Did the Neocons Save the World from the Thucydides Trap?

Over the last couple of years I’d begun seeing our growing conflict with China described as an inevitable consequence of “the Thucydides trap” but hadn’t been entirely sure of the source of that idea. Decades ago, I’d had a very strong interest in Classical Greek history, so the reference was obvious to me: the bitter rivalry between a dominant Sparta and a rising Athens that had led to the decades long Peloponnesian War that devastated Greece. But only recently did I discover that the term had been popularized in Destined for War, a 2017 national bestseller by Harvard’s Graham Allison, which had followed his earlier 2015 Atlantic article on the same subject.

The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?
In 12 of 16 past cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been bloodshed
Graham Allison • The Atlantic • September 24, 2015 • 3,700 Words

Although I’d never read any of Allison’s previous works, he’d become the founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government just a couple of years before I’d entered the college as a freshman so I’d been quite familiar with his name for decades. His topic concerned me so I decided to read his relatively short book as well as his original article on the same subject.

Allison’s entire academic career has been extremely sober and respectable, and this surely magnified the impact of his incendiary title and dramatic prediction. The front of the paperback edition was packed with a remarkable ten pages of glowing endorsements by a long list of the West’s most prestigious public figures and intellectuals, ranging from Joe Biden to Henry Kissinger to Gen. David Petraeus to Klaus Schwab. It seemed obvious that his message had struck a deep chord, and his national bestseller received enormous acclaim, being selected as a book of the year by the New York Times, the London Times, the Financial Times, and Amazon. So even as far back as six years ago, the serious possibility of an American war with China had become a very hot topic to our political and intellectual elites.

Allison’s reasoning was simple yet compelling. As he explained in the opening of his original 2015 article, although war between China and America might seem unlikely or even unthinkable, a broad consideration of historical analogues suggested otherwise, with the unexpected outbreak of World War I being the most obvious example.

Following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago, America had emerged as the sole, unchallenged global superpower. But over the last generation, the tremendous growth rate of the Chinese economy had propelled it past America’s in real size, the first such transition since our own country had overtaken Britain near the end of the 19th century. China’s technological progress had been equally rapid, and in our modern world these constitute the raw elements of global power, while China had also begun bolstering its military, not previously a high priority.

I’d certainly been well aware of these same trends and several years earlier I’d published a long article of my own on the contrasting trajectories of China and America, but I’d never considered military conflict as a realistic possibility.

China’s Rise, America’s Fall
Which superpower is more threatened by its “extractive elites”?
Ron Unz • The American Conservative • April 17, 2012 • 6,600 Words

However, when Allison and his associates sifted the last 500 years of history to locate cases in which the rapidly growing power of a rising nation had threatened to overtake that of a dominant reigning one, they discovered that in well over half the examples—12 out of 16— the result had been war.

Some of these individual historical cases may easily be disputed—and indeed a couple of the ones provided in his 2015 article differed from those in his 2017 book—but the general pattern seemed quite clear.

Even the oldest and deepest cultural and political ties hardly prevented this outcome. Prior to World War I, Britain and Germany had never fought a war against each other, and indeed the latter’s Prussian predecessor had traditionally been Britain’s staunchest Continental ally. The two imperial families were also deeply interwoven, with the British monarchy having multiple German antecedents, while Queen Victoria’s favorite grandchild was Kaiser Wilhelm II, and she’d died in his arms. The English language itself had German roots, hardly surprising since the Angles and the Saxons had originally been Germanic tribes. Yet all these centuries of close ties counted for little compared to the simple geopolitical fact that Germany’s growing industrial and military power threatened to overshadow that of its kindred nation on the other side of the Channel.

By contrast, the political, cultural, and racial gulf separating America from a rising China seems immense, easily lending itself to the crudest demonization, the sort of populist demagoguery able to stoke national hatred. Not only is China’s language and culture totally different from our own, but for three generations that country has been governed by a Communist Party whose official ideology is utterly contrary to our own democratic constitutionalism. Many hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops had fought against American forces during the Korean War, inflicting most of our 36,000 combat deaths.

