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Traps and Avoidable Wars

German soldiers at the First Battle of the Marne during World War I / Wikimedia Commons

Michael Vlahos isn’t impressed by Graham Allison’s The Thucydides Trap:

The Thucydides Trap insinuates that China and the United States are tracked onto the path of war. But what if it is all more stable than Greek Tragedy allows? What if there is no Thucydides Trap? Americans and the Chinese are not hoplite-citizens of Greek city-states, singing their Song of Wrath. They are not even like young men in old Europe, their hearts filled to bursting at the news of war in August 1914.

Allison may feel that his “warning” will help us avoid such a war. But by framing its shadow as anguished classical tragedy—“destined” to be—he gives the prospect of a U.S.-China war an aura of inevitability. Thus does Thucydides help Allison make that war more likely—what happens when literature guides strategy.

We should always be wary of arguments that seem to make war practically inevitable, and this is even more important when it concerns a possible great power conflict that would be ruinous for both sides and the world. One can certainly find examples of competing great powers that convinced themselves that war was inevitable, and so created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Great powers have sometimes made a point of making sure that war couldn’t be avoided by pursuing confrontational and aggressive policies on the assumption that their adversaries would take advantage of them if they did not. However, as Vlahos explains very well, it does not have to happen this way. Assuming that great power relations often follow a consistent pattern runs the risk of ignoring present circumstances and forgetting that leaders in both governments have the agency to decide against a course of action that leads to war.

George Kennan addressed what happens when people in competing states take the inevitably of war for granted in his masterful work The Fateful Alliance, and I’ll quote him again on this:

In the history of the negotiation of the Franco-Russian Alliance one can witness the growth of a whole series of those aberrations, misunderstandings, and bewilderments that have played so tragic and fateful a part in the development of Western civilization over the subsequent decades. One sees how the unjustified assumption of war’s likelihood could become the cause of its final inevitability. One sees the growth of military-technological capabilities to levels that exceed man’s capacity for making any rational or intelligent use of them. One sees how the myopia induced by indulgence in the mass emotional compulsions of modern nationalism destroys the power to form any coherent, realistic view of true national interest. (p.257)

As Kennan’s studies of that alliance and European diplomacy in the decades before WWI show, the real “trap” that a great power has to worry about is locking itself into questionable and unnecessary alliances that commit it to fighting a ruinous war it could choose to avoid. The danger in this case is not that a rising power and an established one cannot find some modus vivendi, but that the established power feels bound to take sides in disputes that have nothing to do with its security.

Philip Jenkins also commented on the “myth of the inevitable war” for TAC two years ago:

But if anyone ever says today that conflict with a particular nation or cause is “inevitable,” whether that contemporary foe is Iran, China or Russia, history offers plenty of reasons to doubt such claims. Somewhere down the road, in fact, those adversaries might become our best friends.

The truth is that wars can almost always be avoided, and when a war promises to be as costly and ruinous as a war between America and China there are many reasons why it should be. There is no good reason why the U.S. and China cannot find a way to accommodate the latter’s increasing power in a manner that doesn’t provoke or invite war between our governments.

P.S. Noah Millman will probably have more to say about this.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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