By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Probably most readers have heard the catchphrase “the Thucydides Trap” used; unsurprisingly, since, like “The Bourne Identity,” or “The Andromedra Strain” it’s virulently memetic. It was popularized by Kennedy School professor, policy entrepreneur, and fully paid up Blob member Professor Graham Allison (a fervent though maladroit self-publicist) in his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?. The Kennedy Center’s Belfer School boosts Allison’s book as follows:
Today, an irresistible rising China is on course to collide with an immovable America. The likely result of this competition was identified by the great historian Thucydides, who wrote: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
But the point of Destined for War is not to predict the future but to prevent it. Escaping Thucydides’s Trap is not just a theoretical possibility. In four of the 16 cases, including three from the 20th century, imaginative statecraft averted war.
Can Washington and Beijing steer their ships of state through today’s treacherous shoals? Only if they learn and apply the lessons of history.
In Destined for War, eminent Harvard scholar Graham Allison explains why Thucydides’s Trap is the best lens for understanding the most critical foreign policy issue of our time.
(“The best lens”? Really? How would we even know?) Allison, with less heavy breathing, explains in Foreign Policy:
[A]s China challenges America’s predominance, misunderstandings about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war.
Of the cases in which war was averted — Spain outstripping Portugal in the late 15th century, the United States overtaking the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, and Germany’s rise in Europe since 1990 — the ascent of the Soviet Union is uniquely instructive today. Despite moments when a violent clash seemed certain, a surge of strategic imagination helped both sides develop ways to compete without a catastrophic conflict. In the end, the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
There are only two problems with Allison’s thesis: He’s wrong about Greece, and he’s wrong about China. But before I get to that, two sidebars:
First, The Blob has taken to defending itself by pointing to its role in America’s victory over the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War, way back in the ’90s; the Belfer Center’s call for “imaginative statecraft” and Allison’s call for a “surge of strategic imagination” amount to a call to reinforce The Blob’s hegemony on China policy based on its track record (which would be why Allison recently briefed staffers at the White House). My concern is that the same class saying “We got this” on China also said “Hold my beer while we take down Iraq,” so I’m very much in “What have you done for us lately?” mode. To be fair, Allison’s faction seems determined to use the history of the Peloponnesian War to avoid conflict, while the Kagans, like the good neo-cons they are, used that same history to foment it. Bringing me to my next point:
Second, Allison seems determined to avoid war, which, given our track record setting the Middle East on fire — and the constant beating of war drums by Clintonites and others — comes as a welcome relief. Politico summarizes:
A U.S. military conflict with China would be a global disaster. But while Allison believes it is entirely possible, he does not call it inevitable. His book identifies 16 historical case studies in which an established power like Sparta (or the United States) was confronted with a fast-rising rival like Athens (or China). Twelve of those cases led to war. Four were resolved peacefully. Allison hopes that readers—including officials in the Trump administration—can draw from the latter examples. “I am writing this history to help people not make mistakes,” he says.
Mistakes that could occur on the scale of World War I. Allison writes in The Atlantic (2015):
When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.
And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.
And millions dead. Back to Allison on China and Greece. In essence, Allison’s critics charge that his rising vs. ruling power paradigm is oversimplified (although, if Allison’s intended audience was White House decision makers, especially those who fancy themselves deep thinkers, like strategist Steven Bannon, that may be a good thing).
So, let’s ask ourselves two questions:
1) Is China really a “rising power”? (At least as Allison understands the term as applied to Athens.)
2) Was the Peloponnesian War really a conflict between a “rising” Athens and a “ruling” Sparta?
Is China Really a “Rising Power”?
A controversial point, but the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Waldron argues that China is not, at least, “rising” as Athens was “rising” with respect to Sparta. He writes, aggregating material that NC readers will be familiar with:
China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports a huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: In China, one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India, the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water, too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: Mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level, but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.
What’s more, Chinese are leaving China in unprecedented numbers. The late Richard Solomon, who worked on U.S.-China relations for decades, remarked to me a few weeks before his death that “one day last year all the Chinese who could decided to move away.” Why? The pollution might kill your infants; the hospitals are terrible, the food is adulterated, the system corrupt and unpredictable. Here in the Philadelphia suburbs and elsewhere, thousands of Chinese buyers are flocking to buy homes in cash. Even Xi Jinping sent his daughter to Harvard. … For the first time this year, my Chinese graduate students are marrying one another and buying houses here. This is a leading indicator…..
