasks to clear crowds who’d thought they might try a 'Jasmine Revolution.' It’s a far subtler form of power, but just as effective.”
Christian Science Monitor

"After a remarkable year in which citizens of a dozen countries have challenged their authoritarian governments, readers will welcome veteran journalist Dobson’s overview of the complicated dance of adaptation by the world’s dictators and those who resist their oppressive power....A timely, valuable contribution to readers’ understanding of global unrest."

"[Dobson] writes with exemplary clarity and a sharp eye for color....Timely, authoritative, and as readable as a novel, this is one of the season's most resonant booksnot least because it ends on a note of guarded hope for the future."

“William J. Dobson’s exploration of the contest between contemporary dictatorships and those who rebel against them is valuable because it offers a sober analysis of both sides. Dobson traveled nearly 100,000 miles researching this book, which takes a close look at the face of modern authoritarianism....His book may be about the struggle for freedom of other countries’ citizens, but there are lessons in it for the preservation of our own.”
—Washington Post
“[A] thoughtful journey through formidable dictatorships of our time...Instead of offering caricatures of vintage dictators, Dobson observes the more dangerous trend – of dictators adopting the form of democratic governance, while draining it of any substance.”
The Independent
“Colorful and sharply reported.”
Bloomberg BusinessWeek
“Fascinating...Some of Dobson's most astute observations come from his reporting about China. The Chinese communists, he concludes, are the least complacent of today's modern authoritarians.”
—Foreign Policy

"Fascinating...What makes Dobson's book truly outstanding is that there is none of the naive optimism that accompanied much of the reporting...about the Arab Spring....[A] brilliant book."
Literary Review
“William J. Dobson vividly portrays [the] struggle against authoritarian rule....Dobson’s coverage of Venezuela’s internal political struggles is particularly fascinating. He had spectacular access to well-placed sources in this oil-rich country, including political prisoners.”
—Wilson Quarterly
“Dobson’s book ends up not only a sophisticated but also a wonderfully readable account of the latest installments in an age-old type of struggle.”
—Pacific Standard
“Dobson has interviewed scores of protesters, security experts, opposition political candidates, elite power brokers, and a former Egyptian police officer who, from his computer in the United States, guided protesters occupying Tahrir Square....As a result, the reader gets a wide-ranging overview of political strife as we live it now.”
—The Weekly Standard
“Timely...Dobson chronicles in detail the ingenious but sinister ways in which modern authoritarian regimes are suppressing dissent.”
—The Journal of Democracy

"[A] deft, incisive book....The mix of perspectives results in an impressive overview of the global struggle between authoritarian power and determined advocates of political freedom."
—Publishers Weekly starred review

“A brilliant and original analysis of the nature of modern authoritarianism.”
—Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag, winner of the Pulitzer Prize 

“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.”
—Fareed Zakaria, author of The Future of Freedom and The Post-American World

“A vivid real-time portrait of the movement for democracy. Among its virtues, Dobson’s book clarifies the ways in which the recent challenge to dictatorship represents a coordinated worldwide effort, and the ways in which each country's struggle is unique.”
—James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of China Airborne
“It is hard to imagine a timelier book than this one. William Dobson provides a new framework and a new vocabulary for understanding modern authoritarianism, backed up by detailed and gripping stories of dictators and their citizen opponents in Russia, China, Venezuela, Egypt, and Malaysia. Anyone seeking to make sense of the extraordinary tide of revolutions and protests sweeping around the world will find The Dictator’s Learning Curve an indispensable read.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University, and former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department

About the Author

WILLIAM J. DOBSON is politics and foreign affairs editor for Slate. He has been an editor at Foreign Affairs, Newsweek International, and Foreign Policy. During his tenure at Foreign Policy, the magazine was nominated for the coveted National Magazine Award for General Excellence each year and won top honors in 2007 and 2009. His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and he has provided analysis for ABC, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, and NPR. He lives in Washington, DC.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (June 5, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780385533355
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385533355
  • ASIN: 0385533357
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #799,490 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William J. Dobson is the politics & foreign affairs editor for Slate. Previously, he served as the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Under his editorial direction, the magazine was nominated for the National Magazine Award five years in a row--the only publication of its size to be nominated for five consecutive years--and in 2007 and 2009, Foreign Policy won the overall award for General Excellence. Earlier in his career, Mr. Dobson served as Newsweek International's Senior Editor for Asia and as Associate Editor at Foreign Affairs.

During the height of the Arab Spring, the Washington Post editorial page commissioned Mr. Dobson to write daily online pieces on modern authoritarianism. While in Cairo, Mr. Dobson reported the first direct first-person account of the Egyptian military conducting torture of female protestors from Tahrir Square.

Mr. Dobson has published widely on international politics. His articles and op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Newsweek, and elsewhere. He has provided commentary and analysis on international politics for ABC, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, and NPR.

