The Thucydides Trap is a truckload of horseshit — and that’s putting it mildly.
But that won’t stop a legion of Rome-worshiping Beltway lunatics from repeating the mistakes of the Twentieth Century in Asia — risking millions of lives in the process.
First off — what the hell is Thucydides Trap?
It’s a theory that argues whenever a rising Great Power meets a fading one, major conflict is likely.
What’s a Great Power?
Funny thing about that — nobody really knows. That’s part of the trick being pulled on us all — a deception that risks plunging the United States of America and People’s Republic of China into a war in fulfillment of the Thucydides trap theory.
See, all these fancy terms you hear historians and international affairs experts throw around, like “Great Power” or “Near-Peer Competitor” or “Geopolitical Rivalry” are deeply and fundamentally political.
That is to say, they are loaded terms with nuanced meanings that certain people and groups use in certain ways — especially in public speech and rhetoric — to shape how listeners perceive their shared reality. The goal is to make listeners identify with the concerns of the speaker without actually revealing what those are, and is a crucial tool in building public consensus for anything government does.
In the United States and Europe, it is common to hear leaders speak of something called “The West” or “Western Civilization,” especially when comparing people in these regions to those in other parts of the world. China, for example, is said to be an “Eastern” culture, part of a different tradition of history and philosophy than our own.
But the truth is, no real distinction between “East” and “West” exists or ever has — these terms are shorthand derived from Greek and Roman writing about the world they knew, centered on the Mediterranean Sea that divides Europe from Africa. Writers in those days — most of them wealthy, privileged individuals wholly unrepresentative of the population at large — were politically motivated to set their own societies apart from those east of them which were typically older, more densely populated, and technologically advanced.
In modern times, writers and scholars continue to use the terms — for an explicit political purpose.
Despite calling themselves scientists, most of the people who study things like international relations, politics, and economics… well, they aren’t.
At least, not in the way most people outside of academia think when they hear scientist. And the distinction is important, as much as many PhD-holders would prefer to pretend otherwise.
Scientists who study humans don’t have the luxury of working in a lab, where all variables can be strictly controlled. Humans are weird. If they know they’re part of an experiment, their behavior changes, biasing the results of the study.
Statistical analysis is a powerful tool for teasing information out of noise, but it can only do so much. And even statistical models must be developed from something, a set of assumptions about what you’re studying that will inevitably structure your end result.
The academic fields that study humans and human society were codified as we know them during a distinct and unique period of history, immediately following the Second World War. They emerged as a result of explicit funding decisions made by governments in the United States (like establishing the National Science Foundation) and were created for a purpose: help government and business manage people.
The social sciences and to a great extent the humanities too were bound up in an enormous national era of deliberate myth-making intended to stabilize postwar society. American families — portrayed as white, conforming, suburbanites on television — needed to feel secure enough in the future that they would spend money on consumer goods produced by national industry.
Scholars by nature tend to attack and deconstruct myths, and so an integral part of the nationalist fervor of the 1940s and 1950s in the United States focused on attacking those who questioned the new norms being set by Hollywood and the national media. Faculty, like anyone else, prefer to work in peace and be well paid, so by setting a public example of a few outliers the power players of the day convinced the rest to adhere to certain boundaries with respect to the kind of science they published.
The end result was a truncated, limited public understanding of how their own society operated. During this critical period when the core canons at the heart of most academic disciplines and fields were being laid down, the mythos of “Western Civilization” was fully embedded into the fabric of American society. A hyper-masculine, white supremacist, Christianized ethos that has never managed to shake a deep-seeded contempt for anything “barbaric” — this usually meaning something displeasing to a person in a position of influence.
And a critical part of this ideology is a total abandonment of any individual citizen involvement in anything touching on foreign affairs.
All countries, all big corporations, pretty much any human organization imaginable past a certain sides develops a Power Elite: a sub-group of individuals who form a clique dedicated to a single task: expanding the Power Elite’s control over the institution as a whole.
The Power Elite is a tribe that carefully guards membership into the club and works — though typically in a decentralized manner where members are themselves ever jockeying for dominance — to secure lasting dominance over whatever its members have decided they deserve to own.
Great Powers emerge when a Power Elite in a wealthy nation secures control over that country’s relationship with others countries. In the United States, a Power Elite formed during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, at its core a group of wealthy and well-connected families in the Northeast.
