Share this

Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence, Sheena Chestnut Greitens

Reviewed by Zoltan Barany


The literature on the resurgence of authoritarianism that has followed the third wave of democratization has grown by leaps and bounds, but its coverage is quite uneven. One of the key areas that has not received sufficient scholarly attention is the coercive apparatus of the state. Within this category, the regular armed forces have been the focus of most studies, while the secret police—arguably an even more important agent of domestic repression—has been comparatively neglected.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens's new book is therefore a necessary addition to the literature. Given the poor coverage of the topic, her books holds the promise of being something of a pioneering work. It does not disappoint. The book's focus is placed squarely on two important and related questions: what determines the design of autocratic coercive institutions, and what effect does their institutional design have on patterns of repression and the use of violence against civilians? Throughout the book, Greitens clearly demonstrates not only that the institutional variations resulting from the design choices of authoritarian regimes result in different patterns of violence but also, importantly, that these variations are predictable. She argues that “the more fragmented, socially exclusive security apparatus, associated with a high initial threat from elites, is likely to be more violent” (p. 12) because division between security organizations impedes its capacity to process intelligence and, therefore, its ability to calibrate and direct its actions against its targets.

In her theoretical chapter, she lays out the logic behind the design and formation of coercive institution in autocracies, catalogs the threats they must address to stay in power, and explains how different types of threats lead to different institutional choices. She demonstrates when the choice is usually to resort to coup-proofing strategies that require the use of multiple and competing institutions (usually with overlapping functions and responsibilities) and when the best option is to use a “unitary and inclusive internal security apparatus” (p. 17). Along the way, she provides a useful and insightful summation of the literature on coercive institutions that showcases her broad reading and keen understanding of several literatures (civil-military relations, security organizations, institutionalism).

Equally impressive are Greitens's case studies, which serve her purposes well. She offers excellent, detailed, and tightly argued chapters on how coercion is organized in Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea and a second trio of chapters on how these institutions were used for repression in the same three countries. In a very valuable additional empirical chapter, she shows how her arguments travel to other settings, presenting brief studies on Chile, East Germany, and Iraq.

In sum, Greitens develops a rigorous theory of the origins and operation of autocracies’ coercive institutions. She clearly shows that the better-organized coercive agencies are also more effective: they can penetrate the communities they target easier and can achieve their objectives while using less violence than fragmented ones, in large part because they are also better at deterring dissent. Greitens's book is based on her dissertation. It reads nothing like many books based on dissertations. In fact, her engaging and straightforward style propels the reader through the chapters—this may be seldom said about an academic book, but this one is actually hard to put down.

More by This Author

About PSQ's Editor

Demetrios James Caraley

Full Access

Join the Academy of Political Science and automatically receive Political Science Quarterly.

Editor’s spotlight

North Korea and the West

The Debate over North Korea


Search the Archives

Publishing since 1886, PSQ is the most widely read and accessible scholarly journal with distinguished contributors such as: Lisa Anderson, Robert A. Dahl, Samuel P. Huntington, Robert Jervis, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Theda Skocpol, Woodrow Wilson

view additional issues

New APS Book

Continuing Issues in U.S. National Security Policy   CONTINUING ISSUES IN U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY POLICY

Most read

Articles | Book reviews

Understanding the Bush Doctrine
Robert Jervis

The Study of Administration
Woodrow Wilson

Notes on Roosevelt's "Quarantine" Speech
Dorothy Borg

view all

About US

Academy of Political Science

The Academy of Political Science, promotes objective, scholarly analyses of political, social, and economic issues. Through its conferences and publications APS provides analysis and insight into both domestic and foreign policy issues.

Political Science Quarterly

With neither an ideological nor a partisan bias, PSQ looks at facts and analyzes data objectively to help readers understand what is really going on in national and world affairs.

Stay Connected

newsstand locator
About APS