Destined for War
Ancient Sparta is a byword for austerity and fighting skill. The city-state culled weaklings at birth and sent its remaining boys at seven into military training camps where they stayed until age 30. Just 300 of its warriors held off a mighty Persian army at Thermopylae.
Athens had no king but an assembly of free men, a prototype democracy. Its writers, philosophers and scientists are still read and revered, its temples and sculptures among the artistic treasures of mankind. Yet out of this grew a harder power, in the gold reserves and maritime prowess that came with trade.
Having jointly seen off the Persians, the two Greek centres lived in increasingly uneasy peace until Sparta decided on a pre-emptive strike. The lengthy Peloponnesian War ensued, devastating both states.
Today, as China emerges to challenge American hegemony in Asia, strategists have turned to the classic history of this fifth-century BCE struggle, written by the Athenian soldier and diplomat Thucydides. “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,” he wrote. The so-called “Thucydides Trap” now figures frequently in the speeches of our leaders, from China’s Xi Jinping to our own Malcolm Turnbull. How do we wriggle out of it? Can we?
Graham Allison is founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and he’s moved in and out of the Pentagon and CIA councils under Reagan, Clinton and Obama. Latterly he’s led scholars applying the Thucydides template to historical examples of rising power challenges.
Not even Thucydides was saying war was inevitable in ancient Hellas, Allison notes, and he didn’t use the word “trap”. He himself favoured diplomacy. Sparta’s king was against war, but was overruled by his generals. But poetic licence aside, in describing the “fear” on one side at the “rise” of the other, Thucydides shows how progress to war gathers momentum.
Allison thinks the US and China could find themselves escalating into unwanted war: a game of naval “chicken” going wrong in the South China Sea, the protectorates in Taiwan or North Korea crossing big-power red lines (as did the small allies of Athens and Sparta), trade sanctions snowballing into systemic threats.
Of the 16 examples of emerging power challenges Allison studies, only four were settled without war: the Pope got Portugal and Spain to take separate hemispheres (locals not being in a position to object); Britain made the best of rising American power; nuclear weapons kept the US and Soviet Union from direct conflict; Britain and France have swallowed reunified Germany’s rise to European leadership. So the statistics are not promising.
It’s not usually the status quo powers who follow Sparta’s example into pre-emptive war, however. As London watched Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz build up Imperial Germany’s battleship fleet and widen the Kiel Canal to bring them quickly into the North Sea, it didn’t take up Admiral Jacky Fisher’s urging of a first strike. Franklin Roosevelt waited for Japan to hit first, though his oil embargo made war “inevitable” for Tokyo. Allison might have drawn this out more. It could be argued the status quo power becomes too comfortable and rule-bound − too Athenian, you might say – and challengers more Spartan, in cults of the warrior-spirit and rigorous lifestyle.
Not that Allison is proclaiming American virtue. A whole chapter is devoted to Teddy Roosevelt’s exercise of “manifest destiny” through seizure of the Spanish empire, suppression of Philippine nationalists, detachment of Panama from Colombia to get the canal built, and annexation of Alaskan territory claimed by Canada. “Americans enjoy lecturing Chinese to be ‘more like us’,” Allison writes. “Perhaps they should be more careful what they wish for.”
Allison also cautions against drawing “fatalistic” lessons from Thucydides. World War I didn’t have to start because a Serbian fanatic shot the Austro-Hungarian archduke. For five weeks, governments hesitated. Kaiser Wilhelm tried to call a last-minute halt, only to be told it was too late.
But the US and China are now on a collision course, he says, with a nod to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”. Allison is one of those Western non-Sinologists who looked to the late Lee Kuan Yew (who he claims developed modern Singapore from a “fishing village”) to explain China. So ancestor-worship makes China see the rest of us as barbarians; anything other than a dictatorship of wise and honest leaders would make China ungovernable. There was some mutual reinforcement going on between Lee and Beijing there.
Thus the current communist dynasty is unlikely to accept a “responsible stakeholder” position in a global “rules-based order” it didn’t help design, and from which the US excepts itself when it’s inconvenient. But the Republic of China was there among the victors in 1945, and the People’s Republic has done pretty well out of the current order.
However Xi does cloak his domestic reforms and power grabs with a “China Dream” vision of having the world acknowledge China’s greatness. And while Beijing generally follows Sun Tzu’s advice to win wars without fighting, it hasn’t been averse to delivering short, sharp lessons to barbarians on the fringes – as learnt by India (1962), the Soviets (1969) and Vietnam (1979).
China’s rise is not as inexorable as Allison suggests. It struggles to sustain high growth without a banking meltdown; it’s in a demographic trap; its asymmetrical weaponry such as carrier-busting missiles and satellite-disabling lasers are yet unproved. Japan, Vietnam, India and maybe Korea are not paying tribute but arming themselves. The secret of peace may just be Teddy Roosevelt’s formula (not always observed by himself) of speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
Allison also gives us a clue Xi Jinping is hedging his bets anyway. His naval build-up suggests he reads Alfred Mahan, the American “Clausewitz” of sea power, but his “One Belt One Road” initiative recalls geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder’s 1919 edict that “who rules the World Island [Eurasia] commands the World.” JF
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 1, 2017 as "Graham Allison, Destined for War". Subscribe here.