An American-Made Greek Tragedy: Coronavirus and the Thucydides Trap

 In China, COVID-19, FVEY, P5

The ongo­ing con­test with China is trans­form­ing America’s domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al poli­cies, rais­ing an alarm­ing corol­lary to Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap.” Drawing upon Thucydides, Allison wor­ries that the United States and China are headed toward war as a result of great power com­pe­ti­tion when a new power rises as an old power falls. The Thucydides Trap Corollary fol­lows from Allison’s obser­va­tion, but also accounts for the addi­tion­al damage that great power com­pe­ti­tion inflict­ed on Athens as both a democ­ra­cy and empire. The real ques­tion is not whether the United States can com­pete with China with­out resort­ing to war (the Thucydides Trap), but whether it can com­pete with China with­out becom­ing more impe­r­i­al abroad and less demo­c­ra­t­ic at home (the Thucydides Trap Corollary).

Thucydides’ rich account tran­scends the great power con­flict between Athens and Sparta. Each city-state led large alliance sys­tems, ensur­ing that the war affect­ed the entire Greek world. The Peloponnesian War was also a com­pe­ti­tion between two dif­fer­ent sys­tems of gov­ern­ment, democ­ra­cy and oli­garchy. Great power com­pe­ti­tion between the United States and China will par­al­lel the Peloponnesian War as a strug­gle between two global alliance sys­tems and their com­pet­ing sys­tems of gov­ern­ment.

Thucydides devot­ed as much of his inves­ti­ga­tion to the inter­nal polit­i­cal divi­sions plagu­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic Athens as he did the actual fight­ing between the two main adver­saries. Thucydides him­self was a victim of Athenian democ­ra­cy, exiled for his alleged fail­ures as a gen­er­al. He there­fore high­light­ed the weak­ness­es of a democ­ra­cy at war. Too many con­vul­sions — social, polit­i­cal, and even nat­ur­al (such as coro­n­avirus) — are cur­rent­ly shak­ing the United States. Accompanying these events are chal­lenges not only to American lead­er­ship in the world, but also to the demo­c­ra­t­ic model and global order impart­ed by the United States. Like Athens, the United States stands to lose its democ­ra­cy at home and influ­ence abroad as a result of long-term great power com­pe­ti­tion.

A History of Paradoxes

The American Republic is the prod­uct of Britain’s great power com­pe­ti­tion during the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763. Britain became more impe­r­i­al and author­i­tar­i­an towards the American colonies as a result of the war. The cas­cad­ing events led to the American Revolution. Following inde­pen­dence, the Founders, who were steeped in his­to­ry stretch­ing from Ancient Greece to con­tem­po­rary Britain, warned suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions of Americans to avoid for­eign entan­gle­ments, wars, and a stand­ing army as threats to lib­er­ty. At the same time, the early American repub­lic dis­played a trou­bling­ly sim­i­lar ten­den­cy to Athens.

Like Athens, which spread its ver­sion of “democ­ra­cy” across the Greek world, the young United States drew inspi­ra­tion from Thomas Jefferson’s descrip­tion of America as an “Empire of Liberty” that would spread across the world, ide­al­ly by exam­ple, but also by force if necessary. Subsequently, the United States extend­ed its reach across the North American con­ti­nent while also exert­ing its impe­r­i­al influ­ence across the Western Hemisphere first under the Monroe Doctrine and then under the Roosevelt Corollary. Through naval power, the United States first opened Japan and then enforced an “Open Door Policy” in China. The con­tem­po­rary great power com­pe­ti­tion between the United States and China is the para­dox­i­cal result of the abuse of China by great powers, includ­ing the United States, and the mod­ern­iza­tion of China that began with the Open Door Policy. In fact, China’s own “Open Door Policy” under Deng Xiaoping con­tributed to its rise as a great power com­peti­tor to the United States.

One of the excep­tions to Allison’s Thucydides Trap was the peace­ful great power com­pe­ti­tion between the United States and Great Britain in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. But this “com­pe­ti­tion” was really a han­dover of power and empire by the end of the Second World War and the begin­ning of the Cold War. The Cold War pro­vides a key link­age between the Peloponnesian War and the great power com­pe­ti­tion between the United States and China today. Mirroring both, the Cold War was a global strug­gle between the demo­c­ra­t­ic United States and com­mu­nist Soviet Union and their respec­tive alliances. Contrary to the common American per­cep­tion of the Cold War as a vic­to­ry for lib­er­ty, the United States became more impe­r­i­al abroad, as it used a heavy hand to compel allies, and more illib­er­al at home, as it expand­ed its nation­al secu­ri­ty state. Fortunately, the Soviet Union implod­ed before the United States could test the outer limits of the Thucydides Trap Corollary.

Sparta won the Peloponnesian War by beat­ing Athens at its own game. Sparta, a land power, built its own fleet and defeat­ed the Athenian navy, the source of Athenian power. Paradoxically, China seems to have learned lessons from the Cold War and Soviet col­lapse by “lib­er­al­iz­ing” its econ­o­my and legit­imiz­ing its for­eign policy with appeals to inter­na­tion­al law and insti­tu­tions. Meanwhile, the United States toys with more illib­er­al domes­tic poli­cies just as it adopts an increas­ing­ly dom­i­neer­ing approach to the alliances and inter­na­tion­al system it large­ly cre­at­ed and nur­tured. The United States is learn­ing the wrong lessons from his­to­ry.

