Crises and Paradoxes
The world suddenly became a lot more difficult for Americans to understand in the
1970s and 1980s. Dozens of Third World countries underwent a seemingly endless series of
coups and revolutions. The problems and demands of nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America,
and the Middle East increasingly became the focus of international issues and crises. Third
World dictators, whose personalities and motives were mysterious to Westerners, dominated
Cambodia’s new Communist rulers massacred millions of their own countrymen.
Ugandan dictator Idi Amin played the tyrant at home and the clown abroad. Iran’s Ayatollah
Khomeini held U.S. diplomats as hostages and defied America to do something about it.
Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi threatened to cut off President Reagan’s nose.
Americans, accustomed to thinking of dictators as necessarily unpopular, find
unfathomable why tyrants seem to he dominating the Third World and are often able to
inspire fanatical loyalty among their people. They find the increasing number of political
strong men sponsoring anti-Americanism, terrorism, and aggression against neighbors to he
Seemingly popular, democratic revolutions against dictatorships in Iran, Nicaragua,
and elsewhere created new kinds of repression and dictatorship. Some Third World countries
seemed incapable of achieving stability; in others, rulers clung to power despite frequent
defeats, failures, and broken promises. And many of these leaders were so colorful, their
policies so apparently strange and contradictory that insanity seemed the only logical
explanation for their behavior.
The Third World dictators’ rhetoric was difficult to decipher. They called their
aggressive wars “liberation.” Their brand of freedom resembled servitude, their state-run
media were mouthpieces, and their systems of “true” democracy seemed to be despotism.
And yet the more the West backed their domestic rivals, the more such “moderates” were
discredited as puppets and traitors. The populist dictators often aligned themselves with the
Soviets, and their triumphs over pro-Western (and often equally unsavory) regimes were a
measure of declining U.S. influence and failed U.S. policies over the last thirty years.
In the nineteenth century democracy was regarded as the grand prize of civilization, a
system reserved for the most advanced in wisdom, the most superior in race. This
justification was used to explain limits on the right to vote and to participate in politics. The
masses of people, those whose lack of property or education, race, or gender caused their
exclusion from these political rights, clamored and struggled to gain equality.
Similarly, a key rationale of European empires was that their colonial subjects were
incapable of governing themselves. Movements in the colonies sought independence but
generally accepted the mother country’s definitions of economic development and of a just
political order. They proclaimed their right to self-determination and self-government,
decrying the denial of democratic rule and the continuing poverty of their peasant masses.
Resenting the label of inferiority, they insisted on their devotion to and capability for
“Democracy,” said Winston Churchill, “is the worst form of government, except for
all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.” That idea seemed self-evident in
those terrible days of the 1930s and 1940s when a Soviet dictatorship sent millions of its own
people to concentration camps and the Nazi regime threw millions into death camps, used
prisoners as slave labor, and set off a war that killed 50 million people.
Today there are many dissenters to Churchill’s view among the ruling classes and
intellectuals in dozens of Third World countries. When the twentieth century began, absolute
monarchies and despotisms were seen as pre-democratic systems, doomed to extinction by an
inevitable progress. The following decades, however, have spawned new kinds of
dictatorships that self-confidently proclaim themselves a superior new wave of history,
arguing they are more democratic than states stressing personal freedom, the right to dissent
and debate freely, fair elections, and the due process of law. Their claims receive formal
approval at the United Nations and international conferences. Consequently, the most
successful representative democracies now exist side by side with the most powerful
dictatorships ever known.
The expression “Third World” refers to the less developed countries of Africa, Asia,
Latin America, and the Middle East. From 1945 on dozens of new countries in these areas
achieved independence from European colonialism. Their new leaders were full of plans for
rapid development and progress. Foreign well-wishers even proclaimed that the West would
find much to learn from Third World political, economic, and spiritual innovations. But the
second half of the twentieth century became an era of tragedy rather than of glory for the
For many of these countries, political stability and economic progress were elusive.
