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Rebutting Thucydides Trap and Cold War Analogies:
During the long-awaited visit of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on 19th June, China’s President Xi Jinping declared that “the two countries should properly handle Sino-US relations with an attitude of being responsible to history, the people and the world.” Reiterating that the extent to which China and the US could get along had a “bearing on the future and destiny of mankind.” Indeed, following months of rapidly declining relations, talks of stabilisation would have been met with feelings of relief from across the world.
Following a string of military confrontations and bitter diplomacy between the superpowers, many foreign policy pundits have drawn historical war analogies in describing the acrimonious relationship. Talk of a “new cold war” or Cold War 2.0 has become commonplace, with some even using history to suggest that Beijing and Washington are on “a collision course” that is destined for a catastrophic “hot” war.
But using such historical analogies can be both inaccurate and dangerous. It oversimplifies the complexities of US-China competition and fuels antagonism between the superpowers. This article will explore the challenges to the two most prominent historical analogies today, countering the widespread use of the “Thucydides Trap” and “Cold War 2.0” analogies in US-China foreign policy discourse.
In 2012, Graham Allison captured attention by issuing a warning that China and the US are inevitably headed for war. Drawing insights from Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC), Allison noted how Sparta, the region’s dominant power, preemptively attacked Athens, the emerging power, out of fear for future Athenian supremacy. Allison expands on this ancient account by exploring twelve other historical instances where competition between a ruling power and a rising power led to war. His case studies range from the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s to the clash between Germany and Great Britain during both World Wars. This historical pattern, he argues, shares the exact characteristics of the contemporary power struggle between the US, the global hegemon, and China, the rising power.
Allison’s analogy of the “Thucydides Trap” gained great influence and popularity amongst US foreign policy pundits. Despite its popularity, sharp challenges have questioned the usefulness of the analogy and the accuracy of his claim.
Allison’s principal error is his failure to acknowledge the colossal differences between the modern, interconnected and nuclear world and the historical realms of Thucydides and Bismarck. Modern technology and globalisation have fostered an unprecedented level of interdependence and connectedness between states. A war between China and the US would necessitate the decoupling of the world’s largest and most interdependent economic powers. Considering that Sino-US trade totals half a trillion dollars, the magnitude and implications of decoupling policies are unfathomable.
Moreover, the relationships between Washington and Beijing with the international order are far more nuanced and intricate than those observed in historical power transitions. The current international liberal order does not resemble the hegemonic imperial orders of the past. Instead, it represents a complex mesh of institutions, rules, principles and norms that extend across the world. While both Beijing and Washington have expressed misgivings about certain elements of the international order in recent years, both still consider themselves committed stakeholders. Engaging in a direct conflict would require a costly rewiring of alliances and commitments, as well as isolation from critical transnational issues that greatly concern both.
Last but not least, the development of nuclear capabilities has introduced an apocalyptic threat to war that cannot be disregarded. Both the US and China wield vast nuclear arsenals, creating a state of mutually assured destruction- a potent deterrent to direct military conflict.
The cost of a “hot war” between the US and China is astronomically high, making it unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. The modern geopolitical landscape, with its complex interdependencies, international institutions, and the spectre of nuclear weapons, diminishes the probability of an imminent conflict between the US and China, as predicted by Allison. The nuanced dynamics of their relationship with the international order, coupled with the inherent complexities and constraints of the modern world, highlight the implausibility of a simplistic Thucydides Trap scenario.
Cold War 2.0
While the Cold War serves as a more recent reference point, it is crucial to recognise that the modern context of Sino-US relations significantly differs from that of the post-World War II era between the US and the Soviet Union.
Fundamental features of the Cold War, such as a clear bipolar distribution of power and clashing universalist ideologies, are absent today. Whereas the Cold War embodied a well-defined battle between communism and capitalism, China’s current economic system combines elements of socialism and capitalism, and its political ideology has evolved to prioritise growth and national rejuvenation rather than promoting global revolution.
