Think about the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin in Russia. Stalin and the top government officials were all communists, but they would not have agreed on every detail on how to implement a policy of communism. If a top government official had been a truly dedicated communist, then eventually that official would have disagreed with Stalin about something, and would have attacked Stalin for being a traitor to communism. So for Stalin to be secure as dictator, Stalin must purge all truly dedicated communists from top government posts.
So who can Stalin appoint to top government posts? Cowards, because cowards are too afraid of Stalin to oppose him. Crooks, who want to steal as much money as possible, and think they can steal more as an ally of Stalin than as an opponent of Stalin. Pragmatics, who think that opposing Stalin would be too costly. And Stalin groupies who are unthinkingly loyal to Stalin.
The opposite is true for lower government officials. The ideal lower government official is a dedicated communist. As long as they believe that Stalin is a communist, they will work long hours for low pay. They will not hesitate to lie, cheat, steal, and murder as long as they believe their victims are enemies of communism. They might disagree with Stalin about policy details, but not if Stalin conceals policy details from them. They will want to believe that Stalin is a good communist, so in the absence of evidence, they will assume that he is.
I think these are inevitable characteristics of all dictatorships. At the top of the hierarchy is the dictator. Below the dictator is cowards, crooks, pragmatics, and groupies. Below them is ideologues. Secrecy prevents the ideologues from discovering that the dictator is not as ideologically pure as they believe.
When establishing a dictatorship, the future dictator may rely on dedicated ideologues. After the dictatorship is established, these ideologues may be rewarded with top government posts. These ideologues will not threaten the dictator at first out of revolutionary loyalty. But these ideologues may be purged later, and no new ideologues will be appointed.
If the first dictator dies soon, one of these revolutionary comrades is likely to become the second dictator. The second dictator will not command the same revolutionary loyalty as the first dictator. The ideologues are more likely to oppose the second dictator than the first dictator. Thus the second dictator will be quicker to purge ideologues from top government posts. The second dictator may be more paranoid and more dictatorial than the first dictator.
These apply even if the dictator is a committee, except that rivalries between members of the committe create complications.
Pragmatics make the best servants of dictators. Groupies do not think, cowards are afraid to do what needs to be done, and crooks are more interested in stealing than in being good administrators. But pragmatics are also the most dangerous servants. Pragmatics recognize that the nation would be better off without the dictator, and will look for an easy way to get rid of the dictator. So a successful dictator must have enough pragmatics to keep the government running smoothly, but also enough groupies, cowards, and crooks to control the pragmatics.
Think about what happens when the dictator dies. The nation is now ruled by cowards, crooks, groupies, and pragmatics. The dictator's successors are not loyal to the dictator's ideology, but must pretend to be. If the lower government officials discover that the new leaders are not loyal to the old ideology, the lower government officials will become demoralized and will stop doing their jobs, and the nation will disintegrate.
What happens next depends on who gains control of the government. If the pragmatics are dominant, there will be gradual reform while paying lip service to the old ideology, which is what happened in China after the death of Mao Zedong. If the cowards are dominant, the nation will stagnate while making a show of loyalty to the old ideology, which is what happened in Russia after the death of Stalin.
The greatest danger occurs if the groupies are dominant. After the death of the dictator, the groupies may want to attack everyone the dictator regarded as an enemy, including both foreign nations and internal enemies. But groupies do not think, so such attacks will probably be characterized by poor strategy and tactics. A dictator needs servants needs servants who think enough so that the dictator can delegate tasks to them and let them figure out the details; but who do not think too much so that they are no danger to the dictator. Groupies make poor servants because they do not think enough. A dictator's inner circle is unlikely to be dominated by groupies, so a dictator is unlikely to be succeeded by groupies. Even if a dictator is succeeded by a groupie, the pragmatics and crooks can probably fool the groupie into thinking they are obeying orders while in reality they do whatever they want. Also groupies are usually part of the personality cult which is based on the actions of the dictator in the revolution which established the dictatorship. As years pass, the events of the revolution become less relevant. A dictatorship which focuses on preserving itself is unlikely to do anything heroic, and it is difficult to create a personality cult when the dictator does nothing heroic. After the first or second dictator, succeeding dictators are likely to be especially dull, and unlikely to inspire a personality cult. Therefore a dictatorship which has existed for many years is unlikely to have any groupies, so there is no chance that groupies will come to power.
Dictators must have weak servants, and this means that dictators must have weak successors.
Dictators tend to surround themselves with sicophantic losers. The dictator's successor will be one of those sicophantic losers.
If the ideologues know the truth about the dictator's inner circle, the ideologues will conclude that the dictator's inner circle are idiots and traitors.
This means that all dictatorships inevitably decline.
Despite the best efforts of the dictator and top officials to conceal the truth, the lower officials will gradually discover the truth. After a dictatorship has existed for many years, the lower officials and ordinary members of the party will no longer be willing to make sacrifices for the ideology.
Then self-sacrifice becomes a danger to the regime. Previously, the dictatorship encouraged self-sacrifice. Now the dictatorship must discourage self-sacrifice.
For example, consider the 1990 Tianamen Square demonstrations in China. Before Tianamen Square, the government of China encouraged people to do what was best for China instead of doing what was best for themselves. After Tianamen Square, the government of China feared that people thought what was best for China was free elections and an end to communism. So the government no longer dared ask people to do what was best for China. Instead the government encouraged people to do what was best for themselves. The government of China encouraged people to try to get rich instead of trying to save the world.
