Thucydides, a general of fourth century B.C. Athens who fought in the Peloponnesian Wars against the rising city-state of Sparta, was also a historian/philosopher who wrote a book about those wars.
In that history, he observed that an established power (which Sparta was, in his day) will view with alarm the rise of a rival power (Athens was the rising power). In such a circumstance, Thucydides wrote, if the old and the new power aren’t smart or careful or lucky, they will end up having a war (or, in the Peloponnesian case, a series of wars) over which one is going to end up dominant.
Thucydides never used the term, but Harvard scholar Graham Allison assigned the name “The Thucydides Trap” to a recurring pattern in world history in which wars have occurred because an established power saw a threat to its position from the rise of a newer power. The newer power is not generally interested in being told that the divvying up of the world’s spheres of influence already occurred and can’t be renegotiated because everyone else is happy with it.
Allison titled his 2017 book “Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’ Trap?”
I haven’t read “Destined for War.” But I bought a copy immediately after hearing Allison, and his old friend former Vice President Walter Mondale, talk about the question yesterday at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. Apparently, back when he was vice president, Mondale traveled to China five times to work on the changing Sino-American relationship and, in that context, became friends with Allison.
(Just to refresh your memory, for 30 years after the 1949 Communist Revolution until 1979, the United States took the position that the “Red Chinese,” who controlled all of mainland China, were nonetheless not the legal government of China. Instead, the 30-year U.S. position was that the non-Communist nationalist Chinese, who controlled only the island of Taiwan, were the actual government of China, including the overwhelming majority of its territory, over which the nationalists had no control. In 1979, the Carter Mondale administration recognized the reality of who was the government of China.)
I was alarmed and illuminated by the Allison-Mondale discussion yesterday. Illuminated, because both men have thought long and deeply about the Sino-American relationship, and alarmed because the first part of Allison’s title about that relationship is “Destined for War.”
As usual in these “Thucydides trap” situations, as explained by Allison, the rising power naturally expects its new power to be recognized in the division of the world’s spoils. The existing power tries to explain that the world’s power equation was settled previously, and arrangements were made for the fruits of that power before the rising power had risen. Perhaps you can see how that explanation is unacceptable to the rising power.
Through good statecraft or good luck, we have managed to avoid, so far, a war between two nuclear powers, but how lucky or smart will we be going forward? Allison, who has talked about the “trap” in China and America, and is now 78, seems to be devoting top priority to calling attention to the risks of the Thucydides trap, in the Sino-American case, and urging the leaders of both nations to commit themselves to learning the right lessons, in hopes of staying out of wars.
The worst outcome of the trap can be and has been avoided in some previous cases. Allison’s book identifies 16 cases that fit the trap — cases where a dominant power was alarmed by the rise of a challenger. Four times, the ending was relatively peaceful. Twelve times, the powers fell into Thucydides “trap,” which was a war.
The most recent happy ending was quite recent. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry has at least declined (and, of course, the Soviet Union has been dismantled without a major war, although Russia remains a major and nuclear-armed power).
Even if the tale of the U.S.-rivalry isn’t over, I have the impression that Allison is counting that Thucydides trap case as one of the successes. At least, in a 2017 essay for “Foreign Policy,” he wrote:
In the end, the Soviet Union imploded, and the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
The U.S.-Soviet Cold War was special, one could say, because it was the first great power-versus-rising power tale to occur after the invention of weapons capable of destroying life on Earth. But those weapons still exist, in large numbers on both sides of the U.S.-China rivalry, which is certainly an argument in favor of making it the latest “Thucydides trap” situation to be solved short of war.
Can the United States and China dodge the bullet? Allison didn’t say yesterday, and I gather he doesn’t say in the book either. But he did say:
This is a war that doesn’t have to happen, if we manage the situation correctly.
And, in an essay for Politico on Memorial Day of 2017, Allison wrote a piece titled: “What do the living owe the dead?” The short answer: “The courage and the wisdom to prevent the next war.”
China is, of course, an ancient civilization, and one that carries a long-ago memory of a time when it was the strongest and most advanced power on Earth. But China has now lived through a couple of centuries of being treated, mostly by Europeans, as a lesser power, virtually a European colony. That treatment is no longer acceptable to China.
The Chinese are now the dominant power in Asia, and, Mondale said yesterday, they have “made it clear they want us out of there.”
China is also the biggest economy in the world, Allison said. Many Americans can’t wrap their minds around that fact, he said, and it isn’t true on a per capita basis. But in sheer economic size there is no other possible conclusion. And the gap is growing at an unimaginable rate.
According to Allison, looking at the comparison between the economic growth rate of China vs. the United States in the past decade, China, in its worst year since 2008, grew at double the rate that the United States grew in its best year during that decade.
Please go back and read that previous paragraph again if you weren’t paying close attention. It is a breathtaking fact. China is already a bigger economy than ours, and its annual growth rate is more than doubling our growth rate every year.
As China grows and prospers, is it democratizing? Not even slightly, Allison said. Chinese leader Xi Jinping controls everything. No alternative to Communist Party control has any chance of developing. If you have a different vision of how that should work, you can count on going to prison Allison said. The joke in China, said Allison, is that Xi doesn’t operate like a CEO but like a COE, and that stands for “Chief Of Everythying.”
Mondale added that China shamelessly steals intellectual property of U.S. firms in violation of all international rules and norms. America’s big advantage in economic competition with China is that our open society is more creative. China offsets that advantage by simply stealing the U.S.-created intellectual property of any firm that does business there. “We’ve got to stop that,” Mondale said, but he didn’t say how.
A member of the audience asked Mondale what he sees by way of Trump administration policy toward dealing with China. Mondale replied:
That’s one of the things that concerns me the most. There doesn’t seem to be any rational policy, as far as bringing his best people together to solve these problems. This is a president who doesn’t read anything, has bad instincts to boot, and he’s already on his second secretary of state and his third national security adviser. I think it’s bedlam over there.