Continued foreign intervention and manipulation mocked their rhetoric of proud
independence. Third World efforts to unite in making demands against industrial states (the
“North-South” dialogue) or to create their own nonaligned bloc collapsed in bickering or
remained impotent in practice.
Few Third World states–mainly Middle East oil exporters and small Asian exportoriented
economics–made major progress in economic development. And where it occurred,
development often brought social change and an intellectual ferment more conducive to
political upheaval than the relative stagnation of earlier decades. National leaders, ideological
blueprints, and international movements (Pan-Arab, Pan-African, Islamic, and nonaligned)
failed to deliver on their promises. Only swelling national pride, ideological enthusiasms, and
a drive to preserve cultural authenticity provided psychological sustenance to make up for the
lack of material gains.
Dictatorial types of government proved far more adaptable to these conditions than
did fragile democracy. By the 1980s much of the Third World was ruled by politicians or
military officers boosted into power by force of arms or by force of personality. Unchecked
by laws and unwilling to allow opposition, these leaders set their nations’ courses with a
relatively free hand.
The dictators found it hard enough to gain absolute control at home. Obtaining
international power and economic wealth was even more difficult. Leaders used fiery rhetoric
as a substitute for their lack of international influence and tried to gain political leverage with
new tactics, including the export of ideology and subversion, state-supported terrorism,
alliance with the Soviet bloc, and regional alignments. But if leaders demagogically stirred up
their own people to cement loyalties, this rising nationalism also made for frictions between
countries and interfered with slogans of Third World cooperation. Since the leaders’ goals
and interests were often at odds with those of other states, the Third World became a hotbed
of conflict rather than the model of mutual support so ardently portrayed by its publicists.
Hopes for the Third World fell far from the wave of euphoria that accompanied
decolonization and independence in the 1950s and 1960s. The trendsetters were giants who
acted, and sometimes saw themselves, as political demigods. Sukarno in Indonesia and
Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania,
Sékou Touré in Guinea and Jawaharlal Nehru in India. Some of them were charter members
of the nonaligned movement, founded at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 as well as of a new
style of government.
The U.S.-Soviet conflict, dividing the world into East and West, Communist and
capitalist, totalitarian and democratic, was complicated by the rise of an independent Third
World. Since Europe was stable, the Third World became the focus of great power struggle
and provided the audience for whose applause the two great powers vied. The deadlocked
U.S.-USSR competition allowed Third World leaders a greater latitude in shaping
international events; Washington and Moscow, in turn, influenced, manipulated, and
intervened in–but rarely controlled–Third World developments.
Regional problems set off crises in their own right as well as became sites for new
Cold War battles. For example, the three bloodiest conflicts since World War II–the Korean,
Vietnam, and Iran-Iraq wars–involved Third World dictators in Pyongyang and Seoul, Hanoi
and Saigon, Tehran and Baghdad. The United States and USSR reacted to rather than
regulated these crises.
In the 1970s and 1980s Third World turmoil increased at a steady pace. Ethiopia had a
revolution and fought a border war with Somalia; Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza fell
to Sandinista guerrillas, who dragged the country toward their variety of Marxism. Most of
Latin America, despite spells of democracy, still seemed vulnerable to the return of military
dictators. Iran’s revolution replaced the Shah’s traditional dictatorship with a dramatically
different Islamic radical one under Ayatollah Khomeini. Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad
imposed his power on Lebanon; Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi became the impresario of
international terrorism and tried to foment unrest in Africa and the Middle East. In Asia
modernizing dictators oversaw dramatic economic development in South Korea, Taiwan, and
This was a world far different from what Americans had grown to expect in the two
decades after 1945. During those years U.S. presidents, confident and arrogant enough to see
neutrality as treason to the Free World, were able to support or engineer the overthrow of
troublesome nationalist Third World regimes and replace them with pro-Western military
governments. This program was followed in Iran and Guatemala and, more indirectly, in
Indonesia, Zaire, Ghana, Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere.
