August Handgrenade

John T Kuehn's picture

Thucydides Trap:   Whose Trap?

Graham Allison, among others, has proposed something known as the Thucydides Trap--which relates to a species of historical determinism based on the classic history of the Pelopponesian  War by the Greek historian Thuycydides (who might be regarded as the father of analytical history as well as military history).

Quoting Allison from his book Destined for War:

"When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarm bells should sound: danger ahead. China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war-unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it. As a rapidly ascending China challenges America's accustomed predominance, these two nations risk falling into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. Writing about a war that devastated two leading city-states of classical Greece two and a half millennia ago, he explained: 'It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.' That primal insight describes a perilous historical pattern. Reviewing the record of the past five hundred years, the Thucydides's Trap Harvard has found sixteen cases in which a major nation's rise has disrupted the position of a dominant state....Our research finds that twelve of these rivalries ended in war and four did not-not a comforting ratio for the twenty-first century's most important geopolitical contest." (pages vii-viii)

Of course contingency goes by the wayside in this view--as it always does with inevitability.   My own view is that this sort of thinking itself can be an intellectual and conceptual "trap" of sorts for precisely this reason of inevitability.  Also, how many of the cases examined involved one of the party being behind two great oceans with NOT enemies on land contiguous to their borders?  Using ops analysis and reasearch methods to solve the largest challenges of all is a road, it seems to me, fraught with error.

 I am interested to hear the opinions of the H-WAR crowd on this issue.  Full caveat, I am no Panda-hugger either, as my friends and colleagues will attest.

Best,  JOhn T. Kuehn, Platte City/Fort Leavenworth

Keywords: Thucydides

When I saw this, I thought that Graham Allison was spreading phrases like "ruling power" and "dominant state" to cover a wide variety of actual degrees of power. I don't think Sparta, before the rise of Athens, had ever had a degree of preeminence remotely comparable to that the United States has enjoyed for the last couple of generations. Chinese behavior today is shaped by the memory of the United States having done things to China that Sparta would not have been capable of even attempting against Athens before the Peloponnesian War.

Looking at the web site of the Thucydides' Trap Project I see the phrase "ruling power" being used in an even more exaggerated fashion. I think it is absurd to write of Britain having had the status of "Ruling power" relative to France before the French Revolution, or to write of France having had the status of "Ruling power" relative to Germany during the reign of Napoleon III, before the rise of Bismarck's Prussia.

It's stimulating to read Thucydides but we need to be careful applying direct lessons from war and diplomacy in ancient times. I wonder if the globalism in which we live -- Americans, Chinese, Russians, Europeans, South Asians, pretty much all of us -- is something that could or would be so easily set aside by going to war. Specifically, would the PRC find it more advantageous to risk a general war with a "peer competitor" or persist in their strategy of "death by a thousand cuts?"

Just asking . . . .

I applaud, politely but not exuberantly, the Thucydides' Trap Project, a commendable effort to normalize or template a multitude of rivalries that led to war or almost led to war in past centuries. But I am hesitant to draw present-day conclusions, much less derive predictions, from this Project.

The historical cases with which Ed Moise takes issue over "ruling vs. rising" parties can be and certainly have been argued among and between historians. The only thing he says with which I take issue is in re. the USA and the PRC. "Chinese behavior today is shaped by the memory of the United States having done things to China that Sparta would not have been capable of even attempting against Athens before the Peloponnesian War."

What things have we done, I naively ask? Going back to World War II the USA supported China against the Japanese, but largely stood on the sidelines while Mao turned China into the PRC. Yes, we extended protection to Taiwan, the last Kuomintang sanctuary, and subsequently prosecuted a war in Korea a bit too vigorously, drawing the PRC into a war supporting their neighboring communist (sort of) regime, but less than 20 years later we saw President Nixon normalizing relations with the PRC, a state of affairs that has persisted down to the present day with relatively few bumps in the road, I would argue. That the current regime in the PRC is somewhat more repressive at home and slightly more adventurous abroad I will concede, but I'm not ready to write up a TTP case file yet.