When a dictatorships find they can no longer appeal to ideology, the dictatorship must appeal to greed. This leads to an increase in crime and corruption. Eventually greed will destroy the society.
This is why America defeated the Soviet Union in cold war. America did not defeat the Soviet Union with courage, military strength, support of human rights, science, steadfastness, freedom, or justice. The secret weapon which enabled America to defeat the Soviet Union in the cold war was patience.
A nation with an elected government has an opportunity to bring dedicated reformers to power every election. It usually does not happen, but it could happen, and it is more likely to happen when there are serious problems. This is how nations with elected governments renew themselves. This is how nations with elected governments are able to reverse declines.
But there is no way for a dedicated reformer to come to power in a dictatorship except through revolution. A dictator can have a servant who is dedicated, or a servant who is a reformer, but not a servant who is a dedicated reformer.
An inherited dictatorship like a monarchy is different because the dictator does not choose the heir.
This means that American policy towards dictatorships should be patience, the same policy that won the cold war.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ideology is islam instead of communism, but the principles of dictatorship are the same. Iran has the same secrecy as other dictatorships. Unfortunately that means that everything else I say about Iran is partly guesswork, but it also means that anyone who disagrees with me is also guessing. I interpret the secrecy to mean that the dictator of Iran, Ali Khameni, is hiding the fact that he is not as dedicated to islam as he claims.
Ali Khameni is the second dictator of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ali Khameni became dictator partly by being a revolutionary comrade of the first dictator, Ruhollah Khomeni; partly by being a Ruhollah Khomeni groupy; but mostly by never opposing Ruhollah Khomeni, which is a polite way of saying that Ali Khameni is a coward.
Iran's foreign policy consists of supporting terrorism against America and Israel. This is unlikely to accomplish anything for Iran. If it results in retaliation against Iran by America or Israel, the retaliation is likely to be limited to air strikes, which will accomplish nothing except the people of Iran will rally around their leader. This is the foreign policy of a coward. It makes a show of doing something while actually doing nothing, while running zero risk that the dictator will lose power. Ali Khameni will not make a major attack against America or Israel because that would result in major retaliation, probably an invasion and occupation. If Ali Khameni gets nuclear weapons, he will not dare use them.
However, if America totally ignores the petty attacks of Iran, Ali Khameni may become bolder and escalate the attacks. Petty retaliation by America might cause Iran to become more cautious. On the other hand, petty retaliation by America might cause Iran to retaliate in turn. Sometimes retaliation prevents escalation, and sometimes retaliation causes escalation. I think America should ignore most petty attacks from Iran, but should retaliate occasionally; and such retaliation should consist of low publicity actions like economic sanctions rather than high publicity actions like air strikes. High publicity actions are more likely to inflame antiamericanism, more likely to cause the people of Iran to rally around their leader, and more likely to make Ali Khameni feel he must retaliate and escalate. Air strikes are high publicity because air strikes produce dramatic photographs of mangled corpses lying in the streets. Economic sanctions are low publicity because economic sanctions are too dull to make headlines. Ordinary people feel more personally threatened by air strikes than by economic sanctions. The ideal retaliation scares the dictator without scaring ordinary people. The pragmatists among the dictator's advisors will recognize the economic sanctions as retaliation and will advise the dictator to be less confrontational. If the dictator follows the advise of the pragmatists, the dictator will become less of a threat to world peace. If the dictator ignores the pragmatists, the nation's decline will accelerate, and the dictator will become less of a threat to world peace.
If any of Ali Khameni's advisors was dedicated to islam, that advisor would eventually disagree with Ali Khameni on some trivial detail of doctrine. If that advisor was truly dedicated to islam, that advisor would fight and be willing to die for the true interpretation. That advisor would be a threat to Ali Khameni. Therefore Ali Khameni has probably purged everyone who believes in islam from his inner circle, and is left with cowards, crooks, pragmatics, and groupies. Eventually, in another twenty years or so, Ali Khameni will die. Ali Khameni's successor will be less islamic and less antiamerican than Ali Khameni. America can accomplish this at zero cost by waiting and doing nothing.
In North Korea, Kim Jong Il appears to have inherited the dictatorship from his father, Kim Il Sung. But North Korea is not a monarchy. There is no tradition or law which requires that the dictator is succeeded by his son. Communist ideology and tradition is opposed to inheritance. Kim Il Sung chose Kim Jong Il as his successor. Therefore Kim Il Sung must have chosen top advisors who were too cowardly, crooked, pragmatic, or groupie to ever disagree with Kim Il Sung. Also, Kim Il Sung would not have chosen Kim Jong Il if Kim Jong Il had opposed or threatened Kim Il Sung. Therefore Kim Jong Il is probably also a coward, crook, pragmatic, or groupie.
Therefore it is silly to worry that North Korea will invade South Korea or launch missiles with nuclear warheads at Japan or America. Cowards, crooks, and pragmatics do not start major wars.
Also note that rumors from North Korea suggest that Kim Jong Il likes american movies and golf, and his son wants to go to Disneyland. Government officials are becoming less interested in communism and more interested in enriching themselves. Corruption is increasing. Ordinary people no longer trust the government.
North Korea is declining. The best policy for America is to do nothing and let North Korea decline.
Some people say that a dictatorship which is failing might start a major war out of desperation. This is extremely unlikely. A dictator who is losing power will focus on internal enemies. Crooks will increase stealing as the government weakens. Idealogues who have lost faith in the government may attempt a coup or revolution. A civil war is far more likely than a foreign war.