Obviously, all of these points of past hostility had been set aside after President Richard Nixon’s historic opening to China in 1972, and our two countries had become quasi-allies against the military might of the Soviet Union during the latter stages of the Cold War. But with geopolitical realities now apparently driving us into likely confrontation, these facts would provide an easy means of resurrecting and focusing popular hostility against our rising, rival power, with a confrontation over the independently-ruled Chinese province of Taiwan in the South China Sea providing a natural flash-point.

According to most accounts of World War I, the formation of two rival alliances had transformed Europe into a tinder-box, eventually ignited by the spark of a Balkan assassination and resulting in a cataclysmic war that neither side had sought nor expected; and this is Allison’s model for how a military clash between China and America might occur. One of his later chapters is entitled “From Here to War” and he provides various scenarios of how hostile conflicting naval patrols in the South China Sea might easily result in a collision involving loss of life, prompting several rounds of face-saving escalation on both sides and eventually erupting into full-scale warfare.

Allison’s most famous previous work had been his landmark 1971 study of the Cuban Missile Crisis and he had later spent a number of years as an advisor in the Reagan and Clinton Defense Departments, so he was well-versed in the realities of such military decision-making. His concerns seem reasonable and he described several such Chinese-American naval incidents that had been narrowly averted in the recent past. When the military forces of two large, hostile powers are aggressively patrolling the same region, an eventual clash hardly seems unlikely, which political pressures might then escalate in dangerous ways.

The provocative title of Allison’s book probably should have included a question-mark—Destined for War?—but otherwise I unfortunately found his historical and geopolitical analysis all too plausible.

Allison has hardly been alone among prominent academics in thinking along those same lines. In 2001, eminent political scientist John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago had published The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, providing a theoretical framework for his doctrine of “offensive realism,” which he claimed best explained the behavior of nations. Under his conception, all great powers aspired to become hegemons—countries far more powerful than any of their regional rivals—and for hundreds of years wars had been fought either to establish or to block such hegemony, with the Napoleonic Wars and the First and Second World Wars being obvious examples of this.

Although such hegemony was regional in scope, he argued that there was also a strong incentive for an established hegemon in one part of the world to block the rise of any potentially rival hegemon elsewhere. Thus, once the U.S. had achieved a hegemonic position in the Western hemisphere, it had naturally intervened in the two world wars to prevent Germany from gaining a similar status in Europe or Japan from doing so in East Asia.

According to Mearsheimer, typical strategies involved the creation and support of local balancing coalitions, alliances of other regional powers used to prevent the rise of a local hegemon. Thus, America had supported Britain and France in order to prevent Germany from gaining European hegemony in World War I, and did the same for those two powers along with the Soviets in World War II. Similarly, our country had blocked Japan’s drive for East Asian hegemony by allying ourselves with China, Australia, and Britain in the Far East theater of that latter conflict.

The updated 2014 edition of his book included a long last chapter focused upon China, whose large and rapidly growing power seemed likely to establish it as a potential Asian hegemon. Therefore, under Mearsheimer’s theoretical framework, a clash with America was almost inevitable, and our country would naturally foster an anti-China coalition of other local powers to forestall China’s regional dominance. A decade earlier, he had already hotly disputed this same issue against famed geopolitical strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski in the pages of Foreign Policy, with these two leading figures of the “realist” school debating whether an American military conflict with China was likely to occur.

Clash of the Titans
Is China more interested in money than missiles? Will the United States seek to contain China as it once contained the Soviet Union? Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Mearsheimer go head-to-head on whether these two great powers are destined to fight it out.
Zbigniew Brzezinski vs. John Mearsheimer • Foreign Policy • Jan.-Feb. 2005 • 2,600 Words

The crucial point emphasized by both Allison and Mearsheimer is that the particular characteristics of America and China—their political systems, cultures, histories, and national leaderships—were largely irrelevant in predicting their likely military confrontation. Instead, all that mattered was America’s status as a reigning global power and China’s as a rising one, with all those other differences merely serving as convenient means of mobilizing popular support behind a conflict driven solely by considerations of power politics. This sort of framework constitutes geopolitical “realism” in its purest form.

