Can All-Out War Between The US & China Be Avoided?
Books I’ve Read: Destined For War
Destined For War: Can America & China Escape Thucydides Trap?
By Graham Allison
It seems all but inevitable that the past hundred years, which many historians have called “An American Century” is now coming to an end. Though the many reasons for this end are still being debated, the more pressing question from this oncoming power vacuum is which country or countries are poised to be the center of geopolitical power for the next century. Here the answer seems all but inevitable too: China is having its moment in the global spotlight
In 1978, 9 out of every 10 individuals in China lived below the extreme poverty line — less than $2 per day. In 2018, Fewer than 1 in 100 live below that threshold and Chinese President Xi has promised that number will so get to 100% above. When it comes to the digital economy, China is home to 20% of the global internet users, has a third of the world’ s private startups and drives 42% of all global e-commerce.
The meteoric rise of China also questions the United States sole dominance in the world both economically and militarily, in a way that will call into question Americans’ sense of global identity and positioning in the new global order. After all “We’re #2!” doesn’t quite sound like a chant Americans are likely to adopt after generations of national identity tied to the idea of being #1.
Emotionality and self-interest alone may not be reasons for supporting a war, but combined with external economic pressures and hawkish posturing from factions within Washington, let’s just say, the last few decades aren’t a great case study for America’s military restraint. Even if with a more rational head of state in the future, Thucydides Trap may not give us the option of peace with China.
What is ‘Thucydides Trap’?
“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
— Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War)
Named after the famed fifth-century BC Athenian general and historian, that most consider the father of political realism, Thucydides Trap is what happens when a rising power comes into conflict with a ruling power which leads both parties towards a slow, often inevitable descent towards all-out war. In the case of Athens and Sparta, the Peloponnesian War resulted in mass atrocities against civilians, widespread poverty across the peninsula, the near-devastation of the city-state of Athens, and an ignominious end to the “Golden Age of Greece”.
As coined by Professor Graham Allison, the past 500 years have similarly seen 16 cases when rising powers conflicts with the ruling powers in which 12 (so 75%) have called into the Trap and have ended up in a protracted military engagement. Though the Chinese and US argue strenuously that they don’t have such hostile intent towards each other, when it comes to Thucydides Trap, the match that ignites the powderkeg is likely out of either party’s hands.
Be it the European entanglements ahead of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination that triggered World War I, or the Greek alliances behind a proxy war between Corinth and Corsira that pulled Athens and Sparta to the battlefield, it is critical for us to recognize the threat markers pulling the US and China into open military conflict, before it’s really is too late to prevent it.
1. Chinese Patience vs. American Gratification
One of the upsides of China’s authoritarian, single-party political system is that decision making gets done on the order of decades as opposed to months, years, & election cycles. It reflects, for starters, in China’s stated long term goals: By 2025 President Xi wants China to be the dominant power in 10 technologies including autonomous cars, robots, AI, & quantum computing. Furthermore, by 2035 China wants to be THE leader in all tech & by 2049 — the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic — China wants to be unambiguous military power with an army that can fight, and win.
When contrasted with the last decade of fractured American policymaking, congressional gridlock, and political gamesmanship, it’s hard not to feel like one power is regressing, while the other is clearly progressing.
If there is a practical lesson for all of us here, I believe it is to fight the quintessentially American impulse for immediate gratification and to define and strive for long-term success. As Bill Gates famously said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” China’s exponential rise owes itself to decades of foresight and a methodical plan to achieve these goals. Like the slowly boiling frog, by the time the rest of the world realized & acted, China has already arisen.
2. Spheres of Influence: OBOR vs. Iraq & Afghanistan
Fairly obvious insight to anyone remotely following the US involvement in Iraq & Afghanistan, those wars have been financially catastrophic — in aggregate, the US has spent close to $5.9 trillion on wars in the Middle East since 2001 with no conclusive directive to fully extricate American taxpayers from the desert quagmire anytime soon. Meanwhile, China has been focused on a very different kind of investment across Southeast Asia & the Middle East.
Known as the “Belt and Road” Initiative (BRI) or “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), it has been one of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign-policy effort. Estimated at a nebulous $1 Trillion all the way up to $8 Trillion, OBOR includes Chinese investment in roads, ports, pipelines, and other hard infrastructure. It includes trade deals, transportation agreements, and other “soft infrastructure” efforts. It has also included the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea which has been seen as a hostile act by other Naval powers in the region (including that of the US).