They were personally and ideologically connected to a parallel Power Elite in the British Empire and sought to emulate it, buying Alaska and annexing Hawai’i before taking the United States to war with Spain in order to become a Pacific Power. Once a colony of Great Britain, in taking control of the Philippines the United States too became an empire on which the sun rarely, if ever, set — though holding the islands proved difficult, requiring a counter-insurgency effort that involved mass internment camps and the annihilation of entire towns.
Today, this Power Elite remains in a position of supreme dominance within the United States. In “thought-leader” outlets like The Atlantic and “papers of record” like the New York Times and Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, Inc.) anyone who dares questions a set of core assumptions about American foreign policy is subject to scorn and ultimately exile from polite company. Boiled down, these are (in no particular order):
- America is a beacon of freedom and democracy, guardian of the Free World
- America is the culmination of Western Civilization, which traces its history to ancient Greece and Rome
- America may maintain a military presence any place in the world it wishes
- America may use its military power to intervene with violent force if its “National Security” is threatened
- “National Security” is defined as whatever the right people — a select set of “experts” and “thought leaders” who espouse core doctrines — say it is
As it stands in the spring of 2021, these five factors are bringing the United States of America into conflict with the People’s Republic of China, because the latter cannot tolerate the fact that 3–5 directly compromise China’s ability to defend itself.
And like the United States, China’s international affairs too are dominated by a Power Elite. And they have their own checklist of core assumptions, that no domestic voice may dare to question without suffering swift retaliation:
- China experienced a century of humiliation — invasion, occupation, and dismemberment — at the hands of outsider Great Powers
- After suffering tens of millions of fatalities, no government of China can allow even the possibility of this happening again
- China is now a Great Power too, and deserves to be treated with respect
- Respect is defined by the correct people within the Communist Party, who retain the right to use violence if Respect is compromised
Writers in the United States routinely describe it today as a Democracy leading other Democracies against Authoritarian regimes, primarily Russia and China. They warn of “democracy in decline” and “creeping authoritarianism” while demanding that certain portions of supply chains deemed relevant to National Security are brought back “onshore.”
The irony is that from a purely behavioral point of view, the United States of America and People’s Republic of China have more in common than most people realize.
Fed a steady diet of anti-Eastern propaganda — the root of the despicable wave of anti-Asian violence in the United States right now — people in the “West” are taught to believe that they are somehow more rational, logical, and civilized than those in other parts of the world. Scholars, sadly, mimic this nationalist bias when constructing rankings of things like corruption and democracy. China is labeled “Authoritarian” while the United States is tagged “Democracy” because the category definitions were written expressly to make that the case.
No one wants to admit that the United States political system is dominated by an effective selectorate, where only the right people are supposed to have any chance of being elected. A substantial portion of the wrath —especially the repeated unproven allegations of being a Russian agent — directed by the Power Elite at the former 45th President was based on his having evaded the usual selectorate-controlled process.
On the Democratic side, it is considered normal to the functioning of American “democracy” that the party’s primary process is deeply undemocratic, allowing a few early-voting states to essentially decide the contest. Faced with the lingering threat of Bernie Sanders’ winding up with the nomination in 2020 and the coming disruptions of the Covid-19 Pandemic every centrist opponent to Biden dropped out and endorsed him before the vast majority of primary voters had a chance to weigh in.
China’s methods are more extreme, to be sure — I’m not arguing that the United States is the same as China, I’m arguing that neither is a democracy… or authoritarian. Internally, particularly at the local level, the Chinese system allows substantial freedoms with respect to political organization and dissent — so long as certain lines are not crossed. But China’s repression is selective and focused, striking ethnic minorities near the country’s frontiers precisely because China is controlled by a Power Elite just as America is and territorial issues are always priority #1.
But ultimately, it is just not helpful to define nations as democratic or authoritarian. What matters is how much power a nation has and the degree to which it is controlled and directed by a Power Elite.
The deep lie behind the Thucydides Trap is the idea that countries are monolithic entities where the leadership makes all the decisions. It is natural, according to the skewed view of “Western” thought that the rising one and declining one, even if this decline is only relative with both actually being better off in overall terms, are doomed to conflict.
But it is only Power Elites who even think that way — and that is why the Thucydides trap matters. Because they believe it, Chinese and American leaders are making it so.
It’s a stand alone complex, to borrow from Ghost in the Shell. A phenomena with no origin except collective belief one exists.
And the worst part is, because of the control the American and Chinese Power Elites have over their populations, their own power is enhanced the more fear of the other side grips the population.