What I primarily had in mind, when I said the Chinese remember the US having done things to China that Sparta could not have attempted to do to Athens before the Peloponnesian War, was:

a) The US, having marched troops into Beijing in 1900 during the campaign against the Boxers, did not then pull them all out. More than 300 American troops remained in Beijing, and more than 500 in the nearest major seaport, Tianjin, for decades. The US also had small vessels patrolling the Yangzi River.

b) After 1949, the US did its best to cut China off from normal contact with the world. The US applied pressure to other governments to refrain from exchanging ambassadors with the People's Republic of China (PRC); to vote against admission of the PRC to the United Nations; and to limit their trade with the PRC to a very low level.

Of course China under Mao would not have been wide open even if the United States had not been trying to isolate it. But except from 1966 to 1969, when China self-isolated to a remarkable extent, US policy was reducing Chinese contact with the world to a considerably lower level than the Chinese government wanted.

The wall of isolation the US had built around China began to collapse in 1970, and in 1971 the PRC won admission to the United Nations, with the US still voting against but no longer leaning really hard on other governments to get them to do likewise. Japan, where US influence had been exceptionally strong, did not establish normal diplomatic relations with the PRC until 1972.

As I review this post I see it is rather disjointed so I beg your indulgence.

With the Thucydides Trap is Allison suggesting that groupthink is at large in the USA and the PRC? I would suggest we are adversaries, not enemies. Neither power wishes to destroy the other.To combat their moves the US has to act smarter.

It is important to understand China has been the dominant power and cultural center in East Asia since the Han Dynasty. Chinese power or lack of it has dictated the shape of East Asia’s international relations. The ability to draw on a several thousand year old set of socio-political traditions and examples is an important part of China’s conduct of international relations. These traditions, examples, and parallels were never static and evolved to fit political reality. The CPC and the PRC have securely lashed Great Han nationalism to itself. The trope of "national humiliation" was not exclusively used by the CPC - it has been the cornerstone of Chinese nationalism since the beginning of the 20th century.

The Qing Empire was multinational, multilinguistic, and multiethnic; it expanded beyond the Ming Dynasty’s borders, doubling the size of the imperial domain. By 1693 a series of military campaigns made the dynasty the most powerful political formation in eastern Eurasia; its dominion extended from the borders of Czarist Russia in the north and west to the Himalayas in the south. Within two generations the Qing conquered Taiwan, began to “civilize” and thickly settle the Southwest, and came to an agreement with Russia over Sino-Russian trade and western Siberia that stopped Russia’s westward expansion until the mid-19th century.

The Qing redefined the imperial borders, doubling the empire’s size, and ruling over non-Han people. By the end of the 18th century the Qing Empire was the largest, wealthiest, and most populous contiguous entity anywhere in the world. Despite the dynasty’s success as an imperialist, it is not mentioned as a successful imperial power by Western writers. Recent writers ignore China’s imperial past and classify the Qing only as victims of Western imperialism. The prevailing assumption is that colonialism and imperialism are Western phenomena and the notion of Chinese imperialism and colonialism is alien. This fits into contemporary Chinese perceptions and the reality that China was a victim of other powers’ imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 1920s various national humiliation days were commemorated in Chinese schools to emphasize this outlook. The one common policy uniting both the Communists and the Kuomintang was eliminating foreign imperialism in China and in East and Southeast Asia. Mao Zedong’s 1949 declaration that the Chinese people had “stood up” indicates the centrality of anti-imperialism to the Communist message.

After the debacle of 1895, defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War and the rise of an expansive Japanese Empire, the over-riding Chinese goal was to restore its regional influence in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Between 1895 and 1911 the Chinese republican revolutionaries transformed the Qing Empire into a Han Chinese nation. They successfully reimagined a republican Han Chinese nation that had boundaries contiguous with the Qing Empire. This substantial feat has gone largely unrecognized until recently when China is emerging as a “natural regional hegemonic power.” It is important to understand that the Chinese state, whatever political form it has taken over the past century, has never abandoned this goal and has assiduously promoted its interests in the region either directly or through proxies, supporting overseas Chinese and anti-colonial movements in Korea, Indochina, and Southeast Asia and has always been viewed as a disrupter of the status quo.

