American exceptionalism was never simply about the culture of the American people. It places a fundamental focus on American institutions and a faith in the American political process. Indeed, Tocqueville recognized in the nineteenth century the importance of the political system in shaping a peculiar and unique American culture. It is not culture which defines institutions nor institutions which define culture. They are interrelated. And symbiotic. They reinforce one another in ways which drive the political and historical narrative beyond the decisions of individual leaders.
Rome and Athens both believed not just in the character of their people but the soundness of their political institutions to foster and reinforce their culture. Both Rome and Athens were the precursors to their own unique versions of exceptionalism. The long process of modernization in Europe abandoned this faith in institutions largely because modernization was a period of creative destruction where the institutions of the Ancien Régime were abandoned. English exceptionalism was only possible once it emerged from a bloody civil war which eventually gave birth to liberalism, not just as a political theory, but the institutions which made it possible.
Mathew Kroenig argues great power rivalries are shaped through the internal institutional frameworks of their political systems. He offers seven historical examples to provide context for the great power rivalry of the current era. Ultimately, the institutions of liberal democracies offer inherent advantages which shape the outcomes of these rivalries. It is easy to dismiss his larger point because many of his examples were neither liberal nor democracies. But this misses the point. Each example had institutions which fostered democratic values of openness and cooperation in contrast to autocratic governments which restrict the political debate and limit the contributions of their people.
A key concept within this book is the democratic advantage. This contrasts with an imagined autocratic advantage. The democratic advantage leverages economic potential, diplomatic relationships and raw military might to challenge autocratic intentions. It is lazy to simply say democracies encourage innovation and economic development. Rather its institutions encourage contributions from a larger range of its population. In contrast, autocratic government actively works to constrain and limit the contributions of its citizenry. Consequently, democracies foster greater innovation and a more dynamic economy which translates into hard power over time.
Sometimes Kroenig is a bit too loose in his definition of democracy. Athens is often described as the first democracy, but it was not democratic in the modern sense. Its concept of citizenship was limited. Slaves, women and immigrants lacked political power. But it was fundamentally more democratic than other governments. Rome was not so much democratic as it was aristocratic. Even the Netherlands centralized its power within the House of Orange. But their institutions were constructed to incorporate a broader range of perspective and encourage contributions from a wider range of population than many of their neighbors.
Moreover, Kroenig’s ideas have limited explanatory power. He does not offer an account for the emergence of autocratic great powers. Nor does he give a theoretical construct for the geopolitical decline of democracies. These issues are resolved through a focus on the institutions rather than the totality of the political system. For example, the economic growth of China was the result of liberalizing reforms which expanded the opportunity for people to make important economic contributions. But Kroenig essentially argues China will face limitations to its economic potential without further reforms which continue to empower its people.
Kroenig offers an entertaining read which challenges the assumptions of international relations. It lacks the breadth or intensity of Sheri Berman’s recent masterpiece Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe. Where Berman spent ten years of research to develop her ideas, Kroenig seems to rely on his own natural sense of history. But it feels as though Kroenig does not believe he has offered the final word on this subject. Rather, he has simply made the opening gambit. He wants to challenge the pessimism of the era. There is a fundamental optimism within his work. And it is his optimism which makes the work refreshing and a pleasure to read.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
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