In my previous column, I wrote about how the new National Defense Strategy’s focus on great power competition held the potential for an escalation of confrontation with Russia or China; I want to return to that topic and offer a way to avoid it.
There’s a term in international relations theory that deals with this phenomenon called the Thucydides Trap. Thucydides was Athenian historian and general who, among other works, hypothesized that the rise of Athens caused fear in neighboring Sparta and made war between the two inevitable. Harvard professor Graham Allison called this trend the Thucydides Trap — where a rising power causes fear in the established power, leading to war.
There has been lots of chatter about this trap and how it might apply to the United States and a rising power like China. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis brought the topic up in national conversation. The once-relevant Steve Bannon also was obsessed with Thucydides’ work (though he probably skipped the parts where Thucydides shows how populists often lead to societal ruin).
The most facile reading would be that rising China and dominant America are destined for conflict, but this assumption papers over a whole realm of other considerations, including other countries’ economic interdependence with us, the ability of international bodies to legislate differences and an awareness on either side that war would be catastrophic.
That said, it is worth considering the ways we can be sure to avoid a conflict with Beijing.
The National Defense Strategy I wrote about in my previous column calls for a modernized and more lethal U.S. military. This is the element that some may see as leading us towards war with China; indeed, Mattis says clearly in the document that the purpose of this modernization is to deter, and in the failure of deterrence, to win.
But having a military that is capable of winning a war against China doesn’t mean that hypothetical war is inevitable.
We should be taking steps to ensure that this hypothetical war never comes to pass. The best way to do that is to address foreign policy problems with the combined military, economic and diplomatic power of the United States.
A coherent strategy of deploying American power and influence but avoiding war must be based on a strong and functional U.S. government, specifically the State Department. A well-staffed and well-funded diplomatic service is essential for expressing American aims and values abroad without resorting to bayonets.
We’ve seen this whole-of-government approach working before, the Iran nuclear deal being a recent example.
The U.S. government left the threat of military action on the table, used the economic tools of the Treasury Department to make good on sanctions against Iran and assembled an international coalition of partners who worked with us at the negotiating table.
The result? We got what we wanted; we eliminated Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon in the near future.
There is precedent for foreign policy successes that do not resort to violence.
If we need to bring pressure to bear on revisionist China or Russia, we have ways of doing it that avoid the Thucydides Trap. However, as I’ve argued before, the Trump Administration needs to change some of its attitudes and policies towards the State Department if we are going to be met with success.
Military force should be an option on the table but not the only one. Hopefully the Trump Administration will come to realize this in time.
Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.