Avoiding the trap of war

05 Dec 2018

Patrick Lawlor

Editor

The Thucydides Trap suggests that the US and China are on a collision course that could lead to war – but there is still cause for optimism.

The War Trap
 
As trade tensions between the US and China heat up, there are fears that a trade war could escalate into a real war. Some commentators even argue that war is inevitable, based on the patterns of previous confrontations between competing nations over the centuries.
 
Is this a fair conclusion? One academic who has raised the possibility is Graham Allison, a leading US political scientist. Allison has written a book on the subject, called Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s trap? The book explores the conditions under which the two superpowers could end up at in military conflict with each other.
 
The term “Thucydides Trap” was coined by Allison to explain how emerging powers can eventually go to war with an established power.
Thucydides was an ancient Greek historian, who recorded the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta and explained the inevitability of conflict as follows:
 
“What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”
 
Allison analysed 16 situations over the last 500 years where the Thucydides Trap could come into play, namely where an emerging power threatened the dominance of an established power. 12 of these ended up in war:
Period Dominant power Emerging power Outcome
Early 16th century France Hapsburgs War
16th to 17th centuries Hapsburgs Ottoman Empire War
17th century Hapsburgs Sweden War
17th century Dutch Republic England War
Late 17th to early 18th centuries France Great Britain War
Late 18th to 19th centuries United Kingdom France War
Mid 19th century United Kingdom, France Russia War
Late 19th century France Germany War
Late 19th to early 20th centuries Russia, China Japan War
Early 20th century United Kingdom United States No war
Early 20th century Russia, United Kingdom, France Germany War
Mid 20th century Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France Germany War
Mid 20th century United States Japan War
1970s to 1980s Soviet Union Japan No war
1940s to 1980s United States Soviet Union No war
1990s to present United Kingdom, France Germany No war
Period Dominant power Emerging power Outcome
Early 16th century France Hapsburgs War
16th to 17th centuries Hapsburgs Ottoman Empire War
17th century Hapsburgs Sweden War
17th century Dutch Republic England War
Late 17th to early 18th centuries France Great Britain War
Late 18th to 19th centuries United Kingdom France War
Mid 19th century United Kingdom, France Russia War
Late 19th century France Germany War
Late 19th to early 20th centuries Russia, China Japan War
Early 20th century United Kingdom United States No war
Early 20th century Russia, United Kingdom, France Germany War
Mid 20th century Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France Germany War
Mid 20th century United States Japan War
1970s to 1980s Soviet Union Japan No war
1940s to 1980s United States Soviet Union No war
1990s to present United Kingdom, France Germany No war

Source: Harvard Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs

The broad conditions for the US and China falling into the Thucydides Trap certainly exist. The US has been the pre-eminent political and economic power in the world for a century, all the more so since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s.
 
However, its position is now being challenged by China. From not even featuring in the world’s top 10 largest economies in 1990, China became the sixth largest in 2000, the fifth largest in 2005 and the second largest today, and is destined to become the world’s largest economy sometime between 2030 and 2035, according to estimates by PWC.
 
 
Thucydides
The Austrian Parliament with a statue of Thucydides in Vienna
The Thucydides Trap suggests that the US, threatened by the rise of China, will act to entrench its power, perhaps even militarily. Confrontation has already started, with US President Donald Trump placing tariffs on a number of Chinese products, while also calling into question China’s approach to US intellectual property. There have also been incidents in the South China Sea between war ships of the two countries.
 
Can these confrontations lead to military engagement between the two countries? Despite the unfolding of what looks like a classical case of the Thucydides Trap, there is some cause for optimism, largely because of the way the world has changed over the centuries – and particularly over the last few decades.
 
Looking at the table above, the last three great confrontations have not led directly to war – at least not in the conventional sense. The reasons vary, but can be distilled down to four main areas (which also argue against war now):
 

1. Strong global institutions

The 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, has just passed, which is a good time to remind ourselves of the horrors that go with a large scale war, as well as how much the world has changed since then. Since the Second World War, an even bloodier conflict, various institutions have been established, most notably the United Nations (UN), whose mandate includes the prevention of war.
 
Many will argue that the UN has a poor record on this front, but this is perhaps unfair. While there have been many wars since the formation of the UN in 1948, their impact and incidence have declined. According to author Steven Pinker, the global death rate from wars fell from 22 per 100,000 people in 1945 to 0.3 per 100,000 in 2011. War in Syria and elsewhere will have pushed this rate up a little but the overall trend is one of decline. It’s therefore probable that the UN has prevented more wars than it has been unable to.
 
22
War deaths per 100,000 people in 1945
0.3
War deaths per 100,000 people in 2011
Global institutions like the European Union (EU), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have also played their part in preventing war, as have trading blocs and agreements. These encourage cooperation between countries and forums to solve disagreements through non-military means. Countries and groups of countries can now use economic and political sanctions to achieve their goals.
 
The European Union is a good example of this. We may judge the EU in terms of free trade, the euro and treaties governing goods and services, but we tend to underestimate its success in bringing peace to a region that was regularly at war.  