Forget the fantasies, therefore, and look at the facts. In the decades ahead, China will have to solve immense problems simply to survive. Neither her politics nor her economy follow any rules that are known. A military solution offers only worse problems. …
Perhaps not war, but cultural and political synergy, is what is, in fact, “destined.”
In other words, Allison’s “ruling” vs. “rising” paradigm is greatly over-simplified. Surely, then, China has “vulnerabilities” that are nothing at all like those of Athens?
Was the Peloponnesian War Really a Conflict Between a “Rising” Athens and a “Ruling” Sparta?
Waldron also aggregates material on a compelling alternative to Allison’s paradigm (citing, ironically enough, the Kagans):
Allison’s argument draws on one sentence of Thucydides’s text: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian Power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” This lapidary summing up of an entire argument is justly celebrated. It introduced to historiography the idea that wars may have “deep causes,” that resident powers are tragically fated to attack rising powers. It is brilliant and important, no question, but is it correct?
Clearly not for the Peloponnesian War. Generations of scholars have chewed over Thucydides’s text…. In the present day, Kagan wrote four volumes in which he modestly but decisively overturned the idea of the Thucydides Trap. Badian did the same.
The problem is that . The Spartans, Kagan tells us, wanted no war, preemptive or otherwise. Dwelling in the deep south, they lived a simple country life that agreed with them. They used iron bars for money and lived on bean soup when not practicing fighting, their main activity. Athens’s rival Corinth, which also wanted a war for her own reasons, taunted the young Spartans into unwonted bellicosity such that they would not even listen to their king, Archidamus, who spoke eloquently against war. Once started, the war was slow to catch fire. Archidamus urged the Athenians to make a small concession — withdraw the Megarian Decree, which embargoed a small, important state — and call it a day. But the Athenians rejected his entreaties. Then plague struck Athens, killing, among others, the leading citizen Pericles.
Both Kagan and Badian note that the reason that the independent states of Hellas, including Athens and Sparta, had lived in peace became clear. Although their peoples were not acquainted, their leaders formed a web of friendship that managed things. The plague eliminated Pericles, the key man in this peace-keeping mechanism. Uncontrolled popular passions took over, and the war was revived, invigorated. It would end up destroying Athens, which had started it. Preemption would have been an incomprehensible concept to the Spartans, but war was not, and when the Athenians forced them into one, they ended up victors. The whole Thucydides Trap — not clear who coined this false phrase — does not exist, even in its prime example.
(“Then, as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error” –Frank Herbert.) Again, Allison’s “ruling” vs. “rising” paradigm is greatly over-simplified, if only because Athens already had an empire.
In conclusion, and FWIW, I’m all for a “realist” foreign policy (which to me would involve at the very least a drastic pruning of the imperial project, since self-licking ice cream cones and blowback mean it doesn’t net out positive except for a very few 10%-ers (in The Blob) and 1%-ers on up (ka-ching). And, well, the Pentagon and the arms merchants, who would otherwise have to find honest work, but you know what I mean…). I’d also be happy not to go to war with China; that would be bad, and if Allison’s White House briefing reins in whatever crazypants faction is in control over there (as opposed to the different crazypants faction in control of the Clintonites), then some good will have been done in the world. And I’m all for informing realism with a careful reading of history; in fact, I don’t think there’s another way to be realist. I just don’t think “The Thucydides Trap” is that reading.
 The New Yorker: “[Allison’s] book would be more persuasive, however, if he knew more about China. Allison’s only informants on the subject appear to be Henry Kissinger and the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, both of whom he regards with awe. This leads to some odd contradictions and a number of serious historical howlers. On one page, quoting Kissinger quoting the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, Allison assures us that China likes to outclass its enemies without using force. On a later page, he warns us that Chinese leaders may use military force ‘preemptively to surprise a stronger opponent who would not have done likewise.’ Allison says that he wishes, with ‘my colleague Niall Ferguson,’ to set up a council of historians to advise the U.S. President, and yet his own grasp of history appears to be rather shaky.” “Niall Ferguson.” Eeew.
 That is, Allison is one of the “several hundred” bureaucrats and, presumably, Flexians who form the de facto “national security directorate” identified by Michael J. Glennon.
 It’s worth noting that Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that he doesn’t believe the Thucydides Trap applies:
[T]he phrase was coined by Graham Allison, a political scientist at Harvard, in reference to an observation by the Athenian historian Thucydides that the growth in Athens’ power led to the fear in Sparta and made war inevitable. Mr. Xi said on Tuesday that “there is no Thucydides Trap” and that the promotion of mutual understanding would help avoid strategic misjudgment by the United States or China.
 I’m leaving out the section where Waldron essentially accuses Allison of “appeasement.”