In early November, the well-respected Harvard professor Graham Allison went to the Washington Senate for a class on Greek history. The subject is Thucydides, the Athenian historian who, of course, wrote about the war between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC.
In the past, this kind of conflict would only excite the students studying the classics.But in 2017, Alison wrote a book called Doomed to war: can China and the United States escape the Thucydides trap?, And became an unexpected bestseller.
Allison believes-as Thucydides himself first pointed out-whenever a ruling power is challenged by a rapidly rising rival, it traps them in a mode that can easily lead to war. The dynamic between Sparta and Athens is an example.
Now the U.S. Senator wants to know whether history is about to repeat itself. Will the rattling around Taiwan or the news about China’s hypersonic missile test recently disclosed by the British “Financial Times” help create a “trap” again?
Alison’s message is both encouraging and frustrating. Start with the latter: He explained to me (and the senator) that the core of the historical understanding is that the transfer of power creates problems around the three “Ps”: perception, psychology, and (domestic) politics. Most notably, a ruling force that begins to feel unsafe about its competitors tends to overreact and misjudgment.
This is also true when a rising power feels left out. If this were combined with fanatical domestic politics, small deteriorations would quickly get out of control, such as the assassination of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, which triggered the First World War.
These three “Ps” are now on display, and insecurities, belligerence and misunderstandings continue to emerge. “When a rapidly rising power seriously threatens to replace an incumbent power, you have a predictable dynamic,” Alison said. “If you think of China and the United States as a rising ruling power, they seem to be doing everything possible to stick to this script.”
Fortunately, so far, hostilities have been completely avoided, but this does not mean that war is not a real risk. On the contrary, as the hedge fund celebrity Ray Dalio pointed out, a distinctive feature of the 21st century world is that conflicts can erupt in many ways, not just in dynamics.
As Dalio told me recently, “There are five types of wars, and not all of them are wars. There are trade wars, technological wars, geopolitical wars, capital wars, and possibly military wars. We must be in varying degrees. The top four… and there are good reasons to worry about the fifth type.”
On the other hand, the fact that war can be conducted in many ways in the 21st century may reduce the need for actual military conflicts. For those on the receiving end, this is a cold comfort, but if China wants to threaten Taiwan, it does not necessarily need to use tanks or bombs. It can use cyber attacks or other financial and trade weapons.
This has already happened in the US-China conflict. A senator recently told me that China steals US$300 billion to US$500 billion in intellectual property rights from the United States every year. Although this figure cannot be verified by the outside world, the fact that these figures have been spread shows that a cyber war has begun. It is likely to be two-way.
Similarly, in Washington this week, after a bipartisan committee submitted a report to Congress that China is using capital flows to attack the United States, hints of a new capital war surfaced. This is also worrying, especially for Wall Street leaders who want to do business there, such as Jamie Dimon or Larry Fink, and those who want capital integration to reduce the chance of conflict. But the threat of capital wars or trade wars is still not as terrible as military types.
Of course, someone like Dalio might argue that the former may lead to the latter. However, there is another reason to be optimistic about the details of Alison’s own historical data sets, which are neatly arranged on the website operated by the Harvard Belfer Center. This lists all Thucydides conflicts over the past few centuries and shows that while 12 of 16 such geopolitical shifts did lead to complete wars, 4 did not.
The question is, are these four people a fluke? Or is it a sign that humans are becoming smarter? Does the global ties that tie us together, such as the Internet or those capital flows, mean that the Thucydides trap is less important in the digital age?
We don’t know yet). However, Alison has one last encouraging piece to share: Since his book was published, it has not only become a bestseller in the United States, but also very popular in Chinese translation. “I never thought this would happen,” he explained with a smile, and the most popular passage for Chinese readers describes how Britain and the United States avoided the Thucydides moment of the early 20th century by not participating in the war. Even traps can sometimes escape.
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