My latest piece for DIPLOMAT mulls over the problems the world faces in dealing with Bad Leaders. Some of them contain their Badness within their own borders, thrashing their own people because they can. Others spread their badness and create havoc for others.


The last century gave the world Bad Leaders on a stupendous scale. Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Pol Pot. These and others did not merely impose ruinous economic policies whose incalculable opportunity costs rippled down the decades far into the future. To achieve their insane collectivist ends they massacred, starved or otherwise wiped out millions of their own people.

Hitler and Hitlerism were defeated, allowing the Allies to try to ‘de-Nazify’ Germany once and for all. Stalin and Mao both died in office and were given honourable funerals. Their top Party stooges eventually intoned that they made ‘grave mistakes,’ as if mass killing on a mind-boggling scale is a regrettable technical error. There is no honest reckoning with what happened. How can there be, without the whole rotten system being swept aside?

Thus when Soviet communism crumbled there was no wholesale ‘de-Communisation’ in Russia and most of the former Soviet Republics – no sustained attempt to face up to the past, including severely punishing the worst surviving state criminals. Western governments refuse even to think about it: it might be ‘destabilising.’ Lenin was left to moulder proudly in Red Square. Soviet communist mass murderers remained in places of honour in or by the Kremlin Wall.

This is why even after such sustained cruelty (if not pure evil), these revolting leaders somehow retain a mystique of unassailable impossible ‘greatness.’ It’s as if they prod something deep and dirty in our brains that we’d much rather ignore:

“Yes, we were wicked. But hey, look at the sheer scale of our wickedness. Be honest. Don’t you find that just a little bit … impressive?”

This appalling thought skews the psychology of whole populations. People who survive may quietly rejoice when the Bad Leader finally dies. But insofar as the Bad Leader left them a legacy of anything positive (new roads and factories, universities, a huge army with efficient weapons), it’s steeped in the blood of their own colleagues, friends and family members.

How do they look back on the Bad Leader’s reign of terror? Could they have done more to stop it, or at least reduce the harm? Did they turn away from the horror happening down the street, or down the corridor? Were they all, when it came to it, cowards who sold their souls to stay alive? And, if so, what now? What does it all mean?

It means, basically, that anything goes. Ends have overwhelmed Means. Morality and human decency? Please. Don’t be so naive.

Other Bad Leaders, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, both ruin their own countries and export the consequences, as refugees or wider instability. In Assad’s case he faces a life or death battle for survival, but he also wants to show the Syrian masses and the rest of us how strong and resilient he is. How to respond to a Bad Leader whose very perniciousness in exporting badness sharply raises the international costs, but also may be a weird source of domestic strength?

World leaders at this point heave a sigh and open the battered policy box marked Sticks and Carrots.

Ah! Now you’re talking. Something we all understand. Or … do we?

Of course even carrots aka Positive Engagement just give us new problems:

Offering positive inducements for good behaviour might in fact work, but it almost never happens. It opens the notorious diplomatic conundrum: should Bad Leaders be ‘rewarded’ for behaving less badly?  If they are rewarded, won’t they create more problems to get more ‘reward’ and win undeserved respectability as a problem-solver, as Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević did time and again? Yet if they aren’t rewarded, they have no positive incentive to cooperate.

If a Bad Leader does make a radical change of course to meet reasonable international expectations, as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi did to such impressive effect, do world leaders have some sort of responsibility to help him when things start to slide? Or does each Bad Leader do well to have a personal escape plan ready and well oiled?

Finally, these days there’s no easy fall-back position of a calibrated policy of ‘positive engagement.’ Why are you engaging with this appalling person? What about his victims? Don’t you care?

Hmm. That’s a question usually not answered by the people who stridently pose it.


If you’re thinking about being a Bad Leader, the record shows that a policy of ‘the worse, the better’ pays off. And if you manage to murder millions of people but somehow die of natural causes, you might achieve a certain grim greatness.

The worse? The better.