U.S.- China Relations

The Thucydides Revival

By Andrej Mrevlje |

How much impact can a Harvard University professor have on the relationship between two super powers contending for the world’s supremacy? Can a single person, professor or otherwise, sway the public opinion into thinking that fast-developing China can be compared to the Athens of the 5th century BC, the state that with its vibrant economy and flourishing democracy threatened Sparta, the military super power, 2500 years ago? Is the U.S.– as Sparta was of Athens–right to fear the expanding power of China and therefore, by analogy, would it be legitimate for the Trump government to attack China before Beijing becomes too powerful? Does history repeat itself, and what might be done about it?

Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has been claiming for years that the war between the U.S. and China is inevitable. Allison, who in the past worked for the government, is considered an expert on U.S. national security and defense policy. Perhaps at his age–77–Professor Allison should be enjoying his retirement. Instead, in this period of gerontological American government, Allison saw a new opportunity and made it his. “These days,” as Ian Buruma writes, “the possibility of war with China is stirring emotions and keeping publishers busy. A glance at a few new books suggests what scholars and journalists are thinking about the prospect of an Asian conflagration; the quality of their reflections is, to say the least, variable.”

One of the most popular, and maybe also the most influential given its thesis of a catchphrase Allison has popularized, “Thucydides’s Trap,” is the book “Destined for War.” In it, the Harvard professor collected his old ideas and is now selling them anew across the national media. But not only. As Politico Magazine reported, “last month, a Harvard academic slipped into the White House complex for an unusual meeting. Graham Allison, an avuncular foreign policy thinker who served under Reagan and Clinton, was paying a visit to the National Security Council, where he briefed a group of staffers on one of the history’s most studied conflicts—a brutal war waged nearly 2,500 years ago, one whose lessons still resonate, even in the administration of a president who doesn’t like to read.”

While it seems unsurprising for the national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis to read, and like, Thucydides, the only Peloponnesian War aficionado in the White House is chief strategist Steve Bannon. For the same reason, all generals read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, this nerdy and nationalist fanatic is studying, and predicted the inevitability of war between China and the U.S. as soon as Trump entered the White House. As for President Trump himself, there’s no evidence he has taken any interest in an Athenian historian born almost 500 years before Jesus Christ. Allison and Bannon may plan to change that.Writes Politico:

But Trump might approve of the ancient Greek scholars’ sway over his senior strategists. Thucydides is considered a father of the “realist” school of international relations, which holds that nations act out of pragmatic self-interest with little regard for ideology, values or morality. “He was the founder of realpolitik,” Allison says. […] “In the real world, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must,” concludes an Athenian ambassador—a Trumpian statement 2½ millennia before The Donald’s time.

Without joining the endless speculations of whether the menace of fast-growing China might trigger an American attack, it is right to say this president offers no guarantee that this will not happen. Actually, it’s worse; the White House does not want to discuss this issue because Trump considers one of his most powerful weapons his own unpredictability. Silence, according to what we hear, and don’t, from this president, is the most ominous weapon. Meanwhile, the elderly Harvard professor is trying to sell his simplified ideas of his reading of the Peloponnesian War and has indeed managed to popularize the Thucydides’s Trap to the extent that even China’s President Xi Jinping is now fond of quoting it. It is, however, significant that China in this period acts as a peacemaker, letting Washington appear the warmonger of the situation. Nevertheless, the genius of the Thucydides Trap is out of the bottle and could sway the balance in any direction.

In all honesty, Allison’s appropriation of Thucydides is an intellectual fraud, trapping the present world in an inevitable conflict between the U.S. and China. Firstly, Allison is not Thucydides, who after he had been expelled from Athens found himself in the position of privileged observer of the conflict considered the mother of all wars. “What he wrote was conceived not only as an account of a war he believed to be the greatest that had yet occurred but also as the vehicle for making general points, sometimes through the narrative of particular events, sometimes explicitly (as in the remarks on stasis, civil conflict, in 3.82-3 which arise out of his narrative of the stasis in Corcyra),” writes Martin Hammond in the introduction of his translation of “The Peloponnesian War,” from 2009.

“Generations of scholars have chewed over Thucydides’s text. Every battlefield has been measured. The quantity of academic literature on the topic is overwhelming, dating as far back as 1629 when Thomas Hobbes produced the first English translation. 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,” writes Arthur Waldron in his “There is no Thucydides Trap.” Waldron not only opposes the use of the analogy but claims that Allison ignores the fact that Thucydides’ accounts have been contradicted by contemporary historians. But bigger than this mistake is Allison’s presumption to write on China without knowing the country: “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,” Buruma writes.

Since Waldron is an accomplished scholar in Chinese studies, his remarks on Allison are blunter:

What has really happened is that Allison has caught China fever, not hard around Harvard, although knowing no Chinese language and little Chinese history.

As a result, Allison seems to have been impressed above all by Chinese numbers: population, army size, growth rate, steel production, etc. So if that sentence from Thucydides is correct, then China is clearly a rising power that will want her “place in the sun” — which will lead ineluctably to a collision between rising China (Athens) instigated by the presumably setting U.S. (Sparta), which will see military preemption as the only recourse to avert a loss of power and a Chinese-dominated world. To escape this trap, Allison demands that we must find a way to give China what she wants and forget the lessons of so many previous wars. Many of Allison’s colleagues at Harvard also believe this to be true. 

The reality, however, is that Allison’s recipe is actually a recipe for war. Appeasement of aggressors is far more dangerous than measured confrontation,” says Waldron. His  ear is that the current political debate on China might bring conflict not because of Thucydides but because of the ill advice of improvised experts who have access to even more ignorant leaders.

As Michael J. Green observes in his recent book, “By More Than Providence,” America never had an elaborate strategy in the Asian Pacific. Green writes that America has always flowed from the republic’s values and geographic circumstances. There were times that there was a strategy among the minds of a close group of elites around people like Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, but the U.S. has never clearly articulated a grand strategy as such. There were times that coincidences and circumstances led to a series of processes and decisions, but never because someone in Washington would posit a grand strategy and then recruit experts to execute it. An America without a strategy, with Trump in office, as China struggles to prepare and to lead, indicates not just chaos, but chaos likely to end in disaster.

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