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

4.4 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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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 (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #823,693 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is a true picture of democracy being perverted to produce constitutional dictators. I would recommend reading it toghethe with Sharps "From dictatorship to democracy". It is a true piture of Chinese, Russian, Myanmar, Singapore, Venezuelan and other autocracies where the constitution is mocket by the subversion of balance of powers.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This author's research is sound. He presents historical facts and comparisons that keep the reader interested.
The text provides a good background knowledge of what tricks dictators used in the past to control their countries and how they have improved utilization of today's technology to manipulate for even tighter control.
One's heart goes out to the people in these countries who dare to raise the specter of more freedom or recognition of human rights; they are either severely threatened or become invisible over night. Our thoughts and prayers for all those who suffer under dictators as we hope for future freedom.
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