In 1987, Paul Kennedy publishes The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. This provoking work paved the way for a new current of American foreign policy thinking: American diclinism. According to this school, Washington can no longer dominate the international plane and will inevitably decline to the profit of other powers, whether it might be China, Japan, the Soviet Union, or the European Community. The scholar questions whether the democratic nature of the United States “permits a proper grand strategy to be carried out”[1], or, will this bottom-up decision-making structure lead to the downfall of American hegemony? Whether democratic or authoritarian values give an edge in foreign policy is not a contemporary debate. Exceptional thinkers such as Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Herodotus all claim that democracy offers a competitive edge over authoritarianism in foreign affairs. On the other hand, thinkers like Tocqueville, Plato, Hobbes, and Kissinger doubted that the qualities inherent to democracy would suit the art which is foreign policy. For a state to succeed in the international plane, they argue, it needs to have a grand strategy which can only be formulated by a foreign affairs inspired and educated elite. States must be able to adapt rapidly, and when necessary, act covertly. Contemporary authoritarian rulers thus invoke the “greater good” or that “democracy just doesn’t work” to justify their tyrannical and unilateral grip over power. Xi Jinping being a prime example, even more so in the current CoViD-19 pandemic context.

Matthew Kroenig. The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Oxford University Press, New York, 2020.

This is where The Return of Great Power Rivalry, by Matthew Kroenig which is Associate Professor at Georgetown University and Deputy Director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, comes in. In The Return of Great Power Rivalry, Kroenig demonstrates that the doxa – authoritarian states have an advantage over democracies – is nothing short of being wrong. He finds, through meta-analysis and original work, that democracies enjoy a wide panel of advantages – economic, diplomatic, and military – which largely outweigh the advantages of authoritarianism. Kroenig concludes by advocating for a greater degree of democracy in the U.S. and predicting that the 21st century doesn’t belong to autocracies such as China and Russia. When reading his work, it is important to keep in mind that Matthew Kroenig, even though not directly acknowledging it, belongs to the family of “realism” in international relations theory. Realism, in international relations theory, is a school of thought which strives to study Realpolitik, in other words, the study of power competition between states and the balance of power from a traditionally military standpoint. Realists hold that states are the main, if not sole, relevant actors on the international plane and that their survival is the only motivational factor dictating their actions. Furthermore, states operate in an anarchic environment. There isn’t an international cop which can stop states from committing crimes. States are alone and alliances are temporary or motivated by the national interest. Most importantly, according to realisms, international relations are a zero-sum game in which one’s gain is the others loss. The most common names which are associated to realism, are Hobbes and Thucydides – and to a certain degree Machiavelli. Hans Morgenthau is considered the founding father of classical realism. Ironically, all three thinkers – Hobbes, Thucydides, and Morgenthau – are proponents of the autocratic advantage. It should also be noted that, methodologically, in the true spirit of realism, Kroenig does not hesitate to employ quantitative over qualitative data to back his arguments. He justifies it the following way: “Some readers may be skeptical about using numbers to measure something as messy and imprecise as great power politics, but political scientists have come to understand that quantitative analysis, in addition to other tools, can greatly aid our understanding of international affairs. After all, we commonly employ statistics in other domains of life that are equally messy and imprecise, such as economics and medicine”. Kennedy’s book might have been a little precipitous in the 1980s, however, in the 21st century, the question whether the US can remain a hegemonic power is surfacing again and taking an ever-greater place in academia and mainstream media. Kroenig reaffirms the importance of democracy, we should not take it for granted.

Matthew Kroenig proposes to study the strength of a state according to three parameters: economics, diplomacy, and military. Economics, he argues, is the main “moving” parameter. Indeed, it allows a state to flourish, expand, survive. It can also be used as a weapon to enact sanctions on rivalling states and is the coal which fuels military greatness. Diplomacy because states cannot survive alone. Although realists’ discounts alliances as being genuine, built on social, cultural, friendly foundations, they do believe that they can serve the interest of the state. Kroenig gives the example of Hitler and Napoleon which were both militarily and tactically superior to their rivals. However, both failed to secure strong alliances, leading to their quick downfall. Finally, as Kroenig puts it: “The final ingredient for global mastery is military power. Military power may be the most important resource in an anarchic international system. […] War is, however, a recurring feature of international politics, and military power helps states to win wars. States that win wars are better able to accumulate and maintain power than those that lose them”. 