Although such a basis for conflict or alliance might seem alien to many Americans, it has actually been quite common in the modern era. After all, arch-republican France was the closest military partner of Czarist Russia’s absolute monarchy in their balancing alliance against Germany prior to World War I. The liberal democracies of Britain and America later allied themselves with Stalin’s Soviet Union against Germany, and die-hard anti-Communist Winston Churchill was a leading advocate of that policy. More recently, America had joined with Maoist China to oppose the far less ideologically extreme Soviet Union because the latter was viewed as a powerful military threat to both. Political differences—or similarities—have often been swamped by more practical considerations in international relations.

Neither Allison nor Mearsheimer makes an ironclad case that war with China is inevitable, nor do they claim to do so. But the historical evidence they present is sufficiently extensive to be quite worrisome. And as Allison sketches out, under a tense, confrontational situation, relatively minor military incidents in the South China Sea could easily escalate, perhaps even eventually reaching the threshold of nuclear war.

Mearsheimer’s updated volume had appeared in 2014 followed by Allison’s national bestseller in 2017, and the unfortunate situation they predicted has become more and more plausible every year, marked by a steady increase in the rhetoric of America’s political leadership as amplified by the mainstream media. I suspect that their books and other public presentations may have fostered this trend, transforming the notion of such a global war with China from the unthinkable to the plausibly realistic. Several senior figures in the Trump Administration, most notably National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were certainly hostile towards China, a country they portrayed as our leading international adversary, and much of the Republican Party has also adopted that same rhetoric.

After the Democrats regained the White House in 2020, many had expected these trends to reverse, but instead they have actually accelerated, with the Biden Administration imposing unprecedented economic sanctions on China’s crucial microchip industry as well as loud saber-rattling over Taiwan, and the Democrats and Republicans have now begun competing over which party can be tougher on China. The huge recent media flap over an errant Chinese balloon is the most extreme example of this.

As Mearsheimer and Allison both emphasized, a central component of America’s anti-China geopolitical strategy has been to organize a local balancing coalition to support our containment efforts, and Anglophone Australia has been a charter member of that group. We share a British colonial heritage with that country, which fought as our staunch ally in World War II, and its politics is heavily influenced by native son Rupert Murdoch’s powerful right-wing media empire. So given these factors, Australia’s once very friendly relations with China have rapidly shifted in this new direction, marked by episodes of intense public hostility and trade embargoes.

Naively optimistic Americans might hope that any future war with China could be kept far from our shores, with our own large country protected by the width of the Pacific Ocean. But no rational Australian could feel the same way, since his nation is located in that region and is dwarfed by a China more than fifty times larger in population, likely ensuring that any war would have devastating consequences. Thoughtful Australians have surely recognized such facts and grown alarmed at these dangerous international trends, so it was hardly surprising that one of the first major responses to the Allison-Mearsheimer framework came from an Australian.

Kevin Rudd had served two terms as Prime Minister of his country (2007-2010 and 2013), and afterward relocated to America, where he later became President of the Asia Society based in New York City prior to being named Australia’s ambassador to our country a few weeks ago. In March 2022, he published The Avoidable War, bearing the grimly accurate subtitle “The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China.” Although I had only been very slightly familiar with his career, I decided to read his book for his insights on averting that looming global conflict.

Rudd seems to possess an ideal background for the important task he has set himself, having majored in Chinese studies in college and being completely fluent in Mandarin, a language he began learning at age 18. As he explained in his introduction, he has lived and traveled extensively in both China and America, has many friends in each country, and very much hoped they could avert what he considers their unnecessary conflict. I found his book excellent and it certainly merited the glowing praise it received from Allison himself, a personal friend of the author, as well as from Kissinger and other leading American military and academic figures. The work was published in English and obviously aimed primarily at an American audience, so it appropriately devoted the bulk of its pages to explicating China’s perspective, but the American side of the conflict also received considerable coverage.

Personalities may often matter little in geopolitics, but there are also some exceptions. Following the 1997 death of Deng Xiaoping, China had been run by a collective leadership, with several jostling factions and important figures usually sharing political power with its top leader. But Rudd emphasized that this situation has now drastically changed, and Chinese President Xi Jinping had successfully established his personal authority in China to an unprecedented extent, sidelining all his potential Communist Party rivals and making himself the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. Xi also managed to remove the reelection term limits for his office and although he is now 69, his father lived to 88 while his mother is still alive at 96, so he could still remain China’s paramount leader through the 2020s and into the 2030s.