OBOR is an exercise in an old-world kind of geopolitics, one centered on developing “spheres of influence”. One by-product of the “American Century” has been the enduring soft power that the US has been able to leverage to great effect across much of Europe and many parts of Asia. Soft power is in someway a by-product of America’s military and economic hard-power but is also a reflection of the diplomatic positioning of the US as an ally to elected democracies around the world — and due to the export of American media & values (for better or for worse). As that American soft power has declined over the last two administrations, many have argued as a byproduct of the 2008 financial crisis and financial focus on the “forever wars” in Iraq & Afganistan, it has created a global vacuum ripe for China and President Xi.
3. The Danger of Third-Party Provocateurs
Remember The Maine? In 1898, American warship USS Maine was dispatched by President William McKinley to calm a subset of the American public that had been calling for US intervention in the unrest caused by the second Cuban revolution against Spain. With its crew of 354, the Maine arrived in Havana’s waters on January 25, 1898, where it sank, on February 15 after an explosion tore through the ship. All told, 252 were killed in the blast, with another eight dying ashore in the days that followed.
Though there was no hard evidence that the Spanish had anything to do with the sinking of the USS Maine, in an era of widespread “yellow journalism” and sensationalism, an even larger portion of the American population began to clamor for war against Spain. “Remember the Maine” became a rallying cry for war, and despite Spain’s appeal to European powers for help against the US in avoiding war, it was too late. President McKinley reluctantly asked Congress for a Resolution of War in April 1898.
Later reports found that the most likely cause of the explosion was a coal dust fire aboard the warship, and not a Spanish naval mine or some other external actor. I’m sure that knowledge was a real comfort to the 3,000 Americans who died in the Spanish-American War.
The most powerful takeaway I had from this history and the book overall was that by the time both parties in Thucydides Trap actively try to work back from the thin red line, it’s often too late. In many of the 12 of 16 situations that resulted in war, be it World War I, the Russo-Japanese war, or indeed Thyucides’ Peloponnesian War itself — a nation-state’s internal politics and often the need to project strength in the face of a threatening rising power draws these parties into unavoidable military conflict.
The match that lights the powder keg could be an assassination, act of terrorism, cyber hacking, a seizure of property, or the accidental sinking of a naval vessel. There will always be those actors on either side of the conflict clamoring for war — because they know they will never be the ones who have to face the consequences.
Escaping the Trap
I’ll try and end on a happier note if I can: War with China is theoretically avoidable.
Professor Graham Allison will be the first to say that the title of the book is more provocation than prescribed certainty. In fact, in the nuclear age, we have a notable example of a War that often threatened to heat up but mercifully stayed Cold. During the Cuban Missle Crisis, President Kennedy was on record saying there was a 1 in 3 chance that this would drag America in a nuclear war. Cooler heads prevailed and American actions alongside European allies helped bring down the Berlin Wall and end the imminent threat of a USA-USSR conflict.
As President Trump begins to ratchet up tariffs on China (against the objections of his own advisors), it seems prudent to remember that avoiding the Thucydides Trap requires the political will and clout to first fight the hawkish forces within one's own government. It calls for the ability to negotiate in good faith and offer concessions while holding in mind the values and interests of the people of both nations. It needs long-term strategic thinking and the discipline to compete in every dimension except military conflict. It hinges on a US State Department (and its equivalent) that is staffed, empowered, and respected around the world so it may work with our allies to exert political pressure jointly in the hopes of avoiding war.
So in short, when it comes to avoiding Thucydides Trap with China: We are so, so very fucked.
One of my personal OKRs for 2019 is to double the number of books I read annually from 8 to 16 (gulp!). Definitely a “stretch goal” but I wanted something that would be difficult, yet attainable. As with any goal setting exercise, there needs to be structure, measurability, and communication. For me that has come in the following two ways:
- Read at least 25 pages per day and mark a daily calendar with a (Y or N) when completed.
- Publish takeaways and overall observations in a brief post like this.
For transparency: Over the first 5 months of 2019, I’ve read at least 25 pages on ~31% of days and finished 4 books, so I’m pacing at around 11-12 books by year-end, putting me well short of my goal. Hoping to make up some of the gaps on cross-continental flights this summer but 16 is starting to feel like a stretch.
Up Next: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
If you enjoyed this summary, please smash that *clap* button so others can enjoy it too! If you’ve read similar books blending deep historical analysis and geopolitical decision making that this former Model UN nerd would enjoy, please leave me a comment on Twitter @JayKapoorNYC with book recommendations!