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Thucydides Trap: Destined for war




WELL before the war, the Singaporean diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani described how the “world has turned a corner” and why “the West has lost it” in trying to maintain its economic and political dominion by any means necessary and some means unnecessary.

Power is shifting under the feet of a young and fragile Euro-American Empire that will not lose power peacefully, hence the spirited desire to force another unipolar world that is without China and Russia as powers.

Taiwan and Ukraine are the chosen sites where the Euro-American establishment is prepared to militarily confront its threatening rivals. 

That “from AD1 to 1820, the two largest economies were always those of China and India” and that “only in that period did Europe take off followed by America” is little understood.

That the Euro-American Empire has not been the first and it will not be the last empire is little understood by the champions of the New World Order that will cling to a dangerous fantasy of their unipolar world that Francis Fukuyama much mistakenly declared as “the end of history and the last man” in 1989.

A world ruled by the West, led by the United States of America and its European allies, had arrived and was here to stay in the enchanting prophecy of Fukuyama.  Ensuing history, 9/11 amongst other catastrophic events, and the present war in Ukraine were to prove Fukuyama’s dream a horrific nightmare. 

Mahbubani predicts that the short-lived rise and power of the Euro-American Empire has “come to a natural end, and that is happening now.” It seems to be happening expensively if the costs in human life, to the climate and in big dollars are to be counted.

The expensive Euro-American investment in the war in Ukraine and the reduction of Ukraine to a burnt offering to be sacrificed arises from the fear of loss of power and desire to maintain economic, political, and military dominion in a fiercely contested world that can no longer be a dominion of one Empire.

While on the one hand we have a terrified Euro-American Empire fearing a humiliating return to oblivion and powerlessness, on the other hand we have the reality of an angry China and Russia, carrying the burden of many decades of geopolitical humiliation, and do not wish to remain there, but want to be part of the leadership of that New World Order whose price clearly appears to be much New World Disorder.

Why it is not obvious that the future world will be a world shared by empires and not dominated by a singular all-powerful empire may boggle and African mind that is looking at and judging world power from below, from the underside of history.

In its form and content, not only for Africa, but for the whole world this New World Disorder is too ghastly to ponder. Graham Allison pondered it in 2015 and came up with the alarming observation that “war between the US and China is more likely than recognised at the moment” because the two powerful countries have fallen into the Thucydides Trap.

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides described the trap when he narrated how war becomes next to impossible when a ruling power is confronted by a rival rising power that threatens it dominion.

Thucydides had witnessed how the growing power and prosperity of Athens threatened Sparta in ancient Greece driving the two powers to war. The political and historical climate between China and the US captures the charged political temperatures that punctuated the relations between an entitled and proud Sparta that was confronted with the growth and anger of a frightening Athens.

Allison, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School, has popularised  the phrase Thucydides Trap to explain the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a currently dominant one.

This is based on the famous quote from Thucydides: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

This usage has even spread to Chinese President Xi Jinping who said: “We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers …Our aim is to foster a new model of major country relations.”

However, those like Allison who talk about a Thucydides Trap only capture half the meaning of the History of The Peloponnesian War. The true trap is countries going into, and continuing, war clouded by passions like fear, hubris and honour.

For the US and China to escape the Thucydides Trap that is drawing both superpowers to war, “tremendous effort” is required of both parties and their allies.

The effort is mainly in mustering the emotional stamina to see and to know that the world is going to be a shared place where there must never be one centre of power. That political, economic and military diversity is natural, and the world must be a decolonial Pentecostal place where those of different identities, and competing interests, can share power and space, is the beginning of the political wisdom that can guarantee peace.

Xi seems to have read Allison’s warning about the Thucydides Trap that envelopes China and the US because on a visit to Seattle he was recorded as saying: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might make such traps for themselves.”

The world is sinking deeper into new disorder and violence because rival powers cannot resist the Thucydides Trap and keep repeating “strategic miscalculations” based on their will to power and desire for global dominion.

The problem with China, the Athens of our present case, that troubles the US as the Sparta of the moment is that, as Allison observes, “China wants to be China and accepted as such — not as an honorary member of the West.”

The problem with world powers, yesterday and today, seems to be that they cannot live with difference.

In fact, political, economic and cultural differences are quickly turned from competition to conflict, from opposition to total enmity. How to translate antagonism to agonism, and to move from being enemies to being respectful adversaries that can exist alongside each other in a conflictual, but shared world is a small lesson that seems to elude big powers whose ego-politics drives their geopolitics into a kind of militarised lunacy.

Observing from Africa, one can hazard the view that big powers might be small and slow learners, after all.  The death-drive of the superpowers is driven by the desire to force other countries, including other powers, to be “more like us” when they are formidably determined to be themselves.

To break out of the Thucydides Trap and avoid war, for instance, the US has to generate and sustain enough emotional stamina to live with the strong truth that China is a 5 000-year-old civilisation with close to 1.5 billion people and in its recent rise is only returning to glory and not coming from the blue sky.

And that the world has to be shared with China and other powers, and countries.

About the writer: Dr William Jethro Mpofu is a Zimbabwean-born researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in South Africa.