Is democracy smarter than autocracy?
Why Putin's blunder couldn't have happened here
(A longer, six minute version is available here).
This video of a captured Russian soldier is gripping. He speaks of shame for taking part in the invasion and asks for forgiveness, without expecting it. Yes, he is a POW and thus has an obvious incentive to repent in public. But there is something about his bearing, his flinty directness, which convinces me that he means it. What’s more, his central claim - that he and his fellow soldiers were sent into battle under false pretences - is supported by other evidence, namely the calamitous nature of the invasion itself.
Russia’s immense superiority in manpower and equipment will tell at some point, if it isn’t already. But there’s no doubt that the start of its campaign has been a disaster of historic proportion. Russia is estimated to have suffered a death toll, in two weeks, that is about 75% of the troops they lost in Afghanistan over nine years. They’ve lost nearly a thousand tanks and other pieces of expensive equipment. It’s hard to think of any invasion which has gone so badly for the invader. Strategically speaking, the opening fortnight has already narrowed Putin’s range of options to the two worst ones: direct annexation of a hostile country - impossibly costly, in every sense - or a negotiated settlement with the existing Ukrainian government, followed by humiliating withdrawal.
Military experts, flabbergasted at how bad the Russian battle plan was, have concluded it was designed on a false prospectus. Russian planners must have believed that the Ukrainian government and military would collapse as quickly as the Afghan state did when the U.S. withdrew last year. They envisaged their troops making a lightning-fast dash to Kyiv and taking control of a government that had already been vacated. Ukrainians would offer little or no resistance; in fact they would be glad. Putin’s eve-of-war screed about Neo-Nazis holding Ukraine hostage wasn’t just a cover story for a cold tactical calculation: it was the basis of Russia’s war plan.
The invasion came as a surprise to many Western analysts because they didn’t believe Putin could be so deluded, or if they did, they didn’t believe the Russian state would share his delusions. But the invasion came as a surprise to almost everyone around Putin too, save for a small handful of his most senior officials: the defence minister, the chief military commander, the head of intelligence service (and perhaps Yuri Kovalchuk, the oligarch who has become Putin’s spiritual adviser). Those officials seem to have accepted their leader’s fantasy version of Ukraine, and even, according to this report, fed it:
“Putin now seriously believes what [Defense Minister] Shoigu and [General Staff chief] Gerasimov are telling him: About how quickly they’ll take Kyiv, that the Ukrainians are blowing themselves up, that Zelensky is a coke addict.”
The Ukrainian-American military scholar, and Russia specialist, Michael Kofman, (one of the experts I trust most on the war) has identified two fundamental errors made by Russia’s leadership. First, it acted on completely unworkable assumptions about Ukraine and its people. The second, even worse, is that it misled its own troops.
The first error might have been overcome quickly - military plans famously do not often survive first contact with the enemy - had it not been for the second. Troops were pushed to the border under the assurance that no invasion would actually take place. Only the night before it happened did junior officers get their orders to invade. They were not properly equipped to do, nor were they psychologically prepared. They marched into battle in a daze, trusting that their superiors were telling the truth about what lay before them. It’s becoming clear that Russian troops really believed they were engaged in a war of liberation. They really did think ordinary Ukrainians would greet them saviours, here to free them from the fascist overlords who had taken over their country. Such delusions might hard to credit. But if that’s what your commanders are telling you, and that’s what your president says, and that’s what the TV says, you’d probably believe it too. No wonder they have found it so hard to adapt to the reality of fierce Ukrainian resistance. No wonder they are beset by desertions, or that Ukrainian fields are scattered with abandoned Russian hardware.
To repeat, since it can be hard to grasp the enormity of it: the Russian military attempted to seize control of the largest country in Europe without any preparation - and they expected it to be a cakewalk.
