China, America and Thucydides

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China, America and Thucydides


Tom Coyner
The author is CEO of Soft Landing Consulting.

The old question of whether history repeats itself is often debated over beers and on social media. Such discussions can take on greater urgency whilst in the middle of a major paradigm shift, such as the rise of China. During last month’s annual Jeju Forum, a Greek of some 2,400 years ago seems to have been resurrected, appearing in many discussions. His name is Thucydides, the greatest of ancient Greek historians, the writer of the “History of the Peloponnesian War,” in which he gained lasting fame by creating the first major work that included the political and moral analysis of a nation’s war policies.

Jeju Forum opening plenary speaker, Harvard Professor Graham Allison, introduced Thucydides. His speech was quite successful, since one of the major concerns of the conclave was the rise of China at the expense of the United States and its alliances in Northeast Asia.
Dr. Allison warned the audience that as China challenges America’s predominance, misunderstandings about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into a condition that Thucydides recorded — the rise of Athens and the fear that it instilled in Sparta causing Sparta to believe war was inevitable. Looking at the past 500 years, Dr. Allison noted that of the 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one, 12 ended in war.

In the four cases where war was averted, one can sometimes find what Dr. Allison labeled as a
“surge of strategic imagination.” He argued the best example was America’s struggle with the Soviet Union. While one may find similar playing pieces on the two nations’ chess board, how these nations made their moves was largely done in fairly consistent manners whereby communicating to their adversary what would likely be or not be the next move. The ultimate example of this was the shared potential for national suicide labeled as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Not to detail the other chess pieces here, the key take-away is that both nations employed coherent strategies. Obviously, Russia’s strategy did not succeed. But both nations understood an absence of a coherent strategy would lead to certain failure. If one or both nations had lacked a coherent strategy, the Cold War could have turned into cataclysmic disaster.

Today, America appears to be lacking a coherent foreign policy strategy. Not least are its policies involving China and North Korea. In the case of China, the U.S. president swings back and forth between his dismay about how China is “ripping us off” and his bragging about his excellent personal chemistry with President Xi. With Korea, America plays military chicken and then switches quickly to the exchange of love letters, while leaving nothing resolved. During the last 100 years, America has been able to maintain its self-image as being the world’s greatest country. When necessary, it has fought off Germany and Japan during World War II and stood down global communism led by Moscow. Today, America finds itself at a crossroads in a multipolar world of allies and adversaries. Clearly, China is America’s greatest competitor and potential adversary.

At the Jeju Forum, there were several mentions of a possible cold war between America and China. But former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in his latest book, labeled it best. America is facing “sustained competition” with a major communist dictatorship that is willing to bear down on American companies and their allies the full combination of economic, military and political power in a way that is unique to a communist dictatorship. Meanwhile, while economically and militarily strong, America is facing massive domestic polarity and wealth disparities that have created institutionalized corruption which in turn has led to a popular distrust in political processes and government institutions.

In a real sense, there is a competition between the legacy and the upstart superpowers for the hearts and minds at home and abroad. The United States offers a liberal model based on rules-based freedoms and free markets where no one is above the law. China suggests the 21st century operates better under single-party rule, even with a de facto president for life.

Currently, the U.S. president’s “America First” framework calls for a rebalancing of the playing field, calling on its partners and others to ‘give back.’ During the past couple of years, the United States, with its expected leadership, has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, various UN organizations, etc. Meanwhile, China’s President Xi talks up his dream of Peace, Justice and People while reasserting China’s 1,800-year international leadership by building up its domestic markets and evangelizing abroad its Belt and Road initiative.

While America’s presence has not always been welcomed in Northeast Asia, its leadership has provided a “sheet anchor” of stability while holding up its aspirational values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Today, however, many American allies and adversaries are wondering if Trump’s America is a four-year aberration or a major pivot where other nations need to work together without reliable American participation. The problem we face is that neither friends nor foes know where America under Trump is going. With that uncertainty, opportunities for misunderstanding and worse increase — something that Thucydides noted 2,400 years ago.
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