Ukraine and the Thucydides Trap - II
by Michael Brenner on 02 Apr 2023 0 Comment

Over the past decade that has seen the stunning rise of China, the West – at American direction – implicitly has built its strategic thinking on the ‘Thucydides’ model of relations among states. Doing so was not the outcome of a rigorous, deliberate process. There was no great debate either in intellectual circles or among senior policy-makers.


Admittedly, in Washington the tight circle of hardline nationalists and ‘neo-cons’ have known for decades exactly what they wanted: a world system dominated by the American hegemon which would set the rules according to its own lights and was prepared to use all means at its disposal to enforce them. That included preventing the rise of any major challenger – e.g, the Paul Wolfowitz design. Their disproportionate influence in winning the allegiance of the country’s foreign policy establishment represents a remarkable accomplishment – one made possible by the absence of clearly etched alternatives digestible by political elites prone to acquiesce in fashionable ideas promoted by more wilful groups.  


The crystallizing grand strategy has the further advantage of being the path of intellectual least resistance. For it revives the simplistic Cold War template and superimposes it on today’s far more complicated, far less comprehensible reality. In effect, this greatly simplified - one might say primitive - version of the Thucydides model transforms strategy into a form of political hydraulics.(5)


The generation of a state’s power, transmitted through its military and economic might, places pressures on other states to which they must either succumb or resist by generating counter pressures. When it’s a matter of a rising power threatening the dominance of the prevailing dominant power, the outcome is war – most of the time. That’s it – dressed out in the dramatic garb of historical cases and denigrating the peculiarities of the present world circumstances.  


Synthesizing all of this is a formidable intellectual and strategic challenge. The world has become too complicated for traditional foreign policy doctrines to bear. The result is not innovation and imagination. Quite the opposite. We are seeking refuge in the old Realpolitik verities of balance-of-power and great power competition to establish positions of dominance.


The core conviction is the idea that the United States should use all instruments of influence, not excepting coercive force – and including preventive as well as preemptive war, to maintain its global preeminence while shaping the world to its preferred design. Hence, the growing acceptance of the idea that a conflict between America and China for the Number One spot, ensconced on the throne reserved for the global supremo, is inevitable. Senior American military commanders have gone so far as to include in an official Pentagon communication the admonition that we should prepare for war with China within two years.(6) 


There is reason to be leery of this structural determinism. The very fact that we are in unprecedented, fluid circumstances (which likely will continue to be so indefinitely) seems to underscore not only the possible crystallization of a multitude of outcomes but also that competent and wilful leaders may well have some latitude in inflecting the trajectory taken. One can visualize some sort of ‘mixed’ quasi-system. This conception of a multipolar system that emphasizes multilateralism loosely overseen by an implicit concert of the most influential great powers, nowhere has been closely examined – much less considered by the leading figures in Western governments. That is to say, the elites who direct their countries’ external affairs.


The statesman who has pondered its modalities is Vladimir Putin who has sketched an outline of its forms and methods in numerous speeches and writings since 2007. The blunt truth is that his Western counterparts never have paid them much attention or thought seriously about the ideas they convey. Of course, today that is all a dead letter. There is zero opportunity to engage in the dialogue they foresaw and which could lead to the set of rules, understandings and agreements that would provide the skeletal framework for such a construction.  


In practical terms, that would entail various sets of rules-of-the-road (explicit and implicit) that bring a modicum of order to each dimension of an interdependent world - economic, security, ‘communications’ - without there existing any comprehensive, overarching architecture. In addition, these partial regimes need not be universal in membership so long as marginal participants are not in a position to upset / challenge what’s in place.  


Does such a quasi-order need a hegemon? Not necessarily – what it would need is a concert. It would retain liberal elements – especially in regard to international economic intercourse; they would be functionally restricted, though – and certainly with no universal political formats. Crisis management and conflict mediation among parties other than the Big 3 would be handled through either their benign mediation or simply encapsulated. Norms and methods also may have to be amended to take account of disruptive domestic impacts such as the revival of insular nationalism and anti-globalization grievances.  


