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Thucydides Trap or Tug-of-War?

August 15, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: NavyWarMilitaryTechnologyTPPChina

Thucydides Trap or Tug-of-War?

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

ALLISON’S PIONEERING work in applied history is cautionary but not fatalistic. Each historical episode he exhumes contains useful lessons that warn decisionmakers of the potential for accidental escalation. But there is a danger in the broader national-security community of presuming “Thucydides Trap” is inevitable when history teaches no such thing. If anything, this logic defeats the purpose of Allison’s work: to caution, not to predict. The Thucydides Trap is a scenario, not a certainty.

There is plenty of positive momentum in the current world order. Unlike centuries past, this is not an era of multipolar competition among proximate European powers, in which the intensity of geographic friction all but necessitated violent adjustments of imperial boundaries. Instead, today’s superpowers are separated by vast oceanic or continental distances and don’t encroach on each other’s territory. Their disputes over proxy relationships can be managed through calibration of interests or even subregional stalemates, as was the case in the Cold War. Furthermore, there is no need for “resource wars” as each participates in the global marketplace for energy and raw materials. America’s voluminous exports of oil to China are demonstrative of how redefining relations according to supply-and-demand calculus opens up new geopolitical horizons than territorial logic.

The global web that represents the world’s true distribution of power defies simplistic notions of unipolar hegemony or a U.S.-China “G-2.” Just because Pax Americana replaced Pax Britannica, it does not follow that a Pax Sinica will or should follow in a linear fashion. Instead, the past decade’s hype of the East surpassing the West, China replacing America and the Pacific displacing the Atlantic is giving way to a multicivilizational and multipolar world in which continents and regions deepen their internal integration while expanding their global linkages. Latin Americans, Africans, Arabs, Indians and Asians all want a world in which they can multi-align and trade in all directions, not be subject to either American or Chinese diktats. They will play the great powers off each other more than they will accept unilateral impositions.

Global order is no longer something that can be dictated or controlled from the top down. Globalization is itself the order. Supply and demand will shape how regions and powers interact. If America offers military support and technology, China provides infrastructure and export markets, Europe sends aid and governance advisers, and corporate supply chains smooth the flow of connections, this is the closest geopolitics comes to stars aligning.

Historical models of order have been built on spheres of influence, but a stable global society today must be based on such cocreation across civilizations. Such a balanced system is what the Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei describes as symmetrical rather than hierarchical. It is one in which maintaining stability requires self-restraint and mutual trust among diverse powers. These were the virtues that enabled the success of the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. As was the case two centuries ago, now is a time of great-power peace, during which a legitimate order must be designed. The United States and China will, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “coevolve,” but they will do so in a global context far deeper than themselves. There are limits, then, to the lessons of the past. Neither the 1814 Congress System nor the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations are the best guide to the future; if they were, neither World War I nor World War II would have happened.

For history not to repeat itself, we cannot wait for events to force a new paradigm of global strategic thought. Rather, we need strategies to avoid undesirable events. If the “Thucydides Trap”—war between dominant and rising powers—is driven by the dangerous brew of fear and pride, then taking emotion out of the equation is crucial to transmuting great-power rivalry. Regionalism and reciprocity become the most important barriers to escalation of tensions. Globalization’s advance is the only antidote to the logic of superpower-centric rivalries—replacing war with tug-of-war.

Allison says that we need a “surge of strategic imagination” to overcome the “Thucydides Trap.” If that is the case, then we should devote as much attention to imagining how greater connectivity can advance stability as we do to conjuring World War III scenarios. Tug-of-war is our oldest game, older than Thucydides’s prophecies and any geopolitical rivalry. If we dust off that playbook, we can ensure that tug-of-war never boils over into the real thing.

Parag Khanna is a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and author of  Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (Random House, 2016).

Image: 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.​