America’s Secret Weapon Against China: Democracy
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In his speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit over the weekend, Vice President Mike Pence put the clash of political values between the U.S. and China at the heart of the clash of geopolitical interests between the two countries. Pence declared that America seeks a "free Indo-Pacific" where countries and individuals can "exercise their God-given liberties"; he touted Washington's progress in deepening its relationships with the region's democracies, from old allies such as Australia, newer partners such as India and small nations such as the summit host, Papua New Guinea. Pence contrasted this approach with Chinese coercion and announced that "authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific."
The basic message of Pence’s speech was that the region will find a better friend in a democratic America than a dictatorial China. And that message is not simply spin or propaganda. It reflects the fact that in today’s geopolitical competitions, a democratic superpower has advantages its authoritarian rivals will find hard to match.
It has been easy to lose sight of this fact in recent years. Russia and China often seem to have the geopolitical initiative in their competitions with the U.S. and its allies. What’s more, these dictatorships are using the built-in advantages of authoritarianism — speed, secrecy, unity of purpose — to increase their global influence and catch the U.S. and other democracies flat-footed.
In Ukraine and Syria, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that his regime can use force suddenly and in surprising ways. Russia has also shown an ability to seamlessly fuse truth and falsehood in sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Democracies, with their transparency and checks and balance, find these approaches hard to emulate.
Similarly, the Chinese government has exploited its tight control of the economy and society to pursue a variety of bold geopolitical initiatives. Beijing has employed state-owned enterprises as tools of Chinese statecraft, using them to acquire control of valuable energy resources, reward countries that sever relations with Taiwan, and stake China’s claims in the South China Sea. China has also taken advantage of the power of the authoritarian state to make vast investments in critical technologies such as artificial intelligence, and to achieve a high degree of coordination between the state and the private sector.
The U.S. meanwhile, has struggled to perform tasks as simple as passing federal budgets on time, let alone mounting the sort of integrated geo-economic offensive undertaken by Beijing. The contrast brings to mind Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous observation: "Foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those in which it is deficient."
Tocqueville got a lot of things right, he probably got this one wrong. It is easy to be wowed by the apparent near-term efficiency and purpose of authoritarian regimes, but democracy brings its own powerful — and longer-term —advantages to the conduct of foreign affairs.
One of these advantages, counterintuitively enough, is better decision-making. Checks and balances and raucous public debate make democratic decision-making slow and messy. But they also promote reasoned deliberation and the ability to correct course when necessary. Centralization of power and the dominance of a small elite allow authoritarian regimes to move faster, but they can lend themselves to big mistakes.
In 2014, for instance, Vladimir Putin reportedly made the decision to invade Ukraine by himself, with virtually no advance diplomatic planning. Doing so ensured maximum operational surprise, but it seems clear that Putin underestimated the economic, diplomatic and military blowback Russia would face from the West as a result of his decision. China, too, has fallen prey to this pathology: One doubts the leadership in Beijing understood precisely how much international ill will the ongoing brutal repression of its Uighur population would bring.
Second, democracies have traditionally been better at generating long-term economic power, because democratic rule fosters the free exchange of information, stable legal frameworks and individual rights that unleash innovation and growth. “It is no accident,” the great economist Mancur Olson wrote, “that the countries that have reached the highest level of economic performance across generations are all stable democracies.”
To be sure, China’s rapid growth has been testing this historical law in recent decades. Yet corruption, patronage and the power of entrenched interests are all impeding the liberalizing reforms needed to sustain that growth over time. More recently, the turn toward greater authoritarianism and ideological conformity under Xi Jinping seems likely to inhibit innovation in the long run.
Third, democracies are usually better at winning friends and influencing people on the global stage. During the Cold War, a democratic U.S. proved far more effective than a totalitarian Soviet Union at establishing and maintaining alliances, precisely because the characteristics of totalitarian rule — coercion, intolerance of dissent, lack of respect for minority rights—tended to repulse other countries rather than attract them. America’s traditions of compromise, tolerance, and respect for minority rights, by contrast, conduced to genuine partnerships characterized by deep cooperation and mutual respect.
The parallels are clearly evident today. According to an estimate from the Economist, 100 of the world’s 150 largest states lean toward America, with only 21 leaning against it. Russia and China have few allies or genuine partners, and those that they have tend to be relatively weak and isolated authoritarian regimes.
Finally, there is the imbalance of soft power. Much has been made — with good reason — of the way the Trump administration has been debasing U.S. soft power, through abrasive policies and offensive rhetoric. But American soft power has traditionally proved resilient, because it derives more from what the country is — an inclusive democracy dedicated to the dignity of the individual — than from the actions of any single leader. And although China’s rapid growth has won it respect in many developing countries, the resulting soft power is tenuous and inherently limited by the fact that relatively few people around the world wish to emulate a Chinese police state that assiduously restricts individual freedoms.
Global opinion polling bears this out. A survey conducted in 2016 revealed overwhelming majorities in nearly every country surveyed had a negative view of Beijing’s approach to individual freedoms. And last month, the populations of all but two nations surveyed (Argentina and Tunisia) preferred the U.S. over China as a global leader.
Democracy is not destiny, of course: Nowhere is it written that the U.S. will always outperform its authoritarian rivals in the end. Today, the Trump administration is often acting in ways that seem almost calculated to dissipate America’s democratic advantages -- by alienating and coercing allies, depleting U.S. prestige, and causing many international observers to worry about whether Washington’s leadership is becoming less benign. It is a sad commentary on the state of American policy that while the country’s soft power appears resilient, Trump is viewed less positively around the globe than Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping.
As Pence argued in New Guinea, democracy may well prove to be a competitive asset for the U.S. in its competitions against Russia and China. But America will only get the most out of that asset if it remains true to its own best traditions.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
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