More than thirty years after the proclaimed “end of history” and the third wave of democratization, the world is once again marked by increased diversity in political regimes. The (re-)emergence of powerful authoritarian states like China and Russia and the trend of backsliding in seemingly consolidated democracies have created a more pluralistic and multipolar world, in which states with different political regime types increasingly view each other as competitors, seeking to prove the superiority of their own political and economic systems and to win the allegiance of third countries.
This has particularly stark consequences for dynamics of peace and conflict at several levels: internationally, events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine are interpreted as evidence of an intractable, polarized and even violent conflict between democracies and autocracies. Regionally, an uneasy coexistence of democratic and authoritarian states is complicating efforts at closer integration in Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. And domestically, increasing polarization between competing visions of governance is affecting countries across the globe, challenging existing regimes of all stripes. These context conditions create an urgent need to empirically study anew how regimes of different types actually relate to each other and design policies intended to bolster their own survival, with competitive aspects increasingly at the forefront of both issues.
Defining regime competition
Despite the prominence of the topic, and the extensive references to competition between democracies and autocracies in the contemporary political agendas of Western actors, there is no single established shorthand to describe the phenomenon. Still, much of the literature can be sorted into two distinct understandings of “competition”: one between powerful states and coalitions as a contest for international influence or even hegemony; and one regarding the performance of their respective political, economic and social systems, which undergirds claims to domestic legitimacy and international leadership among like-minded countries.
The first dimension has risen in prominence as a result of China’s rise to a plausible peer competitor status with the US. In response, the US government has employed the term “strategic competition” to frame its increasingly fraught relationship with China (or, in the preferred labeling of a new House of Representatives committee on this issue, the “Chinese Communist Party”). Across the two most recent US administrations, national security agendas have significantly expanded in scope, envisioning a full-spectrum military, economic, technological and intellectual competition with China over global leadership. In 2019, the EU similarly redefined its relationship with China by describing the latter as a simultaneous partner, competitor and “systemic rival”; with the second item focusing mainly on competition in the economic sense, and the third on competing governance and policy models promoted by the EU and China in third countries. This shows the degree to which competition is already shaping the foreign policy agendas of major international actors, particularly among proponents of liberal governance approaches.
The second dimension of competition focuses more on performance aspects than power contests, but can be even more important for regime survivability. The rivalry between East and West Germany is a case in point here, as the relative capacity of both systemic alternatives to provide their citizens with high material standards of living became a crucial yardstick for their legitimacy, and was arguably the most important determinant of unification under the Western model. During the Covid-19 pandemic, governments of all political stripes not only claimed the technocratic superiority of their specific recipes for balancing between public health and disruptions to social and economic life, but also connected them explicitly to the nature of their respective regimes.
We argue that “regime competition” is a useful concept, because it is able to capture both dimensions. It can ground political discourses in a rich existing literature on political regimes, their domestic features and international behavior. In this, it goes beyond definitions of competition between economic systemic alternatives that were characteristic for the Cold War. Furthermore, the concept allows for comparative analyses of regimes and their competitive dynamics across different levels in world politics: most obviously the nation-state, but also subnational polities, regional organizations, and international frameworks. For example, regime competition is at work where great powers advance visions for global governance, development and economic integration that are grounded in performative advantages of their domestic regimes, e.g. China’s Belt and Road Initiative vs. the G7’s “Partnership for Global Infrastructure”. But it also allows investigating political parties and organizations competing for domestic power that do not constrain themselves to existing constitutional arrangements and aim to revise them, as seen in cases of democratic backsliding.
Crucially, while competition does not equal (violent) conflict – a point made explicit by many political actors promoting related agendas –linkages between the two clearly exist and should be of acute concern. Hegemonic competition has a long history of resulting in direct military confrontations or the exacerbation of proxy wars in third countries. Domestic election results are frequently challenged on the street, including attacks on institutions of government even in seemingly consolidated democracies like the US and Brazil. Intrastate conflicts are difficult to settle politically where opponents fundamentally disagree over a desirable future regime.
Research on regime competition at PRIF
In order to comprehensively study regime competition, PRIF has constituted a new research group on the issue that will pool expertise from peace and conflict studies and different world regions. It will structure its work around two pillars, which correspond to the above dimensions: the behavior and performance of different political regimes, and the varieties of regime competition and their political consequences.
Regarding the first pillar, a major problem of current political debates surrounding regime competition is the simplistic assumption of a dichotomous democratic/authoritarian divide and that certain behaviors – most importantly international aggressiveness – arise directly from regime features. The Biden administration has made this the cornerstone and grand narrative of its entire foreign policy agenda, and in the wake of the war in Ukraine, it has found entry into the efforts of allies like Germany to overhaul their own security policies. However, a first examination of how different regimes operate internationally makes this link highly questionable, revealing the need to systematically study the significant in-group variety in the aims and behavior of states from both camps, as well as many different modes of interactions between them. Internationally, a clustering of like-minded states that share regime types and coordinate their foreign policies is mainly observable in the global Northwest, while a comparable authoritarian coalition is currently not on the horizon.
Additionally, actual competition between regime types is closely connected to the question of performance outcomes, e.g. their ability to deliver economic growth, reduce poverty, or deal with challenges like climate change or health emergencies. We aim to enrich these debates by pooling and reviewing knowledge on the international behavior and domestic performance of different regimes, studying general relationships between regime types and outcomes, as well as contributing country-specific expertise on high-profile cases.
Under the second pillar, we aim to open up the debate about the many different kinds in which the politics of regime competition and their consequences play out, especially where peace and conflict outcomes are concerned. Such competition may take the form of spurring regimes to deliver global and domestic public goods, which also leaves space for cooperation; or devolve into rivalries and zero-sum contests that exacerbate security dilemmas and polarization. Globally, it is likely to exacerbate distrust between powerful democratic and authoritarian states. At the same time, smaller states are finding themselves as the objects of global rivalries. Whereas in some of them this may increase domestic friction and political polarization, others may find profit from playing global powers against each other. Our aim is to study these different forms of regime competition and their impact on both global order and the domestic politics of third states.
The road ahead: PRIF’s new blog series on regime competition
As can be seen from the above, regime competition affects many contemporary political dynamics, often with a direct relevance for peace and conflict issues. In the coming months, a new blog series on regime competition will explore this topic and its many facets in more detail. Drawn from across PRIF’s research agenda and the work of many excellent colleagues, it will feature contributions on issues like the origins and limits of recent Sino-Russian alignment, trends of decoupling and dissociation in East-West relations, strategic competition in Antarctica, a critical assessment of reform capacities across regime types in North Africa, challenges to liberal democracy from global neo-authoritarian movements, the securitization of regime types in Eastern European and post-Soviet countries and regime-specific approaches to Women, Peace and Security. All of these issues are of high practical relevance, and our aim is to make this knowledge accessible to decisionmakers and the interested public. PRIF’s upcoming annual conference on “Dealing with autocracies in a fragmented world”, scheduled for October 12-13, 2023, will provide a further point of contact to external experts and practitioners.