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An autocracy is the purest form of dictatorship, in which (in theory, at least) all power is concentrated into the hands of one person. This should be distinguished from monarchy, which involves some traditional basis for that power, usually birth, and is often weakened (especially in modern times) by the presence of countervailing institutions, like a Parliament. Which is not to say that dictators who've awarded themselves the position of king or emperor are exempt from being categorized as autocrats, of course.

In practice, it is almost impossible to be a real autocrat, because every state must rely on an array of lesser officials to enforce the dicta of the autocrat. Moreover, any given autocrat will have to appease certain factions, most notably the military, to avoid the Praetorian treatment. At a bare minimum, the autocrat will need the threat of force to compel obedience, which necessitates some willing underlings to carry out that threat.

Autocracy, though, is one of the most overused words in the foreign policy lexicon, as it is often used to simply mean "authoritarian" or "totalitarian" governments. For example, many writers will refer to Chinese "autocrats," not understanding that the mere fact that there are more than one person making decisions means it is not an autocracy.


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