Thucydides Trap or Tug-of-War?

The Nimitz-class U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Philippine Sea while conducting a bilateral exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force April 23, 2017. Picture taken April 23, 2017.

Today’s major powers are keenly aware that in tug-of-war, if the rope snaps, both teams stumble and fall; nobody wins.

AFTER STALIN, Churchill and Truman ratified what amounted to a spheres-of-influence deal at Potsdam in 1945, George Orwell was seized with a sense of inevitability about perpetual war between the world’s rival blocs—especially after the testing of atomic weapons. Orwell had already been influenced by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which appeared in 1941 and posited the development of a world in which three superstates carved up the globe between them. And so Orwell, a keen witness to the homogenizing rigidity of both European colonialism and Soviet communism, depicted all three of the megacontinental superstates in 1984—Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia—as totalitarian regimes.

There is a stunning prescience to the map corresponding to 1984. If we correct for continental Europe not having been conquered by the Soviet Union and cede it to Oceania (America), it accurately depicts the three-pillared Western constellation of North America, South America and the European Union (with London and New York as twin regional capitals). Meanwhile, Russia (Eurasia) retains sway over the “Mongolic” mass of northern Eurasia, while “death-worshipping” Eastasia (China) expands and subsumes Japan, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Orwell’s tableau conforms comfortably to the world neorealists take for granted. It is a multipolar world of perpetual stalemate, with no single power—or even alliance of two against the third—able to dominate the planet.

And yet there are profound differences between Orwell’s model of great-power interaction and neorealist theory. In a perverse twist, one Orwell never could have imagined at the time of his death in 1950, the superstates’ primary mode of interaction is not the quest to conquer each other’s territory but the pursuit of access to each other’s resources and markets. North America, Europe and China are each other’s largest trade partners and foreign investors. Two of America’s largest companies, Apple and Walmart, have stationed most of their supply chains in China. European trade with Asia now exceeds its trade with America, and the two ends of Eurasia are embarking on a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure program to build a seamless continental commercial zone. Indeed, the geoeconomic gravity of trans-Eurasian ties may even be pulling apart Orwell’s Western alliance of Oceania, as Europe shifts its orientation away from the United States and towards Eurasian opportunities.

In the most fundamental ways, today’s geopolitics would be unrecognizable to Orwell: Superpowers are not waging war but a tug-of-war. Tug-of-war is mankind’s oldest team sport. Ancient stone etchings found in Egypt, Greece and China depict resplendent royal ceremonies, in which the soldiers of great armies engaged in tug-of-war to build strength in preparation for combat. In the eighth century, the Tang Dynasty emperor Xuanzong was known to pit over five hundred warriors on each side of a rope over 150 meters long. In the early twentieth century, tug-of-war was officially included in five successive Summer Olympics. And yet tug-of-war is the world’s most brutal non-contact sport. In thousands of years, almost no one has ever died in tug-of-war. It is an apt metaphor for our times.

Indeed, war among states has declined while tensions over trade and supply chains are rising. Unlike traditional war, tug-of-war is waged not over territory but over flows—of resources, money, goods and technology. These flows are like the rope in tug-of-war: a medium of competition and connectivity. The global tug-of-war is about pulling the world’s value chains toward oneself, to be the largest producer of resources and goods and gain the maximum profit from transactions. Each power wants to build the most complex yet autarkic economy, wealthy and free of excessive dependence on foreign capital or technology.

Tug-of-war represents the shift from a war between systems (capitalism versus communism) to a war within one collective supply chain system. Whereas traditional wars are finite in duration and scope, the ongoing supply chain tug-of-war is without end. In the absence of major conflict between great powers, tug-of-war is war. Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” should be revised: War is the continuation of tug-of-war by other means. And though war among major powers has the appearance of historical cyclicity, it is by no means foreordained. More than any previous era of globalization, today’s major powers are keenly aware that in tug-of-war, if the rope snaps, both teams stumble and fall; nobody wins.

TODAY, HOWEVER, a different analogy to ancient times has gained currency in international discourse, namely the “Thucydides Trap,” popularized by legendary Harvard professor Graham T. Allison in his new book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? History is replete with examples of great-power conflict breaking out in a manner evoking Thucydides’s warnings about the overpowering nature of fear, honor and self-interest in dictating state behavior.

The national-security and broader intellectual community, however, is so focused on the inevitability of wars that have not in fact occurred that we ignore—and lose—the tug-of-war playing out on a daily basis. This unsophisticated fatalism stems from a variety of interrelated factors: a bias towards pessimistic thinking as a false proxy for serious analysis, the conflation of military-led strategy with strategy as a whole, and a lack of economic and technological knowledge that inhibits a thorough understanding of complex global dynamics. Ironically, it is these intellectual weaknesses that make the Thucydides Trap such a worrying scenario.