balance of power, China, Destined for War, East Asia, foreign policy, geopolitics, globalism, Graham Allison, international order, internationalism, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, realism, strategy, The History of the Peloponnesian Wae, Thucydides, Thucydides Trap
It’s always great to learn that U.S. leaders are working hard to use history to inform their policy decisions – unless they’re completely misreading the relevance of lessons of the past to America’s current circumstances, as could well be the case with senior Trump administration officials and their fascination with Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
Don’t get me wrong: This chronicle of conflicts between ancient Athens and Sparta is a genuine classic both of military history and international relations theory. I hold it in particularly high regard because it contains a seminal argument for viewing the latter through a “realist” lens, emphasizing that countries act, in the words of one recent description, “out of pragmatic self-interest, with little regard for ideology, values or morality.”
But according to an account that came out last week (and that hasn’t been denied), top Trump foreign policy and national security aides are viewing Thucydides as a valuable guide to answering the question of whether war between the United States and China is inevitable. And their interest in the History has been encouraged by the work of a leading modern scholar, Harvard University’s Graham Allison. Allison has applied what’s widely regarded as Thucydides’ main conclusion – that established powers find it intrinsically and understandably difficult to deal with rising powers peacefully – to the U.S.-China situation, and in the process, he’s drawn a lot of attention in Beijing as well as Washington.
But there’s a major problem with focusing on whether the United States and China are stuck in a “Thucydides Trap” that makes war just about inevitable (Allison is not nearly so pessimistic), and examining past international rivalries for insights (his major contribution to the debate). As with so many mainstream analyses of American foreign policy for decades, Allison – and the Trump-ers apparently paying him heed – have completely forgotten the distinctive geopolitical and economic advantages the United States brings to international relations.
As I’ve written previously, the United States enjoys the kind of geographic isolation, military power, and capacity for economic self-sufficiency that enables it to view most overseas developments with relative indifference – provided that it maintains these strengths. And for all the important nuance he brings to his treatment of U.S.-China relations, it’s clear that Allison has overlooked what’s genuinely special about the American position, too.
Although I haven’t read Allison’s full Thucydides Trap book yet, I have read this lengthy magazine version. And it shows unmistakably that his warning that “Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment” accepts the same longstanding American globalist assumptions that have led to so many costly U.S. foreign policy mistakes since the end of World War II.
For example, Allison has a great deal to teach if it’s true that the United States has an intrinsic need to worry greatly about developments or questions like
>”a rising power…threatening to displace a ruling power”:
>”a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals”:
>”the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway”;
>the fact that “Never before in history has a nation risen so far, so fast, on so many dimensions of power”:
>whether China is “restored to its rightful place, where its power commands recognition of and respect for China’s core interests”;
>whether “the growing trend toward a multipolar [as opposed to a U.S.-led] world will not change”;
But nowhere has he made this case for these concerns. Indeed, by and large, like other mainstream analysts and leaders, he simply assumes their crucial importance, without explaining how they could affect the nation’s safety, independence, and well-being directly and decisively.
Allison (along with the rest of the foreign policy mainstream, whose dominance is as complete on the conventional American Left as on the Right) gets more specific, and his analysis becomes more useful, when he raises questions like: ”Could China become #1? In what year could China overtake the United States to become, say, the largest economy in the world, or primary engine of global growth, or biggest market for luxury goods?”
And he identifies and expresses even more concrete core mainstream worries:
>First, whether China’s “current leaders [are] serious about displacing the U.S. as the predominant power in Asia?”’
>Second, both more broadly and more centrally “the impact that China’s ascendance will have on the U.S.-led international order, which has provided unprecedented great-power peace and prosperity for the past 70 years.”
But like the first set of worries, even these concerns should be treated as first-order issues by Americans only if they assume that, as with much less secure and inherently wealthy powers, either their security, prosperity, and independence are crucially reliant on the international environment, or that these aims are much more safely and efficiently achieved through international activism than through enhancing their abilities to deal with challenges and withstand crises acceptably in a turbulent international environment.
If the long-held globalist views stressing America’s relative vulnerability or dependence are accepted, then all of Allison’s questions remain vital – from the least tangible (like whether China wins more influence overall) to the most (whether China wants to replace the United States as Asia’s kingpin). And the fate of that “U.S.-led international order” (including preserving American primacy in Asia) ultimately matters most of all because it’s seen to be the only acceptable or only feasible guarantor of a satisfactory national future.
If, however, that assumption about the present international order is fatally flawed, then even subjects like the relative overall balance of power between the United States and China become secondary. They would logically cede pride of place to the issue of whether America’s power (in any dimension) is adequate to achieve specific national objectives or maintain valued national advantages. For even though relative power will of course influence success or failure, in the final analysis, the decisive consideration is whether that power is sufficient to achieve those particular successes and maintain those particular advantages, not whether America in some general sense “matches up” with other countries.
As always with these posts on overall foreign policy strategy, the main takeaway here isn’t that Allison and the other globalists are wrong and that I’m right. The main point is that the globalist school has – wittingly or not – long not only opposed, but defined out of existence, alternative approaches to security and prosperity that dovetail well with many of the nation’s most conspicuous strengths.
Here’s another way to put it: In his article, Allison expressly states that his detailed look at “16 cases over the last 500 years in which there was a rapid shift in the relative power of a rising nation that threatened to displace a ruling state….” But all entailed “the struggle for mastery in Europe and Asia over the past half millennium….” When globalists like him can explain why the geopolitical and economic similarities between the United States and these historic powers – or between ancient Athens and Sparta – count much more than the differences, they’ll be entitled to claim victory in their on-again-off-again debate with those favoring less ambitious over America’s foreign policy strategy. Until then, however, their opponents will be entitled to claim that they’ve managed to avoid the biggest questions.