By the late 1960s, however, the patterns of international politics were changing as
new power centers developed around the world. While the United States remained the single
strongest country, the Soviets had developed global military and aid capacities, and Western
Europe and Japan became major economic powers. Third World governments learned more
sophisticated political techniques and means of control while finding foreign support in
Moscow or elsewhere. The collisions Britain and France faced with Third World nationalism
had earlier convinced them to give up their empires. Now the United States discovered that
historic imperial techniques no longer worked.
The Vietnam War was a foreign policy disaster that warned Americans of a need to
reevaluate their role in the world and to readjust to changing realities. U.S. intervention
turned into a bloody, futile enterprise and a dangerously divisive issue at home. The United
States was forced into an agonizing reappraisal: Was the root of the conflict expansive
communism or powerful Third World nationalism? Did the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese
government fall because it was not democratic enough, as liberals tended to argue, and
therefore forfeited popular support and–through its dependence on the Americans–national
legitimacy? Or did North Vietnam win, as conservatives suggested, because Americans
lacked will and unity? Essentially, however, Hanoi had found a more effective kind of
populist, nationalist, and efficiently repressive dictatorship than had Saigon. Communist
North Vietnam’s system was only partly Communist in origin and as far beyond South
Vietnam’s traditional dictatorship as an automobile over an oxcart.
After the Vietnam debacle Americans also debated other fundamental foreign policy
questions: What was the most effective way to combat apparent advances in Soviet influence
throughout the Third World? How had anti-Americanism spread so widely, and what had the
United States done to foster it? Were Third World radical nationalist or Marxist regimes
necessarily antithetical to U.S. interests? Why did America’s allies collapse so frequently, so
much more often than their more leftist rivals? Did U.S. pressure for reforms in conservative
dictatorships help stabilize those countries or make them prey for anti-American revolutions?
President Jimmy Carter tried to answer these problems from a liberal perspective.
Believing that Moscow did not control all developments in the Third World, Carter’s
administration argued that the Soviets were not ten feet tall and that Americans should not
have an exaggerated fear of communism. The United States, it argued, could effectively
compete with the Soviets for influence even in states with radical regimes. American
concessions would help improve relations with the Third World and dispel anti-American
While suggesting moderation and compromise with African, Arab, and Latin
American regimes, the Carter administration also proposed a set of policies for dealing with
allied dictatorships like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iran, and the Philippines. The Carter
administration believed that these countries could avoid a revolution, coup, or guerrilla
insurgency by showing greater respect for their citizens’ human rights and for democratic
principles. By accepting or even encouraging inevitable change, these policymakers thought,
Washington could moderate the direction and soften the impact of events.
Carter’s approach during his 1977-1981 term had impressive successes: treaties
returning the Panama Canal to Panamanian sovereignty, arranging Zimbabwe’s independence
under a black majority government, mediating the Israel-Egypt peace at Camp David,
improving the U.S. image in Africa, and promoting a return to civilian governments in Latin
Yet Carter’s foreign policy was judged a major failure. Events in the second half of
his term seemed to encourage a more conservative assessment of the proper U.S. policy
toward Third World problems and crises. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December
1979 confirmed a pessimistic view of Moscow’s chronically expansive imperialism. The use
of Cuban troops in Angola and Ethiopia, to ensure the survival of Soviet clients, was taken to
indicate that Moscow was a direct threat in the Third World and a major cause of instability
there. A soft U.S. policy, refusing to use force to help allies and punish foes, would only give
the Soviets a further edge.
A parallel experience came out of 1978-1979 revolutions in Iran and in Nicaragua that
replaced pro-U.S. dictatorships with anti-American radical regimes. Ronald Reagan and other
conservatives subsequently argued that Carter’s policies had undermined the old rulers and
allowed them to he replaced with governments detrimental both to U.S. interests and to their
own citizens. Many Americans interpreted the Iranian hostage crisis as proof that a
conciliatory policy allowed extremists to believe they could insult the United States at will.
