Spin Dictators

“Despite comprehensive historical analysis and discussion, Spin Dictators has successfully bridged the gap between research and readable.” – Captain Ben Tomlinson’s salute to authors Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman.

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TITLE: Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century

AUTHORS: Sergei Guriev & Daniel Treisman

REVIEWER: Captain Ben Tomlinson, Visiting Fellow, CHACR

“The West today,” write Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman in Spin Dictators, “faces a complicated challenge”. Unlike the Cold War ‘enemies of freedom’, who publicly censored, intimidated and repressed their isolated populations, an increasing number of contemporary autocrats are blending into international society and eroding it from within.

By manipulating the media, limiting public violence, engaging with the international order and faking some form of democratic process, modern autocrats or, so-called ‘spin dictators’, are spreading cynicism and division amongst Western liberal democracies and causing an international resurgence in autocratic regimes. So significant is the threat of the spin dictator that, as of 2019, the number of authoritarian regimes once again superseded democracies – by 92 to 87. Guriev and Treisman therefore set out to understand in Spin Dictators how it is that “after all the brutal manias of the twentieth century – from fascism to communism – have been discredited, we still see new autocracies rising from the ashes?”.

The analysis throughout the book is based on research historically published by Guriev and Treisman in economic and political science journals since the Millennium, and its academic pedigree is evident. The authors highlight six guiding principles of spin dictatorship and afford each an individual chapter to explore further. Within these chapters Guriev and Treisman utilise an array of historical case studies to illustrate past and present application, whilst also demonstrating the evolution of dictatorship from ‘fear’ to ‘spin’ over the last century. Despite comprehensive historical analysis and discussion, Spin Dictators has successfully bridged the gap between research and readable, and the book is engaging, yet enjoyable, from cover to cover.

Overall, Spin Dictators makes a significant contribution to discussions surrounding the pervasiveness of contemporary autocracies. In August 2023, it was even referenced by Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist, in one of his letters from prison as a useful reference for understanding Putin’s autocratic regime in Russia. What truly marks Spin Dictators out from others, however, is its last chapter. Unlike other similar commentaries which recommend disengaging with autocratic regimes, Guriev and Treisman champion a strategy of ‘adversarial engagement’. In an interconnected world, they assert, we no longer have the freedom to isolate from these states. Instead, we should defend and leverage Western interests to nudge dictatorships towards free government. Crucially, however, we must understand that autocracies will be doing the same in reverse. Western leaders will just have to be “better at this game than they are”.

Published by Princeton University Press, Paperback, £14.99, ISBN: 9780691224473.