“China and America: the new geopolitical equation” is this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue.
It’s also this era’s most consequential issue.
Indeed, while the Mideast may have headlined the international news narrative this week, the story to watch is America’s response to China’s rise.
Accordingly, data delineating demographic, economic, military and diplomatic differences get intense scrutiny from those tracing the trajectory of each nation.
But beyond these modern metrics, the wisest insight may come from studying an ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, who chronicled the conflict between Athens, a rising power, and Sparta, a ruling power.
The Hellenic historian concluded that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled that made war inevitable.”
A similar scenario — an established dominant power facing the appearance of a bold new rival — has happened 16 times since. Twelve times war indeed proved inevitable. Only four confrontations ended peacefully.
Will the U.S. and China be the fifth? Or will they, like the other dozen pairs, descend into warfare?
That’s the question asked by Graham Allison, a national security expert and former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Allison, who will speak at a Humphrey School of Public Affairs event on Monday, writes in the preface of his provocative tome: “What is this book’s Big Idea? In a phrase, Thucydides’s Trap. When a rising power threatens a ruling power, alarm bells should sound: danger ahead. China and the United States are currently on a collision case for war — unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to prevent it.”
Preventing an armed conflict — or at least a trade war, which is what’s at risk if the current skirmish isn’t resolved — was the subject of high-level bilateral meetings in Washington this week.
But the U.S.-China tensions are more than economic.
“It’s impossible not to hear the echoes of Thucydides,” Allison said in an interview. “I think no question Thucydides would say, ‘You guys are trying to epitomize [the 12 conflicts] and exaggerate them with American characteristics on the one hand and Chinese characteristics on the other.’”
Among the portentous Chinese characteristics, Allison added, are views from high-level Chinese contacts that say in effect, “This is not about you; this is about us. All of this is about what we’re trying to do in restoring China to its rightful place, and we can feel it’s happening now. And the spillover of what happens beyond our borders is coincidental.”
Coincidental, perhaps. But consequential, definitely — especially considering East and South China Sea territorial disputes between China and neighboring nations, along with the international implications of Beijing’s relatively nascent Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and the rollout of its “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative.
The upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could significantly impact U.S.-Sino relations, too. Speaking before Kim’s recent reticence on meeting Trump, Allison expressed cautious optimism. “The fastest path to war in 2019 would have been what was going to happen on the Korean Peninsula and that’s not happening,” he said.
While three-quarters of the conflicts compellingly examined in the book’s case files ended violently, two that did not result in war were the most recent examples: the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War standoff, and the rise of German political influence amid French and British decline in the post-Cold War years.
One of the other two peaceful outcomes involved the United States and United Kingdom, which not only escaped Thucydides’s Trap, but developed a diplomatic “special relationship” (although like the entire transatlantic alliance, U.S.-U.K. ties are frayed).
It’s still possible for Washington and Beijing to become better aligned, too. Allison’s advice to Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping would be that they “recognize that you are now leaders in countries that find themselves caught up in a Thucydidian dynamic; it’s not a problem you can fix by doing this or doing that — this is a chronic condition that the U.S. and China are going to live with, or die with, over the next generation.”
Treating this chronic condition means moving beyond conventional approaches. “Under conditions of extreme danger, what is required?” Allison rhetorically asked, and answered: “Extreme imagination.”
The alternative is unimaginable. So U.S. and Chinese leaders need do just that — lead.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.