Australia flies into The Thucydides Trap

Dec 30, 2022
The Austrian Parliament with statue philosopher Thucydides in Vienna, Austria.

America’s newest nuclear stealth bomber was unveiled by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. It is the latest expression of the Thucydides Trap which postulates an inevitable war between America and China.

Popularised by American political scientist Graham Allison, the term comes from the military general Thucydides, who concluded that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta had been inevitable because Sparta feared the growth of Athenian power. The analysis is now used to describe an apparent (inevitable) tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power. It has become a lens through which the West’s relationship with China is viewed.

The Thucydides Trap is based on the Peloponnesian wars, but its conclusions have been elevated and claimed to be relevant to the relations between much larger and more economically complex modern national states. The Peloponnesian Wars in 431 BCE involved two small city states- Sparta and Athens- with an estimated population of 700,000. The Warring States period in China in 475 BCE involved an estimated population of more than 5 million.

The political and strategic conclusions drawn from these similar warring periods were very different.

In a broad sense, the European conclusions are that conflict is inevitable and a normal part of winning statecraft. It was not until 1648, with the treaty of Westphalia, that the West began to move towards the use of diplomacy to resolve conflict.

In this sense, the small state wars never disappeared from Europe. The Peloponnesian wars and hegemony did not produce democracy, liberal or otherwise. They simply prolonged the aggressive and endless state-on-state warfare for another twenty centuries. It continues today.

In China the Warring States period resulted in the growth of political discourse and theory which favoured diplomacy, civil society and the obligations of the ruler to the ruled. These were core concepts promoted by Confucius and his followers. Again, in a broad sense, they form the philosophical bedrock of the concepts of Chinese Governance.

It wasn’t democracy as the West defines it, but it encapsulated the concept of civil society in a way that European political thought did not. It wasn’t until many centuries later than Mill, Locke and other political philosophers of the Enlightenment began to consider this concept of civil society, and even then it remained rooted in the concepts of a Christian ideology.

The source of political legitimacy was also different. The Chinese emperor held power at the pleasure of Heaven. The Emperor deferred to heaven. In contrast, European Kings were God’s representative on earth and held power by unquestioned divine right. In time, it came to be believed that God’s will was exercised through the people rather than the King. Democracy was a novel concept, and was unable to be divorced from its protestant religious foundations which held that man’s relationship with God was personal, rather than indirectly via the Church.

We see this strong religious element expressed in the foundations of democracy in the United States where even today their currency carries the admonishment “in God we trust”. This is affirmation of the belief that God’s will is exercised through the people. It is this that gives Governance its legitimacy and its sense of righteousness.

These are two very different concepts of the foundation of Governance legitimacy and the way that Government see their relations with other states. These differences go some way towards explaining why Europe pursued a path of colonisation whilst China followed a path of peace secured through open trade. It is the difference between co-existence and conflict, between co-operation and exploitation.

The anarchic squabbles that characterised both the Warring States and the Peloponnesian period do not have a place in the modern environment. Chinese political philosophers moved beyond these primitive struggles, developing the concept of a civil society, and the tolerance that goes with it, long before these ideas were adopted in the West.

Tang Dynasty diplomats held a pragmatic view of how countries pursue their own interests and those they share with others. Respect was one of the features deployed in such relationships. This Tang diplomatic imperative remains at the heart of China’s current approach to diplomacy. It under pins the implementation of Belt and Road Initiatives.

The West remains wedded to Machiavellian solutions based on continual conflict and the need for domination rather than cooperation and co-existence. Many embrace the idea that “If you want peace, prepare for war” and the Thucydides Trap and the B-21 are part of this thinking.

The Thucydides Trap is a genuine trap for misguided thinking because it cannot be applied to the complex political and economic environment of the 21st century. Those who attempt to do so become trapped in simplistic analysis that limits full consideration of the alternatives that promote civil society rather than conflict.

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