Matthew Kroenig goes on to reference a wide range of modern literature which all converge on the idea that democratic regimes are overall more effective in doing these things than autocratic regimes. To support this claim, and further contribute to it, Kroenig offers an historic analysis of how different states, either democratic or autocratic, have, in these three domains, performed at different times and contexts in history. Overall, Kroenig’s goal in this book is to support the idea that democracies have a “hard power” advantage over autocracies. By “hard power” advantage he means: “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.”

This piece will not list all the contextual and historical cases presented by Kroenig as it would be too long, and I strongly advise readers to go read The Return of Great Power Rivalry for themselves as it is a rich and fascinating read. However, it will present the most evocative and compelling arguments made by the author. Kroenig starts off his series of arguments by a simple observation. Democracy, as an active form of regime, is relatively new and rare. However, when you look at the current global ranking of powers they occupy the top spots. Historically, Athens was the world’s first republic and became the leader of the Greek world, establishing many colonies and fighting back fierce opponents such as the Persian empire. Rome was the only republic at its time. Yet, rose to become a major hegemon during the antiquity. The British Empire expanded so far around the globe, that the sun would never set over it. Finally, with the advent of America in 1945 as a regional, then global, hegemon, there are only a dozen of democracies remaining, most filling the top spots. The fact that democracies rank so high can be explained by their soft-power – Dutch arts and corporations, English scientific achievements through education, American culture – however, Kroenig argues that it is mainly due to their hard-power, in other words, military capabilities. As mentioned earlier, Kroenig, to back this argument, employs the Correlates of War Composite Index of National Capabilities (CINC), a quantitative tool. The CINC score measures a state’s share of total material power in the international system. The score is an aggregation of six components: total population, urban population, energy consumption, iron and steel production, military manpower, and military expenditures. I would like, before presenting the findings, warn that this index is highly challenged. Indeed, steel and iron were a vital component in the war effort in earlier wars, today guns are partially being replaced by cyber-attacks, and disinformation. However, most modern conflicts remain of conventional nature. Kroenig, employing the CINC index, 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.” Quoting William Thompson, it can be argued that over the four hundred past years, the leading states on the international plane were all of (considering the standards of the time) democratic nature: the Dutch Republic (1609-1713); Great Britain (1714-1945), and the United States (1945-present). Consequently, republics fail when they become less democratic. The Roman Empire weakened its democratic norms and went from an energetic and innovative republic to an old and tired empire; the Venice, which used to have a broad and active electorate started empowering nobleman; France’s enlightening First Republic was overthrown by Napoleon’s adventurism. However, it is acknowledged that autocracies, in certain cases, have an edge in the short term. Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was an outstanding success and Napoleon was able to conquer a consequential amount of Europe in record time. Both had in common of being militarily inferior but could react fast in part due to the centralisation of power in one individual, both have in common of lasting only a couple years before democratic states overturned them.

Turning to more contemporary cases, Kroenig studies Russia and China. 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 less evident. Kroenig argues that while Beijing has been to develop rapidly and has created a cobweb of allies in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East – albeit through fear and diplomatic pressure – it has not imposed itself as a leading hard power state. Chinese military technology, while impressive compared to some of its neighbours, is lacking faced with America’s capabilities. Kroenig also argues that the Belt and Road Initiative is a mark of Chinese weakness rather than strength. China grows through fear rather than diplomacy and strong allies which, to some extent, will be its downfall. The Return of Great Power Rivalry was written after the CoViD-19 outbreak, nevertheless, after the pandemic, and repeated lies from the Chinese Communist Party, it is unlikely that China will make many more friends. Furthermore, the Uighur exploitation and genocide is a disgusting and blatant violating of human rights law which will only accelerate Chinese downfall. Further studies from Science Po Paris[2] and l’Institut Montaigne[3], respectively a French university and think-tank, find that democracies did better than autocracies at containing and safeguarding the integrity of its citizens during the pandemic. 

Overall, The Return of Great Power Rivalry is a fascinating, well-written, and compelling book. Although the methodological choice of quantitative data can be debated and the use of certain cases – comparing Carthage against Rome with Spain against the Netherlands – can present some issues. The Return of Great Power Rivalry it remains a well-grounded academic work. In an age of populism, Kroenig reminds us that democracy isn’t just a righteous form of governing, it is also incredibly efficient practically. 


[1] https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/05/book-review-the-return-of-great-power-rivalry-makes-case-for-democracies-strongest-powers/

[2] https://www.sciencespo.fr/ceri/en/content/covid-19-authoritarianism-vs-democracy-what-epidemic-reveals-about-orientalism-our-categorie

[3] https://www.institutmontaigne.org/blog/covid-19-les-autoritaires-vont-ils-lemporter-sur-les-democraties

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