China, the United States and the Thucydides Trap

Illustrative image | sources: President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping. (Photo: Karol Serewis/Gallo Images Poland/Getty Images) / US President Donald Trump. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

History can be a guide to the future. And history can even teach how to avoid tragedy, but only if nations pay attention to those lessons. Has the competition between the US and China reached such a stage that the lessons must be applied to avert danger?

If one lives in the West (or maybe anywhere else), one has to hope, really hope and pray, that somewhere deep in the inner sanctums of the Chinese versions of their government’s international relations department and in their ruling party’s foreign affairs committee, there exists a coterie of history scholar-diplomats who are making special efforts to focus on a key insight of international behaviour to understand the choices for their own nation’s future challenges. And opportunities.

This, of course, is understanding the potentially conflicted relationship between an emerging power and a status quo one. And, understanding what can go right – or very wrong – should be much more than an academic exercise. Harvard University political scientist Graham Allison called this balance “The Thucydides Trap”. Allison drew on the insights of that ancient Greek historian and his explanation of the origins of the Mediterranean-wide conflict that arose between the Athenian empire at its height and the rising power of Sparta and its allies to illuminate our current circumstances.

Presumably, our Chinese analysts already have well-thumbed copies of this book on their reference shelves or an electronic copy on the computers – or perhaps the shorter version of it that was an essay in Foreign Policy, lodged adjacent to Thucydides’ masterpiece. Hopefully, too, they are referring to such works of strategy, rather than relying solely upon classic Marxist formulations in order to gauge the shape of the global political economy.

While the nature of a status quo/ascending power duopoly obviously reaches back further than the Peloponnesian War that was the object of Thucydides’ attention and thus for Allison’s title, there are three particularly relevant, recent examples in the past hundred years or so that have fundamentally shaped our contemporary world. The unnamed Chinese analysts are probably closely pondering these very examples now for clues. This kind of power relationship transcends the particulars of the ideology of the states involved.

The three to be considered are: first, the relationship between Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Great Britain at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th; second, the relationship between the Western democracies and the rise of Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and fascist Italy; and, then last, the final stages of the Cold War rivalry between the US and the then-Soviet Union.

Consider the final one of these, the last decade of the struggle between the United States and the then-Soviet Union – from around 1980 until the Cold War ended. It was a world that had seemingly become frozen in place with a split between two nuclear-armed nations and their respective supporters and allies. But, in Ronald Reagan’s presidency onward into the George HW Bush administration, the struggle began to feature a militarily and economically resurgent US, presumably healed from its self-inflicted wounds in Vietnam and the deep acridness of Watergate. Instead, the US was prepared, as was said, to force the Soviet Union to spend itself into its own grave if need be, as the Soviets embarked on a desperate, but doomed effort to keep up with the US’s rearmament and rebuilding via technological advances.

Eventually, the financial strain on the Soviet Union’s creaking economy, coupled with their endless military adventure in Afghanistan, and growing restiveness in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European subject states, together, proved too much for the Kremlin’s largely sclerotic leadership. This remained true despite Premier Mikhail Gorbachev having launched his limited reforms of glasnost and perestroika.

In a matter of months, their empire had evaporated and the Soviet Union itself disintegrated into a collection of constituent ethnicities. Fortunately, President Bush chose not to carry out a kind of victory dance over the corpse of the USSR, even if successors and some of their advisers could demonstrate the kind of triumphalism that led to the US’s own overreach in Afghanistan and Iraq. Eventually, the new Russian state, staging its own efforts at national and military revival, has begun revanchist behaviour in the neighbouring new nations, as well as its own version of military-technological rebuilding under Vladimir Putin.

The second example, of course, was the placidity and immobility of the world’s democratic nations against aggrandisement and aggression by Germany, Italy, and Japan to expand the territory under their control at the expense of the other nations in Europe, Africa and East Asia. The Germans were increasingly eager to avenge the defeat of 1918 and rebuild the nation’s international power, while Italy and Japan were determined to carry out expansionary military campaigns worthy of their presumed great-power status. By the time a coalition between Britain, the US, and the then-Soviet Union could be forged, two years into the opening of hostilities, it would still take nearly half a decade and millions of casualties to defeat the Nazi regime, and then, separately, imperial Japan, once those nations had carried out serious military overreach of their own.