The depth and scale of the blunder is breathtaking. Kofman believes the second error will have longer-term repercussions for Putin himself, who has managed to humiliate and anger all three security arms of the Russian state at once: the army, the intelligence service, and his own national guard. Not only have those forces been made to look stupid and incompetent, but many of their members will now have friends and comrades who were killed on botched and dishonest orders. Some of the humiliated and bereaved are likely to seek revenge on the operation’s prime instigator, and they are well positioned to achieve it. Our media is fascinated by the oligarchs, who in reality have no power and little leverage1. If Putin is brought down, it will be by soldiers and spies.
Could a blunder of comparable stupidity and scale have been made here, in the West? We can draw some superficial parallels with Iraq: a military invasion made under false pretences on the orders of leaders ignorant of the country they were invading. But I would say that Putin has managed the unthinkable and made America’s Iraq adventure look relatively competent and relatively honest. Without wishing to open up over-familiar debates - no really, spare us - nobody could argue that the Iraq invasion came as a surprise to anyone. Nobody could argue that U.S. soldiers and civilians were not exposed to arguments for and against the war beforehand. A large proportion of Iraqi citizens really did welcome the US invasion, which it what made its chaotic aftermath so unforgivable. And while the cost to Iraqi society has been unconscionably high, the costs to the invading countries, in terms of lives lost, was comparatively low.
The truth is that the kind of self-harm we’ve just witnessed Russia engage in depends on conditions that are simply not allowed to develop in countries that hold genuine elections, in which power is institutionally dispersed and the media is free. No Western leader could they keep their plans for an invasion - or any comparably big operation - a secret for so long. Whether through due process or leaks to the press or both, it would have been known about long in advance. No Western leader can avoid engaging with a wide circle of officials and politicians; our prime ministers and presidents can’t just ignore their cabinets or legislatures or parties, much as they would like to and sometimes try to. Western leaders have much less control than autocrats over the information that reaches the citizenry. No leader in the West, and no military commander, would be able, even if they were willing, to hoodwink their own troops about an operation as dangerous, complex and momentous as the invasion of another country.
When people praise democracy they usually do so on moral and political grounds, as the system that best protects individual rights and freedoms. It’s sometimes presented as a trade-off: democracy may be wayward and short-sighted but it’s better than the alternative because it’s less oppressive. But there are reasons to believe that democratic systems just work better, too. Autocracies are prone to crippling afflictions that democracies are relatively immune to (nb other systems of governance are available, there are different forms of democracy and autocracy, but I’m simplifying because, er, it’s simpler). The result is that when autocracies screw up they do so on a completely different level to democracies. The Allies made mistakes during WWII but they did not commit a blunder as awesome as Hitler’s invasion of Russia.
In autocracy, information flows less freely within the state, which makes it much harder to co-ordinate the different agencies involved or even agree on a shared empirical basis for decision-making (one of the reasons the Iraqi government in 2003 was so cagey about whether it had WMD is that senior officials were simply unsure if they did or not). Everyone lives in fear of the boss, which stifles dissent or any form of critical questioning, which prevents truth from reaching the decision-maker and allows delusions to take hold from top to bottom. There are greater incentives avoid bad news and lie about good news. The typical flaws of any government, indeed any bureaucracy - bubble thinking, false consensus, rigid silos - are exacerbated and compounded.
It’s also possible to get stuck with a terrible boss - and for a long time. One of the original rationales for elected leaders over monarchs, back when this was a live debate within European countries, was a form of risk reduction. In monarchical system, you could get lucky with a ruler like Louis XIV, or very unlucky with one like his great-grandson Louis XV, who ruled France for 31 years, so ineptly that he trashed the brand. In a democracy, you can end up with leaders who aren’t any good, but you can get them out again fairly swiftly, and without fighting. The instrumental argument for democracy is thus a little like the argument for diversification of an investment portfolio. Rather than gambling everything on a single stock, however amazing you think its prospects, it’s prudent to spread your bets. Democracies do this consecutively (one leader after another without any of them hanging around too long) and laterally, by sharing out power between institutions rather than investing it all in the ruler.
