Present foreign policy in the United States is examined in the context of one of the earliest consequential wars ever written about
“While others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides went to the heart of the matter. When he turned the spotlight on ‘the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta,’ he identified a primary driver at the root of some of history’s most catastrophic and puzzling wars.”Fear. Allison has the advantage of recent discoveries in behavioral science which show that “at the basic psychological level…people’s fears of loss (or intimations of ‘decline’) trump our hopes of gain—driving us to take unreasonable risks to protect what is ours.” Applied to the present day, America shouldn’t allow fear of China’s stupendous rise to make policy makers forget what is their strategic interest: preserving the free nature of their democracy and fundamental institutions and keeping its people strong and resilient rather than preserving a heretofore unchallenged primacy over the western Pacific. Allison asks why we think we need to preserve that primacy at any cost.
China has finally turned its face to the world and intends to engage. History shows us they have a core belief in the superiority of the Middle Kingdom, so we can expect a fierce nationalism. Allison suggests we need to dial back actions and policies that strengthen an unreasonable hard-line nationalism in China that brooks no opposition. We should be expecting to live with this new rising power and chill with rhetoric that clouds an understanding of what our goals actually are in a changing world.
JFK faced a threat that could have led to war and he persistently dialed down the rhetoric, ignoring advisors, saying the enduring lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis
“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avoid confrontations that force an adversary to choose between a humiliating retreat and nuclear war.”An example of the US not heeding this lesson came nearly twenty years prior to JFK’s lonely decision-making. Less than a week before the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Tokyo had been complaining that they could not operate under the economic sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. and that they would prefer to fight, but the US ignored the ambassador’s message…
Allison teaches a class at Harvard which discusses instances of Thucydides’ trap—that is, when a rising power confronts a current power the result is war—playing out through history, so he’s had plenty of opportunity to hone his argument. It shows in the smoothness of the argument and clarity of the history he tells to bolster his thesis. We get examples of an established power feeling threatened by a rising power and the conditions under which this resulted in war and when it did not. Two recent examples would include England and Germany before WWI (1860-1913), and also the United States and the Soviet Union after WWII. One might argue relations between the two did precipitate an outbreak of hostilities: the Cold War. However, Allison argues the "cold" nature of the relationship during this period is an example that war is not inevitable.
America since the second world war took on alliances with Europeans mainly, but also Japan and Taiwan, which entailed an American guarantee of lethal force in the case of an invasion or attack. This guarantee of protection came with spoken and unspoken obligations that extended and enhanced America’s influence abroad. In a town hall meeting in 2016, Hillary Clinton explained that countries around the world were often eager and asking for US protection. Allison tells us that, in Thucydides’ time, the Greeks also had an empire
“That empire was acquired not by violence,” they later claimed to the Spartans, but instead “because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command.”President Trump has made clear that the US will no longer, while he is president, take a leading role as protector without a kind of tributary role being played by smaller states. China is pleased to take on the role of protector that the U.S. appears no longer to want. In the end, the present American administration may simply move aside to accommodate China without a clear foreign policy strategy.
This book was surprisingly readable and a very good one for clarifying the failures of strategic foreign policy by recent administrations. Allison was able to cut away much obfuscating bluster by spokespeople to have us look at Xi Jinping and Donald Trump with history’s eyeglasses: we see them as leading actors who each personify his country’s “deep aspiration for national greatness.” In his last chapter Allison anticipated Trump’s speech in China this past month, suggesting that each country should pay attention to their own strategic interests. Allison’s words are
“China and the US would be better served not by passive-aggressive ‘should diplomacy’ (calling on the other to exhibit better behavior) or by noble-sounding rhetoric about geopolitical norms, but by unapologetically pursuing their national interests. In high-stakes relationships, predictability and stability—not friendship—matter most. The US should stop playing ‘let’s pretend.’”However, American president Donald Trump is anything but predictable and stable. And, Allison reminds us, when states repeatedly fail to act in what appears to be their true national interest, it is often because their policies reflect necessary compromises among parties within their government rather than a single coherent vision. This is true right now in the U.S.; the thing that brings us down may be ourselves rather than China.
Thucydides himself believed fear was at the primary driver at the root of the Peloponnesian War, when a rising Athens threatened Sparta. Donald Trump went out of his way, during the 2016 presidential campaign at least, to hype a type of fear in America about China’s rising militancy and wealth. He almost seemed to open his arms to conflict. The destructiveness of such a contest between the East and the West would be so catastrophic as to be almost unimaginable. Of course Thucydides’ trap is not inevitable, but we must find leaders with great understanding.
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