Today China exudes strength and confidence, but is strong externally and weak internally (外强中干 wai qiang zhong gan [outwardly strong inwardly weak]). The Chinese government is the largest in the world, commands the most soldiers, has the most foreign exchange reserves, and is an emerging superpower. Nevertheless, many believe the current socio-political system is grounded in fraud, cannot be relied upon to treat people fairly, and might not last. Despite external power, there is a new national mood of insecurity which reaches form the bottom to the top of society, from laid off migrant workers to the men at the top of the Communist Party. The concern is preserving internal order. The fear is that heterodoxy will be disruptive and lead to disorder.

In the most recent budget, there is a new line item – “stability maintenance.” It receives more funding than health, education, and social welfare and the budget for it is larger than the military budget. “Stability maintenance” means monitoring possible dissidents in order to stop “trouble” before it begins. It has been designed (in terms of policy and linguistics) to counteract the “rights maintenance” movement that has grown since 1995 since the government cannot oppose “rights” but it can support “stability.”

As one looks at Chinese history since 1500 there may be a Ming-Qing parallel for contemporary China. The experience of these last two dynasties shows that arbitrary, violent, repressive autocracies that enjoy the faithful support of their privileged victims can work quite well. At present, the regime believes it is following a strategy that works. China’s leaders believe that money plus violence equals stability because twenty years ago “the West was not afraid of us and now they are” so why change a successful formula?

Our experience in Vietnam and the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan should be chastening. We come back to Allison's thesis and what we understand about the way governmental decisions have been and are made should frighten us. Decisions to commit American resources to Indochina and the conduct of the war were made by well informed decision makers. No one lied to them about the probability of success, and they engaged anyway. Providing better or complete information didn't end the bad decisions. In the end, the decisions to intervene and withdraw were ideological, not informational. It's not what we know but what we believe in that makes the difference. To emphasize, once a group of powerful people have made up their minds on something, it develops a life and momentum of its own that is almost impervious to reason or argument. This is particularly true when personal ambition and bravado are involved. Decision makers tend to have preconceived ideas about their adversaries that sometimes turn out to be completely misleading. These preconceived ideas are certainly more strongly held if they happen to militate in favor of something they want to do.

Prof. Kuehn asks, in his quote from Allison, Whose Trap ?
If the intelectual and political thinking about war during a period of history reaches the conclusion war is predestined to happen, by what force is that predestination 'compelling' humans to act without choices and freewill of their own ? No attempt is here being made to enter into an epistomologic discussion but doesn't this come close to the asssumption that history is predetermined very much like Marx tried to indicate 'history' was inevitable and man could only act according to that inevitable outcome.
Have not been one to reach any such conclusion that human life is predetermined to a certain 'fate' but rather has the 'freedom' to choose itself. Would further suggest, and Ralph touches some upon this subject, the mid 20th Century history to which the current project refers as a 'case' strongly indicates tghe war between Communism and Freedom did not take place precisely because those who lived during that time, consciously made choices to not engage in warfare that would prove self-destructive.
Offered along with these thoughts are one, the page from Raymond Aron's Theory of International Relations, Peace and War, published in the early 1960s, with this chart showing the likelihood of nuclear war leading to 160 million estimated dead and 3 generations of 100 years to recover to that then level of mankind's status. Second, how much needed would be a revision of estimates today based upon a] the increase in globasl population and b] the further development of nuclear war weaponry. Finally, is not the mere truth of nuclear warfare, unkown in Greece's history, an intervening varible to the modern history; i.e., these nuclear weapons create a new historical profoundity which was realized by the 20th Century for total destruction. It is with some qualification however, that no guarantees seem inevitable also, that one generation of people who have understood the consequences of such historical changes in circumstances can creat another generation of like mindedness whose lack of understanding or lack of intelligence would equal that of another, previous era; thus, each age might well bring different mindedness and persons into a more self-destructive outcome, even comparable to the Athens v. Sparta history. Should this be the case, then each age of people in history would have to redetermine their own 'destinies' for success or extinction.