Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Thucydides Trap: When One Great Power Threatens to Displace Another, War Is Almost Always the Result-But It Doesn't Have to Be

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Thucydides Trap: When One Great Power Threatens to Displace Another, War Is Almost Always the Result-But It Doesn't Have to Be

Article excerpt

In April, chocolate cake had just been served at the Mar-a-Lago summit when President Donald Trump leaned over to tell Chinese President Xi Jinping that American missiles had been launched at Syrian air bases, according to Trump's account of the evening. What the attack on Syria signaled about Trump's readiness to attack North Korea was left to Xi's imagination. H Welcome to dinner with the leaders who are now attempting to manage the world's most dangerous geopolitical relationship. 1 The story is a small one. But as China challenges America's predominance, misunderstandings about each other's actions and intentions could lead them into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable." The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war.

Of the cases in which war was averted--Spain outstripping Portugal in the late 15th century, the United States overtaking the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, and Germany's rise in Europe since 1990--the ascent of the Soviet Union is uniquely instructive today. Despite moments when a violent clash seemed certain, a surge of strategic imagination helped both sides develop ways to compete without a catastrophic conflict. In the end, the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Although China's rise presents particular challenges, Washington policymakers should heed five Cold War lessons.

Lesson 1: War between nuclear superpowers is MADness.

The United States and the Soviet Union built nuclear arsenals so substantial that neither could be sure of disarming the other in a first strike. Nuclear strategists described this condition as "mutual assured destruction," or MAD. Technology, in effect, made the United States and Soviet Union conjoined twins--neither able to kill the other.

Today, China has developed its own robust nuclear arsenal. From confrontations in the South and East China Sea, to the gathering storm over the Korean Peninsula, leaders must recognize that war would be suicidal.

Lesson 2: Leaders must be prepared to risk a war they cannot win.

Although neither nation can win a nuclear war, both, paradoxically, must demonstrate a willingness to risk losing one to compete.

Consider each clause of this nuclear paradox. On the one hand, if war occurs, both nations lose and millions die--an option no rational leader could choose. But, on the other hand, if a nation is unwilling to risk war, its opponent can win any objective by forcing the more responsible power to yield. To preserve vital interests, therefore, leaders must be willing to select paths that risk destruction. Washington must think the unthinkable to credibly deter potential adversaries such as China.

Lesson 3: Define the new "precarious rules of the status quo."

The Cold War rivals wove an intricate web of mutual constraints around their competition that President John F. Kennedy called "precarious rules of the status quo." These included arms-control treaties and precise rules of the road for air and sea. Such tacit guidelines for the United States and China today might involve limits on cyberattacks or surveillance operations. …

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