The Thucydides Trap – I
by Michael Brenner on 02 Jul 2022 0 Comment

The original version of this essay was written two years ago. Much water has passed under the bridge since then. However, those developments – the Ukraine conflict outstanding among them – do not vitiate the fundamental issues addressed here. Indeed, they are underscored and made more compelling. I have done a small amount of revision and updating, added a few paragraphs of fresh material that elaborates on the main points. The pertinence of Ukraine is discussed more fully in an Addendum which distils the essence of what I have written in other commentaries.



Washington has a weakness for intellectual fads. Think of COIN, R2P, New World Order – among many others. One that is gaining currency is The Thucydides Trap as popularized in the much-praised book of that name by Graham Allison of Harvard and the writings of John Mearsheimer. Even Joe Biden wrote a laudatory blurb for the former. The term goes under many synonyms. Actually, though, it is not at all novel since it is simply a restatement of Realpolitik wisdom millennia old. Its success in gaining attention owes to its contradiction of the post-Cold War euphoria expressed in other catchword concepts: The End of History; Democratic Peace; Neo-Liberal Peace; A Globalized International System et al. They shared the foundation belief that there was a teleology at work in the world that eclipsed the old game of power politics – and the wars that it sparked.


Now, however, a certain disillusionment has set in. The main causes are the growing challenge from states that don’t seem to be evolving in the benign direction foreseen by these optimistic creeds. China, above all, and Putin’s Russia being the outstanding examples. The international system is becoming unprecedently complicated, showing signs of multiple personality disorder. One facet is that of peaceable economic integration (embedded functional Liberalism in academic jargon). Another, though, is the sharpening of national identities; that phenomenon expresses itself in rivalries of various sorts and a resistance to the dilution of sovereignty. Yet a third is the recrudescence of military build-ups which, in combination with technical innovations, creates a sort of shadow arms race.


Synthesizing all of this is a formidable intellectual and strategic challenge. The world has become too complicated for enlightened opinion to bear. So, some are seeking refuge in the old verities of balance-of-power and great power competition for dominance. There, they join hands with the orthodox Realpolitik hardliner crowd, particularly robust in America, who never abandoned 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 dominance 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. 


This is the path of intellectual least resistance. For it is a tangle of description, prediction and promotion that revives the simplistic Cold War template and superimposes it on today’s far more complex reality. In effect, it transforms strategy into a form of political hydraulics. The generation of a state’s power, transmitted through its military and economic might, produces 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 (Sparta vs Athens) and disparaging the peculiarities of the present world circumstances.


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. (Chas Freeman’s writings on Sino-American relations, elaborate this point).


A related point, indeed a cardinal one, is that some sort of ‘mixed’ quasi-system is a real possibility – one that could continue in a state of irresolution. 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. In this perspective, the world would be a lot more manageable if the Middle East simply didn’t exist – with its oil, riches, and jihadists. Perhaps a goal of concerted great power diplomacy should be to functionally seal it off it; isn’t this the Russian and Chinese attitudes – roughly speaking.


International institutions, the building blocks of any international order – however partial and incomplete – are effectively rule-based cooperative entities whose norms the great powers devise and agree to follow, because they believe that obeying those rules is in their interest. The rules stipulate acceptable kinds of behaviour and proscribe unacceptable forms of behaviour. Unsurprisingly, the great powers write those rules to suit their own interests. The key variable is how ‘enlightened,’ those interest definitions are.


It can be argued that when the rules do not accord with the vital interests of the dominant states, those same states either ignore them or rewrite them. True – but do any of todays or tomorrows great powers believe that current rules do not accord with their vital interest? Couldn’t the current leadership in Russia and China rest content with a modification of existing rules (like more equitable voting in the IMF; establishing an autonomous substitute for the U.S. controlled SWIFT mechanism; downplaying structured military alliances built on the “we vs. they” principle) for the very reason that their vital interests are not at risk?


Putin has said exactly that on multiple occasions. What he and his colleagues saw as a vital interest in Ukraine was 1) the deployment of a military bloc in territory that made it an implicit threat to Russia’s security, and 2) at the culmination of a multi-year hostile campaign of sanctions and exclusion. These interpretations were genuine whether the premises about Western intentions and the magnitude of the threat were wholly justified or not. The lesson is that one purpose of the kind of concert sketched here is to avoid the development of such circumstances. For the United States, that also means the relinquishing of its self-assigned privilege and right to judge, and to interfere in every political development from Patagonia to Kyrgyzstan. 