Preventing a Second Pacific War requires making the general public aware of the terrible, utterly preventable tragedy now in the making as a result of this phantom. Most Great Wars in history are caused by Power Elites who misjudge their own capabilities and enter a fight that spirals out of control.
Even the Second World War, billed by the American Power Elite as a conflict of good versus evil, was never that simple. And frankly to consider it as one single war has always been a mistake in and of itself.
There were many conflicts underway at the same time in the 1930’s and 1940s, which were blended together only for the United States and British Empire, which had interests everywhere.
One of the very worst of all was between Japan and China. The Sino-Japanese wars ultimately killed tens of millions of people — as many as the Soviet-German war in Europe. It saw the use of chemical and biological weapons and atrocities beyond belief, and led directly to the outbreak of the war between Japan and the Allies, including the United States.
When Japan struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 — sparking a war my own grandfather fought from the belly gun turret of a B-24 bomber flying out of India (my grandmother was one of the first women Marines) — it had already been fighting China for the better part of a decade, occupying most of the coast and drawing the wrath of the American Power Elite.
For twenty years American planners had assumed there would be a war with Japan and built a powerful fleet of battleships in preparation for the showdown that would be required to protect the American-controlled Philippines from Japanese invasion. It didn’t go that way, but they prepared for it and assumed victory was inevitable. So as Japan’s war with China ground on and on, the United States invoked ever-harsher sanctions including, finally, a total ban on critical exports required by Japan’s war machine.
Japan attacked not only Pearl Harbor but British, Dutch, and Australian bases in Southeast Asia. France, recently defeated by Germany, had long possessed colonies in “Indochina” (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) — as the Dutch had controlled what became Indonesia — and Japan got those too. And Japanese planners did so for a simple reason: they thought it was the only way Japan could survive.
To beat the American sanctions and embargoes, Japan decided it was necessary to seize the American, British, Dutch, and French colonies across Southeast Asia in order to form a united economic bloc. The goal was independence from the threat of western intervention — Japan had narrowly avoided colonization and watched in horror as China had been dismembered in the 19th century. Japan’s Power Elite had decided that to avoid being eventually absorbed it had to strike out, seize a sustainable supply base, and use colonial hatreds of the West to create a ring of client states.
To avoid becoming a European colony, they decided, they must effectively become European. So they pursued their own colonies in Korea, Taiwan, and on and on, until they were finally defeated.
Before they did, they shocked the hell out of the entire world, shattering virtually every active military force operating in the Pacific in a matter of months. Most of America’s vaunted battleships were destroyed by aircraft flown from Japanese carriers. Britain sent two battleships into the South China Sea unescorted, both were broken and sunk by Japanese aircraft. The impregnable bastion of Singapore was taken in a blitz. MacArthur ran away from Corregidor in the Philippines, leaving his subordinate to surrender for him.
An utterly brutal conflict openly described as a race war in American and Japanese media ended in the first (and let’s hope only) use of atomic weapons in what today remains a controversial, and frankly unnecessary, move, given the strangulation of Japanese imports by the U.S. Navy. But that’s what a Power Elite does: takes action in its narrow interests, at the expense of all others involved.
China was in fact an ally of the United States during this conflict — many of the missions my Grandfather flew were in support of Chinese efforts to defend themselves against Japan’s attacks. The reason China holds a seat on the Security Council in the United Nations is its long victimization — and ultimate triumph — over Japan.
But times are changing — and China has recovered from its long Century of Humiliation. Though its ruling regime calls itself Communist, in truth China has been a hybrid system for 30 years — and this has been the secret to its success.
But the Chinese Communist Party now stands at a crossroads. It has delivered prosperity to a huge nation, bringing nearly a billion people out of poverty in my lifetime alone. And as a result, democratic pressures are bubbling up everywhere, scarcely contained by the censorship efforts of China’s government.
Countries do not simply reform and become democracies overnight — opposition to a ruling party builds and builds until there is no option but to create an opposition. In the long run, this is actually healthy for a country, but Power Elites rarely give up their privilege without a fight.
And in this unique age, where information is cheap and each side’s actions are almost entirely transparent to the other, Power Elites across the world are waking up to the fact that their positions are under existential threat. Democratic pressures are on the rise everywhere — that’s what populism is. Democracy in action. It goes wrong when it has no appropriate democratic outlet.