Leadership and Legitimacy

Thucydides explained that Athens lost not only the power but also the legit­i­ma­cy to main­tain its empire. The United States is losing legit­i­ma­cy at home and around the world as a democ­ra­cy and an Empire of Liberty. Disinformation cam­paigns by adver­saries have encour­aged some observers to call for U.S. government intervention and regulation in the sources and types of infor­ma­tion avail­able to the public. Chinese eco­nom­ic espi­onage and manip­u­la­tion have also caused the United States to pivot towards protectionist and neo-mercantilist measures, a shift towards a sta­tist eco­nom­ic system and away from the free trade system the United States spent the last cen­tu­ry pro­mot­ing. As the rest of the world looks on, American democ­ra­cy — the Jeffersonian exam­ple under­gird­ing the Empire of Liberty — looks less demo­c­ra­t­ic, and even less appeal­ing as a system of gov­ern­ment to weath­er the inevitable domes­tic and for­eign crises of a great power.

The Empire of Liberty is also behav­ing more impe­ri­ous­ly just as China chal­lenges the United States as a global leader. The United States is adopting a bullying posture towards its allies like Athens did before it. Critically, the United States needs a durable alliance struc­ture if it hopes to con­tain Chinese expan­sion­ism and China’s own fledg­ling neo-impe­r­i­al projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. For its part, China is active­ly seek­ing to sup­plant American lead­er­ship by under­cut­ting American alliances and usurp­ing the American-inspired global order to por­tray itself as a legit­i­mate and rule-bound member of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty. Is the world better off with America or China at the helm? Reading Thucydides, the choice is not as obvi­ous as it may appear.

During the Peloponnesian War, Athens and Sparta each argued to domes­tic and “inter­na­tion­al” audi­ences that it was trying to defend itself and the rest of Greece from the threat posed by the other. Freedom is there­fore in the eye of the behold­er, and both the United States and China fre­quent­ly try to make the public case that the other is the real threat to free­dom. American domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al poli­cies amid the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic are strain­ing the U.S. posi­tion in this debate.

Coronavirus: Testing the Thucydides Trap Corollary

Thucydides explained that the dis­as­trous Sicilian Expedition was the prod­uct of dem­a­goguery and par­ti­san pol­i­tics, not sound pol­i­cy­mak­ing and strate­gic think­ing. Competition with China means the United States requires the patience and pru­dence to have inter­nal debates across a range of issues in order to form sound nation­al policy and strat­e­gy. Sadly, dem­a­gog­ic and par­ti­san speech­es have already dis­placed patient and pru­dent debate despite the very real threat China poses to American democ­ra­cy and global lead­er­ship.

Thucydides also warns that war can divide a democ­ra­cy rather than unite it. The so-called “Cold War con­sen­sus” in the United States during the 1950s col­lapsed during the 1960s due to per­ceived illib­er­al activ­i­ties at home and cor­re­spond­ing impe­r­i­al behav­ior abroad. The United States today appears inca­pable of form­ing coher­ent nation­al policy and strat­e­gy for long-term com­pe­ti­tion with China due to inter­nal divi­sions and oppo­si­tion pol­i­tics. Coronavirus has high­light­ed the prob­lem.

The fault for the coro­n­avirus ulti­mate­ly lies at China’s feet. This simple acknowl­edg­ment in no way sup­ports the con­spir­a­cy theory that China cre­at­ed the coro­n­avirus. Ironically, China has lev­eled that exact accu­sa­tion at the United States, lead­ing to a propaganda war of sorts between the two rivals. However, China mis­han­dled the unfold­ing pan­dem­ic at home, and then misled the world over a global crisis that was China’s ini­tial respon­si­bil­i­ty to manage and mit­i­gate. And yet, the United States became the target for both domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al blame and deri­sion due to the Thucydides Trap Corollary.

Domestic oppo­si­tion pol­i­tics have com­plete­ly over­shad­owed China’s orig­i­nal sin. Instead of under­scor­ing how coro­n­avirus illus­trates the chal­lenges of long-term com­pe­ti­tion with China, the dis­cus­sion in the United States has devolved into blame-shift­ing between the Republicans and Democrats over the coro­n­avirus response. In fact, a plague in Athens during the early years of the Peloponnesian War con­tributed to inter­nal divi­sions that weak­ened Athens over the long course of the war. Coronavirus has even fur­ther desta­bi­lized American domes­tic pol­i­tics and poli­cies. The United States has man­aged to turn coro­n­avirus — a chal­lenge orig­i­nat­ing from China — into anoth­er suc­cess­ful weapon in China’s ongo­ing efforts to sub­vert the legit­i­ma­cy of American democ­ra­cy. Undoubtedly, China has taken note.

National Interest source|articles

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