The U.S. Department of Defense warns that autocracies such as China and Russia want nothing less than to “revise the post-Cold War international order.” Their goals appear to be both material and ideological: these countries are not only augmenting their military capabilities and challenging U.S. dominance, they are also trying to discredit the Western model of democracy. This module aims to illuminate the nature of these challenges.
Autocratic Institutions and Foreign Policy
Autocracies exhibit surprising variation in their adoption of nominally democratic institutions, such as political parties, legislatures, courts, and elections. This variation raises a number of questions about the causes and consequences of autocratic institutionalization. Why do some autocratic leaders adopt institutions that constrain their power, while others do not? How do these institutions shape foreign and defense policy?
Attitudes Toward International Institutions
A common fear about Russia and China is that they will dismantle institutions that the United States spent decades maintaining. Yet such fears are thus far based largely on conjecture. Do autocratic leaders view international institutions as threats to confront, or tools to exploit? When do they seek to change – versus overturn – international institutions?
The China Challenge
Is China likely to pursue a path of confrontation, cooperation, or productive competition with the United States? Will it try to “force the United States out” of East Asia, as some observers argue, or “never seek hegemony,” as President Xi Jinping assured Americans? A careful analysis of Chinese internal dynamics as well as a broader historical understanding of rising powers can shed light on the answer.
China has begun to compete with the United States for influence, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Whether it succeeds depends in part on the choices of smaller powers. Why do some countries balance against rising powers like China, while others remain uncommitted? How will China try to compel its neighbors to align with it, and how can the United States best discourage them from doing so?
The Director of National Intelligence testified that China will “increasingly seek to assert China’s model of authoritarian capitalism as an alternative – and implicitly superior – development path,” which “could threaten international support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” How can democracy combat its reputation for paralysis and polarization in the face of Chinese attempts to discredit it?