Do Autocracies Really Have an Advantage over Democracies?

Xi Jinping, head of the Chinese Communist Party, in Qingdao, April 23, 2019 (Xinhua via Reuters)
A new book makes the case that democracies are the strongest great powers.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘T he sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations,” according to a prominent geopolitical scholar, “is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously.”

Labeling the U.S. a “declining number-one power” and citing the “global productive balances tilting toward the Pacific basin and the spiraling costs of weapons and armed forces,” the scholar wondered whether the American democratic “decision-making structure permits a proper grand strategy to be carried out.”

In light of these infirmities, the scholar called upon American policymakers to “manage” the country’s decline and ensure that the “relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly.”

While these statements echo those of the many “declinists” on the left and right of contemporary America, eager to highlight the United States’ political, economic, and military flaws when measured against rising powers such as the People’s Republic of China, the scholar in question was Paul Kennedy, whose majestic 1987 opus The Rise and Fall of Great Powers provoked a heated debate over whether Japan, the Soviet Union, the European Community, or even China would soon supplant Uncle Sam as the world’s greatest superpower.

History, in the form of the anti-Communist revolutions of the late 1980s and the advent of the Internet era in the 1990s, proved these predictions precipitous, if not foolhardy, as the United States spent the quarter-century following the publication of Kennedy’s book consolidating its hegemonic grip on the globe.

But in recent years, the Kennedyites have returned in force, announcing the incipient, inexorable waning of American power, in particular as determined, revanchist regimes in China and Russia have seized the global initiative.

It is to the claims of these loud lamenters that The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China, Matthew Kroenig’s persuasive and perceptive study of historical and contemporary competition between democratic and authoritarian powers, serves as a timely and much-needed corrective.

A professor of government at Georgetown University, Kroenig contends that democracies consistently outperform autocracies on a wide variety of metrics ranging from long-term economic growth to dominance in international financial markets to alliance-building to forging and observing international treaties to military prowess.

He marshals case studies from ancient history through the Cold War in support of what he calls a “hard power case for democracy”:

The argument is not that democracy is a superior system because it protects human rights and civil liberties, although it does that too. Rather, this book argues that democratic countries are better able to amass power, wealth, and influence on the world stage than their autocratic competitors. Democracy is a force multiplier that helps states punch above their weight in international geopolitics.

The story begins in Renaissance Italy, where Niccolò Machiavelli found himself in exile from Florence after running afoul of the ruling Medici clan. In The Discourses on Livy, a lesser known but (in Kroenig’s telling) more important polemic than The Prince, Machiavelli offered “a full-throated defense of republican government,” which he believed to be far more effective and durable than a dictatorship. “It is not the particular good but the common good that makes cities great,” the ex-Florentine wrote of the Roman Republic, “and without doubt this common good is not observed if not in republics.” Indeed, political philosophers across centuries from Polybius to Herodotus to Hippocrates to Montesquieu shared this sentiment.

Kroenig writes that, prosperity-wise, democracies tend to surpass their autocratic rivals because “national economies work primarily according to a political logic, not an economic one, and the political logic in democracies facilitates the type of economic institutions, practices, and policies that tend to promote economic growth.”

Democracies also punch above their weight on the battlefield for two reasons, namely that they “make better decisions about war and peace due to the free flow of information and open debate in their societies” and they “produce more capable military officers who are empowered to take initiative on the battlefield.” These advantages, coupled with an edge in innovation and the ability to focus on external threats (instead of fending off internal insurrection), help explain why, since 1815, democracies have won more than 76 percent of the wars they’ve waged.

What, then, of the notion Kroenig labels “contemporary autocratic advantage theory,” which posits that dictatorships, unmoored from the exigencies of periodic elections and their attendant changes in leadership and unshackled by international legal niceties such as the Geneva Convention, can chart steadier, longer-term, and more direct courses to the future? China, for example, can track citizens’ movements and develop advanced artificial intelligence by conducting big-data experiments in ways that would make even our National Security Agency blush.

Yet these benefits are the proverbial mile wide and inch deep, as autocratic strategies are only as effective as the autocrats themselves, who over time have proven fickle, unstable, and inconsistent. “The best ideas,” Kroenig asserts, “do not reside in the politburo but in talented individuals in the boardroom, or the battlefield, closest to the action.” And the very wartime conventions to which democracies adhere have been shown to provide long-term advantages that perfidious regimes cannot seize.

The data back up Kroenig’s hypothesis: Using the Correlates of War Composite Index of National Capabilities, a statistical measure of national power, he demonstrates that 28 percent of democracies, but only 20 percent of autocracies, have possessed at least 1 percent of total global power at any one point in time, while 16 percent of democracies, and only 7 percent of autocracies, have ever qualified as “major powers.” Democratic powers are also more likely to attain hegemonic status, occupying the top spot in 160 of the last 190 years. To put it bluntly, “the more democratic a country, the more likely it is to be the world’s most powerful state.”

