China and the Thucydides Trap

As Americans move toward their election and we toy with one of our own we should consider a broader perspective. We should summon the courage to wrestle with the question more important than the scandal du jour and bigger than even COVID or Climate. We should debate the Thucydides Trap.

Thucydides was an Athenian historian and general who lived over 2500 years ago. At a time when everyone blamed or thanked various Gods for everything, Thucydides wrote that plagues, wars, and other catastrophes were the result of decisions made by people. Those decisions, he insisted, were based on the same considerations that individuals rely upon when making all decisions: self-interest and fear. His work on the Peloponnesian War laid the foundation for all historical inquiry that followed because it was based on demonstrable facts and empirical evidence. 

Thucydides

In his analysis of the struggles between Sparta and Athens, Thucydides introduced what became known as the Thucydides Trap. That is, when an established world power is threatened by a rising world power, war between them is inevitable.  

China’s power has grown since it discarded communism for a new amalgam of Adam Smith capitalism and Karl Marx collectivism. In 1978, 90% of China’s people survived on less that one dollar a day. That number is now one percent. Since 1978, Chinese capital has built infrastructure in African and South and Central American countries. China owns a growing percentage of American and western government debt. Chinese investors have purchased companies and real estate throughout the western world. Western companies rely on Chinese factories to build everything from kites to computers that are then shipped back and sold for prices that bankrupt home-based companies. Amazon, Costco, and Walmart are essentially Chinese distribution centres. Cash-strapped American and Canadian universities and private schools have re-jigged their business models to become dependent on educating Chinese students who, upon graduation, go back home and kick our ass.

When will China overtake the United States to become the world’s most powerful economy?  We missed it. It’s in our rear-view mirror. If you examine dominance of the world’s manufacturing and trade; Gross Domestic Product by every measure that matters; the size and buying power of China’s middle class and its number of millionaires and billionaires, China has already surpassed the United States.  

We are at our Thucydides moment. Historians have noted 16 similar moments. Besides Athens and Sparta, they include the Hapsburgs and French in the 16th century, the Dutch and English in the 17th, Britain and France in the 18th, Russia and Japan in the 19th, and the United States and Soviet Union in the 20th century. Of the 16 cases of a rising power threatening an established power, 15 have resulted in direct or proxy wars.

The United States has tried to squirm from the trap without war. President Obama tried to contain China with trade and environmental treaties. President Trump impulsively withdrew from those deals while taxing Americans through tariffs on Chinese trade. Obama and Trump were merely tinkering at the edges of the much larger issue. While Americans screamed at and over each other about concerns other countries solved decades ago, the teeter-totter of global power continued to tilt toward China. Canada has been a bit player in the global game, doing what it can to punch above its weight but it’s put in its place when taking actions such as arresting one of China’s business leaders. China has largely ignored American and Canadian noise as it relentlessly advances its long-term project.

Bill Clinton once observed that the history of the 21st century will be written according to how China uses its power. He was only partly correct. The century’s history will more likely be determined by whether Thucydides was right. A Chinese-American war is not inevitable. But unless Americans get over themselves and wake up to what has really been happening while they have been arguing with each other, it will become more likely. And that war, between two nuclear behemoths, will benefit no one.

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