In China, this populism is being redirected by the Power Elite towards the goal of redressing China’s old grievances with colonial powers. In the United States, first the Republican and now the Democratic Parties are embracing the idea that China’s rise will produce a conflict if it is not “managed” by a United States acting in the defense of “Democracy.”
Debates about the Thucydides Trap are a distraction from the real issue — that the Trap itself is a tautology generated by people who materially benefit from it. It is part of a self-justifying belief system that lets American Power Elites — inheriting this from their British counterparts — act as if they have a right to pursue dangerous policies in pursuit of National Security.
Preventing a Second Pacific War relies first and foremost on widespread public rejection of the entire conflict mythology being built up around US-China relations by a Power Elite bent on a Second Cold War. In the United States, upwards of $3,000 per-person every year — more than 50% of all federal income tax revenues — goes into some portion of the overall “Defense” budget.
Most countries, including America’s allies, spend closer to $1,000, $1,500 at most. And most of America’s allies are not separated from potential enemies by vast oceans.
This money is not well spent, either. Virtually every major military production program over the past twenty years has been a failure or close to it. Most military campaigns have not gone well — Iraq was a disaster, and after twenty years in Afghanistan the Taliban is nearly as strong as it was when the United States first invaded. There is no oversight over the Pentagon, no real public discussion in the “land of the free” about how big the defense budget should be and what the United States ought to be doing in the world.
To push back against this widespread public education about military and defense affairs is essential. The truth is, the threat of a US-China war is as grave as climate change, but nobody is talking about it.
In fact, if a Second Cold War does set in, the fight against Climate Change is already lost. It will exacerbate every global conflict and prevent any meaningful action until it is far too late to keep the world from heating by 2 degrees C — already a difficult objective at this point.
Americans in particular need to be made aware of the fact that their military is less invincible than they think and that the assumptions American generals and admirals make about future wars are deeply, fundamentally flawed. They need to be taught how military operations work, what combat equipment does and its limitations — basically, why warfare is a dumb, dangerous, and counterproductive way to solve problems.
Second, the United States military posture in the Pacific must become less threatening to China.
Americans are trained from a young age to believe there are 2 sides, good and bad, us and them, and the good guys have a right to win. But that isn’t how the world works — teams are complex, and you can’t reduce everyone wearing the same uniform to the uniform.
And in foreign affairs, when you’ve got Power Elites willing to send young people to fight and die over points of pride or the simple fear of looking weak, that’s a recipe for catastrophe. Especially if like the United States, you insist on fighting wars right on your enemy’s doorstep.
It’s kind of funny that the basic war plans America’s Transatlantic Elite are developing to handle China are effectively re-treads of the plan largely discarded after Pearl Harbor. Then as now, the U.S. plan in case of an attack is to fight to hold the “First Island Chain” which is essentially the edge of the Chinese coast. Marines and Army detachments on barren rocks will fire missiles to delay and disrupt Chinese operations to land on Taiwan until the Navy and Air Force can arrive in sufficient numbers to take the fight to the Chinese mainland.
What is doubly ironic is that China’s leadership has spent twenty years developing the exact military capabilities required to make this a bloody, impossible task, but nobody seems to be calling the Pentagon on it. America’s military is supposed to be invincible everywhere, and if an opponent develops a dangerous capability like hypersonic missiles then by gum America will match them!
It is as if no one in senior leadership is aware of the fact that cheap satellites have made it impossible to move military equipment around undetected. Or that the United States has an extremely limited ability to defend its own bases against a direct attack by large numbers of cruise missiles or even drones. Or that China has submarines just like the United States does, and sinking even a single cargo ship in the right spot would send the global economy into disarray.
Worse, this forward posture has to generate a countervailing response by China’s leaders. The Communist Party has staked its entire existence on being able to defend China and safeguard its recovery from humiliation, shepherding it back into a position of global leadership. And though the Belt-and-Road initiatives are an attempt to reduce the reliance on ocean shipping lanes, it is a simple fact that for the foreseeable future China’s economy relies utterly on free movement of ships along its coast.
That’s how Chinese goods get to market. And how oil comes in. China’s geopolitical situation is similar to Japan’s — sticking military forces right off its coast is pointing a knife at a neighbor’s throat.
So in addition to Americans pushing back against the militarism of their own society, they’ve also got to begin demanding that the United States stop provoking China all the damn time. Sooner or later, this will backfire horribly, because when two powerful entities are in fundamental disagreement about territorial rights accidents can and will happen.
