In This Review

The Return of Great Power Rivalry
The Return of Great Power Rivalry
By Matthew Kroenig
304 pp, Oxford University Press, 2020

Alexis de Tocqueville famously argued that democracies were “decidedly inferior” to autocratic states in the conduct of foreign affairs. Other thinkers, including Herodotus, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and some modern liberal theorists, have insisted that, on the contrary, democracies have an advantage over nondemocracies. In this timely return to an old debate, Kroenig makes the case that democratic states tend to “do better” than other types of states in great-power rivalries. Democracies have greater capacities for generating long-term economic growth, borrowing capital, building alliances, making international agreements, and sustaining stable and legitimate rule. Kroenig bundles these familiar arguments together and sets out on a fast-paced historical journey through the classic cases of competition between democratic great powers and autocratic ones: from Athens and Sparta, to medieval Venice and its rivals, to the United Kingdom and Germany in the twentieth century, and finally to the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Kroenig does not claim that democracies always prevail in war or succeed in building hegemony, but he does insist that democratic states can “punch above their weight.” The value of the book lies in framing an important question for today: In the United States’ growing competition with China, will its democracy be an advantage or a hindrance?