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Democracy Always Prevails in Great Power Competition—Well, Almost Always

Matt Kroenig is getting a lot of kudos for his new tome, but it turns out there are plenty of caveats he did not consider.

Hoplite fight from Athens Archaeological Museum. WikiMedia Creative Commons.

The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China, by Matthew Kroenig, Oxford University Press, March 2020, 304 pages

Matthew Kroenig’s The Return of Great Power Rivalry is a bold and provocative work, full of elan, arguing that “democracies dominate.” 

According to Kroenig, relatively free states—republics or democracies—tend to out-perform authoritarian competitors in long-haul power struggles, from classical Athens and medieval Venice to modern Britain’s struggles against Imperial Germany to America’s triumph over the Soviet Union. He acknowledges that democracies are not nice—they have enslaved, or colonized or sacked cities. Their internal liberty, however, makes them “fearsome competitors.” 

Drawing on a synoptic historical overview from antiquity, Kroenig counsels that the United States is likely to prevail in today’s contests with autocratic rivals. Indeed, it can take on Eurasian autocratic challengers, Russia and China, at the same time. Thanks to its liberty, America holds the best cards: economic and technological dynamism, national cohesion, financial muscle, superior military punch and reach, and the capacity to attract and mobilize allies. But to maintain supremacy, Washington must maintain the freedom that is its source. 

Kroenig skillfully marshals the literature on “democratic advantage” to mount a macro-historical case against American defeatism. In an increasingly bitter, multipolar world, “Great Power Competition” (GPC) has become the new master-concept, even before policymakers could wrestle with its implications, budgets, and dangers. Kroenig poses vital questions: how do we measure comparative strengths and weaknesses? How should deadly rivalries be navigated? Can a depleted America take on all comers?  

This is not a tale of triumphalism. A protégé of the late Brent Scowcroft, Kroenig is more subtle and conflicted. America’s political decline, he warns, could precipitate international failure. After all, if democracies intrinsically have an edge, why must they be told? Most intriguing are the caveats and historical contingencies he acknowledges. These anomalous details yap at the heels of his core argument, suggesting a picture of finer margins. They add up to an alternative warning: If Washington believes its democracy makes it destined to dominate, it may overreach, squander its power, pick fights unwisely, corrupt itself, and unravel, like some historical powers Kroenig cites. 

Before offering case studies, Kroenig surveys patterns and offers suggestive correlations. These are open to debate, resting on controversial codings of “democracies” and “non-democracies.” Britain from 1816, before the Great Reform Act of 1832, is allegedly a democracy, while Germany’s Kaiserreich is a semi-authoritarian foil to constitutional free Britain, despite its wider franchise and reliance on its elected legislature for war credits. The numbers in his dataset suggest favourable odds—for instance, since 1816, 16 percent of all democracies rank as major powers, compared to 7 percent of autocracies—but given the smallness of this club, you wouldn’t bet your house on it. There is also a problem of chickens and eggs. Democracy might be more a proxy for other advantageous factors, making it hard to separate the democratic system of an early modern Holland or a nineteenth century Britain from its wealth, geographic setting, and access to water. 

Still, the notion that more consensual, open societies are generally better at generating capital and material and mobilizing people—with the fall of the Berlin Wall in mind—will strike many as intuitively true, all else being equal. 

The trouble is that in real life, things are rarely equal. The closer we look, the more contingent and near-run the whole business seems. A gap emerges between being “fearsome,” increasing one’s relative power, and actually succeeding. For Kroenig, Athens ascended to power with its free, egalitarian constitution, its seafaring and trading ways, its intellectual creativity and its alliances. But shouldn’t it, therefore, have fared better in the Peloponnesian War, a long and testing competition against a garrison state backed by autocratic Persia, which it lost in humiliating circumstances, for Kroenig’s thesis to hold? Once, when Henry Kissinger spoke of the Soviets as “Sparta to our Athens,” a journalist famously asked, “Does that mean we’re bound to lose?”

Kroenig acknowledges this fall from dominance, but lowers the bar a little, noting that Athens had a good run for a century. If you were an Athenian watching the demolition of the city walls at the hands of pitiless victors, that difference between being fearsome and winning would be more than academic. 

