Regime Type Déjà Vu

This one is somewhat off topic, but may be of interest to anyone who has tried to anticipate what Country x or Country y will do in relation to matters of armament and disarmament, war and peace. Or whatever.

A question that plagues discussions of deterrence, proliferation, alliance formation, and assorted other security policy issues — or enlivens them — is systems of government: how they work, who runs them, how they will behave under various circumstances. It’s notoriously hard to reduce any of this to a neat formula. Not that this stops anyone from trying, but you know how it is: governments are made of people, and people are quirky.

It Ain’t Beanbag

The never-ending debate about revolutionary states and their leaders — rash or rational? — is merely one frame for this picture. Not that I’d recommend it. Anyone who has ever been part of any organization ought to be quick to recognize the inadequacy of either label. Not that this stops anyone from using them.

There are basically three problems. First, “nobody knows anything”: It’s not like all this stuff is written down somewhere.

Second, even when you do think you know something, it’s complicated. The biggest concerns can be parsed out — structure, traditions, ideologies, personalities — but they are all mutually entangled and overlapping. The best analysts will have a feel for how it all fits together, not a mathematical model.

Third, all this stuff keeps changing. Like small children or pets when someone is trying to take a family portrait, nothing sits still for too long.

Everything Ancien Is New Again

Even so, one of the more interesting recurring aspects of even some of the most unpredictable regimes is how much they seem to resemble their forerunners. Every “matryoshka”: that starts with Vladimir Putin seems to end with Tsar Nicholas.

Consider Mehdi Khalaji’s “op-ed in today’s Post”:, comparing this week’s “military coup” in Iran to the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. In a few quick strokes and without explicitly saying anything about it, Khalaji has clarified the interminable argument over the roles and powers of Iran’s Supreme Leader and President. The former looks awfully like a Shah, the latter like a Prime Minister. So who really holds the power? Well, it depends on who and when, and you can’t really say except in hindsight. For comparison, is the American office of the Vice Presidency a powerful position? Very few people thought so in 2002.

Or take North Korea… please. In how many Communist states does authority devolve according to the “dynastic principle”:, based on a claim to “divine or semi-divine origins”: According to one “school of thought”:, these features of the regime were borrowed more or less directly from its predecessor, Great Imperial Japan.

There is nothing inevitable about any of this; that’s just how it came out. If Kim Il Sung had made other choices, it might have worked out somewhat differently. Egypt, for example, is still noted for its highly centralized form of government, even if it no longer has “divine pharaohs”: to speak of.

Or think about these United States we have over here. It’s a federal republic, not a constitutional monarchy. There is no established church. And we don’t have a parliamentary system. But somehow, it does happen that we have a powerful head of state, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary. “Wherever could all this have come from”:

Maybe revolutionary apples don’t fall so far from the tree. Something for the Supreme Leader to think about as he weighs his next move.

He could also “listen to this musical bonus”:

1 thought on “Regime Type Déjà Vu

  1. Aaron Mannes

    I recently read some of Douglass North’s work. He’s an economist who is interested in the incentives created by the formal and informal constraints of a society. He is particularly interested in why inefficient societies that discourage productive innovation survive. One of his points is that formal constraints (like laws) change after revolutions. But the revolutionaries always find the informal constraints more resilient. Cultures don’t change easily or quickly.


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