Democratic decision-making is widely distributed - even ordinary people get a say - and contested, which unlocks collective intelligence. For all our debates over whether and how much to trust experts, democracy is inherently sceptical of expertise, in the sense that it doesn’t trust in one all-seeing mind or committee of minds to make the big calls. There’s a good case that this approach, so counter-intuitive to most societies throughout history, and still today, achieves better outcomes in the long-run and on average. Democracies are (probably) more likely to grow their economies, and as Amartya Sen observed, less likely to starve their own people, if only because democratic rulers need the votes.
If we were looking for countries that disprove this hypothesis, we wouldn’t choose Russia. It’s true that Putin rebuilt a functioning state out of the chaos of 1998, and that the Russian economy has grown under his watch. But as Adam Tooze points out, given Russia’s wealth of natural resources, and the enormous appetite of China and others for them, there’s a strong counter-factual case that Russia has under-performed economically over the last twenty years and would be richer were it, if not a democracy, then at least a well-administered rule-of-law society, peacefully integrated into the Western system (an “authoritarian Norway”). That’s before we get to the kind of disastrous decision-making we’ve been discussing.
The stronger case for autocracy over democracy lies to Russia’s east, in Singapore and above all, China (important to emphasise, again, that I’m discussing this question in instrumental terms, rather than moral ones). How would Chinese rulers respond to the case I just laid out? They would probably laugh, and point to the list of misadventures and failures made by the US and its allies over the last twenty years alone: Iraq, Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, which China successfully protected itself from with decisive fiscal action. They would point out that not every autocracy is run like Russia; modern China has a good track record of avoiding mistakes. They might cite the West’s response to Covid. They would certainly mention the sclerosis of Western states - how hard we find to get anything done. The Chinese government builds infrastructure and entire cities in the time it takes our governments to decide on minor changes to tax law. And of course, their record of economic growth beats all-comers.
The Chinese would argue that unelected leaders have a greater sense of accountability than elected ones, since they are tasked with achieving real results rather than chasing votes. They can think and plan for the long term rather than fixating on whenever the next election comes around, and the proof is in the successful delivery of vastly complex long-term policies, like the fast urbanisation of a predominantly rural country. And, as a friend of mine who knows China far better than I do recently said to me, the Chinese government does solicit views and opinions from its populace; for example, with a petition system which dates from imperial times.
You could argue, then, that China is able to make the best of autocratic rule because it has been working towards the perfection of its bureaucracy for 2000 years. Under its current regime, however, power is more and more concentrated in one man. The Chinese people, and the rest of the world, must hope that Xi doesn’t succumb to the kinds of delusion that other autocrats have been prone to. The blunt fact is that autocratic leaders are more likely to lose their minds, because the reality distortion field in which they operate - in which all leaders operate, to some degree - is much more powerful, and more distorting, than the one in which democratic leaders live. This NYT report suggests that Covid quarantining has increased Putin’s tendency to isolate himself from the rest of the government and from the world outside his office:
According to people with knowledge of Mr. Putin’s conversations with his aides over the past two years, the president has completely lost interest in the present: The economy, social issues, the coronavirus pandemic, these all annoy him…It seems that there is no one around to tell him otherwise….In recent years — and especially since the start of the pandemic — he has cut off most contacts with advisers and friends. While he used to look like an emperor who enjoyed playing on the controversies of his subjects, listening to them denounce one another and pitting them against one another, he is now isolated and distant, even from most of his old entourage.
Even when Western leaders become unhinged, they don’t have as long to stew in their own delusions while in office. Merkel (who stayed sane) was Chancellor for 16 years, but that was exceptional by democratic standards. Putin has been Russia’s leader, in name or otherwise, for 23 years. As with Saddam, the longer he has stayed in power, the more of it he has accumulated, and the more unbalanced his government has become. Authority and influence have drained away from other parts of the state and flowed towards him. He has become increasingly unlikely to listen to or even hear voices other than his own. This is a poor recipe for governance and for mental health. The arc of autocracy is long but it bends towards madness.
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