The existential perils facing humanity: the Thucydides Trap.

Jun 9, 2020

Today there are three existential perils facing humanity, nuclear war, rapid climate change and pandemics. These are currently prioritised in the antipodean population’s thoughts and endeavours in reverse order.

The current Covid-19 pandemic is of the most immediate concern. Following that and assuming it dissipates and ceases to be a problem, will come the next pandemic, which has to be prepared for and our economies made more resilient and adapted accordingly.

In the middle-ground, behind thoughts of pandemics, come concerns about the environment and the changing climate. While pandemics occupy the minds of multiple millions, thoughts about the environment and ‘distant’ climate change are of concern to a far smaller portion of the population. Far fewer still, concern themselves with the dangers of nuclear war.

Covid-19 might mutate and greatly increase its lethality, but whatever it does in the future, it has already upset the global economy and adversely affected the livelihoods of millions. However, though a future pandemic might, the current Covid outbreak does not pose an existential threat to humanity. Humanity, having now been alerted, should have time to prepare for a future and possibly more disruptive event.

Far larger numbers than formerly are now starting to worry about the threat to our civilisation that will be posed by environmental degradation and climate change over the next century. Meanwhile, the numbers of those troubled by the threat of nuclear war, remain insignificant – even though such a war could break out this week and destroy all life on Earth.

How humanity copes with future pandemics, how it adapts to and slows, or reverses climate change and how it averts the threat of nuclear war, depends on the efficacy of the system of global governance it puts in place. The question is: to what extent are nation states prepared to seek multilateral solutions to the three existential problems that affect them all – and of which none can avert the danger unilaterally?

Given the inadequacy of humanity’s response to the threat posed by the immediate pandemic, one has no reason to be optimistic about how effectively it will respond to the other two far graver, but less obvious threats.

This article is about nuclear war, the most potentially dangerous of the three existential threats facing humanity and the one that happens to be the lowermost in the public mind. The arrival of the threat of pandemic has already demonstrated the knock-on potential of such disruptions to instigate conflict. If a ‘mild dose of flu’ can so readily set the wheels of a cold war between the USA and China whirring, what will be the effect of climate change when it starts to make major inroads on the economies of nuclear powers?

A necessary precursor to our understanding of the perilous situation, in which we now find ourselves, is an awareness of the theory that has gripped the minds of the USA’s decision makers – but not yet necessarily those of the Chinese and their Russian allies. This 18 minute TED talk presents a conveniently packaged version of the US theory of the Thucydides Trap. Thucydides Trap

Allison, while being entirely honest, is not necessarily entirely correct in his interpretation of history. For instance the idea of wars being instigated by third parties is not entirely true. There is considerable evidence that the Great War to supress Germany’s rise, was deliberately engineered by Great Britain’s leadership – and not accidentally triggered by the Serbian assassination. In this case, history was written (or rather deliberately suppressed) by the winning side. Nor should the locking into place of US primacy through the Marshall Plan and the creation of a UN (subject to US veto) be viewed as a demonstration of disinterested humanitarianism.

Xi Jinping is on record as claiming that he does not view Thucydides’ trap as inevitable. Certainly it need not be. Allison himself quotes historic instances in which it wasn’t. However, to judge by recent developments triggered by the Covid crisis, it looks as though American adherence to the theory is well on the way to making it a self-fulfilling prophesy. US Marines’ New Role and China threatened

If the Chinese come to believe that the USA sees no escape from its theoretical trap, they would be suicidal were they not to make their dispositions accordingly. China’s moves

Now is the time as never before, for the global peace movements to reenergise. They had their hay-day in the 1980s, when nuclear testing was the order of the day and populations could be mobilised against the pollution and the dangers that the publicity about nuclear weaponry evoked. Since then, the age of nuclear protests and burgeoning peace-movements has been superseded by neo-liberalism and too many university curricula diverted to accountancy and business studies.

There are signs that the threats of future pandemics, of rapid climate change and massive environmental degradation are once again starting to occupy a significant place in the minds of a new generation. Now is the time for the once were warriors of the anti-nuclear movement to reengage. This new generation needs urgently to be alerted to the imminence of their nuclear peril.

No matter, how much they might wish to, the incoming activists cannot fight either pandemics or rapid climate change, while a super-power confrontation threatens accidental, or intentional nuclear war. The solution to all three perils is the same – improved global governance and improved mechanisms for the development and enforcement of international law.

I have a perception (which I haven’t investigated in depth and might therefore, be mistaken) that David Lange’s initiative in taking New Zealand out of ANZUS altered history. It alarmed the USA that others of its allies might follow suit. Though NZ had to be duly reprimanded, Reagan was forced to treat Gorbachev’s approach in 1985 to end the Cold War seriously rather than seize Russia’s moment of weakness to go in for the kill. (The fact that the unsuspecting Lange subsequently moved to appease the USA by allowing Waihopai to go ahead, thus giving the USA a back-door entry into NZ’s foreign policy-making, doesn’t invalidate the argument.)

The most effective way to give pause to the USA’s march to war is for its allies to express their disagreement. The most effective demonstration of such disagreement would be for countries such as New Zealand (and if such light could dawn, Australia) to opt out of the Western alliance and join their Pacific Island and Indonesian neighbours in the predominantly Southern Hemisphere Non-Aligned Nations movement.

Once again, the New Zealand government could lead the way in its advocacy for non-involvement in the nuclear folly – but to do so, it needs to be inspired by a widespread and effective lobby.

Hugh Steadman was commissioned from RMA Sandhurst into the British infantry in 1961, and served as an enthusiastic Cold War warrior in Europe and as a political intelligence officer in South Arabia. No longer believing in his country’s rights or wrongs, he resigned and took a Southampton University degree in Politics & International Relations and a post-graduate teaching degree at London University. After ten years in international business in UK, he emigrated to NZ in 1985.


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