Will the US or China rule the future?

Mounting a timely, robust defense of democracies.

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping stand side by side at the G20 leaders summit in Japan last year (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping stand side by side at the G20 leaders summit in Japan last year
Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, has mounted a timely and robust defense of democracies in his new work, The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the US and China.
Kroenig, who is also a senior fellow in the Snowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, wrote before the deadly coronavirus emerged from Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province.
The Return of Great Power Rivalry teaches some invaluable lessons regarding the challenges that tyrannical regimes such as Communist China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia pose to democracies.
Kroenig writes of Beijing’s autocratic system, “The most serious challenge to US global leadership since the end of the Cold War comes from China…. It is challenging US primacy in East Asia and contesting US leadership around the world. Some argue that we must begin to come to grips with what life will be like ‘when China rules the world.’ Others maintain that the United States will not pass so easily into the night and, instead, we must gird ourselves for the coming World War III.”
He continues, “Fortunately, from the perspective of the United States and the rest of the free world, these predictions are much too dire. China has a storied past, and it will likely always remain a great power, but it will not overtake the United States as the world’s leading state any time soon. Its underlying institutions are simply not up to the task.”
Of course, one should not be quick to issue a death certificate to the Chinese Communist Party system in its great power battle with the United States. If the US continues to pursue a neo-isolationist foreign policy and turns rapidly inward, China could secure tremendous advantages over the Americans.
I am betting, however, that Kroenig’s understanding of democratic philosophy, which also animates US foreign policy efforts, will continue to prevail.
The latest headlines illustrate why the democratic, capitalist order is a better form of social and political organization: The ubiquitous cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak by the Communist Party of China (CPC), surely reveals the deficiencies of its institutions and economic system. As of this writing, the novel coronavirus has resulted in a least 315,000 deaths worldwide (a conservative figure based on official figures) and a massive, ongoing collapse of the global economy.
This helps to explain why vibrant democratic institutions, the driving force behind Kroenig’s thesis, should be valued and prioritized over seemingly efficient autocratic models.
Yet the infatuation with the rise of the Chinese economic powerhouse among many Western business leaders, journalists and politicians reveals that what should be obvious is not obvious to all.
“For years, people admired the US economic model, but the financial crisis led many around the world to wonder whether China might in fact have the better system,” writes Kroenig about the financial meltdown of 2007-08. “Many analysts believe that the ‘China Model’ of ‘state-led capitalism’ is the way of the future,” he adds.
Amid a pandemic that Beijing severely mismanaged from the outset, the cheerleaders for China’s state capitalism find themselves with egg on their faces.
KROENIG’S CHAPTER on China is a breathtaking breakdown of the authoritarian state’s use of jingoism and soft power to achieve its historical goals as a power on the world stage.
Within China proper, the Communist Party’s ruthless crackdown on its minority Muslim population has been largely ignored by Western democracies, with the exception of the US State Department.
Kroenig writes, “Turning to more serious matters, China keeps over one million Muslim Uighurs locked up against their will in ‘re-education’ camps in China’s western Xinjiang Province. There they are tortured, instructed to recite communist propaganda, and force-fed pork and alcohol in contravention of Muslim beliefs. The purpose is nothing short of the ethnic cleansing of this minority group in order to force them to be part of a unified Chinese nation.”
The CPC’s persecution of Uighurs warrants sanctions against the Communists.
Back to Kroenig’s central thesis of the spectacular performance of democracies versus autocracies. He marshals serious statistical and evidentiary evidence to show that the democratic order better promotes civil liberties and economic well-being.
Some key foreign policy takeaways: “As we will see, every democratic great power studied in this book became a democracy before it became a great power, not the other way around,” he writes. “Statistical analysis has found that democracies make more reliable partners. They are more likely to uphold their alliance commitments even in times of war and they might make more effective partners during wartime.”
He champions the sustainability of the North American Treaty Organization alliance, which “began as a club of mostly democracies in Western Europe and North America, united by fears of Soviet aggression.” The Soviet Union is history but NATO continues to exist.
The power of democracies to fight when required is also a fascinating element of this book.
“The democratic peace theory – the idea that democracies do not fight other democracies – is well known. What is less well known is that democracies win the wars they fight. Indeed, since 1815, democracies have won over 76% of their wars. Compare this to the much lower success rate of autocracies, which have been victorious in only 47% of cases,” writes Kroenig. “Indeed, while democracies are more peaceful in general, they often respond with a vengeance when attacked.”
Kroenig covers a great deal of territory and political theory in this marvelous book. He examines the leading democratic systems, with all of their flaws, from the ancient Greeks to the Roman Republic to Renaissance Italy’s Venetian Republic. He marches ahead to Northern Europe and delves into the Dutch Republic and the British Empire, and navigates his way across the Atlantic to the “ascendancy” of the United States.
“Democracies are rare. Yet, they keep coming out on top,” Kroenig declares.
On a subjective note, the optimism that infuses this book bolsters a long-overdue defense of democratic government and educational systems based on democratic philosophy.
It is worth recalling the words of America’s greatest social and political philosopher, Sidney Hook: “In contrast to totalitarianism, democracy can face and live with the truth about itself.”
The need for significantly more democratic muscle-flexing by the US in its great power rivalry with the Chinese Communist system and Putin’s authoritarian regime – and I would add, against the highly dangerous Islamic Republic of Iran that is hell-bent on building nuclear weapons – is pressing, to state the obvious. I hope Kroenig’s brilliant defense of democracies in general, and American democracy in particular, will be translated into as many foreign languages as possible.

The reviewer is a research fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
By Matthew Kroenig
Oxford University Press
302 pages; $29.95