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If the “Thucydides Trap” Holds, the US and China Could Be Heading for War

By: José Azel - Sep 13, 2017, 9:32 am
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Dr. Allison, and his Thucydides’s Trap Project team at Harvard, identified 16 cases in the past five hundred years in which an ascending power challenged an established power. Of these 16 rivalries, 12 resulted in war. The United States and China represent the 17th case. (Jagran)

EspañolIn the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found myself traveling to Hong Kong/China several times per year on business. Some 20 yeas later, my wife I and spent several weeks hiking in the Himalayas and Tibet, visiting Buddhist monasteries, and reaching Mount Everest base camp on the Tibetan side. These personal experiences led me to appreciate first hand the cultural differences between China and our Western culture.

The geopolitical implications of these differences and the political and economic ascendancy of China inform the troubling arguments advanced by Graham Allison in his outstanding new book Destined for War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Professor Allison borrows from History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides conclusion that “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Thus, Thucydides’s Trap denotes the inevitable structural tensions in international relations that result when a rising power, such as China today, threatens to displace a ruling power-, such as the United States.

Dr. Allison, and his Thucydides’s Trap Project team at Harvard, identified 16 cases in the past five hundred years in which an ascending power challenged an established power. Of these 16 rivalries, 12 resulted in war. The United States and China represent the 17th case, and Dr. Allison’s research offers a clear lens for understanding the U.S.- China rivalry, and how to avoid the sparks that could ignite a military conflict.

Consider just a couple of examples cited in the book that attest as to China’s ascendancy. In two years, between 2011 and 2013, China produced and used more cement than the U.S. produced and used in the entire 20th century. Since 2007, 40 percent of all the economic growth of the world has taken place in China.

Both countries see themselves as exceptional, but ageless China, with no recorded birth, cultivates a cultural exceptionalism even greater than the infant United States. In Chinese, the word for China means “Middle Kingdom”. The reference is not to a place in-between other kingdoms, but to all that exists between heaven and earth.

The cultures differ and compete in other key values. The United States sees itself as “number one” and China sees itself as the center of the universe. Americans core value is freedom, for the Chinese it is order. We view government as a necessary evil, for the Chinese government is a necessary good. We are inclusive, they are exclusive. Our time horizon is now, for the Chinese it is infinity. Our form of government is a democratic republic; China is an authoritarian/totalitarian regime. We anchor government legitimacy in the will of the people; for the Chinese legitimacy emanates from performance. And, in the context of international relations, we aspire to an international order based on the rule of law. China aspires to an international order in which China rules in harmonious hierarchy.

Given the objective conditions and conflicting aspirations of the United States and China, it is going to take enlightened diplomacy and astute strategy to avoid Thucydides’s Trap. It is not simply a matter of developing a national friendship. After all, the Spartan king Archidamus II and Athens’ Pericles were personal friends, and that personal friendship did not prevent the destruction of both states in the Peloponnesian War.

In his history of the war, Thucydides immortalized realism in international relations in the Melian Dialogue: “You know as well as we do that right is a question that only has meaning in relations between equals in power. In the real world, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” This realpolitik understanding shapes the policies of China and the United States.

A military conflict between the United States and China may seem a remote possibility. But it would be foolish to discount Thucydides’s Trap and ignore conditions under which events, such as a Korean conflict, can escalate with unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences. International relations must journey in the arc of the possible. And, in that arc, we should never dismiss George Santayana’s aphorism: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.