Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2018.10.03

Thucydides's fallacy, not a trap

the japan times on September 26, 2018

Last week I recklessly tested my physical stamina by visiting Washington, Seattle and San Francisco only for three nights/five days. At the U.S. capital, I was a panelist in a discussion titled "The policy priorities after the fall elections in Japan and the United States" co-organized by the Canon Institute for Global Studies and the Stimson Center.

In the Emerald City, on the next day, I was invited to speak at the annual meeting of National Association of Japan-America Societies on "Security in East Asia: A Regional Perspective." And finally, in the Golden Gate City, I was lucky to be able to briefly babysit my 1-year-old granddaughter, a U.S. citizen.

Wherever I went, people talked about the trade war between the U.S. and China. In my presentation, I always stated that "there may be neither exits nor points of compromise in this trade war, because this is not a simple economic issue but is rather another aspect of the 'strategic and geopolitical rivalry' between the two major powers."

In private conversations, some even asked me, to my surprise, whether I believe in the Thucydides Trap, a theory proposed by Graham Allison, who hypothesized as early as in 2015 that war between a rising power and an established power is inevitable because "in 12 of 16 past cases the result has been bloodshed."

Although Thucydides wrote on the Peloponnesian War that "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable," history never repeats itself. Allison was wrong in using the metaphor of Thucydides for the inevitability of war, since Athens just wanted to deter Sparta, which didn't want war.

Having said that, I do not underestimate the value of Allison's 2017 book, "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?" It told us in Tokyo that the traditional American foreign policy/national security establishment finally started seriously worrying about and even fearing the rise of China.

The real question is not whether China poses a strategic threat to the United States, but whether Washington has a consistent and realistic strategy to deal with Beijing, a longer-term, slyer competitor, given the "whims of an impulsive, ill-informed and undisciplined president," as Bob Woodward wrote in his new book, "Fear."

I was fortunate that I could purchase the last copy of "Fear" in a bookstore at Reagan National Airport. Having browsed the text on my way to Seattle and San Francisco, I found hardly anything new about how the Trump administration has been malfunctioning for the past year and a half.

What I was really interested in was the priority and the making of important foreign/national security policies inside the Trump White House. Among the world's regions, which were the top Trump administration officials most interested in and focusing on and how? My findings were very scary.

What is written in the book is more than shocking to me because it shows that there seems to be no coherent or consistent decision-making process inside the Trump administration. It is very likely that, in President Donald Trump's head, no foreign policy issues have been processed in a professionally prioritized manner.

As a former Arabic language officer of Japan's Foreign Ministry, I was particularly interested in China and the Middle East. The following is what I found in Woodward's book about the making of the Middle East and China policies as well as the hints of policy priorities inside the Trump administration.

1. Jared Kushner took the lead in the Middle East policy.

The administration has reversed the Obama administration's policy of being critical on Israel and softer on Iran to tilting toward the new reality of Israel-Saudi Arabia axis and getting tougher on Iran. Then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster was furious when Kushner took the lead in making Riyadh the site of the new president's first foreign visit.

2. Stephen Bannon was more concerned about China.

Woodward wrote that "Bannon was appalled by the National Security Strategy" whose Middle East policy was to "preserve a favorable regional balance of power" which means doing little to contain Iranian expansion and hegemony. Bannon, however, believed that "China was the real enemy, Russia was not the problem."

3. James Mattis was more concerned about Iran.

According to the book, U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis was "worried about the effects of the Obama administration's failure to deter Iran." Bannon "considered Mattis too liberal on social policies and a globalist at heart," and once told Mattis "You guys haven't thought about the Pacific and China at all. You are so tied to CentCom."

The above are just a few examples. Bannon left the White House in August 2017. Mattis is still secretary of defense but who knows how long he will stay in the Pentagon. "Jarvanka" Kushner (Ivanka and Jared Kushner) are still with and closest to the president. Officials may come and go but the administration is still in chaos and disciplines have not been fully established.

The real danger now is that there seems to be no coherent and prioritized national security strategy inside the Trump White House. If such a situation continues, the United States may not be able to properly respond to and deal with the next crisis in which China or any other rising powers may be involved.

This is not a crisis caused by the Thucydides' Trap. Rather, it is a crisis either by the "Chamberlain's trap," which led to the disastrous Munich Agreement and eventually to World War II, or by the "power vacuum trap," in which an established power gives a rising power an easy chance to fill the vacuum and dominate the theater.

Either way, the established power will lose the game after fighting unnecessary wars or even without fighting. This is the real danger for an established power facing a rising power. To avoid these traps, all you need is a coherent and professional strategy under a non-impulsive, well-informed and disciplined president.