Beware the
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Beware the "Thucydides Trap" Trap

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Professor Graham Allison of the Kennedy School at Harvard commonly warns the United States and China not to fall into the "Thucydides Trap.” This trap, he opines, yawns wide because of "the dangers two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling power — as Athens did in 5th century BC and Germany did at the end of the 19th century. Most such challenges have ended in war. Peaceful cases required huge adjustments in the attitudes and actions of the governments and the societies of both countries involved."

Allison is referring to Thucydides' famous statement that it was the rise of Athenian power and the fear it inspired in Sparta that constituted the true cause of the Peloponnesian War. I have my doubts about this rather mechanical reading of Thucydides' history, and about whether the father of history meant to propound a general rule of international affairs. Straight-line projections often say something important. They help reveal the context within which power politics unfolds. But human decisions, actions, and interactions matter as much as any measure of national power or any trend the observer may chart — often more so.

The Greek precedent maps to contemporary circumstances imperfectly at best. Indeed, this is one historical analogy that's instructive precisely because of the differences it exposes. Simple realities of power were at work in the Greek world, but Sparta was no America. Far from being an established custodian of the regional order, the Spartans were loath to exercise leadership. That's different from a Great Britain or an America at its zenith, a global marine power jealous of its standing.

The Spartans' reticence frustrated their allies while opening the door for Athens to vie for regional supremacy. It was the Athenians who led the effort to mop up the remnants of the Persian incursion following such apocalyptic battles as Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea. They rode their success to leadership first of a league of city-states, and ultimately of a nautical empire scattered across much of the Mediterranean world. That sounds more like Britain or the United States.

But it was the character of Athens' rise, not the mere fact of its rise, that helped set the Peloponnesian War in motion. Hubris — overweening pride that brings forth divine punishment — is a central theme in Greek history and literature. The Athenians contracted a bad case of it while rolling back the Persians and founding their empire. Half a century after the fact, as Thucydides tells it, Athenian emissaries were still regaling anyone who would listen about the city's part in defeating Persia. Meanwhile, their consensual league of states mutated into a tyranny. Small wonder the Spartans fretted over Athens' rise. Economic and naval might joined to such bombast must have looked menacing indeed.

So how rising and established states conduct themselves matters. It's not just about power. Now consider the modern case Professor Allison cites, that of Imperial Germany and Great Britain a century ago. Why single out Anglo-German antagonism when two other sea powers, the United States and Imperial Japan, were on the rise at the same time?

According to the Thucydides Trap metaphor, Britain should have faced the prospect of conflict with not one but three powers on the make. Yet the British cut deals with Tokyo and Washington that let the Royal Navy draw down its North American and Far Eastern stations and pull back to European waters. The relative dearth of Anglo-American and Anglo-Japanese enmity before World War I works against the Thucydides Trap thesis. There's no substitute for probing the strategic context in full.

Ferreting out other factors reveals, for instance, that Britain's overriding concern was Germany, its mercurial Kaiser, and its High Seas Fleet. Like classical Athens, Germany combined capability with worrisome intent. And its fleet was close by, just across the North Sea from the British Isles.

The United States and Japan, by contrast, were faraway powers. Neither was especially hostile. Hypothetically speaking, they could menace British interests. Overseas interests, however, took a back seat to homeland defense. Accommodating Washington and Tokyo thus seemed like a natural choice for London by the antebellum years. Nor did Japan or America have to make the "huge adjustments" of which Allison writes to stave off conflict with Britain. Royal Navy squadrons steamed away, leaving the U.S. and Imperial Japanese Navies ascendant in their home regions. That suited the regional contenders just fine.

Similarly, survey today's strategic landscape. The BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa — are making their ascent to regional if not world power. The Thucydides Trap suggests that dark days lie ahead for them and for America. But how likely is conflict between the United States and Brazil, India, South Africa, or even a prickly Russia? Not very, methinks.

That leaves China. The trend lines in East Asia point to competition or even conflict. But trends are not fate. How events unfold will rest mainly with decisionmakers in Washington, Beijing, and other regional stakeholders. That — not a simple parable of rise and decline — is the lesson from Thucydides.

Comments
11
Leonard R.
June 17, 2013 at 00:07

Correct – both sides have hubris as well as incompetence. But there are alliances. What do they mean? 

BTW, excellent writing: 

"when a government explicitly states that its core objective is the re-founding of an ethnocentric empire, necessarily entailing the forced expulsion and subjugation of the local peace-keeper in favour of a revanchist form of law that favors the past hegemon, necesarily entailing the colonization and subjugation of an entire people for crimes over half a century old, then said objective, should not raise alarm bells, should not inform diplomats, but should be taken for the vow and declaration that it is; that when–not if–it is capable, a revanchist, chauvnistic, ethnocentric empire WILL WAGE WAR upon the current superpower to drag an entire region back into a world that produced the likes of the Treaty of Tordesillas, just to satisfy racist fantasies of "the chosen people."

Whatever can be said of US hubris & incompetence. The world has already seen China's aspirations played out on the field of war by other nations during different times. China doesn't seem to get it. But its neighbors do. And the West is starting to get it too. 

ACT
June 16, 2013 at 14:36

@leonard r.

"It comes down to over-weening hubris and the inherent fragility of alliances. "

just so, yet the hubris lies with both the U.S and the PRC; the U.S in thinking that its military might cannot be matched, and the PRC in that the world is its own to reclaim–regardless of the fact that all its claims are, in fact, illegitimate and based on trade relations, not administrative rule.