The Cold War resembled a bipolar balance of power between two unparalleled superpowers; the polarity of the world today is far less conclusive. The argument that China’s increasing economic and military assertiveness is creating a new bipolar reality is unconvincing. Putting China’s dubious official data to one side, analysts Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth found China to be still dwarfed by the US in reliable economic metrics such as global profit shares and intellectual property payments. Militarily, despite their rapid modernisation and increasing regional assertiveness, China is far from being a global competitor to the American dominance of the air, sea and space. Unlike the Soviet Union, which exploited power vacuums along its periphery, modern China faces a different geopolitical reality- it is encircled by capable powers and a constant US presence.
Moreover, the economic and social connectedness of the current world is incomparable to the isolated economic blocs of the Cold War. As stated previously, both the US and China are major trading partners, each with significant investments in each other’s economy. Unlike the Cold War’s distinct spheres of influence, today’s world is highly globalised and interconnected, with information, technology, and people flowing across borders at an unprecedented scale. This level of interconnectedness and interdependence makes it much more challenging to isolate conflicts in specific regions and contain them within predefined boundaries, as was the case during the Cold War.
In essence, the idea that contemporary US-China relations resemble a new Cold War needs to be revised, stemming from either a blurred definition of the Cold War or a poor understanding of the Cold War. As political scientist Joseph S. Nye stated, the analogy is both “lazy and dangerous.” It “locks our minds into the traditional two-dimensional chess model” for global politics when competition with China is really a “three-dimensional game.”
The Grave Dangers of Using “Lazy” Historical Analogies
The habitual misapplication of historical analogies undermines effective policymaking. The “Thucydides Trap” analogy implies an inevitability of war, leading to a call for increased defence spending and heightened hostility. This approach gravely overlooks the significant role of cooperation, communication and shared mutual interests that characterise the Sino-US relationship. Although there are undeniably competitive elements, the US and China are still both major trading partners and consider themselves responsible stakeholders in the international liberal order.
Likewise, the Cold War analogy encourages a gloomy Manichaean worldview of “good vs evil”, which poisons relations and divides public opinion. Such language reinforces the Cold War policies of containment, deterrence and détente, despite the absence of an isolated and distinct ideological opponent. It is important to evaluate policies based on their own merit, considering the unique characteristics and dynamics of the current rivalry, rather than relying on their application in a different era and environment.
Today, the world faces numerous global challenges that necessitate international cooperation, such as climate change, pandemics, terrorism, and economic stability. These challenges transcend the zero-sum competition evident in the time of Thucydides and the Cold War and require collaborative efforts between the US, China, and other nations. The shared need to address these global issues provides an impetus for finding common ground and engaging in diplomatic negotiations, not alienation and division.
Richard Neustadt and Ernest May rightly encouraged cautious handling of historical analogies in their book Thinking in Time: much like a “two-edged sword”, they can both guide and misguide the assessment of current issues and events. Misguidance usually prevails when comparing current and historical episodes of great power relations. The development of powerful technologies and institutions has transformed the fabric of international relations.
Therefore, there is no appropriate historical analogy for contemporary Sino-US relations. However, as Harvard Professor Peter E. Gordon explains, “This is not a liability of historical analogy, it is its greatest strength…the question of whether an analogy is suitable can only be answered by making the analogy to see if it casts any light.” Comparison with historical phenomena merely accentuates the complexity and exceptionality of the current Sino-US rivalry, raising awareness for a more nuanced appreciation and policy response.
Thankfully, the Biden administration appears to recognise the exceptionality of Sino-US relations and has yet to succumb to the prevalent misuse of historical analogies. As Biden has stated, “since the beginning of my administration, we seek competition, not conflict, with China. We’re not looking for a new Cold War.” It appears that this endeavour has finally begun to materialise, with Blinken’s recent visit establishing “better lines of communication” to ensure “competition does not veer into conflict.”
It is essential to approach the complexities of the present-day rivalry with China on its own terms, taking into account the unique dynamics, interdependencies, and global challenges that shape this relationship. By doing so, policymakers can develop a more accurate and practical approach that addresses the intricacies of the current geopolitical landscape.
George Askaroff is a postgraduate student at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has spearheaded multiple research projects focusing on the foreign policy dynamics of Russia and China. His master's thesis delves into the identity narratives underpinning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, employing the concept of ontological security to offer novel insights into the roots of the war. If you would like to connect with George, you can reach him at: email@example.com.'