Kroenig provides ample historical evidence. To begin with, “in just over fifty years after transitioning to a democratic form of government, Athens rose from being a small and unremarkable city-state in Greece to becoming the leading power in the Hellenic world,” defeating the superpower Persian Empire, forging an alliance of hundreds of colonies strung along the Eastern Mediterranean, and attaining unparalleled wealth.

While Athens ultimately succumbed to authoritarian Sparta, owing mainly to the increasing unruliness of its system of direct democracy, Rome emerged as a superpower after its republican government matured. By granting freemen the right to elect regional assemblies, Rome fostered domestic harmony and consensus and deployed them in the service of economic advancement, foreign adventure, diplomatic alliance, and military conquest.

Later republics innovated economically and militarily as well. The thousand-year Venetian Republic became the world’s first global financial power and the first to mount cannons on ships, while the Dutch introduced the world’s first corporation (the Dutch East India Company), the first stock market, and the first battlefield guns (as well, less happily, as the first speculation bubble in the form of “tulip mania”). Both built sturdy alliances of like-minded regional powers and overcame ostensibly much more formidable autocratic rivals, including the Byzantine, Spanish, and Portuguese Empires.

Kroenig also treads the well-worn ground of the achievements of Great Britain and the United States and convincingly shows how they triumphed in their extended competition with authoritarian powers such as pre-republican France, Germany, and the Soviet Union through superior strategic and diplomatic decision-making and open and prosperous economies.

The decline of historic democratic republics can be traced to a weakening of their democratic norms, including in Rome, where an energetic republic succumbed to a sclerotic and decadent empire; in Venice, where an open and broad-based electoral system yielded to a calcified system empowering only noblemen; and in France, where the upstart First Republic of the late 18th century crumbled under the military and political weight of Napoleon, whose idiosyncratic adventurism resulted in disaster.

Kroenig contends that the same dynamic obtains today, with authoritarian Russia and China vying with the democratic United States and its allies for global dominance.

The Russian threat, he argues, is fairly easily dismissed; despite Putin’s aggressive military and diplomatic posture in Russia’s near and far abroad, his disinformation campaigns across the Western world, and his destabilization of NATO, Russia’s economy has suffered grave harm under Putin’s repressive policies, kleptocratic rule, and renationalization of critical industries. Putin has also failed to assemble an alliance of reliable diplomatic partners, and Russia’s military spending amounts to one-tenth of America’s. “So long as it continues to be ruled by President Vladimir Putin, or another similar dictator,” Kroenig asserts, “Russia will not be able to mount a serious challenge to U.S. global leadership.”

China, however, is another story. The “first true peer-competitor the United States has ever faced,” the People’s Republic under Xi Jinping has invested massively in urbanization, foreign infrastructure projects, military-force projection, and technological advancement. Xi has labored mightily to nurture alliances among Asian, African, and even European countries as a counterweight to the United States.

And yet China’s authoritarian political environment and partially controlled economic system have proven uncongenial to the robust and sustainable flourishing of the Middle Kingdom. Remarkable (but now declining) growth rates have obscured the Chinese Communist Party’s enduring reliance on bloated state-owned enterprises and corruption and double-dealing, and the longtime maintenance of its one-child policy, all of which are stymying China’s prospects for long-term prosperity. Even its vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, Kroenig reckons, signals Chinese weakness, not strength, as its focus on Central Asia seems unlikely to significantly elevate the PRC’s great-power status.

Militarily, Chinese technological development continues to lag behind its Western counterparts, and its persistent need to police a sometimes restive population siphons money and energy away from facing external threats. In addition, while the book was published before the COVID-19 crisis hit its apogee, China’s conduct with respect to the virus will hardly win it new friends.

And if Russia and China remain unable to attain global supremacy, the United States is poised to retain its crown for decades to come. Notwithstanding its economic challenges, political polarization, and diplomatic missteps, the American system’s free-market policies, fractious democratic battlefield, and assertive (if sometimes lonely) foreign posture represent features, not bugs, and constitute the core sources of American affluence and vibrancy. The U.S. military continues to be unrivalled, and its global network of alliances among like-minded nations remains strong.

Some of the book’s arguments are weaker than others. For instance, the Roman Republic was mighty indeed, but the distinctly undemocratic empire into which the republic devolved with Julius Caesar proved even more powerful. Kroenig contends that the empire “was living off of the achievements of the Republic and it eventually succumbed to internal decay and external attack,” but not before it extended Rome’s economic, diplomatic, and military reach much farther than the Republic had ever done.

Kroenig could also have labored further to establish a causal relationship between the openness of the British political system and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which powered the British Empire’s exponential growth. And his occasionally informal prose (“To up their game, the Dutch invented a new form of ship”; “Napoleon made a doozy”) can be jarringly incongruent with the sophistication of his argument.

But The Return of Great Power Rivalry delivers on its central promise, compellingly demonstrating how and why liberal democracies have generally outperformed their autocratic counterparts throughout history, both ancient and recent.

Ultimately, Kroenig concludes, “America’s fundamentals are still better than Russia’s and China’s,” and we should therefore remain confident that “the American era will endure and the autocratic challenges posed by China and Russia will run out of steam.” Here’s hoping he’s right — and the neo-Kennedyites are wrong.

Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in Israel and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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