In short, Carter’s friendliness and flexibility toward the Third World resulted in steep
political costs at home and relatively few benefits abroad. When Reagan claimed that only a
tougher America could win respect, that the Soviets were the source of Third World
problems, and that radical nationalist dictators must he faced down, the American people
were ready to listen. Iran’s holding of fifty-two U.S. Embassy officials for almost fifteen
months, a crisis continuing throughout the 1980 election campaign, seemed living evidence
of a hostility that no moderation could dissipate. The Vietnam syndrome had been replaced
by the Iran syndrome as Reagan won huge election victories in 1980 and 1984.
The American political tradition has a surprisingly contradictory attitude toward
dictatorship. On the one hand, the framers of the U.S. Constitution assumed that governments
were naturally prone to becoming dictatorships. Therefore, they divided power among
institutions (executive, legislative, judicial) and jurisdictions (federal, state, and local) in a
system of checks and balances to prevent an excessive concentration of power.
On the other hand, the long, relatively untroubled continuity of democracy that
followed allowed later Americans to consider dictatorship a deviant form of government
which is bound to he unpopular and can survive only through repression. In view of the
pragmatism of American politics, the power of ideology, desperation, and demagoguery that
lie at the foundation of dictatorship’s appeal is hard to comprehend. The United States’
national success and stability make alien the Third World’s trauma of underdevelopment and
humiliating national weakness, including subservience to foreigners.
Nor does the European idea of realpolitik–that a great power should seek its allies on
the basis of national interest and without regard to their internal systems–appeal to
Americans. They have always been more willing to become involved in international affairs
when some high principle is at stake. World War I was fought to “make the world safe for
democracy.” World War II and the Cold War were accepted as struggles for freedom against
totalitarianism. The Vietnam War was so controversial because policymakers ultimately
could not convince the public that such principles were at stake or were worth the price being
paid in lives and treasure.
These principles hold true across the American political spectrum. Liberals argue that
radical Third World regimes often show greater economic progress and correct old injustices.
They believe that anti-American behavior is a reaction against past and present U.S. actions
and add that the United States has a moral responsibility for the depredations of dictators who
are its allies. Such miscreant regimes invite Communist revolution.
Conservatives justify support for “milder” rightist dictatorships as preferable to
Communist ones since the former are deemed less thoroughly repressive, less dangerous for
U.S. interests, and more likely to change in a democratic direction. Rightist dictatorships,
conservatives conclude, are more acceptable both morally and in terms of U.S. interests than
are leftist dictatorships. Liberals believe the opposite. Still, in practice U.S. policymakers
have been inclined to support the status quo in accord with President Franklin Roosevelt’s
dictum about the then-ruling member of the Somoza family: “He may be an SOB, but he’s
American predilections to expect the decline of dictatorships were reinforced by a
misleading scholarly and popular analysis of Third World trends in the 1950s and 1960s. As
interest rose about the new or soon-to-be independent countries, academics predicted that the
Third World would follow the West’s historical pattern. An agrarian-oriented “traditional
society,” in which people’s loyalty lay with religion, tribe, and extended family, would be
replaced by an urban, change-oriented “modern” society characterized by individualism,
industry, and allegiance to nation-states. This evolution would follow technologically
determinist lines: Certain forms of communication (the telephone and television), production
(the factory and machinery), and thinking (the scientific method, modern sociology, and
psychology) would forcefully shape the institutions of any society that used them.
The erroneous predictions of Western European and American observers were held by
most of their counterparts in the Soviet bloc. Soviet Communists also expected developing
societies to become more and more like them, inevitably following a road leading first to
capitalism and then, through either Communist-led revolution (as in China or Vietnam) or a
revolutionary dictatorship following the “noncapitalist road,” toward what Moscow
Events taught something quite different from what everyone in the West, the Soviet
bloc, and the Third World expected. A new kind of political regime arose in the Third World:
the modern dictatorship that combined populism, nationalism, mobilization, and repression.