The story then becomes more complex, a warning against the loosening of restraint. Things went wrong when Athens failed to arrest its populist impulses, as its assembly voted for the calamitous Syracuse expedition. Kroenig warns Americans against referenda. This suggests an important caveat—it is not democracy, but republican government as a set of restraints on government and the popular will that represents the optimal system. Democracy is excellent—in mild doses. 

Which takes us to Venice, another murky case. A wealthy city-empire and republic, Venice predominated in northern Italy and enjoyed a large maritime sphere. But as Kroenig rightly notes, as its power grew, the serene city imposed a new closure on its system, restricting seats on its Great Council to noble families. Success abroad coincided not with openness but closure and political “lockout.” For Kroenig, this regression was an error…in 1296, Venice still rose, so if this did damage, it was very slow. Is the causal linkage between “open” regime type and strategic performance so clear? Relatively democratic states might dominate for a time, but not necessarily by behaving democratically. The case of modern Israel (or Cold War-era United States) is a reminder that free states might wage campaigns by suspending democratic norms, separating some national security decision-making from public audit. In the words of Israel’s soldier-statesman Moshe Dayan, “in security matters, there is no democracy.” 

To return to Venice, for Kroenig’s thesis to apply, shouldn’t it also have performed better in its struggles against the Ottoman Empire? Its dramatic naval victory at Lepanto in 1571 is naturally emphasised, but not the reversals it suffered in grinding campaigns in Cyprus, the Balkans, the Peloponnese, Crete and elsewhere. To account for this disappointing run, Kroenig points to the Italian plague of 1629-1631, that wiped out perhaps one third of Venice’s citizens. But that only came after many Ottoman victories, and the Ottomans too suffered numerous plagues at that time. Moreover, Kroenig notes, Venice was prone to plagues because it was an open, trading, internationalised state. But an increased risk of apocalyptic plague is a point for the disadvantage column, and given today’s events, a distressing one.

The more the argument is explored historically, the more caveats it needs. Relatively free societies enjoy advantages, but must not become either “too” open or too elitist. While they will likely punch above their weight, they could still lose, as they have the capacity to misapply their advantages. And success itself could spell disaster, sparking other powers to emulate and then surpass the liberal leviathan, whether Britain in the 17th century envying the Dutch, or China watching America now. Or a pandemic will intervene. The net effect, despite the author’s intentions, is to suggest that if great power rivalry is upon America, even if it starts with a “leg up”, it should be more apprehensive than adventurous, and seek to limit as much as dominate the duels to come.

In the tradition of Niccolo Machiavelli, Kroenig looks both outwards and inwards, summoning his compatriots to the struggle but (rightly) worrying about America’s republican institutions. His overall concern is how regime type impacts strategic performance. The reverse question, whether long struggles against adversaries might undermine democracy at home, only peeks through a little. Kroenig notes that republics like Rome, Venice and France suffered a weakening of democratic norms. But was not this erosion partly because of frequent war-making?  

 Quoting Machiavelli, Kroenig claims that the Florentine “does not extol republican systems of government because they protect the freedoms and human rights of their citizens, but rather for a more instrumental reason: they help the state to become more powerful.” Yet Machiavelli’s concern for republican liberty was not exclusively instrumental. As Quentin Skinner argues, Machiavelli valued republics because they unleashed their citizens’ energies to achieve “glory.” And “glory” was not reducible to imperial expansion but linked also to a state of creative freedom. And he came to appreciate that even with its excellent constitution, Florence was ruined by the combined might of its larger enemies France, Germany and Spain. This is ominous, given Kroenig’s proposition that America take on two large Eurasian rivals at the same time.  

Lastly, where does the Middle East fit? Proponents of “GPC” often regard embroilments in the lands from Libya to Pakistan as wasteful distractions. Kroenig speaks of America in recent decades “squandering strategic attention and resources, fighting in the desert in Iraq and Afghanistan.” As it happens, in Iraq, much of the warfare was in cities. While the superpower preferred the convenience of desert warfare, its “less free” adversaries chose the terrain, drawing the leviathan into attritional urban combat. As in the unforgiving world of great power politics, it was the details that in the end proved fatal.

Patrick Porter is chair in International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. All views expressed are his alone.

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