Is The Thucydides Trap For The U.S. And China? A Response To Graham Allison


Sep 29, 2015

Written by Mary Buffett

This week the Atlantic Magazine published “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” by Graham Allison, who is one of the more thoughtful geopolitical theorists of the last half century. His classes at Harvard come with a waiting list. His books are required reading for anybody interested in foreign policy and he has shown an uncanny knack for getting much of what he says right.
His basic thought is that history results in an inevitable clash of titans, with war being the only inevitable outcome. Allison travels back to the 16th century until the present and charts out how 12 out of the last 16 major global tensions have resulted in a shooting war. With that in mind, he looks at the current and future relationship between the United States and China as one fraught with peril, with war being the inevitable conclusion.

I have a great deal of respect for Graham Allison and he lays out a series of compelling arguments. But I believe he will be proven wrong in this case.

Might there be a future war between the U.S. and Chinese? Who knows? Are there circumstances where flash points could lead to war? Perhaps. However is the environment between the United States and China different than what is found in many of these past situations that stumbled into two world wars in the 20th century?

The 20th Century is a sobering reminder of what happens when hubris mixed with xenophobia replaces cautious diplomacy. To say that World War I was fought among a group of first cousins who served as the crowned heads of Europe is simplistic but Allison points out that Kaiser Wilhelm II replied, “I was brought up in England, very largely; I feel myself partly an Englishman. Next to Germany I care more for England than for any other country.”

However only a few years later, armies were mobilized and the only major royal house that remained at war’s end was found in Great Britain. As Barbara Tuchman ruefully concluded, the major powers of the day blundered into a deadly war.

Less than a generation later, the world erupted in a second and more deadly world war which caused the deaths of nearly 80 million people, soldiers and civilians alike. The scale of industrialized massacre on the battlefield as well as within the horrors found within the concentration camps led to the formation of the United Nations, which has played a role in mitigating some of the smaller regional conflicts. Many have noted that the reason why the UN headquarters was placed in New York City was it served as a hedge against any future impulse of American isolationism.

However, what really pacified Europe was the creation of the European Common Market in 1957. The long held dream of Jean Monnet, considered the father of this organization, was that countries that were economically integrated had a lower chance of starting a shooting war. He has been proven largely right. Despite the squabbles of the early years, the common market grew into the Eurozone and at the turn of the century, the Euro replaced many of these national currencies. It was helpful politically that most of the nations were aligned with NATO (except for France who opted out during de Gaulle’s reign.) and after the fall of communism, what became the Eurozone moved eastward. It has worked. Even with the current headlines surrounding the Greek Debt Crisis, they are far better than the headlines of 1939 when Hitler invaded his neighbors. Today, the only time that Bundeswehr troops would mass along the German border would be to enjoy summer vacations along the south of France.

As we move to the present and the future, many policymakers are worried that an ascending China and a dominant United States will inevitably stumble into war. The difference is that the economic liberalizations of Deng that began in 1990s, American and Chinese economic interests are joined at the waist. There will be questions about how the Yuan is valued. Even though there are a variety of political squabbling over the cyber spying and other forms of espionage, nobody is parking the US Seventh Fleet off the coast of Shanghai. Why? The enormity of the trading relationship between the United States and the PRC merits caution — on both sides. We also live in a world that is far more connected than in past generations. The recent instability of the Chinese stock crash went around the world several times — for several days — until markets stabilized. Being plugged in allows instant access to the policymakers to defuse whatever tensions are in the air. During the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev could only communicate to the west overtly through broadcasts on Radio Moscow. Even with private backchannels, nobody could pick up the phone to call the Kremlin, something which is unthinkable today.

As for China, its challenges will come from within, not from the outside. Managing a country with 1.3 billion aspirants will be tough now that the economy is going through a maturation process. The days of year-over-year 7 percent growth are no long sustainable. Moreover, economic success soon begets a desire for free expression and political freedom, something that is very dicey proposition in China. Just ask Ai Weiwei. How China deals with the Chinese will be a more interesting situation of how American and Chinese relations progress over the coming years.

Political adventurism becomes more difficult in a globalized and more transparent world. This was not always the case. When the economy soured globally in the late 1920s there was no way for nations to create a coordinated response to the economic downtown. There was no IMF, no coordination between the various treasury officials to act together to stem the tide. When the downturn worsened, highly nationalistic political groups came to power in Germany and Japan. Hitler never worried about upsetting Germany and Polish trade relations when he invaded because his economy lacked the economic integration we take for granted today.

There was a reason why the old Soviet Union could invade eastern bloc countries with impunity to prop up a number of faltering regimes, first with Hungary in 1956 and later with Czechoslovakia in 1968. First, the old Soviet Ruble was not a convertible currency and the old Soviet economy was not as economically integrated as the Russian economy is today. Back then, there was no economic price to pay, except perhaps for condemnation at the UN and the loss of landing rights for Aeroflot at American airports.

Today, it is another story. When President Putin chose to invade and occupy the Crimean section of the Ukraine, it has come at a terrible cost for his country. During the 2000s the Russian economy was ascendant because of the rising price of oil. However, sanctions had severely crimped international investment. That and the falling price of oils have put the Russia economy into a long term tailspin long after the most of the world has emerged from the Crisis of 2008 in better shape. In 2014 the Russian economy shrank by 4.6 percent. In the first quarter, the economy contracted another 2.2 percent in 1Q 2015. Putin may survive politically but his choices have come at a great cost, something that his Soviet predecessors never had to experience. The irony is that had European economies had been as integrated on the eve of the First World War and plugged in with the communications we take for granted today, the current head of the Romanov family would have welcomed the world to the Sochi Olympics, not Vladimir Putin.

Will conflicts emerge between the Chinese and the United States as we move through the 21st century? Of course and it would be Pollyannaish to think otherwise. There will be points of contention economically and geopolitically. There will be concerns of cyberespionage and trade issues. China will flex itself militarily. Chinese and American summitry will replace the importance of past gatherings of American and Soviet leaders of the 1950s through the 1990s. However, Chinese and Americans are both heavily invested in each other’s futures and that series of overlapping relationships cannot be easily unraveled. American brands are built with Chinese labor and American companies have industrial plants throughout China. There are a number of Chinese companies that have American subsidiaries dotted throughout our map. Those relationships will only increase as the years progress, regardless of the current state of the Chinese or American economy.

However, history maybe more optimistic in the long run. Even during the period when the United States and the Soviet Union nearly blundered into a full blown unclear exchange, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the only battlefield fatality was an American pilot shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Moreover, Osama bin Laden killed more Americans than Soviet soldiers did during the entirety of the Cold War. The real danger points to America’s security may arise from someplace else other than the People’s Republic of China.
Even in Allison’s own graph, the last three conflicts did not lead to war.

In the end, increased trade will keep China and the United States from drawing blood on the battlefield, just as Jean Monnet had envisioned for Europe a century ago. Increased trade within integrated global economies will serve as the hidden hand to keep the peace between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. There are no guarantees in life, but based on what we saw in the 20th Century, it’s — as they say — “close enough for government work.”

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This