Has The U.S. Fallen Into The Thucydides Trap?

Key points in this article:

  • The U.S. foreign policy has fallen into the Thucydides Trap
  • The absence of inquiry into the idea of justice in global politics, and the deepening mistrust of the West
  • Other countries must strengthen national defense and revise their values of global politics that come from Washington.

Graham T. Allison, Professor at Harvard University, gave a keynote lecture in Tokyo on 10 February. The lecture took place to promote Allison’s new book “Destined to War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?” which was published last autumn in Japan.

Allison is a political scientist known for his contribution to the study of U.S.-Russia negotiations during the Cuban Missile Crisis detailed in his book, “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis”. In his recent lecture in Tokyo he spoke about the Thucydides Trap discussed in his newest book.

Thucydides was an ancient Greek historian who wrote the famous, “History of the Peloponnesian War”. Allison observed that the powerful city-state of Sparta joined the Peloponnesian War when they felt threatened by the rising city-state of Athens. He explained that states that compete over predominance couldn’t avoid war, and named this theory the Thucydides Trap.

Allison’s main interest now lies in whether the U.S. and China can avoid the Thucydides Trap. To give a rough summary of the book, Allison says that war is highly likely between the current predominant state and the rising state aiming for predominance. That is why the way to maintain world order is to make a deal so that China can rule the East and the U.S. can rule the West.

In the Q&A session, Allison commented on the North Korea problem saying that there is a 20-25% likelihood that the U.S will strike North Korea. If the U.S. decides on a limited air strike, it is very possible that North Korea will attack the South Korean capital, China will join, and Japan will be pulled into the chaos. People will later say that no one wanted such a large-scale war, he added.

Looking back over history, there were 16 cases where a rising country competed with the predominant country, and only 4 of them successfully avoided war. The other 12 ended up in war. In other words, the Thucydides Trap is avoidable, and to succeed in avoiding it we must learn something from history.

In his lecture, Allison showed a video of U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis implying the Thucydides Trap at a congressional hearing to emphasize how the Thucydides Trap idea has permeated the Trump administration.

Henry Kissinger, a long-time diplomat to U.S. Presidents since Nixon, is known to endorse Allison’s books. Allison’s theory is in one sense, an extension of Kissinger’s balance of power strategy: it is the history book version of the G2 approach.
There are, however, a number of pitfalls in Allison’s argument.


The Absence of Inquiry Into “Justice in Global Politics”

The first pitfall is the glaring absence of an inquiry into the subject of justice.

The importance of peace is without question. But if we make ‘maintaining peace’ our first priority, it could mean turning a blind eye to those who are suffering: Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea; the 200,000 North Koreans being tortured in concentration camps; people being oppressed by the Beijing government; and the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan who have their freedom under threat.

China is also now embarking on a revolution of violence in the South and East China Seas.

Master Ryuho Okawa, Founder and CEO of Happy Science, explained that, “one crucial debate in international politics is whether we can accept a future civilization that permits invasion of other countries”.

“If Japanese experts in international politics cannot analytically grasp the reality of the coming crisis in the South China Sea that everyone is feeling, then we can clearly say that the study of international politics is spurious,” he said.

If focusing on peace is going to spark fear in military conflict, erase the military option against unjust countries, and ignore the idea of justice, then the peace attained is not true peace.

In December, Master Okawa gave a lecture entitled, “The Power to Spread Love”, in which he emphasized that, “It is wrong to think that we needn’t do anything because it is peaceful right now . . . ‘Justice’ includes activities that will bring future peace. If many people are suffering under an evil regime, we must release them”.

Maintaining the status quo is not true peace. In fact the moment we abandon the military option against North Korea, that will mark beginning of the end of U.S. leadership.


Deepening Mistrust of the West

We must also look at the deepening mistrust of the Western civilization that lies behind Allison’s compromising attitude towards China. His idea seems to nullify the U.S. role as world missionary.

For instance, in Allison’s essay “China vs. America” published in Foreign Affairs he refers to a Chinese official’s skepticism of the Western ideals of freedom and law. The skepticism was grounded in an argument that when the U.S. established the rule-of-law China had not yet entered world history.

The people who came to the U.S. in the 17th century, however, founded America with the idea of creating “A town built on a hill” (from Matthew 5:14). Thus if the U.S. gives up on being the role model for the world, it will no longer be the U.S. it dreamt of being.

This dream is called exceptionalism: that fighting in the name of freedom and justice is good. While it is true that U.S. colonialism of Asia was based on exceptionalism, it is going too far if we swing to relativism and therefore abandon the American passion for inquiry into justice.

Political consultant Patrick Caddell rightly criticizes the Thucydides Trap idea reveals the failure to understand the greatness of American exceptionalism. “It would be an abomination before God for this country to go into the dark night. The whole world would suffer,” he said.


To Return the Challenge

China aims to become leaders in 10 industries by 2025 including silicon chip manufacture, robotics and AI technology. In his lecture, Allison mentioned that China has already reached the world’s highest production rate in shipbuilding, steel, aluminium, stocks and mobile phones.

He then presented an estimate for IMF showing that in 2024, China’s GDP will amount to USD35 trillion compared to America’s GDP at USD25 trillion.

President Trump’s tax cuts, however, have steered the U.S. away from the road to decline. On the other hand, China will fall into the ‘semi-developed country trap’ unless they raise the wage floor for the 900 million citizens suffering poverty. If nothing is done, they will drag down the economic growth.

Raising the wage floor for low-income citizens, however, requires democratic methods. So as long as they remain a one-party rule, it is impossible to raise income for the 900 million poor.

Allison’s IMF estimates are nothing but estimates. They are still reversible.

The Trump administration has expressed disapproval of the unilateral China trade, which is the cause for approximately half of the U.S. trade deficit (amounting to USD375.2 billion last year). Trump has now introduced additional tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines.

The argument that a predominant country’s paranoia about a rising country will drive them to war is not a chemical law. It is not proven. China’s totalitarian expansion and their challenge against Western civilization is something that the U.S. and Japan can counter with their prosperity.


Revise American Values of International Politics

Allison’s lecture followed along the lines of China’s “new model of great power relations” and Kissinger’s G2 argument.

We must be cautious because Allison is not just a scholar, he has been an advisor to the Defense Policy Board of the Secretary of Defense for over three decades.

The Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy has labelled China a strategic competitor, whereby they stepped out of the Kissinger-Allison view of global politics.

That is why Allison’s arguments do not necessarily reflect Trump’s diplomatic strategy. Nevertheless, other countries must realize that the idea that ‘peace will come from splitting world predominance between the U.S. and China’ has penetrated Washington.

(Hanako Cho)

Has The U.S. Fallen Into The Thucydides Trap?
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