Are the U.S. and China Destined for War? Well, about that “Thucydides’ Trap”

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Like clockwork, fear of the next great war between the established power (United States) versus the rising power (China) is gossiped and proselytized. Particularly, this theory  has been given new popularity, and relevance, due to the observations of the 2000+ year old Thucydides of Athens.

Thucydides was a historian and general who, among other things, made observations about how his growing Athens scared and was destined to war with the mighty and established Sparta. The idea is, conflict is inevitable as a new and growing power threatens the dominance of a primary power. There’s is quite a debate about the truth of Thucydides’ observations, but his thoughts and writings have long influenced, at least in foundational terms, the development of foreign policy theory.

However, in an excellent essay, Ian Buruma strongly challenges the assertion that a war between China and the United States is inevitable.

Overheated topics invariably produce ill-considered books. Some people will remember the time, in the late nineteen-eighties, when Japan was about to buy up America and conquer the world. Many a tidy sum was made on that premise. These days, the possibility of war with China is stirring emotions and keeping publishers busy. A glance at a few new books suggests what scholars and journalists are thinking about the prospect of an Asian conflagration; the quality of their reflections is, to say the least, variable.

The worst of the bunch, Graham Allison’s “Destined for War” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), may also be the most influential, given that its thesis rests on a catchphrase Allison has popularized, “Thucydides’s Trap.” Even China’s President, Xi Jinping, is fond of quoting it. “On the current trajectory,” Allison contends, “war between the U.S. and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized.” The reason, he says, can be traced to the problem described in the fifth century B.C.E. in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. Sparta, as the established power, felt threatened by the rising might of Athens. In such conditions, Allison writes, “not just extraordinary, unexpected events, but even ordinary flashpoints of foreign affairs, can trigger large-scale conflict.”

There seems to be, as Max Fisher and Amanda Taub note in their great Interpreter newsletter, a tendency for some to praise and revel in the works of ancient greeks, who, while brilliant, saw the world in sometimes antiquated or plainly wrong ways. Not to say there is anything wrong in studying them, but, as Buruma argues, there is a lot of ignorance of China passed on as conventional wisdom.

One difficulty is that East and West are slippery categories. The concept of European civilization has at least some measure of coherence. The same can be said for Chinese civilization, extending to Vietnam in the south and Korea in the north. But what unifies “the East”? Korea has almost nothing in common with India, apart from a tenuous connection through ancient Buddhist history. Japan is a staunch U.S. ally and its contemporary culture is, in many respects, closer to the West than to anything particularly Eastern. Previous attempts to create a sense of Pan-Asian solidarity, such as the Japanese imperialist mission in the nineteen-thirties and forties, have been either futile or disastrous.

In fact, many of Rachman’s informants belong to an international élite that cannot be easily pinned down to East or West. It is refreshing that he does not depend on Lee Kuan Yew or Henry Kissinger for his knowledge of Asia, but his is still very much a view from the top. This isn’t a criticism: we want to know what senior diplomats, government ministers, heads of state, and well-connected academics think. But, if we’re trying to understand a large number of diverse Asian countries, the approach has its limitations.

I will say, that as an aside, President Obama has received a lot of fair criticism for his actions and inactions in the Middle East and North Africa, but it is becoming increasingly clear that his desire to shift the focus of foreign policy debate to eastern Asia was wise. Perhaps it could be argued that he was more cautious of engaging in other places, like the Middle East, out of fear of a new or larger conflict consuming all the oxygen remaining, as China, with limited resistance, would build islands out of water, and on those islands build military bases, and with those military bases create a sphere of influence and power in Asia that would permanently diminish the influence and ability of the United States while she is still engaged in wars in the Middle East.

But, while there should be a focus on China and surrounding region, is the Thucydides’ Trap the proper lens?

There are many more lessons to be learned from nonancient international relations theory. The scholar A.F.K. Organski coined something called the “power transition theory,” which addresses some of the same ideas as Thucydides but is far more nuanced and applicable to actual policy decisions.

The Thucydides trap has an obvious appeal. It is easy to remember and casts the world in a dramatic light. But, on its own, it is insufficient for understanding the world and has a potential to be dangerously misleading.

Arthur Waldron, of the University of Pennsylvania, writes that a straight reading of Thucydides suggests that Europe, not China, should be challenging the United States — a sign that maybe this theory is not so helpful in understanding today’s geopolitics.

The problem, as Fisher and Taub point out, is that there have been thousands of years of foreign policy thought and argument since Thucydides observed the growing conflict between Athens and Sparta; we should not rely on what is archaic, even if it was revelatory in its time.

So is the United States on a path towards war with China? The answer is no, in that, there is no destiny we are fulfilling. The Thucydides Trap forewarns that the rising power, if they are to keep growing, is inclined to be at war with the established power; but there are dozens of variables and choices that will dramatically shape the region, these two countries, and the trajectories of those around them. The reason we study and argue about these topics is not just to understand where we are, but how we can make the decisions to get to where we want to be. As Buruma argues, however, that is no small feat. Careful study and understanding of China, Asia and the United States is necessary to understand what actions are intended as feelers versus show of force; what red lines are truly worth drawing; and what an acceptable outcome would mean.

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