thucydides trap - will billions die in repeat of history
Harvard's Graham Allison, known for his book and
other studies on the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962, is
fighting to re-awaken U.S. and British leaders to a dire reality
with a dramatic op-ed in London's Financial Times titled,
"Thucydides' Trap has been Sprung in the Pacific," datelined
"Classical Athens was the centre of civilisation.
Philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy -- all beyond
anything previously imagined," he wrote. "This dramatic rise
shocked Sparta, the established land power on the Peloponnese.
Fear compelled its leaders to respond. Threat and counter-threat
produced competition, then confrontation and finally conflict. At
the end of 30 years of war, both states had been destroyed."
"Thucydides wrote of these events:" Allison continued: "`It
was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta
that made war inevitable.' Note the two crucial variables: rise
JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has used the same quote
many times to comparable effect.
Turning to China, Allison wrote, "Never has a nation moved
so far, so fast, up the international rankings on all dimensions
of power. In a generation, a state whose gross domestic product
was smaller than Spain's has become the second-largest economy in
"If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to
the question about Thucydides' trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15
cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a
ruling power, war occurred. Think about Germany after unification
as it overtook Britain as Europe's largest economy. In 1914 and
in 1939, its aggression and the UK's response produced world
He ends his dramatic warning with a call to arms, so to
speak: "To recognise powerful structural factors is not to argue
that leaders are prisoners of the iron laws of history. It is
rather to help us appreciate the magnitude of the challenge. If
leaders in China and the US perform no better than their
predecessors in classical Greece, or Europe at the beginning of
the 20th century, historians of the 21st century will cite Thucydides in explaining
the catastrophe that follows. The fact that war would be
devastating for both nations is relevant but not decisive. Recall
the first world war, in which all the combatants lost what they
Graham Allison chaired a study group of the State
Department's independent International Security Advisory Board
(ISAB) which published the report "Mutual Assured Stability:
Essential Components and Near-Term Actions" on August 14 on the
State Department's website. This report does not focus on China
-- rather, its objective is to avoid the coming thermonuclear war
with Russia, and establish a regime of long-term war avoidance
largely by actions aimed at what the late Edward Teller called
"the common aims of mankind" -- and then to expand that
cooperation with Russia to include all other possible nations,
most urgently China.
The members of Allison's study group included the top expert
Joseph Cirincione along with five others. ISAB itself is chaired
by former Defense Secretary William Perry, and includes
Ambassador Robert Gallucci and Gen. (ret) Brent Scowcroft along
with many other experts.
A basic recommendation is that, "Neither side bases
decisions on nuclear force structure, posture, or doctrine on an
assumption that the other is an adversary or likely to engage in
The report's recommendations highlight that, "the United
States and Russia join together around the values, norms and
motives they share, commit to reducing the global nuclear threat,
and agree to influence others to share their views." That call to
"join together around the values, norms and motives they share,"
is repeated again and again throughout the report, referencing
not only the US and Russia, but all other nations, as the US and
Russia encourage them to join with them this collaboration.
"A critical aspect of greater strategic stability requires
both the United States and Russia to recognize that the dire
consequences of nuclear conflict between them would be
disproportionate to the scale of any plausible bilateral disputes
they may have with each other. It should be recognized that both
U.S. conceptual thinking on mutual assured stability as well as
the U.S. dialogue with Russia must create more clarity on these
They recommend that "the United States and Russia
collaborate on a full range of public health issues of mutual
interest: stopping drug trafficking (particularly from
Afghanistan to Russia), infectious disease prevention, promotion
of healthy lifestyles and decreased drug abuse, affordable health
care delivery, and other areas as identified."
They recommend: "Conduct a joint U.S.-Russia review of the
requirements for national and multilateral missile defense in the
coming years as missile technology continues to spread, with the
goal of achieving a shared understanding of each nation's
requirements for effective missile defense."