The time has come to begin multilateral arms reduction talks across the Pacific intended to reduce the American military presence in the region in exchange for renewed Chinese guarantees about the territorial integrity of its neighbors. Both China and the United States should agree to reduce their military expenditures and limit the number of large naval vessels either will field.
In exchange all parties will have to agree to maintaining the territorial status quo as it stands. Disputed areas will be patrolled by an international force that will watch over the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait to monitor Chinese activities and publish regular reports on their actions.
China will be required to avoid fielding the kind of military hardware that would make a quick conquest of Taiwan possible, while the United States will commit to supplying only the kinds of weapons Taiwan needs to secure its autonomy. In exchange, the United States will commit to an explicit no-first-use policy with respect to nuclear weapons and begin to shrink its own force — this can be contingent on reductions to Russia’s — with an emphasis on eliminating ICBM fields.
The simple fact of the matter is that an unbiased alien eye looking down on the state of affairs in the Pacific right now would have to conclude that one nation — China — is being threatened by a ring of military bases and alliances put together by a nation thousands of miles away — the United States. An evaluation of the history of the two nations would show not America’s commitment to freedom and democracy, but one self-described Superpower acting in fear of another emerging that might limit its freedom of action.
This is not a sustainable situation. It, in fact, threatens the lives of many millions of people around the globe.
Because if a conflict does break out, it will be by accident. And Power Elites on both sides, predisposed to mistrust one another, can so easily be locked into a mutually-destructive cycle of escalation.
And when nuclear weapons are involved, scenarios become possible that no one wants to live to see.
Now some hear talk of nuclear war and shrug, thinking that such a conflict would be so catastrophic the world would end — so why worry?
Another lamentable aspect of general public ignorance about military affairs is that the popular idea of nuclear war is badly separated from changes in the way those in charge of planning nuclear conflicts have come to view their job.
No longer does anyone plan to go blowing up cities, shattering every target on a long list until each side runs out of missiles. As fun as Fallout is to play, it is a representation of a kind of nuclear holocaust that became obsolete around the 1980s.
See, Power Elites love nuclear weapons — that’s why America, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and probably Israel have them. Nukes hold power in the public imagination beyond their true military use. For North Korea and Pakistan they function as promise of terrible vengeance in case of military defeat, but for Great Powers — those with global reach — they serve a different purpose.
Nuclear weapons are tools of blackmail first and foremost, but only because of what they can achieve in a limited strike. Mutually Assured Destruction was only a theory that the United States discarded as soon as planners in the 1980s realized that satellites made it possible to hit targets with incredible accuracy.
Nuclear powers like the United States, Russia, and China can be logically expected target their weapons primarily on purely military targets, especially the other sides’ own nuclear weapons. Counterforce targeting is the order of the day, with nuclear weapons use evolving steadily from something to be done as part of a battlefield conflict and more as a poignant message delivered to the other side.
In the event of a real nuclear exchange, cities won’t be wiped out — not intentionally, anyway. The priority targets for both sides arsenals will be Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silos (America’s are in the Midwest and Rocky mountains, China’s buried in mountain ranges) air bases hosting nuclear-capable bombers (only a few these days), and facilities supporting ballistic missile submarines.
A China-America exchange would almost certainly focus on the military bases each side uses to deploy forces into the Pacific. Nice thing about having an ocean separating two countries is that they have no reason to fear invasion by the other.
But despite this meaning most of the United States would be spared, the states of Hawai’i, Alaska, Washington, and possibly California plus the American Territories of Guam and the major bases in Japan, South Korea, and Australia would be smashed. Seattle, Anchorage, Honolulu, and possibly San Diego, Fresno, and Sacramento would see nearby detonations sufficient to force the evacuation of wide areas.
One can only imagine the knock-on effects of such a disaster: millions of people forced to flee, thousands dead from the attacks. Seattle is especially vulnerable — the United States’ main base for submarine-based nuclear missiles is located just west of the city.
So it is with disdain every single American should treat the Power Elite that so desperately wants to confront or “contain” China. They are actively risking the lives and welfare of tens of millions of Americans while putting the country into ever-deeper debt in order to secure the power of a privileged few.
A Second Pacific War is a terrifying possibility by the end of the 2020s. To repeat a worse rhyme of the first iteration, it’s time for America’s leaders to embrace humility and talk peace instead of war.
And let the Thucydides Myth go to its final resting place in the dustbin of history once and for all.