The first of our three examples, the relationship between Wilhelmine Germany and Edwardian Great Britain, should be the most immediately relevant for those anonymous analysts we imagine are in Beijing as they try to consider the future of US-China relations. And this historical example was the ultimately deadly collision between the newly united, economically and industrially vibrant, militarily growing Germany as a rapidly ascending power, in a growing competition with a British imperial status quo that stretched across the globe but that was being overtaken by the new German economic heft.

There is now a whole library of thoughtful modern books analysing the outbreak of World War I and the circumstances that led up to it. We can hope that our Chinese analysts are already familiar with some of them. These should certainly include Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 work, The Guns of August. (Reportedly it was a favourite of President John Kennedy as its description of the great powers’ stumbles into warfare helped inform Kennedy’s responses towards the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the same year.) Several other recent, acclaimed works, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, include Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers, and Margaret Hamilton’s The War that Ended the Peace. But there are many more.

Each of these examined the factors that ended the 100-year long peace in Europe, including the ambition of Germany to challenge British domination of the seas with an expensive, new fleet of modern battleships; the continuing instability and the rivalries of the great powers in the Balkans; the growing trade competition between Britain and Germany; and rivalries between the powers over their respective colonial regions. But the effort by Germany to redress the strategic imbalance with a large modern navy increasingly helped push the British into informal alliance with France and Russia. This may be seen as a rough strategic parallel to China’s naval expansion with its new aircraft carriers and carrier-based jets, the establishment of a quasi-suzerainty over and militarisation of the many small islets in the South China Sea, and a continuing buildup of cyber-warfare capabilities (and actions).

One crucial difference now, of course, is that the US and the Chinese are nuclear-armed. Depending on bilateral tensions, a minor incident or a military provocation of one type or another (accidental or deliberate) might conceivably set off a more general state of hostilities, up the escalatory ladder, with much less than a month’s time (as in 1914) before things spiral out of control. Especially if one side fears further alterations in the strategic balance, or if the other sees an opportunity to move ahead to decisive advantage. Such circumstances move right into the main argument of Allison’s The Thucydides Trap.

These broader strategic concerns come into better focus as China’s leaders increasingly see themselves as the rulers of the globe’s leading nation for the future. Between their exceptional economic progress after shucking off rigid economic doctrine and central controls, embracing open markets, liberating economic energies, investing heavily in scientific and technological prowess, joining the WTO, and eagerly encouraging globalised supply chain participation at every level, the country has assembled a huge reservoir of financial reserves to exercise in achieving greater impact globally. Building up an increasingly formidable foreign strategic economic presence via the Belt and Road Initiative and the Shanghai Cooperation Council has further bolstered a Chinese ability to meld economic and financial muscle together in the service of strategic self-interest as Xi Jinping’s government defines it.

One wonders if our imagined Chinese analysts are beginning to see the evolution of their country as a 21st century parallel to the way Germany had thrust itself onto the European stage, post-1870, after national unification. And if they are, are they also contemplating what might be the consequences of such developments if things run of their own accord? 

For outsiders and potential opponents, the 19th- and early 20th-century German experience, what with explosive economic, technological and scientific growth, trade, and those naval developments helped destabilise the European world. On the contemporary global landscape, could the constant push of further defence and security expansion, together with an increasingly deep reach of economic, trade and investment into Asia, Africa, Latin America and even parts of Europe, trigger responses similar to the ones Germany began to feel?

For China, the election of Donald Trump and his new quasi-isolationism, plus the arrival of the Covid-19 virus certainly did not cause a draw-down of US power and presence in many spheres, but they have helped exacerbate and dramatise some already ongoing shifts in the balance of power. From its opening days, the Trump administration drew back from a whole array of international forums and interactions that had been designed to exercise a combination of hard, economic and soft power.

