Graham Allison writes on how American and China can avoid the “Thucydides Trap” wherein, as one great power rises to displace another, war tends to result:
…as China challenges America’s predominance, misunderstandings about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war.
Of the cases in which war was averted — Spain outstripping Portugal in the late 15th century, the United States overtaking the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, and Germany’s rise in Europe since 1990 — the ascent of the Soviet Union is uniquely instructive today. Despite moments when a violent clash seemed certain, a surge of strategic imagination helped both sides develop ways to compete without a catastrophic conflict. In the end, the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
Although China’s rise presents particular challenges, Washington policymakers should heed five Cold War lessons. …
Lesson 5: Hope is not a strategy.
Over a four-year period from George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram,” which identified the Soviet threat, to Paul Nitze’s NSC-68, which provided the road map for countering this threat, U.S. officials developed a winning Cold War strategy: contain Soviet expansion, deter the Soviets from acting against vital American interests, and undermine both the idea and the practice of communism. In contrast, America’s China policy today consists of grand, politically appealing aspirations that serious strategists know are unachievable. In attempting to maintain the post-World War II Pax Americana during a fundamental shift in the economic balance of power toward China, the United States’ real strategy, truth be told, is hope.
In today’s Washington, strategic thinking is often marginalized…
As loud and frenzied as so much of America’s public discourse is at the moment, almost none of it seems to concern matters of long-term importance. Developing a grand strategy for countering China’s authoritarian communist regime should be the fundamental foreign policy task of American and European leaders.