Obviously, no such set of arrangements is conceivable without a meeting of minds among the US and China along with Russia. The Europeans are totally devoid of any political will and will follow in our wake. They are a non-player. One can make the persuasive argument that the greatest obstacle is the United States – for all kinds of reasons.


Still, in terms of personalities, a case can be made that the two leaders best able to engage in a foundation-laying exercise are Putin and Xi. Intelligent, rational, big thinkers, in full charge of their countries. Incredulous? Quite understandable in current circumstances. The idea is moot. Still, in all honesty, there is not a scintilla of evidence that the thought ever crossed the mind of an U.S. President or a European counterpart at any time since 2000.


Indeed, it is doubtful that any of them ever paid close attention to what Putin actually was writing or saying – or sought to discern what Xi’s thinking along these lines might have been. (There is reason to suspect the same is true of their senior aides: Blinken /Sullivan /Austin; Cleverly /Wallace; Baerbock; Borrell...) For Hillary Clinton, Putin was a “new Hitler;’ for Barack Obama, he was the diabolical enemy who attempted to corrupt American democracy though manipulation of the 2016 election – warning Putin that “we can do stuff to you;” as for Joe Biden, he is a “killer” who must leave the scene immediately.


Anyway, it is hard to envisage a serious, candid discussion of grand themes around a table where Putin and Xi were matched with Biden, Schulz, Sunak / Johnson, Ruud, Macron, Stoltenberg, Van der Leyen, et al. To picture your adversaries as cartoon figures, at whom you whimsically throw verbal darts, is a sure-fire way to fail – and to risk catastrophic failure.  




Whatever the exact outcome of the Ukraine conflict – in military, political & diplomatic terms – a few conclusions can be made with confidence. Foremost, is the cementing of two antagonistic power blocs: the “Collective West” composing the United States led alliance of the five transoceanic Anglo-Saxon countries, the EU bloc along with the auxiliary East Asian powers: Japan and South Korea. The other, Eurasian bloc will be dominated by the Sino-Russian duopoly supported by a mixed assortment of friends: inter alia Iran, the Central Asian states, Belarus, Venezuela.


They will be rivals in every domain: security, commerce, finance and the nebulous domain of values and culture. Other significant players, e.g., India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesian will avoid joining either while pursuing their own national interests. It is noteworthy that none of the last mentioned participated in the sanctions imposed on Russia; indeed, some (India, Turkey plus Saudi Arabia) took active steps to counteract them while profiting from both discounted energy prices and serving as middlemen between Russia and eager consumers – including some in the West. In fact, no country outside the ‘Collective West’ cooperated in observing sanctions restrictions. 


Second, the neo-liberal conception of an economically integrated, globalized world wherein the old games of power politics are foresworn is now defunct. Functional integration in the economic sphere will continue – but with significant qualifications. All states will be more actively involved in ensuring that their national interests are not compromised by the workings of international markets and the decisions of private actors. Too, governments will be attentive to relative gains from all modes of economic intercourse. Political considerations will be omnipresent, although not always determinant.  


The broadest enduring effect of this devolution of the global system into blocs - the legacy of Ukraine - will be that dealings between nations across blocs (or even non-members with major blocs members) cannot escape the logic dictated by an overarching rivalry. Suspicion, close calculation of benefit /costs /risks of transactions, and acute security consciousness will be pervasive. Arms control is the outstanding and perhaps most important case in point. In that sensitive domain, a measure of trust (albeit grounded on convergent interests) is essential. None exists now nor will it in the foreseeable future. Distrust rules. More the pity. 



5] See seminal article by John Mearsheimer, “Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order,” International Security (2019) 43 (4): 7–50. His is a refined, rigorous and historically informed exposition of the “Thucydides Trap.” 

6] General Mike Minihan, who as head of Air Mobility Command oversees the U.S. Air Force’s cargo and tanker fleet, urged airmen to be “unrepentantly lethal” in preparation for potential war with China. Later, he said “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”  Air Force amn/nco/snco January 26, 2023.



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