Does Great-Power Competition Favor Autocracies?


Does Great-Power Competition Favor Autocracies?

America’s geostrategic inheritance from seventy-five years of global leadership—deep alliance relationships, a central global financial position, vast soft power influence, a world-class and worldwide military—remains the envy of its rivals. Could that advantage be slipping?


“What if we could just be China for a day?” New York Times opinion columnist Thomas Friedman openly pondered in 2010, amidst partisan gridlock in Washington. Since then, pessimism around the ability of America’s democracy to meet authoritarian challenges has only grown. From Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it often seems that authoritarian governments are running circles around the world’s divided and dysfunctional democracies. “Who wants to join the posse,” AEI’s Hal Brands argues, “if the sheriff can’t shoot straight?” With America entering a new era of great-power competition with China and Russia, many observers fear that authoritarianism will provide these rivals a potentially decisive advantage. 

Matthew Kroenig’s timely new book, The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Authoritarianism from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China, seeks to push back against this narrative of autocratic ascendance and make the “hard-power case for democracy.” Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University and deputy director of the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council, methodically dissects the reported advantages of autocratic regimes and offers the case for democracy as a “force multiplier that helps states punch above their weight in the international system.”   


Kroenig argues that while authoritarian regimes can take decisive actions on the world stage, ruthlessly pursue advantages, and compel their populations to super-human economic achievements (for a while, at least), democracies have historically gotten the upper hand in geopolitical struggles. “It is hard to argue with an undefeated record of four centuries and counting,” Kroenig boasts.  

Using accessible quantitative methods and seven short historical case studies, the book lays out how democratic systems have bested authoritarian challenges through a broad swath of history.  Kroenig concludes by addressing the current state of ideological and geopolitical competition between the United States and its authoritarian competitors, Russia and China.    

Some of Kroenig’s most interesting and counter-intuitive examples emerge from the military sphere—an area where many lay observers might assume a clear autocratic advantage. Kroenig builds upon excellent works from the field of military effectiveness and democratic wartime advantage, such as Caitin Talmadge’s The Dictator’s Army and Allam Stam and Dan Reiter’s Democracies at War, to show a broader perspective on the performance of democracies in great-power competitions. Autocracies, Kroenig highlights, must “omnibalance” against both internal and external threats. This domestic security imperative has hamstrung even the most formidable authoritarian militaries. Oligarchic Sparta’s phalanxes, for example, remained incapable of campaigns exceeding forty days in duration to prevent revolts from the enslaved helot class, “an enemy” who Aristotle described as “constantly sitting in wait of the disaster of the Spartans.” Xi Jinping’s China, which spends more on domestic security than external security and faces serious internal challenges in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, mirrors this weakness. 

Autocratic militaries are also crippled by mistrust and suspicion. Kroenig skillfully highlights how autocrats fear devolving power to junior subordinates and emphasize top-down command styles. While China has possessed submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons since 1986, Beijing resists deploying their Jin-Class boomers with their fully lethal cargo of twelve nuclear-tipped missiles, as “Beijing just does not trust its officers to go to sea with nuclear weapons.” This unwillingness to devolve responsibility directly degrades the ship’s intended purpose of deterrence. The lesson? For autocracies, regime security supersedes national security.  

Nor are autocrats superior decisionmakers. The mechanisms that make democratic decision making so messy, he points out, are in fact the makings of designed checks-and-balances. While democracies have also made their share of hubristic mistakes—such as the Athens’ doomed Sicily expedition and the American War in Vietnam—democratic institutions enable course corrections that often elude autocracies. Kroenig echoes Machiavelli, who wrote in his Discourses on Livy that “fewer errors will be seen in the people than in the prince—and those lesser and having greater remedies.” 

Kroenig assertively supports his thesis of democracy’s hard power advantage in great-power competition and briskly takes the reader through thousands of years of geopolitics to the modern day. However, the quick pace and triumphal tone of the book’s march through history, while perhaps necessary for public consumption, suggests an inevitability in democratic victory. If success in great-power competition depends only upon maintenance of democratic governance at home, then one naturally wonders, why should America expend its financial wealth and military strength abroad?

Kroenig proposes a continuation of the muscular internationalism that has characterized much of America’s post–Cold War grand strategy. “World War III is very much possible and the risks are growing,” he warns in the book’s closing pages. Kroenig, after all, is no dove. In 2012, shortly after leaving his position as a special advisor for Iran policy in the Pentagon’s policy office during the Obama administration, he wrote a bombshell article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike is the Least Bad Option.”  

While Kroenig signed the 2016 “Never Trump” letter while serving as an advisor to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) campaign, he subsequently regretted that decision, and later wrote in Foreign Affairs that “taking a step back reveals that Trump has gotten much of the big picture right” on foreign policy. 

This duality is most apparent in the book’s closing sections. While Kroenig champions how democratic societies derive an economic benefit from the “brain drain” of immigrants fleeing authoritarian regimes, he remains silent on the potential impact of restrictive immigration policies, such as the Trump administration’s 2017 travel ban. Similarly, while Kroenig argues that democracies make better allies because they are trusted to uphold diplomatic agreements, he quickly dismisses the impact of recent moves such as leaving the Iran deal as mere “policy differences” with America’s allies.      

Nevertheless, Kroenig’s work represents a much-needed lesson in the hard power advantage of democracies. Putting aside moral considerations, Americans should take confidence in the considerable advantages of democracy on the world stage. America’s geostrategic inheritance from seventy-five years of global leadership—deep alliance relationships, a central global financial position, vast soft power influence, a world-class and worldwide military—remains the envy of its rivals. While democracy is messy, hard, and often dysfunctional, Kroenig reminds Americans to take some comfort in their starting position for this new era of great-power rivalry.    

Sam Wilkins is an active-duty U.S. Army Special Forces officer with deployments to Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Sam is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and is currently a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). These views are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, Johns Hopkins SAIS, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense. 

Image: Reuters