The last of my
five foreign policy questions for the candidates that I posed prior to the Democratic debate was about the Thucydides Trap, a coinage of Graham Allison’s to describe the way rising powers and established hegemon’s frequently stumble into catastrophic war that benefits neither:
More than 2,400 years ago, the Athenian historian Thucydides
offered a powerful insight: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” Others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War. But Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Note that Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.
In the case about which he wrote in the fifth century B.C., Athens had emerged over a half century as a steeple of civilization, yielding advances in philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy, and naval prowess. This shocked Sparta, which for a century had been the leading land power on the Peloponnese peninsula. As Thucydides saw it, Athens’s position was understandable. As its clout grew, so too did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices, its sensitivity to instances of disrespect, and its insistence that previous arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power. It was also natural, Thucydides explained, that Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system it had established—and within which Athens had flourished.
Thucydides chronicled objective changes in relative power, but he also focused on perceptions of change among the leaders of Athens and Sparta—and how this led each to strengthen alliances with other states in the hopes of counterbalancing the other. But entanglement runs both ways. (It was for this reason that George Washington
famously cautioned America to beware of “entangling alliances.”) When conflict broke out between the second-tier city-states of Corinth and Corcyra (now Corfu), Sparta felt it necessary to come to Corinth’s defense, which left Athens little choice but to back its ally. The Peloponnesian War followed. When it ended 30 years later, Sparta was the nominal victor. But both states lay in ruin, leaving Greece vulnerable to the Persians.
Well, I’ve been fretting about the rise of China and the parallels to the rise of Germany vis-a-vis Britain from the 1880s through the 1910s, or the rise of Japan from the 1900s through the 1930s. So this is a hobby horse I may be riding for a while. I’m riding it
today in : The Week
Why is the Thucydides Trap called a trap? Because when faced with a rising, revisionist power, all courses of action can lead to war. A policy of accommodation can be readily interpreted as retreat, and invite aggressive expansion on the part of the rival. This, in turn, can create popular pressure in the dominant power for a reversal of policy — since that policy appears to be failing. On the other hand, a vigorous policy of containment can be readily interpreted as an attempt to encircle the rising rival, and provoke efforts to break out before the encirclement is complete. Moreover, the costs of maintaining hegemony steadily drain the resources of the dominant power, contributing to the rival’s relative rise. All of these dynamics can be observed in the behavior of Britain and Germany in the run-up to World War I.
The two most notable cases where the dominant power avoided war were: Britain vis-a-vis the rise of America in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and America vis-a-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But Britain’s accommodation of America began with the decision to respect the Monroe Doctrine, which cost Britain little, and ended with America dominating the planet and the British Empire relegated to the history books. And America’s containment of the Soviet Union involved proxy wars all around the globe — and it’s not clear that, after, say, 1950, the Soviet Union was in any meaningful sense a rising power relative to America.
Neither of those peaceful-endgame cases seems a very good model for dealing with the rise of China in an American-dominated world. America is unlikely to be willing to risk ceding total supremacy to the Chinese as Britain ultimately did to America — and Britain only did so because it had no choice when faced with the threat from Hitler. (Britain also had a close cultural affinity with America — but it’s worth noting that, at the start of the 20th century, Anglo-German cultural affinity was arguably just as strong. In any event, no similar tie is likely to smooth understanding between America and China.) As for the Soviet comparison, China is a far more dynamic and powerful rival than the Soviet Union ever was, with a vastly larger industrial base and population. It has far more to offer in any contest for allies.
The way out of the Thucydides Trap, in Allison’s view, is constant communication and a willingness to think very big in terms of accommodation. Americans should be prepared for a transition to a world in which China is not merely welcomed into the club of major powers, but is accepted as an architect of whatever world order is going to emerge. That level of accommodation is almost as impossible to imagine as is a major war between America and China. Which is precisely the reason to worry that we might be falling into the trap.
So it behooves us to take this question seriously — which means thinking very long-term, and with an openness to very large changes in the current international order. As well, it behooves us to always think about strategy elsewhere in the world, and how we repair the tattered institutions of collective security, in terms of how our choices affect this most important question.
But we’re unlikely to debate those kinds of long-term questions any time soon. After all, it’s
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[UPDATE: In my article in
The Week I referred to the United States as a net-exporter of oil. This is both incorrect and misleading. It’s incorrect because while we have at times over the past few years been a net-exporter of petroleum products, we are not a net-exporter of oil – nor could we be given that the export of crude is mostly not permitted under U.S. law. It’s misleading because while there is a good case to be made that America is approaching energy independence, we’re not there yet and oil specifically remains a strategic commodity in limited supply. I’ve requested a correction from The Week and am embarrassed by my sloppiness.
That having been said: I do think that the very substantial increase in America’s energy production has real implications for how directly vulnerable we are to disruptions to that limited supply. Of course we are extremely vulnerable economically, as are all industrial economies, to spikes in the price of oil. But there’s a difference. Japan went to war with America in 1941 substantially because of their acute dependence on imported oil; they sought by force to secure direct control of the oil resources of Southeast Asia in the face of an American oil embargo. America wasn’t fighting Japan
over oil; we were using the oil weapon to fight Japan (in large part because of Japan’s horrifying war of conquest in China). China is vulnerable to direct disruptions of supply as Japan was then, though not to nearly the same degree. But America really isn’t, not in the same way. That should have some bearing on our relative interest in the security of supply from, say, Saudi Arabia, which has been under American protection since the 1920s.]