A persuasive case can be made that it is the U.S. whose expanded definition of its vital interests push it toward rewriting them re. unilateral abrogation of arms control accords, regime change intervention, dictation of commercial trade and financial dealings. We are the discontented rogue power. Interestingly, for two contradictory reasons. One, we fell under the delusion of a new Liberal world order for which we would be the custodian. At the same time, we committed ourselves, beginning with Bush II, to the Wolfowitz strategy of old-fashioned power-politics and imperial domination. 9/11 and the GWOT institutionalized the Wolfowitz outlook, liberal democracy be damned – except for propaganda purposes.* (NEO-CONS)


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. Witness the Europeans’ trio of surrenders to Donald Trump in 2020 in the economic realm:  Germany commits billions for the construction of an ING port to buy expensive American liquified natural gas in lieu of cheaper Russian gas; France suspends its plans to tax the giant IT firms; and the EU Commission issues a report backing the boycott of HUAWEI on the grounds that their 5G technology could be used for attacks by a hostile China.


Same for the Japanese with greater worry and need for assurances that they will not be targeted by China – which never happened historically except for the aberrant and ill-fated invasion by the Mongols on the 13th Century. More recently, of course, European servitude to the U.S. is the hallmark of the Trans-Atlantic relationship in the Ukraine saga. 


One can make the persuasive argument that the greatest obstacle is the United States – for all kinds of reasons. Still, in terms of personalities, I can think of no two leaders better able to engage in a foundation-laying exercise than Putin and Xi. Intelligent, rational, big thinkers, in full charge of their countries. But who in the United States? It’s very difficult to come up with a name of someone who could be the American interlocutor, much less how he or she could overcome the emotional and intellectual resistance to a serious strategic reorientation in this direction.


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 not universal politically. Crisis management and conflict mediation among parties other than the Big 3 would be handled through other 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.


This conception of a ‘mixed’ international system, 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 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 frame for such a construction.


It is imperative to underscore that the Ukraine affair was not the cause of the world’s reversion to an unbalanced global system wherein power politics is eroding if not entirely eclipsing the integrative dimension. Rather, it should be seen as the outcome of an evolutionary process that received its ‘Deistic propulsion’ from 9/11 and the so-called “War On Terror.” The Ukraine conflict itself was by no means inevitable despite deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. Its outbreak depended on blundering misjudgments by leaders in major capitals as well as at both ends of Brussels.


 In the West, at no time was a strategic decision deliberately made to opt for the ‘Thucydides’ model of relations among states. There was no great debate either in intellectual circles or among senior policy-makers. Admittedly, in Washington the tight circle of neo-cons has 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. The 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 a clearly etched alternative digestible by political elites devoid of perspective and intellectual acuity.


The interplay between the theoretical and the empirical come into sharp relief when viewed through the Ukraine optic.


Just as policy toward Ukraine should be viewed in the context of Biden’s tough attitude toward Moscow, so the Russian policy should be placed in the wider context of the new administration’s macro decision to confront rivals – actual or potential – across the board. In other words, full-bore Wolfowitz. Provoking Moscow on Ukraine was companion to the audacious project of attenuating the historic commitments made in the ‘One China’ accord with Beijing on Taiwan 50 years earlier, and the casting away the promised renewal of the nuclear agreement (JPCOA) with Iran by setting rigorous conditions that Washington knew Iran never could accept.


This profound strategic turn was not publicized or even hinted at in public communications (with the exception of the Pentagon’s annual National Defense Review and NATO’s New Strategic Concept). It did not attract interest in the media, nor directly engaged by the broad foreign policy community that, in any case, gradually had formed a consensus on its basic premises and goals over the preceding 20 years. 




*I think this is the point to introduce the Israeli factor. The Wolfowitz strategy can be seen as the macro formula that encouraged an approach toward domination of the Middle East which dove-tailed with the warped Israeli conception of the region’s security situation. With the neo-cons in the saddle beginning in 2001, the Israelis audaciously poured everything they had into that breakthrough – everything included, of course, their tight grip on American political parties via AIPAC and deep pocket campaign donors. Ever since, we have been following the Israeli playbook in the Middle East. It’s anybody’s guess as where and how a more independent American foreign policy might have diverged from the course we have taken. Still, it is fair to say that we well might have avoided the most egregious errors that contradict the U.S.’s own national interests, e.g. cosseting the Saudis – even the cocaine addict and megalomaniac MBS, choosing sides in the atavistic Sunni-Shiite stand-off, Yemen, and reneging on our supposed commitment to reaching an accommodation with Iran on the nuclear issue.


(To be concluded…)

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