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The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China Hardcover – March 27, 2020
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"In Return of Great Power Rivalry, Matthew Kroenig, a rising star among the next generation of strategic thinkers, brilliantly counters the current political narrative of autocratic ascendancy and democratic decline. Drawing on historical examples of great power competition between autocracies and democracies from Ancient Greece to the Cold War, he highlights democracy's enduring, structural advantages. By underscoring the importance of strong political institutions, his reflections serve as a handbook for contemporary leaders on how to prevail in a new, and more complex, era of great power competition." -- Fredrick Kempe, President and CEO, the Atlantic Council, and New York Times bestselling author of Berlin 1961: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
"Professor Kroenig makes a powerful and provocative case that the world's democracies, and especially the United States, enjoy deep and lasting advantages over their autocratic rivals. He brings to this investigation a rare combination of first-rate scholarship and a lively prose that all readers will find engaging and informative. An important work for our times." -- Robert Kagan, Stephen & Barbara Friedman Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, and New York Times bestselling author of The World America Made
"In The Return of Great Power Rivalry, Professor Kroenig explains why democracies have prevailed over their autocratic rivals in the past and outlines how the United States and its democratic allies can better compete with the more sophisticated autocratic challenges we face today. This is an important book on the defining issue of our time with real implications for policymakers and scholars alike." -- General James L. Jones Jr., UMSC (Ret.), Former National Security Advisor to US President Barack Obama
"We already know that democracies are more humane and usually better governed than autocracies are. But despots like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping continue to claim that their regimes are better at delivering national security and greatness in the global arena. Matthew Kroenig confronts the autocrats' claims head-on and demolishes them. In remarkably accessible and delightful written text, he mines social science theory and two-and-a-half millennia of history to show that democracies are more powerful-not just fairer and better governed-than autocracies are. At a time when the global struggle between democracy and autocracy is reaching a critical new stage, this book promises to touch nerves and influence minds from Washington to Moscow to Beijing. Policy-relevant social science at its best!" -- M. Steven Fish, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Democracy Derailed in Russia: The Failure of Open Politics
"In this age of widespread pessimism about the future of democracy, this book makes a powerful argument: democracy is not only better for the people, but may have the edge against autocracies in the coming great power rivalry. It is an erudite, well-argued and uplifting book." -- Daron Acemoglu, , Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
About the Author
Matthew Kroenig is Associate Professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Deputy Director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He is the author or editor of seven books, including The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy and Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons.
- Publisher : Oxford University Press (March 27, 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0190080248
- ISBN-13 : 978-0190080242
- Item Weight : 1.2 pounds
- Dimensions : 9.3 x 1.2 x 6.4 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #104,079 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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- Russia invaded Georgia?, the UN report on this conflict explicitly stated that Georgia started the war
- Napoleon's Grand Armee was smashed by the Russians, the Battle of Waterloo was small potatoes vs. the Russian campaign (and the British would have been defeated at Waterloo without the intervention of Prussia)
- Nazi Germany destroyed the armies of the democratic France and Britain in a matter of weeks. 85% of the German armed forces then engaged with the non-democratic USSR and were defeated. The Normandy landing was a relative side-show compared to the defence of Moscow, Battle of Stalingrad, the Kursk Salient etc.
- Stalin aimed for "revolution in one country" and explicitly reined in the communist parties in Western Europe toward the end of WW2. He also allowed the western allies to smash the communist party in Greece. The Soviet Union was always a relatively weak defensive power (it had lost 25 million people in WW2 and massive parts of the country were laid waste).
- Russia was invited into Syria by the internationally recognized sovereign government of Syria to combat foreign-funded and supplied religious fundamentalist armies. The US and its allies illegally (under international law) attacked the sovereign state of Syria. Russia had learnt from the Libya regime change operation (a country which is still in shambles vs. the Southern European standard of living that its population previously enjoyed).
- The British Empire was established at a time of extremely limited democracy (land ownership requirements, no female emancipation) and its record within the Empire was horrific. It was the British that first invented the concentration camp, not the Nazis.
- The United States could not be counted as "free" in any true sense until the end of Jim Crow in the 1960s. It is also a country based upon conscious genocide (the native population) and slavery - a history that it has never come to terms with. The horrific slaughters to subjugate the Philippines at the end of the C19th also point to the brutality of this "democracy".
- Athens was an extremely limited "democracy" with the vast majority of the population excluded.
- The present day US has been likened to a "managed democracy" which the fate of Bernie Saunders (cheated twice out of the Democrat nomination) and the inability to pass a Medicare for All (repeatedly supported year after year by a majority of US citizens in polls and the standard in other Western nations) point to.
- "The leading states since the 1600s" have included non-democratic China and India until the early 1800s. I question whether the author has engaged with any actual scholars of non-Western history.