In this sense, the U.S is not (visibly) cautious enough: in perhaps any other situation, the knowledge that a nation with four times one's own population was rapidly increasing its military spending and explicitly stealing and replicating the latest of one's military hardware would be enough to set off serious alarm bells, especially when said nation has no contemporary regional adversaries of note. When coupled with the knowledge that said nation has an educational program that espouses the "correction of history," a government that would discard international law in favour of a history based law that would legitimize a form of colonialism not seen since the end of the 18th century, as well as the stated goal of pushing one's own military out beyond one's outermost territories to achieve the ressurection of the aforementioned colonialism and empire, one's own nation should not be sitting idly by and throwing its allies under the bus. 

So, when the PRC introduces a form of education that–effectively, if not explicity–espouses and encourages the taking of revenge for what was done to an unrelated government nearly two hundred years ago, as well as encourages the xenophobic and blind hatred of Japan for crimes committed by a military that hijacked and subverted the standard political process, this alone should warrant caution. 

When this is linked to an active reverse-engineering program designed to leap-frog the west technologically, again linked to the desire–again not quite explicity stated–to ressurect the Chinese Empire, an ethnocentric culture-state that espoused an agressive and ethnocentric form of colonialism not seen since the middle of the 19th century, the sum total should not just be setting off alarms but informing the immediate and future planning of both diplomats and generals–both in terms of foreign policy and design of arms.

When the above is, finally, linked to a foreign policy that states, tantamount, that the invasion or harassment of sovereign nations are "internal affairs," states in so many words that the PRC–nay, the Chinese Empire–will throw the U.S Navy out of the West Pacific, states that it will then engage in a campaign of suppression explicitly designed to finlandize the first and second island chains, and–finally–states that it will permanently subjugate Japan in the manner that the U.S intended before the end of the Chinese Civil War, then this should not raise alarm bells; it should not, also, merely inform the decisions of politicians and generals.

No, when a government explicitly states that its core objective is the re-founding of an ethnocentric empire, necessarily entailing the forced expulsion and subjugation of the local peace-keeper in favour of a revanchist form of law that favors the past hegemon, necesarily entailing the colonization and subjugation of an entire people for crimes over half a century old, then said objective, should not raise alarm bells, should not inform diplomats, but should be taken for the vow and declaration that it is; that when–not if–it is capable, a revanchist, chauvnistic, ethnocentric empire WILL WAGE WAR upon the current superpower to drag an entire region back into a world that produced the likes of the Treaty of Tordesillas, just to satisfy racist fantasies of "the chosen people."

Bankotsu
June 16, 2013 at 12:01

"The conflict is already there. Don't sweat it. Give it a little time." 

U.S. is already conducting massive cyber warfare on China and HK.

Leonard R.
June 14, 2013 at 21:59

The conflict is already there. Don't sweat it. Give it a little time. 

bpsitrep
June 14, 2013 at 21:47

China has this mentality that the 21st generation belongs to China and their economic success has only  strengthened their belief.  We're already at war, cyberwar, and it's up to the politicians on both sides to whether it escalates into open conflict.  I keep seeing Tom Clancy's 'Threat Vector' as becoming more reality every day. 

Matt
June 14, 2013 at 18:40

I'm starting to see a lot more chatter about war with China. Some are worried about it. Some say it won't happen. But the most important thing is that this kind of chatter is increasing. That is not a good sign.

Everyone thinks that if there is no war between the US and China, then everyone lives happily ever after. But there is a big problem with that. China's leaders are in trouble. Their economy is starting to slow. Due to substantial corruption and mismanagement, the Chinese people are becoming increasingly unhappy with Chinese leaders. There is a risk of revolution that is likely to get worse. We can't know if a revolution will happen or not, and neither can the leaders. That means they must be getting worried. 

One Chinese think tank projected that there was a real possibility of conflict concerning the Senkaku Islands, and this would harm the US. Now we are talking about the possibility of war with US. Chinese leaders must be thinking about this – about stumbling into war with the US.

Chinese leaders might be thinking the following: If we do nothing then we may die in a revolution. If we do nothing then we may die after we stumble in a war with the US.

Chinese leaders might also be thinking about this.

 

 

 

JaegerJade47
June 14, 2013 at 11:40

“Straight-line projections often say something important” because this line is usually the most direct route for navigation and negotiation. Like the straight line plank of the gymnastic beam, balance is needed to walk the line successfully even though the foot dips below the beam while walking the plank. The balance required is the” ‘golden mean’ Burke called the middle ground between runaway idealism and shallow pragmatism. The prudent statesman strove to advance grand ideals while acknowledging the boundaries imposed by political reality”…”The prudent statesman had a duty to find the golden mean merging the ideal with the practical.” James R. Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt and World Order, Potomac Books, Inc. 2006.

Leonard R.
June 14, 2013 at 08:53

China is sui generis. It bears no resemblance to either Athens or Sparta. 

It is not a question of whether there will be conflict between China & the US. There already has been conflict. It will grow hotter and that will have nothing to do with Ancient Greek historians.

There are historical corollaries. But ultimately, they don't tell us enough. I agree with Thucydides on one point. It comes down to over-weening hubris and the inherent fragility of alliances. 

W4LT3R
June 14, 2013 at 04:04

of course, the flaw in your argument is that World Wars One and Two can be viewed as two parts to the same macrodecision, wherein Britain did end up facing both Germany and Japan, and losing her spot as global hegemon to the US.

Chuck Hill
June 14, 2013 at 03:25

Always thought Sparta's ally Corinth, who viewed Athens as a trade competitor, was the real push behind Sparta's decision to take on Athens.

Bankotsu
June 13, 2013 at 23:51

"That leaves China. The trend lines in East Asia point to competition or even conflict."

The U.S. pivot to asia pacific will only increase chances of conflict.

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