The Covid-19 pandemic has affected countries globally regardless of regime type. Nonetheless, for an extended period throughout this pandemic, non-democratic regimes seemed to have performed better than democracies. Moreover, authoritarian regimes have leveraged the pandemic to serve their political interests through stricter societal control at a time when such grip has been considered more acceptable on a global scale. Thus, the pandemic has exacerbated the competition between authoritarian regimes and democracies over efficiency in dealing with crises (health, economics, societal, etc.) and innovation (digital surveillance, artificial intelligence, supercomputing).
Autocracies and democracies fiercely compete over scientific and technological issues. Even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, R&D, production, and worldwide distribution of Covid-19 vaccines have become a matter of geopolitical and security interest. For example, the West does not recognize the validity of vaccines from China, while Beijing does not allow any foreign vaccine yet. The confrontation goes beyond vaccines and includes Information Communication Technology. The United States Department of Commerce has recently banned the export to China of electronic components useful to assemble supercomputers. The Secretary of Commerce affirmed:
“Supercomputing capabilities are vital for the development of many – perhaps almost all – modern weapons and national security systems, such as nuclear weapons and hypersonic weapons. The Department of Commerce will use the full extent of its authorities to prevent China from leveraging U.S. technologies to support these destabilizing military modernization efforts.”
In sum, authoritarian and democratic regimes are deepening their portfolio of disputes to decouple from one another and achieve geopolitical superiority. But who is going to win this race? Are democracies in peril?
To answer these questions, it is helpful to look at one International Relations theory – Realism. In his book The Rise and the Fall of Great Powers, Paul Kennedy posits that the rise and fall of global superpowers is caused by different growth rates and signs of technological and organizational progress, which could favour one nation over others. Indeed, mastering and innovating in technological development has historically been one of the main drivers to maintain or acquire a position of power.
However, as I have argued previously, authoritarian regimes face inner limits for sustainable economic growth and technological innovation. Relying on Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s theory of political and economic institutions outlined in their seminal book “Why Nations Fail”, it is possible to claim that authoritarian regimes' innovation paths are scarcely sustainable and that they will eventually fail to attain leadership unless they transition to liberal democratic rule. In short, the two authors conceptualize institutions according to the dichotomy of extractive and inclusive. The former lack one or both characteristics while power is concentrated in the hands of small elites that can exercise it without many constraints; the latter are those that are sufficiently centralized and pluralistic. As such, the authors point to the fact that inclusive economic institutions pave the way for two other engines of prosperity: technology and education.
Looking at China, which is the main contender against the US in the race for technological superiority, both its political and economic institutions are far from being fully inclusive, which could prevent China from taking the lead in the innovation sector in the future. As claimed by Alessia Amighini, despite the impressive growth rate displayed during the last decade and its increasing national innovation capacities, China still performs rather badly by some international standards, including its quality of science. Indeed, China suffers from a lack of social capital as "most Chinese firms operate with hierarchical forms of organization, and there is little room for creative contributions from employees", while free entrepreneurship is hampered by extractive political institutions. Therefore, to play a (sustainable) leading role in the quest for technological superiority, China should address challenges and inefficiencies related to its institutions, governance and organizational capacity and social barriers.
This advantage does not mean that democratic regimes should lower their guard about new threats and challenges coming both from the domestic and international sphere. As the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, the so-called Black Swans – that is, major unexpected events – can threaten even the more consolidated democratic regimes on many levels (economic, social, political). While during the COVID-19 pandemic authoritarian regimes seem to have performed effectively, such performance is not likely to last without a more inclusive development process. At the same time, it is important for democracies to make a case for themselves even when authoritarian regimes seem to be more capable to deal with crises.
 Lundvall, B.-Å. (2016). The Learning Economy and the Economics of Hope, Anthem Studies in Innovation and Development. Anthem Press. pp. 281-282.