From 2008 to 2009, Mr. Dobson was a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2006, Mr. Dobson was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He has been recognized and awarded honors by a number of international foundations, including the Salzburg Global Seminar, the East-West Center, the Knight Foundation, the Council for the United States and Italy, and the Singapore International Foundation. He has received fellowships from Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Stanford University. Mr. Dobson is a 1994 Truman Scholar.

Mr. Dobson holds a law degree from Harvard Law School and a Masters degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard University. He received his bachelor's degree, summa cum laude, from Middlebury College. He lives in Washington, DC.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Fastbreak on June 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Every once in a while -- and by while I mean at least several years -- a book comes along that stops you in your tracks. The Dictator's Learning Curve is one of those books. Dobson's well researched and proven thesis of how dictators manipulate the trappings of democracy to in fact become more autocratic is simply breathtaking. The way he demonstrates how Mubarak, Putin, Chavez and China's repressive leaders all essentially mimic one another in their techinques is extraordinary. The stories of the opposition leaders in these countries, many of them youthful, are heroic. And the timing of this book could not be better with Putin's return to the presidency, Egypt in transition, and Chavez's bid for reelection. A book for both the foreign policy wonk and the reader who follows the news abroad but wants a deeper understanding of what's really happening.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Julie Fisher on March 19, 2015
Format: Paperback
I was lucky enough to do a joint book signing with Dobson in Portland in October 2013. Since his book was about dictators getting smarter and mine about democratization NGOs, the combination worked well.

The Dictator's Learning Curve is a brilliant book, solidly based on Dobson's considerable on the ground experience in many countries. In Venezuela, for example, President Hugo Chavez has become adept at using frequent elections for his own purposes. Dobson also documents how dictators have also become far more aware of the challenges posed by the growth of civil society. My own research validates this conclusion, since democratization NGOs have become the bulls eye of the civil society target.

Dobson's pessimism, however, is nicely balanced by his discussion of powerful global players focused on democracy. Among these are Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institution, whose short bestseller From Dictatorship to Democracy has already appeared in 25 languages. Equally important is the Serbian international NGO Otpor (Resistance) that grew out of revolution against Slobodan Milosovic. Otpor trains activists in other countries to figure out their own creative strategies for promoting non-violent revolutions against dictators.

I loved this book, particularly because it forced me to sharpen some of my own thoughts about worldwide prospects for democratization. The Dictator's Learning Curve plus Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina would provide readers with a complex, wide and sometimes contradictory picture of worldwide prospects for democratization.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Walt VINE VOICE on February 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The Dictator's Learning Curve provides an insightful view of the new face of tyranny. Many modern dictators have learned to preserve their power by more subtle means than concentration camps or massacres in the street. Seemingly reasonable bureaucratic requirements for the media or for receiving government assistance can be just as effective as more brutal means at stifling open dissent.
For example, Putin's elections, free but structured so that the opposition cannot win, are just as effective as Stalin's Gulag in keeping the regime in power, but are much less disruptive of Russian society. Dissident media offices are shut down, not by club-wielding thugs, but by having their computers confiscated because they contain unlicensed software.
Dobson's provides many examples from Russia, China, Serbia, the Middle East, and Venezuela. He also illustrates the ways democracy advocates oppose these new tactics, such as the Egyptian riot policeman who clandestinely publishes a guide for protestors, showing how to stymy his colleagues' tactics.
Dobson also provides a good introduction to the work of Gene Sharp, the American professor who has developed creative ways around these new techniques of repression.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Ionut Trestian on December 8, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"The Dictator's Learning Curve" is a thoroughly researched book that dissects modern day dictators and repressive states. Modern day dictators have adapted their techniques to the modern day. Instead of force, they are repressive in more insidious ways, they use laws for example to hinder the activity of opposing parties or NGOs (they might routinely send inspections for example), they are tech-savvy so they use the Internet to their advantage.

Dissidents have adapted their methods as well and this book provides an overview of nonviolent protest movements across the world. It examines protest movements in Egypt, Burma, China, Russia, Venezuela. What is surprising is how these movements learn from each other and collaborate. Dobson actually attended CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies) workshops where members of the Otpor! Serbian movement that ousted Slobodan Milošević introduce nonviolent strategies to activists across the whole world. They in turn adapt them to the settings in their countries.

There are several passages that I enjoyed in this book. The dedication of Venezuelan students, one of the student leaders telling his mother "I don't think I'm coming home today, mom" being set on defending election results against Hugh Chavez's attempts to mess with referendum results. Or the retired US colonel Helvey explaining how one should construct nonviolent protest strategies "Life is nothing more than pattern analysis. Planning involves the habit of pattern analysis, and every living thing lives by a pattern. We need to know what that pattern is so that when it changes, the first question we ask is, Why?".
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