WASHINGTON — China and Russia do not have the capacity or structures to dislodge the U.S in a great power competition despite gains in some critical technology areas, a former CIA and Pentagon analyst concludes.
Matthew Kroenig, now with the Atlantic Council, said democracies may move more slowly than autocratic governments but eventually they have more economic and military power — especially when combined with allies — to counter-balance any spot gains by Russia and China.
“Some in Washington are too gullible as to what China is doing, Kroenig said in an interview. “I don’t think China has been that successful.”
The 2018 National Defense Strategy outlines the Pentagon’s priorities within the framework of “great power competition,” particularly focusing on China and Russia, with lesser threats from entities like Iran and North Korea.
Pentagon officials often publicly lament how the U.S. has fallen behind China and Russia in areas such as hypersonic development, artificial intelligence and access to the Arctic region.
During his time at the Pentagon – where he worked in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations — Kroenig authored the first-ever U.S. government-wide strategy for deterring terrorism and developed strategic options for addressing Iran’s nuclear program. He also spent significant time researching nuclear weapons proliferation.
He frames the competition between democracies like the U.S. and autocracies like China and Russia.
“We won the Cold War because the Soviet Union could not keep up,” Kroenig said. “They do have the advantage in hypersonics right now. The Pentagon looked at it (during the 2000 decade) and said there was no need for this.
“Autocratic governments always are more comfortable rushing unproven technology into the field,” he said. “I suspect they won’t be able to keep it (the lead) for long. Democracies are slower but that means decisions are more considered.”
Kroenig frames much of his theory based on history. He is the author of “The Return of Great Power Rivalry,” which reviews cases of democratic-versus-autocratic rivalries from the ancient world to the Cold War — examples he says bolster his position why democracies will prevail over autocracies such as China, Russia, and Iran. The book is to be released today.
He said there are three pillars that almost always determine which nations prevail —being strong economically, diplomatically and militarily — and the democracies prevail in those matchups.
“My basic conclusion is that democracies do pretty well in these things,” Kroenig said. “That goes against the conviction that we are doing everything wrong and China is 10 feet tall.”
As examples, Kroenig offers how the U.S. remains at the center of the world financial system, with the dollar still the key; the biggest capital markets have been in democracies; Russian billionaires are not investing in Russia or China, but “stashing their cash” in the U.S.; Russia and China spend more money on internal security than external security, and that the first chance former Warsaw Pact nation had to chose where to align, “they went to the other side.”
Right now, 24 percent of the world’s GDP is in the U.S, with 15 percent in China. “That is starting to get to close for comfort,” Kroenig said. However, when you add together alliance members, it becomes 59 percent for democracies against the 15 percent for China, he said.
Kroenig agrees that China has made some great power inroads through its economic Belt and Road initiative, even getting some NATO allies like Italy to sign up for economic investment. However, the failings of the economic supplies, the poor quality of products, as well as the heavy terms are eroding China’s veracity, he said.
He did note the irony in how China is acquiring ports as part of its economic offensive.
“Europe began taking ports in Asia, at the beginning of Asia’s colonization,” Kroenig said. Now the Port of Piraeus in Athens, which was the key contested gem during the Greco and Peloponnesian Wars, is “operated by a Chinese company,” he said.