- China has kept its defence spending at 2% of GDP, well below the level of the US
- The author also leaves out the destabilization of foreign democracies such as Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s, and Chile in the 1970s, this is not war but it is certainly aggression. His thesis should perhaps be that "Western Europe and the White Settler Colonies don't tend to go to war with each other".
I could go on for page after page, but instead I will simply point to some much more balanced and informed views that far exceed the simplistic and misleading narratives used in this work:
- Christopher Layne: The peace of illusions: American grand strategy from 1940 to the present
- Martin Jacques: When China Rules The World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World
- Bastian van Apeldoorn and Nan de Graaff: American Grand Strategy and Corporate Elite Networks
- Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation The Political Economy and Economic Origins of Our Time
- Gabriel Kolko: The Politics of War: The World and the United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945.
- Sheldon S. Wolin: Democracy Incorporated
- Zachary Karabell: Architects of Intervention: The United States, the Third World and the Cold War 1946-1962.
- Rajan Menon: The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention
- Greg Gandin: Empires Workshop Latin America, the United States, And The Rise of the New Imperialism
- John Mearsheimer: Liberal Dreams and International Realities
- Tony Wood: Russia Without Putin Money, Power, and Myths of the New Cold War
- Stephen Cohen: Failed Crusade America And The Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia
- Ken Booth: Strategy and Ethnocentrism
This work is based on the best of current scholarship in international relations, but is written for the intelligent laity with a minimum of jargon or esoteric theory. It is nicely concise, only 224 pages of text, but well-documented. If I were still teaching international relations at a university, I could easily build a course around this book. But being a fellow academic in this area, I’ll note some minor quibbles.
First, and most important to note for those who may consider buying this book for some serious summer reading while waiting out the plague, you should know that the main title is a bit misleading. The subtitle really sums up the book more accurately. It’s a nice review of the history of “democracies” at war from the Peloponnesian War to the present. All the better for that. It combines important theory in the study of war with the most relevant historical cases. That’s one reason it’s such a good read.
Second, just to avoid confusion, it’s not really about “democracies” versus autocracies. As Kroenig himself warns the reader (page 18), he only uses the term “democracy” as a common label for what are really relatively liberal and open oligarchies, or what political scientists technically call “polyarchy,” after Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971), another book that I heartily recommend to any intelligent laity. The legalistic term “republic,” which encompasses both the Roman Republic and the American Republic might also be more apt. So there’s some of that jargon which Kroenig himself avoids. But I introduce that jargon here because it’s necessary to sort out some of the theory which Kroenig has trouble applying to cases at some points in the historical narrative.
In the case of the Punic Wars, for example, Kroenig admits of some difficulty categorizing Rome as any more “democratic” than Carthage. Clearly, they were both oligarchies dominated by ruling classes. But Rome was indeed far more “polyarchic,” as Dahl defines it, because it was far more open in extending citizenship and participation to subjects than was Carthage. And this was in fact the critical source of Roman strength and resiliency during the long travail of the Punic Wars. It was the fact that Rome’s allies generally stood by them, supplying the nautical expertise that Romans lacked, and not defecting when Hannibal was marching through the Latin Peninsula, which made the difference. In other words, it was Rome’s socii navales, not the overrated corvus, which allowed Rome to become a sea power. For an excellent new book on that subject, see Marc G. de Santis, Rome Seizes the Trident: The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower and the Forging of the Roman Empire (2016).
But, putting aside those quibbles, Kroenig provides an excellent explanation of what is called “Democratic Peace Theory” in the academic literature. That, as he well realizes, is another misleading label. It would better be called “Polyarchic War Theory” in my opinion. But here’s how Kroenig correctly presents the theory:
1. “Democracies” generally do not fight wars with other “democracies,” although they do fight many wars with autocracies.
2. Contrary to common assumptions about the supposed war-fighting talents of autocratic regimes, “democracies” usually win their big wars against autocracies. This is Kroenig’s main contribution ~ an important contribution ~ to the common understanding of the mislabeled “Democratic Peace Theory.”
I would add a third point, which Kroenig might have written about if he were doing a much longer book. This is that “democracies” usually do very badly in their big wars against autocracies at the beginning. That is to say, they are usually unprepared for war. But over the course of a big war, they have a better learning curve than do autocracies. This helps explain the common misperception that “democracies” are bad at fighting wars.
So that’s the bad news, as well as the good news, about the problem we currently face with “the return of great power rivalry” and the growing conflicts with Russia and China. History and theory tell us that we are likely to win in the long run. But in the long run, as John Maynard Keynes remarked, we will all be dead. Or many of us, at any rate. In other words, our natural advantages as a “democracy” are not a good reason to be complacent about our current unpreparedness. On that, see Christian Brose, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (2020).
And that’s why Kroenig’s book could not be more timely.