From the Arab Spring to the passing of Kim Jong Il, 2011 was a year of dictators passing from the scene. But while 2011 puts an exclamation point on this trend, the fading of dicatorships has been a rather steady ongoing process from the 1970s onwards.
I put this to two factors, both of which are long-term global trends. First is the change in global economics. Since the onset of industrialization, the basis of power and wealth has changed from mere possession of land and people to work it to the hard work of free laborers and creative capitalists. The latter thrive best in democracies, so autocratic regimes have fallen further and further behind democratic ones economically.
This has lessened the resources available to dictators to hold onto their possessions, and reduced the appeal of dictators to their own elites and populations. In old days of territorial gains providing wealth, a powerful autocrat could expect to do well in global economic terms, and to reward his supporters and improve the prestige and power of his nation. Those days are gone — dictatorships today are struggling low or middle income pariah states, such as Cuba, N. Korea, Iran, Belarus. So it is pretty much an expectation that more freedom — economic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom to participate — is a hallmark of strong and successful countries. Dictatorships are, in Darwinian terms, increasingly uncompetitive.
Second is the globalization of information. It is almost impossible today for dictators to isolate their peoples from knowledge of broader global trends, and to isolate their own actions from global scrutiny. So elites and popular groups across the world know that democracy, human rights, and economic growth are expected across the world and if they are being denied those things, they are out of the mainstream of global trends. And dictators find it harder to use the oppression needed by all authoritarian regimes to prevail over the normal human forces of discontent and opposition. The global community no longer turns a blind eye to mass killings, as Gaddafi and Assad have learned.
Together, these factors have made it almost inevitable that dictatorship will fade as a mode of governing nations. A century from now, I expect people will look back on the dictatorships of the 20th century much as we look back on the monarchies of the 16th-19th centuries — as relics of a more primitive time.