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.
America can pursue long-term strategy in part because it enjoys domestic political stability. While new politicians seek to improve on their predecessor’s policies, the United States is unlikely to see the drastic shifts in strategy that come from the fall of one political system and the rise of another. Democratic elections may be messy, but they’re not as messy as coups or civil wars.
Open societies have many other advantages as well. They facilitate innovation, trust in financial markets, and economic growth. Because democracies tend to be more reliable partners, they are typically skillful alliance builders, and they can accumulate resources without frightening their neighbors. They tend to make thoughtful, informed decisions on matters of war and peace, and to focus their security forces on external enemies, not their own populations. Autocratic systems simply cannot match this impressive array of economic, diplomatic, and military attributes.
David Leonhardt recently wrote in The New York Times, “Chinese leaders stretching back to Deng Xiaoping have often thought in terms of decades.” Commonly cited examples of that long-term thinking include the Belt and Road Initiative, a program that invests in infrastructure overseas; Made in China 2025, an effort to subsidize China’s giant tech companies to become world leaders in 21st-century technologies, such as artificial intelligence; and Beijing’s promise to be a global superpower by 2049.
Since putting in place sound economic reforms in the 1970s, China has seen its economy expand at eye-popping rates, to become the world’s second largest. Many economists predict that China could even surpass the United States within the decade, and some have suggested that China’s model of state-led capitalism will prove more successful, in terms of economic growth, than the U.S. template of free markets and open politics.
I doubt these predictions. Because autocratic leaders are unconstrained and do not have to contend with a legislature or courts, they have an easier time taking their countries in new and radically different directions. Then, when the dictator changes his mind, he can do it again.
Mao’s autocratic China ricocheted from one failed policy to another: the Great Leap Forward, then the Hundred Flowers Campaign, then the Cultural Revolution. Mao aligned with the Soviet Union in 1950 only to nearly fight a nuclear war with Moscow in the next decade. Beginning in the time of Deng Xiaoping, China pursued a fairly constant strategy of liberalizing its economy at home and “hiding its capabilities and biding its time” abroad. But President Xi Jinping abandoned these dictums when he took over. As the most powerful leader since Mao—he has changed China’s constitution to set himself up as dictator for life—he could once again jerk China in several new directions, according to his whims, and back again.
According to the Asia Society, he has stalled or reversed course on eight of 10 categories of economic reform promised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself. Moreover, Xi is baring China’s teeth militarily, taking contested territory from neighbors in the South China Sea and conducting military exercises with Russia in Europe.
The problem for Beijing is that stalled reforms will stymie its economic potential and its confrontational policies are provoking an international coalition to contain them. The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy declared great-power competition with China the foremost security threat to the U.S.; the European Union labeled China a “systemic rival”; and Japan, Australia, India, and the United States have formed a new “quad” of powers to balance China in the Pacific.
Furthermore, the plans often cited as evidence of China’s farsighted vision, the Belt and Road Initiative and Made in China 2025, were announced by Xi only in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Both are way too recent to be celebrated as brilliant examples of successful, long-term strategic planning.
A certain level of domestic political stability is a prerequisite for charting a steady strategic course in foreign and domestic affairs. But autocratic regimes are notoriously brittle. While institutionalized political successions in democracies typically lead to changes of policy, political successions in autocracies are likely to result in regime collapse and war. China’s “5,000 years of history” were pockmarked by rebellion, revolution, and new dynasties. Fearing internal threats to domestic political stability—consider the protests this year in Hong Kong and Xinjiang—the CCP spends more on domestic security than on its national defense. If you follow the money, the CCP is demonstrating that the government is more afraid of its own people than of the Pentagon. This domestic fragility will frustrate China’s efforts to design and execute farsighted plans. If threats to Chinese domestic stability were to materialize and the CCP were to collapse tomorrow, for example, Chinese grand strategy could undergo another seismic shift, including possibly opting out of competition with the United States altogether.
Autocracies have other vulnerabilities as well. State-led planning has never produced high rates of economic growth over the long term. Autocrats are poor alliance builders who fight with their supposed allies more than with their enemies. And the highest priority of autocratic security forces is repressing their own people, not defending the country.
The world has undergone drastic changes in just the past few years, but these enduring patterns of international affairs have not. Some fear that Trump’s nationalist tendencies will erode the U.S. position, but the momentum of America’s successful grand strategy has kept the country on a fairly steady course. Despite Trump’s criticism of NATO, for example, two new countries have joined the alliance on his watch, including North Macedonia this week. The coronavirus has upended a sense of security in the U.S., leading many people into the familiar trap of lauding autocratic China’s firm response in contrast to the halting and patchwork measures in the United States. But there is good reason to believe that this assessment will be updated in America’s favor with the benefit of hindsight. Already we are seeing evidence that conditions are much worse in China than CCP officials are letting on and that China’s attempts at international “disaster diplomacy” are backfiring. It has been revealed that the CCP has continually misrepresented the numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths in China, and European nations have rejected and returned faulty Chinese coronavirus testing kits.
The great political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli considered a similar line of thinking in the 16th century, about whether republics or dictators charted a more stable course. He wrote, “I, therefore, disagree with the common opinion that a populace in power is unstable [and] changeable … The prince … unchecked by laws, will be more … unstable, and imprudent than a populace.”
The U.S. political system certainly has problems. But democracy is the best machine ever invented for generating enormous power, wealth, and prestige on the international stage.