3. Political structure & policy

Updated: 14 March 2015



A country or region can achieve global dominance only with the right type of political system, the right kind of political leaders and a powerful political vision.

The quality of leadership is certainly a key factor of political dominance: Napoleon's empire is hard to imagine without the man from Corsica and the Soviet empire would not have emerged without visionary Lenin and ruthless Stalin. Mohandas ('Mahatma') Gandhi, who pioneered the concept of civil disobedience in response to tyranny, was crucial to the success of India's independence struggle. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States freed the slaves, saved the union und demonstrated in his Gettysburg Address that a powerful political vision can be explained in two minutes. There were many great political leaders in history - and not all led powerful nations. But no country could ever dominate the world without a strong leader. 

We assume that there are four elements of a political system that are essential for a country to gain global dominance:

Political effectiveness & stability

There is no way a country or region can exercise global influence, if its leading class is fragmented and paralyzed by infighting. Political stability and predictability of government functions is an important precondition for global dominance. This requires political institutions, procedures and values which promote political professionalism, control of power, and effective administration. History has shown that a clear "separation of power" into a legislative branch, a judicial branch and an administration is one of the pre-conditions for an effective political process.

In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country political institutions must also be organized in such a way that all groups are fairly represented. Countries with a large territory typically need regional governments to deal with local problems (principle of subsidiary).

Also, political leaders can only be effective, if they actually have power to make decisions and the means to implement them. This is particularly true for supra-national organizations - such as the United Nations and the European Union. Pompous puppet politicians who just burn money on international conferences and sprawling bureaucracies may be unavoidable because of international relations. But they are useless for making a country or region develop and prosper.

Political participation

For a country or region to develop, and especially to remain successful, the political system must also work in such a way, that all people can participate in the process. Experience has shown that a representative democracy is usually the system with the smallest number of faults that gives the best chances for political inclusion.

Modern societies can no longer work with direct democratic participation, because political processes today require permanent attention and deal with problems that are often technically rather complicated (tax legislation, infrastructure, etc.). Ordinary citizens would be unprepared and overloaded with decision pressure and could only decide on the basis of rather superficial opinions that can easily be manipulated. It makes sense to delegate political leadership to professional politicians - however only for a limited period of time.

Authoritarian regimes can be economically quite successful and may be able to project political and military strength. However, after a few decades lethal fault lines will emerge in such systems. Rising internal suppression is needed to keep such authoritarian regimes in power. Eventually, this internal pressure kills human creativity and economic initiative. Without political participation any political regime will degenerate into a suppression apparatus, which inevitably wastes valuable human resources. The development of science and technology will suffer, as creative minds flee the country or give up any ambitions. Eventually, the economy will decline, because people with initiative become de-motivated and afraid to start new businesses.

Integrity of leadership

With a political elite that is preoccupied with amassing economic wealth, it is hard to expect the kind of strategic planning and focus of attention that would be necessary for their country to establish and maintain global influence. Failed states are typically run by morally corrupt leaders who pay more attention to their Swiss bank accounts, their sex parties, their drug excesses or their various other distractions and addictions than to the challenges of leading their nation. If we really want to understand why some governments are more successful than others, we have to get rid of the reverent servility we usually reserve for powerful leaders of states. Quite a few of them are just fanatic simpletons, murderous thugs, drug dealers, ruthless extortionists or deranged psychopaths. If a country has a political system that succeeds in preventing such kinds of people to reach power it has already a big advantage. If a political system is organized in such a way that smart, professional and morally integer people make it to top positions in the government a country can become quite successful.

Recruitment procedures for leadership functions must be institutionalized in such a way, that qualification and leadership skills count most, not party loyalties, social connections, money or ruthlessness and demagogy. Democratic selection of leaders seems to be the best method to avoid that fanatics, crooks, or murderous psychopaths make it to the top of government - but it is no guarantee (Adolf Hitler was democratically elected German chancellor).

Political vision & ambition

Without a powerful political vision and strong ambitions among the political leaders no country or region will become a major player in the international arena - no matter how populous or economically successful it may may be. The "founding fathers" of the United States of America certainly had a clear political vision and acted with great ambition when they led the American Revolution in the 13 British Colonies against the British Empire.

There is, of course, a fine line between political vision and disastrous political ideology or religious fanatism.  

Links to comparative analyses (in preparation)

Comparative analyses of various advantages and challenges in the political systems of China, Europe and the USA:

Political effectiveness & stability

Political participation

Integrity of leadership
Political vision & ambition


Advertisement: Smart books from Amazon.com

Pomeranz - The Great Divergence Watson - Health Care Reform Marsh - Unparalleled Reforms  Chua - Day of Empire

Kenneth Pomeranz (2001)
The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy. Princeton University Press

Peggy Watson (2014)
Health Care Reform and Globalization. The US, China and Europe in comparative perspective. Routledge

Christopher Marsh (2005)
Unparalleled Reforms. China's rise, Russia's fall, and the interdependence of transition. Lexington Books

Amy Chua (2009)
Day of Empire. How hyperpowers rise to global dominance - and why they fall. Anchor

Judt - Grand Illusion Offe - Entrapped Dervis - Europe's Crisis  

Tony Judt (2011)
A Grand Illusion? An essay on Europe. NYU Press

Claus Offe (2015)
Europe Entrapped.

Kemal Dervis / Jacques Mistral (Eds.) (2014)
Europe's Crisis, Europe's Future. Brookings Institution Press


In Association with Amazon.com


Creative Commons License "China-Europe-USA - Political Structure & Policy" by Gerhard K. Heilig is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Published: 2004; Revised: 2015