Given these realities, any current analysis of Chinese goals and strategies should necessarily focus on those of President Xi, who therefore constitutes the central figure of Rudd’s book. Indeed, the work seemed to heavily overlap with the author’s Oxford doctoral dissertation on “Xi Jinping’s Worldview” that he had also been preparing during those same years

Rudd seems uniquely qualified to provide this analysis. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, he had had a long career as an Australian diplomat, eventually rising to become Foreign Minister, and he had first met Xi more than 35 years ago, when both were very junior figures; over the years he has spent a total of ten hours in conversation with him on six separate occasions, including some that were quite informal. Add to this his multitude of other personal sources acquired over the decades, both Chinese and Western, and I doubt that there are many outsiders who can match his understanding of the goals of China’s top leader. Therefore, we should take the author quite seriously when on a couple of occasions he described these in dramatic terms: “Xi wants to secure a place for himself in Chinese party history that is at least equal to Mao and greater than Deng.”

Rudd presents Xi’s major goals in a series of ten chapters, representing the concentric circles of his strategic objectives, and these occupy half the book. Xi places the greatest importance upon maintaining political power and securing national unity, followed by economic development, modernizing the military, and then increasing China’s influence in its neighborhood, along its Asian periphery, and eventually worldwide. I found Rudd’s organizational approach helpful and his analysis quite plausible.

Obviously, major nations often possess conflicting interests, and the rise of Chinese power would necessarily produce a relative decline in America’s, but across all those chapters I found few deep-seated, inherent conflicts between our two continental-scale countries. Just a few weeks ago, I had reread Zbigniew Brzezinski’s influential 1997 book The Grand Chessboard. That author had similarly laid out a set of strategies and goals intended to secure America’s influence and position at the head of our global community, but his plans were hardly aimed at threatening the vital interests of our leading competitors, let alone provoking a war. I had very much taken Brzezinski’s side during his 2004 debate with Mearsheimer on China, and to the extent that Rudd has correctly analyzed Xi’s worldwide goals and plans, I would put those into much the same category. International rivalry even occasionally involving sharp elbows should not necessarily produce international conflict any more than domestic political rivalry must lead to civil war.

However, nations that are seeking to provoke a conflict can usually find a means of doing so, and I think our current Taiwan flash-point with China clearly falls into that category. For half a century, the American government had officially recognized that Taiwan was part of China, but some high-ranking American political leaders, both Democrat and Republican, have recently called this settled matter into question, thereby directly challenging China on what it regards as a core national interest.

Rudd’s own take on these dangerous developments was much less one-sided than mine, and he emphasized that the changes in our Taiwan policy had partly been prompted by Chinese heavy-handedness, notably the 2019 police crackdown on massive street protests in Hong Kong. The author’s expertise dwarfs my own and perhaps he was entirely correct, but there had also been widespread speculation that the protests themselves were actually orchestrated by Western intelligence services along the lines of a deliberately provocative Color Revolution, and Rudd might be reluctant to take a position that fell too far outside the boundaries of his elite establishment social circle. I also noticed that he was surprisingly critical of Xi for his recent crackdown on Chinese tech giants, real estate and financial services firms, and the private tutoring industry, all economic sectors near and dear to Wall Street investors and our reigning neoliberal establishment, although Rudd did explain that China’s leader regarded these activities as often parasitical.

America’s approach to China has undergone a drastic shift over the last few years, under both the Trump and the Biden Administrations. Rudd described these changes and then provided a chapter entitled “The Decade of Living Dangerously,” sketching out ten different scenarios of potential military confrontation, half of them involving armed conflict, sometimes with disastrous political consequences for one or the other of our two countries. He himself hoped that we would instead follow a policy of “managed strategic competition,” whose elements he outlined in his long final chapter, and this is obviously my own preference as well. All the suggestions he made were excellent ones, but I wonder whether our ruling political elites are paying much attention to his sensible words.

Although I found his book very useful and I would highly recommend it to others, I saw little that effectively refuted the cold geopolitical logic previously presented by Allison and Mearsheimer. Rudd’s work hardly dissuaded me from the concern that the world may be locked into the Thucydides Trap, with the likely result being a severe global confrontation between China and America, possibly leading to war.

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