National-security analysts see China as one of the greatest threats facing the United States and its allies. According to an emerging conventional wisdom, China has the leg up on the U.S. in part because its authoritarian government can strategically plan for the long term, unencumbered by competing branches of government, regular elections, and public opinion. Yet this faith in autocratic ascendance and democratic decline is contrary to historical fact. China may be able to put forth big, bold plans—the kinds of projects that analysts think of as long term—but the visionary projects of autocrats don’t usually pan out.
Yes, democratic governments are obligated to answer to their citizens on regular intervals and are sensitive to public opinion—that’s actually democracies’ greatest source of strength. Democratic leaders have a harder time advancing big, bold agendas, but the upside of that difficulty is that the plans that do make it through the system have been carefully considered and enjoy domestic support. Historically speaking, once a democracy comes up with a successful strategy, it sticks with the plan, even through a succession of leadership.
Washington has arguably followed the same basic, three-step geopolitical plan since 1945. First, the United States built the current, rules-based international system by providing security in important geopolitical regions, constructing international institutions, and promoting free markets and democratic politics within its sphere of influence. Second, it welcomed into the club any country that played by the rules, even former adversaries, like Germany and Japan. And, third, the U.S. worked with its allies to defend the system from those countries or groups that would challenge it, including competitors such as Russia and China, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, and terrorist networks.