The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.” This is the most famous line of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. Will a future historian one day write that the growth in the power of China, and the alarm this inspired in America, made war equally inevitable? Harvard’s Graham Allison fears the answer could be “yes”.
Since the election of Donald Trump as US president, the probability of a Sino-American conflict has soared. Last year Trump ran an aggressively anti-Chinese election campaign, repeatedly threatening to impose tariffs on Chinese imports. Trade is only one of several bones of contention. America remains committed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China’s island-building programme is designed to make that sea Chinese in fact as well as in name. Trump is less committed than any US president since Richard Nixon to the “One China” policy, which pretends that Taiwan is not an independent state.
But the biggest flashpoint is without question North Korea — which brings me back to Thucydides and Graham Allison’s Destined for War, this summer’s must-read book in both Washington and Beijing.
Thucydides was an Athenian general during the war between the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) and the Delian League (led by Athens), which lasted from 431 to 404BC. The reason his history of the war is still read today is that it pioneered the kind of explanation of past events historians still use. Gods didn’t cause the war. Men did.
If you read Thucydides, you see the crucial role played by smaller powers in leading the two big powers down the road to war. The initial clash was in fact between Athens and Corinth; war came when the Corinthians appealed to the Spartans for aid.
Small powers often cause big trouble: think of the role Serbia played in 1914, or Cuba in the Cold War. Today’s catalyst for conflict is North Korea, which successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile last week — a weapon with the capacity to hit Alaska. Experts such as my Stanford colleague Sig Hecker believe the North Koreans are just five years away from being able to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the end of such a missile.
That is a strategic game-changer. It is bad enough that the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang has acquired the capacity to nuke South Korea or Japan, both American allies. If it is just a few years away from being able to threaten San Francisco with obliteration, America surely must act. Even if you somehow have faith that Kim Jong-un wants nuclear missiles only for defensive purposes, he is destroying the non-proliferation regime that restricted the number of nuclear-armed powers during and after the Cold War. Fancy a world in which not only North Korea but also Iran and Saudi Arabia have nukes? I don’t.
Trump feels the same way. On June 30 he tweeted: “The era of strategic patience with the North Korea regime has failed. That patience is over.” But what to do? He has four options, three of which have already failed.
Option one is yet more jaw-jaw of the sort favoured by South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in. We have seen this movie before under Bill Clinton and George W Bush. The North Koreans can be relied upon not to be relied upon. The Agreed Framework signed in 1994 froze Pyongyang’s plutonium programme. Eight years later it was revealed that North Korea had secretly enriched uranium.
Option two is what President Barack Obama tried: sanctions, backed up with UN security council resolutions. Obama didn’t just fail to halt the North’s nuclear programme; he speeded it up.
Option three is the one Trump has been trying since his summit with President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago: press China to deal with the problem. If you follow Trump on Twitter, you will know how that has been going. On the day of the latest North Korean missile test he was still hoping that China would “put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” But on Wednesday he tweeted: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!”
Option four is military action. Conventional wisdom rules this out because any US strike would trigger the destruction of the South Korean capital, Seoul (population: 10m), by a hail of artillery shells and missiles and perhaps even a short-range nuke. As the US defence secretary, James Mattis, said in May: “A conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
Yet that did not mean (as many inferred) that Mattis would resign rather than fight such a war. On the contrary: the national security adviser, HR McMaster — like Mattis a highly experienced general — has made clear that the military option is on the table.
Does that mean the Trump administration is willing to see Seoul incinerated to stop Kim menacing Alaska? Again, no. With a naval build-up, America has the capacity to destroy such a large portion of North Korea’s arsenal so swiftly that damage to Seoul would be limited.
Is military action risky? That’s a stupid question. Military action is always risky, and Mattis is right to warn that a new Korean War would be highly destructive. The right question is whether or not the risk of inaction would be greater. Three presidents in succession decided that it would not be — and here we are. Is Donald Trump capable of breaking the sequence? I’d say so.
The biggest risk of a showdown with Pyongyang is not the proximate one (damage to Seoul). It is (as in 1950) the risk of Chinese intervention on the other side. That is what makes Graham Allison’s book so important. “China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war,” he writes. Yet in four out of Allison’s 16 historical case studies, the rising power and the incumbent power did not end up going to war — the most relevant being the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union.
If Allison is right to compare today’s missile crisis to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, then surely Trump has no option but to threaten to use force and bank on the other side’s blinking (with a little help from back-channel diplomacy).
Donald J Trump as John F Kennedy? Such a parallel is beyond the ken of the legions of Trump-haters. But the same people missed completely the Kennedy-style tone of Trump’s fine speech in defence of western civilisation in Warsaw on Thursday. The lesson of history is that not every great power falls into the Thucydides trap — but most journalists keep falling into the trap of underestimating Donald Trump.