2. Globalisation, trade and growing economic policy consensus

In parallel with the rise of strong, respected global institutions has been the increase in trade and interaction between nations. This has been particularly so since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Trade between countries has grown, financial markets have opened up and capital markets developed in countries where previously there were none. Supply chains are now more complex, with components of manufactured goods criss-crossing borders several times before the finished article can be packaged and shipped.
 
Broad consensus on how countries should be managed economically has also made a difference. As noted above, most countries these days have stock markets, central banks and financial systems that mostly follow the same sorts of rules.
 
Not only do countries depend on each other for trade and capital flows, but they also compete in the global marketplace, rather than the battlefield. This is a powerful incentive for many countries not to go to war, as is a more well-off population.
 
The Ukraine situation over the last few years is a good example of how the presence of powerful institutions and globalisation prevented the outbreak of a full, conventional war. Through the European Union, the West was able to apply individual and broad sanctions against Russia and keep its expansionist agenda more or less in check. Global investors could also apply pressure on Russia by selling the rouble, Russian bonds and equities. At the same time, Russia was able to use the dependence of Western Europe on Russian gas and oil as leverage.

3. Fear of mutual destruction

The nuclear capabilities of the US, Russia, China and other countries means that countries think twice before engaging in war with one another. Indeed, the nuclear capabilities of the US and USSR after the Second World War probably ensured the Cold War never escalated into a full-blown war. A full war would most certainly have led to a nuclear holocaust and the possible extinction of humankind.
 
Instead, the US and USSR acted out their rivalry through espionage, proxy wars and the economy. Wars were fought indirectly in such far flung places as Vietnam, Angola and the Middle East. Ultimately, the USSR’s command economy was unable to keep up with the more agile economy of the US and its allies.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2018 Russia–United States summit 

Conditions for war

Despite these institutions and incentives not to go to war, one should not be complacent. Many of the great institutions established since 1945 are under threat. The UK’s imminent (and possibly messy) departure from the EU, the possible departure of other countries like Italy if EU leaders cannot resolve their issues, as well as Trump’s undermining of global agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal, are examples of institutions under threat.
 
Trump has shown himself, in his disdain for treaties like NAFTA and even bodies like NATO, to be no fan of multilateralism.
 
This breakdown in institutions could create the environment for fomenting warmongering attitudes. Many wars have been launched off a populist platform and if the factors that drove voters toward Trump in the 2016 presidential elections persist, this could lead to more warlike talk. Inequality and displacement caused by climate change are two other factors that could feed the populist agenda.
 
Here one should mention another trap: the Kindleberger Trap, named after Charles Kindleberger, one of the architects of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War.
 
Kindleberger noted that one of the causes of the Second World War was the US withdrawal from global affairs in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Kindleberger said that the failure of the US to provide what he called global public goods (such as aid, financing, trade and other assistance) to go with its rise as a superpower, created a vacuum for fascism and other forms of extremism to grow. There are worrying parallels with Trump’s isolationist policies today.
 
China, for the moment, has little incentive to go to war. China’s military strength still lags behind that of the US, and it has few allies that it can call on in an armed conflict. Other regional powers, like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and India are unlikely to back China in war (at least not for now).
 
China, in any event, thanks to its growth trajectory, has every reason “wait out” the hostilities in the form of trade threats, until such time as it has the economic and political influence to set the global agenda.
 
Indeed, according to previous examples of the Thucydides Trap, it has usually been the established power that started wars.
 
Notwithstanding all of the above, it may be that the US and China engage in “war by other means” – in the form of continuing the current trade wars or through more sinister means such as espionage or cyber warfare. This will make the future engagement resemble more that of the Cold War, which although it has serious consequences, is preferable to armed conflict.

Conclusion – how to steer away from war

If the US and China are to avoid armed conflict, there will need to be wise heads on both sides to steer their countries towards peaceful solutions. Allison himself outlined a number of lessons from the Cold War.
 
One, as mentioned above, is the fear of mutual destruction that nuclear capability instils. Flowing from this is a kind of “nuclear paradox” – a willingness nonetheless to face down one’s opponent to get them to back down.
 
Rules of engagement are also important, says Allison. The parties need to define the “precarious rules of the status quo” for dealing with issues as they arise. Domestic performance matters too, argues Allison. A country and its economy must be successful domestically if it is to succeed – a failure in this area is arguably what finally brought down the USSR. Finally, Allison says, “hope is not a strategy”. The different sides need to work at peace.
 
The best outcome of all is that the two countries thrash out their differences and find new ways to cooperate and support global growth and peace, which would be an outcome that would benefit both nations as well as the rest of the world. Let them satisfy their national egos in other ways: by competing in the marketplace, in the arts, in the laboratory and even on the sports field.

About the author

Patrick Lawlor

Patrick Lawlor

Editor

Patrick writes and edits content for Investec Wealth & Investment, and Corporate and Institutional Banking, including editing the Daily View, Monthly View and One Magazine - an online publication for Investec's Wealth clients. Patrick was a financial journalist for many years for publications such as Financial Mail, Finweek and Business Report. He holds a BA and a PDM (Bus.Admin.) both from Wits University.

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