The supremacy of democracy can be traced from Greece's dominance of the ancient world through to America's place at the head of the table of geopolitics. Do autocracies like China and Russia pose a serious threat, asks Matthew Kroenig.
Is democracy or autocracy the better form of government? This question has been debated since the time of Aristotle and it has returned in recent years as China and its model of authoritarian, state-led capitalism challenges the US recipe of free-market democracy. Many believe that autocracies are ascendant and democracy in decline, but recent social science research suggests they are mistaken.
The United States has been the world’s leading geopolitical power since 1945. After the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama even declared the “end of history” as US-style, democracy and capitalism emerged as the only legitimate means of organizing domestic economies and politics.
But the return of great power rivalry with Russia and China in recent years has disrupted that happy notion. Russia seeks to disrupt the US-led global system, while China seeks to displace it. China’s economy has grown at rapid rates and economists predict that Beijing could overtake the United States as the world’s leading economy within the decade. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increased its diplomatic influence in every region of the world through big, strategic plans, such as its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). And it is investing in weapons that could one day evict the US military from Asia and eventually make China a global military power in its own right.
China seems to have cracked the code on how to build an autocratic system effective at amassing international power and influence.
In sum, China seems to have cracked the code on how to build an autocratic system effective at amassing international power and influence. Some even warn that we must become accustomed to life “when China rules the world.”
But recent social science research suggests a different answer. I teach a PhD seminar on advanced international relations theory at Georgetown University and for the past several decades economists and political scientists have been obsessed with the question of whether democracies are different. The strict rule of law system in democracies result in sound economic institutions that give investors confidence. Free societies encourage the kind of radical innovation that fosters long-run growth. Constraints on executive power mean that democracies are more likely to strike and maintain international commitments, making them more reliable international partners. And freedom of information and open debate helps democratic leaders to make more informed decisions, including on issues of war and peace.
In a new book, I aggregate these discrete findings into a bigger argument about democratic advantages in great power rivalry. Since democracies do better in the important domains of the economy, diplomacy, and military, they should also do better overall. I maintain that there is a democratic advantage in great power competition.
I consider supposed autocratic advantages as well, but these are often overrated. Some claim that dictators, not bothered with elections and changes in government, can better set and maintain a long-run strategic direction. But, in reality, dictators have proven quite fickle. With fewer constraints in the system, they have often bounced from one failed plan to another. Just think of China’s Mao Zedong ricocheting from his Thousand Flowers Campaign, to the Great Leap Forward, and then to the Cultural Revolution.
And, while dictators do not need to worry about changes in government, they do need to worry about changes of governmental system altogether. Autocracies are notoriously brittle. Autocratic leaders fear their people above all else. The rise of autocratic powers often ends, not in triumph, but in succession crises, regime collapse, and civil disorder.
Others claim that autocrats have the advantage because they can be ruthless in a dangerous world. But reputations for quotidian cruelty and deception undermine credibility when it matters most. We no longer trust Russia on most matters, from abiding by arms control agreements or ceasefires in Ukraine, or to announcing a new vaccine for COVID-19.
The rise of autocratic powers often ends, not in triumph, but in succession crises, regime collapse, and civil disorder.
The long sweep of history demonstrates that democracy is indeed the better system for amassing international wealth and power. Democracy has been a rare form of government for much of human history, yet democracies keep coming out on top. Athens, the world’s first democracy, was the leader of ancient Greece. The ancient Roman Republic rose from a small city-state on the Tiber River to dominate the entire Mediterranean Basin. The Venetian Republic was the superpower of the late Middle Ages with an empire that stretched throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas to present-day Russia. The Dutch Republic, the first republic in early modern Europe, threw off the Spanish yoke and established a global empire of its own with holdings in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Great Britain adopted many of the successful practices of the Dutch Republic and established an empire on which the sun never set throughout the 19th century. Finally, the United States of America surpassed its former colonial master and set itself up as the world’s greatest superpower.
In fact, the history of western civilization can be read as the passing of the torch of liberal international leadership from Athens to Rome, to Venice, Amsterdam, and London, and on to its current resting place in Washington DC.
Autocrats have put up serious fights, but they have struggled to maintain enduring global mastery. Persia, Macedon, the Byzantine Empire, the Spanish Empire, France under Louis XIV and Napoleon, Imperial and Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union challenged their more democratic rivals only to fail in the end. Their calamities were the result of the autocratic weaknesses identified above. They ran into financial difficulties. They struggled to build international partnerships and, indeed, when they began to accumulate power, their democratic rivals formed counter-balancing coalitions against them. And they made poor decisions on war and peace; invading Russia in winter appears to be a favorite pastime of dictators.
What does this mean for the United States’ current rivalry with Russia and China? Despite the current pessimism about democratic dysfunction in the United States, Washington is well positioned for the coming era of great power rivalry. It has the world’s largest economy (23% of global GDP, compared to 15% in China). It sits at the center of the global financial system. It possesses over 30 formal treaty allies that combined hold nearly 60% of global GDP. And it still has the world’s largest military, spending three times more per year on defense than China.
Autocrats have put up serious fights, but they have struggled to maintain enduring global mastery.
Russia is the prototypical example of a weak autocracy. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s. It has few friends and can only keep neighbors on side by attacking them, as it did in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Moscow does have a large nuclear arsenal, but its economic problems have forced it to cut military spending in recent years.
China would seem to be the hard case for the argument, but a careful look shows that the cracks are already showing in the façade of CCP power. President Xi is prioritizing political control over economic performance, backsliding on promised economic reforms, and undermining China’s economic competitiveness. China’s aggressive diplomacy has increased its diplomatic influence, but is also provoking a backlash. The United States declared China the “greatest threat to US national security and economic wellbeing.” The European Union named China a “systemic rival.” And the “Quad” of major democratic powers in Asia (Japan, Australia, India, and the United States) are working more closely together to contain China’s rise. China is strong, but it cannot beat the entire free world at the same time.
Far from witnessing the end of the American era, therefore, it is likely that the United States will remain the world’s leading power for years to come. That is not to say that this is not a dangerous period. Autocratic challenges to reigning democratic powers have resulted in world wars in the past and hostilities remain a possibility in this case. The United States and its allies must gird themselves, therefore, for this new era of competition. To do so, they should play to their strengths, unleashing their economic prowess, diplomatic acumen, and military might.
The real dilemma rests in Moscow and Beijing. If Putin and Xi cling to power, then they will be destined to rule over dangerous, second-rate, global powers. If, on the other hand, they want their countries to become truly great, then they must relinquish office and establish the kind of democratic institutions that have been a pre-requisite for lasting international leadership since time immemorial.