Monday, June 19, 2017

Graham Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap is about how America can avert the War with China

An edited version of the discussion on Graham Allison's book first posted on Asia Times.

The just published book called “Destined for War” addresses the question: “Can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Given the state of tension between the two powers, the publication is timely and the subject matter vitally important.

Coined by author Graham Allison, the Thucydides trap is based on the “History of Peloponnesian War” written by historian Thucydides who observed that a rising Athens inevitably came to blows with a ruling Sparta.

Allison is the founding dean of Harvard Kennedy School, eminent scholar and prominent adviser to the federal government on matters related to defense and national security. He and his students reviewed the past 500 years of history and identified 16 cases of a rising power facing a reigning power. Twelve of those cases ended in disastrous wars.

The book is a tour de force on identifying all the different ways a rising power and a reigning power can collide despite the best of intentions and despite conscious efforts to avoid war. Some times the process begins with a trivial misunderstanding that magnified with each reaction until open conflict becomes inevitable.

One of his chapters was devoted to conjectures of how a war between China and the US could develop. Various scenarios begin with a minor provocation misunderstood by the other side, which leads to a response in turn misunderstood and thus an escalating series of thrust and parry until the two countries stand at the brink of nuclear holocaust. 

The author did not intend to sell his book as a prophesy of doom but to make sure that his cautionary tale is sufficiently frightening, so that readers will take the threat of conflict seriously and more importantly leaders in Beijing and Washington will be sufficiently alarmed to avoid the trap. 

As his four no-conflict cases demonstrated, war between a rising power and reigning power does not have to be inevitable. Allison suggests that China and the US face four “mega threats” that would require their working together rather than in opposition, and in so doing help them avert falling into the trap.

The first is the threat of mutual assured destruction from a nuclear Armageddon. Both sides should be deterred from an all out nuclear war from which there can be no winners. This is the same deterrent that kept the 70 years of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union from getting hot.

Along the same lines, both powers have the same interest in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of as many nations as possible and out of the hands of terrorists. He calls this scenario “nuclear anarchy.” Joint efforts would naturally be more effective in preventing nuclear anarchy than working separately. 

Both also face terrorism based on biological weapons derived from genetic engineering. “Extensive cooperation, through bilateral intelligence sharing, multilateral organizations and the establishment of global standard will be essential,” said Allison.

The fourth common mega threat identified by Allison was combating emission of greenhouse gases to stop global warming. The President of the U.S. has said, “This is not going to happen.” Oh well, three out of four should be enough for leaders of Beijing and Washington to choose collaboration rather than competition. 

On his book tour at Stanford, Allison and his moderator and former colleague at Harvard, Niall Ferguson, joked that the Chinese leaders follow western ideas and thinking closely and most have already read this book even before it was published—suggesting another case of piracy (ha-ha). Both lamented that the Trump White House is unlikely to have read the book and probably never will. 

Sitting in the audience, I asked whether a model of one hand clapping could still evoke the risk of falling into the Thucydides’s trap. I was hoping that they would take the cue to discuss the dominant US role as the provocateur in face of  a relatively passive reaction from China. Allison understood my question but he simply said that China’s island building activity in the South China Sea could create two hands clapping required by the trap.

Allison admits that his expertise is in national security and not on China. I believe seeing China from a western frame of reference is a significant flaw of his book. While he acknowledges a China as a 5000-year Confucian based civilization, he seems to attribute China with the same zero-sum mentality of a western nation.

All sixteen cases of Thucydides’s trap involved western nations. Japan was the rising power in two of the cases, but I would argue that Japan became a rising power after they decided to vigorously adopt all manner of western values and thus should be counted as a westernized nation.

As Michael Wood, award-winning producer of documentaries on major world civilizations, concluded at the end of his series that only the western civilizations went around killing each other and slaughtering others to extinction.

China does not send battleships to the Caribbean nor surveillance planes off the coast of California. China’s presence in the Middle East has been to help restore and rebuild infrastructure. The soldiers China dispatches overseas wear the blue UN helmet and serve as peacekeepers under UN auspices.

Washington gasped in alarm when China finally established its first offshore military base outside of China. China justified their base in Djibouti on the horn of Africa as needed to support their naval ships on patrol as part of the multinational efforts to combat piracy off the coast of Africa.

China’s heavy-handed influence on Djibouti was to lay a fresh water pipeline in the country and connect the coastal port with a railroad to Addis Ababa, capitol of landlocked Ethiopia. This is an example of China’s strategy to “dominate” the world, namely helping other countries build their infrastructure via the Belt and Road Initiative.

The author is rightly concerned about world and American national security. I respectfully submit that the hand doing the clapping, namely the United States, is the reigning power that can do the most to cease and desist their aggressive actions and thus avert the infamous trap.

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