Rising Powers Attack Established Ones

Not the other way around. Or, said another way, Thucydides (and Graham Allison) were wrong. At The Strait Times Arthur Waldron considers the embrace by the Chinese leadership and those who are impressed by them of the notion that war between an established power and a rising one is inevitable because the established power will be drawn to attack the rising one, casting themselves as the rising power (natch):

Prof Allison’s argument draws on one sentence of Thucydides’ text: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian Power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” This lapidary summing up of an entire argument is justly celebrated. It introduced to historiography the idea that wars might have “deep causes”, that resident powers are tragically fated to attack rising powers. It is brilliant and important, no question about that, but is it correct?

It doesn’t seem to be what happened in the Peloponnesian Wars and for every example of an established power attacking a rising one you’ll find three of “rising powers” attacking established ones but don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

What has really happened is that Prof Allison has caught China fever, not hard around Harvard, although he knows no Chinese language and little Chinese history.

As a result, he seems to have been impressed above all by Chinese numbers: population, army size, growth rate, steel production, et cetera. So if that sentence from Thucydides is correct, then China is clearly a rising power that will want its “place in the sun” – which will lead ineluctably to a collision between rising China (Athens) instigated by the presumably setting United States (Sparta), which will see military pre-emption as the only recourse to avert a loss of power and a Chinese-dominated world.

To escape this trap, Prof Allison demands that we find a way to give China what it wants and forget the lessons of so many previous wars. Many of his colleagues at Harvard also believe this to be true.

The greatest threat of war with China is the belief by the Chinese that war with the U. S. is inevitable.

Forget the fantasies, therefore, and look at the facts. In the decades ahead, China will have to solve immense problems simply to survive. Neither its politics nor its economy follows any rules that are known. The miracle – like the German Wirtschaftswunder and the vertical ascent of Japan – is already coming to an end. A military solution offers only worse problems.

My advice would be to skip Prof Allison and read instead the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and recall that two of its handful of principal authors were not European or American but rather Lebanese statesman Charles Malik and Chinese academic Chang Peng Chun, whose brother founded Nankai University in Tianjin.

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