October 9, 2015, by Tony Hong
No Escaping from the Thucydides Trap
By Flair Donglai Shi,
World Literatures in English (MSt) at University of Oxford.
The whole the-rise-of-china-and-power-shift discussion has been heated up again since Xi Jinping’s first visit to the US as the president of PRC, despite its presence in the American media having been largely hijacked by the visit of the Pope. At the end of September, Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, published an essay entitled “The Thucydides Trap” in the Atlantic, announcing some of the results of his project about the implications of China’s ascendance. The Thucydides Trap is about the inevitability of war in historical moments of great power shifts in international politics, and a brief glance into the past instances of various countries’ entrapment in it can help explain Allison’s conclusions, namely why China is unlikely to be exempt from it if its rise continues.
In the 19th century, Great Britain managed to make major economic breakthroughs through its industrial revolution and consolidated its imperial superpower status through the subsequent modernization of its navy and the colonization of one third of the world, hence a Pax Britannica was created. Then in the early 20th century a growing German power on the European continent, with its recently modernized and risen ally in Asia, namely Japan, started to become ambitious and challenge the old power hierarchy, but eventually they failed and no effective power transition was made. The same kind of failure happened again with the collapse of the USSR, leaving the Pax Americana system sound and stable till this day.
So it can be said that while the rise of Germany, Japan and the USSR in different historical periods have definitely caused major disturbances against the power transition dynamics in the last 250 years, the only real and successful power transition in this whole time is from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana. This is also the only successful global power shift in the four cases, in Allison’s study, where war did not take place. Now in the 21th century, with the rise of China together with the giant club of BRICs it leads, there has been much speculation about another significant power transition coming: will this challenge from China and the BRICs just be another failed disturbance or will it actually generate a kind of Pax Sinica, or at least a re-balancing of power with the United States in the future? Past experiences suggest the former is more likely than the latter.
Of course the only completed power shift occurred in our modern history, from Britain to America, was a peaceful one, so the “power shift” means broadly the tendency towards a power shift, namely when a challenger starts to show the potential, either in terms of capability or in terms of desire (or both), to overtake the established dominant power. If considered in such forms, it would be evident that American exceptionalism does also apply in explaining this was only peaceful power shift in history while the rest of the incidents all resulted in wars and conflicts. The constantly vacillating power shifting tendency between UK, the dominant power, and Germany, the challenging power, during 1905-1945 is a perfect example of the danger of such disturbance. In this seemingly short duration of 40 years, Germany emerged twice in an Eurocentric world order where the UK’s dominance had long been providing stability to the region and its colonial stretches across the globe, and both times induced world wars. Similarly, from 1950 to the 1980s, the USSR was driving on an economic up-road, which propelled it to become a power challenger of the then dominant power, the US. However, while Germany in the early 20th century had surpassed the UK economically twice, the USSR’s economic development, despite being quite rapid, was never able to catch up with that of the US, which partly explains why the Cold War was primarily about arms races and ideological advocacy and how this economic immaturity eventually led to the demise of the challenger.
According to Shambaugh (2013), one of the most important reasons why these challengers failed their chances of achieving genuine power shifts is that the power they possessed was too single-dimensional. So Germany’s power was largely only economic, while its military remained less established than that of the UK and the US and its anti-Semitic ideologies lacked global appeal; the same was more or less true for the USSR, for its power was largely military while its economic system (which prompts its ideological stretch) became weaker and weaker.
Contrary to these examples of failures, the ascendance of the US after WWII as the new dominant power was clearly a multi-dimensional one: its military force and economic clout were far ahead of those of the war-torn European old powers, including the UK, and its central role in shaping the new economic and political order after the war also afforded the US a considerable amount of institutional and soft power.
America’s exceptionally peaceful ascendance can be explained majorly by three advantages it enjoyed: perfect timing, geopolitical position and perception. Firstly, its accumulation of economic power was taking place fast during a period when there were great struggles among the major European powers themselves, and the then global hegemon Britain was inevitably distracted by changes and disturbances closer to home. To be more specific, just prior to the economic overtake of the UK by the US in the 1870s, Germany (then Prussia) also overtook France and became the biggest economic power on the European continent and as a result the Franco-Prussian War broke out, which sent off alarms in the UK. After this, as mentioned before, the German power grew even more rapidly and the UK itself was dragged into wars. Secondly, the US’s sizable landmass and its lack of threatening neighbors (sharing borders only with Canada and Mexico), combined with its resource-rich geographical location far away from the struggles of the European imperial powers, had definitely given it a geopolitical advantage over any other country in the world. Thirdly, since its independence from Britain it had taken an essentially isolationist approach towards its own international relations, refusing to get directly involved in European or colonial conflicts while its mercantile elites continued to maintain mutually beneficial economic relations with the UK. This isolationist approach to an extent prevented the major European powers from seeing it as a main player in world politics while enhancing the British perception of it as a benign partner that could be used to back its own position in the face of emerging rivalries close to home. Of course the shared cultural heritage and bond built thereafter can also influence their perceptions of each other. Ultimately, the rise of the US, regardless of having put Europe, especially the UK, into relative decline, has ensured the continued dominance of the West in world politics.
The same exceptionalism does not seem to apply well in terms of China’s rise in the 21st century. Indeed, the power shift disturbances caused by the rapid economic growth of China as a power challenger to the US resemble more of the processes experienced by Germany and the USSR. Firstly, many economists predict that China is going to surpass the US in terms of GDP as soon as the next decade. If this is indeed going to happen, this economic ascendance of China over the US will look quite similar to that of Germany over the UK in the early 20th century, in the sense that it would be a more economically advanced society (higher per capita GDP) being passed in overall power by one less economically advanced but possessing a larger population. Secondly, China and the US not only lack the kind of cultural bond that the US and the UK possess, their political ideologies remain very different, sometimes antagonistic, with each other. Although China has been gradually integrated into the US-led global economic system of liberalism and free trade, propelled by events such as Deng’s open-door policy, the collapse of the USSR and its entrance into the WTO, its economy is still very much controlled by the state, which remains an authoritarian one-party system that fundamentally clashes with the Western liberal democracy model that the US is very keen to advocate and promote. This kind of political antagonism between authoritarianism and democracy definitely puts the US-China power shift pair closer with the US-USSR pair than the US-UK peaceful transition pair.
Lastly, though since 2001 the US has been more and more dragged into the troublesome conflicts in the Middle East, which did prove to become a bit of imperial overstretching that consumed large amounts of power of past empires, these Middle Eastern countries, unlike Germany for the UK in the early 20th century, do not pose significant power challenges to the supreme power of the US itself. After all, it is not like the US now is heavily troubled by regional powers rising in its own backyard and China can just freeload on its economic expansion and bail out the US from damages of war to consolidate its assured power ascendance after the US realizes all is too late. Moreover, with President Obama’s pivot back to Asia and China’s economic expansion in East Asia that is taking a toll on its political relations with its neighbors, the Asian giant is going to be increasingly seen as a political rival of the US and the West in general. Unless China’s economy collapses like 1980s’ Japan or its political system collapses like 1990s’ USSR, there seems to be no way for it to escape the Thucydides Trap.
Shambaugh, David. (2013) China Goes Global: The Partial Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.