These included the six-power agreement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the announcement of withdrawal from nuclear agreements with Russia (including the just-announced intent to pull out of the “Open Skies” accord), the renunciation of any participation in the nascent Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, pressures on long-time alliance partners in Nato, South Korea and Japan to pay much larger shares of the defence burden, support for maximalist desires by the Netanyahu government in Israel and against any lingering reputation as an honest broker and an unadulterated embrace of Saudi ambitions, and now, most recently, an offensive against the World Health Organisation.

Taken together, these have given the Chinese government a golden opportunity to underscore its position to many nations as the go-to power of the future, especially as its economic model continues to dazzle – or even bewitch – many in what we used to call the Third World. In the face of US government withdrawal of contributions towards the WHO (but not those from private foundations), the Chinese have been able to step forward with a full-court diplomatic press of the delivery of medical supplies to many affected nations and to announce its full support for a global effort to defeat the Covid-19 virus. To be clear, the less than 100% transparency by the Chinese on the origins of the virus and its initial spread have engendered muttering by some nations. But in the face of Donald Trump’s truculence towards the international body and his administration’s willingness to go it alone on Covid-19, the Chinese have virtually gained a free pass on the issue.

The full weight of this US withdrawal from global participation has been noted by many, even among international elites who often wondered about the nature of the US’s near-global domination. For example, former Swedish diplomat, government figure, and academic Karl Bilt wrote the other day:

“The annual meeting of the World Health Assembly – the general assembly of the World Health Organization – is normally not something that attracts major attention outside the circle of those directly concerned.

“But the meeting this week was very different. Here, the post-American world was on full display as it has seldom been seen before. It is not that the United States has ceased to exist – far from it. But it has left behind any ambition of global leadership and any function as a global inspiration.

“And that is very new. Tragically so.

“The first prominent speaker on the virtual meeting, with audience members throughout the world, was Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was a polished, confident and probably effective performance. His speech contained four messages: China has mastered the crisis and has put it behind itself; China is ready to help the rest of the world, notably Africa; China stands for transparency, including a review on what happened once we all have put the crisis behind us; and a vaccine has to be seen as a global public good available to all.

“Then, from Europe, there was France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel with messages of strong support for global cooperation in fighting the virus, notably through the WHO. They also spoke about the vaccine that everyone is hoping for as a global public good.

“And it was the European Union that carefully maneuvered the diplomatic work needed to get a global consensus around a resolution calling for a comprehensive review into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Its draft evolved in such a way that it was co-sponsored by a large number of other nations.”

Bilt went on to note that a review of what had actually happened in China and beyond, following the initial angry statements from Australia, eventually led to a compromise by the EU to develop a review. As Bilt went on to say:

“China knew where things were heading. Keen to show itself as a responsible stakeholder in the landscape of global health cooperation, it folded on the objections it might have had and accepted the review requirements of the resolution.” 

But, by the time US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar spoke, it “fueled the impression that the United States was far more interested in fighting China than fighting the virus…”

“This was the post-American world on display: China assertive and confident. Europe trying to save what can be saved of global cooperation. And the Trump administration mostly outside firing its heavy artillery in all directions, but with limited actual results… A world used to American leadership – for good, according to many, for bad, according to some – had to move on with the urgent issues of fighting the virus.”

The Germans in the early part of the 20th century could not achieve a lasting concord with Britain and catastrophe followed. The Axis powers could not be restrained in 1939 until their costly defeat in 1945. And, similarly, the US may have overreached in the years after the demise of the Soviet Union.

As long as the Trump administration remains in office, it will almost certainly continue down this road, especially since it has given no indication of any changes of heart, even in the face of global economic distress. But, even if the incumbent president is replaced in November by Joe Biden, the sheer momentum and energy of China’s onward motion, the sense of a lack of agreement on national purpose in the US and the deep divisions in that nation, may mean that the best the US is able to achieve would be a kind of informal global co-dominium with China.

It would have to be a kind of tacit agreement on respective spheres of interest and areas of mutual interest and cooperation. But it would also have to include acknowledgements of those areas where conflicts will continue, even as they must be limited for the safety and security of all. For the US, then, Sic gloria transit mundi, perhaps. Thus passes worldly glory. DM