With American aircraft carriers belatedly steaming towards North Korea, the peninsula has vaulted to the top of the world's consciousness. Is America about to stumble into another war, with potentially catastrophic consequences? Or are we about to get rolled by a Chinese leadership that knows we are bluffing?
Both are possible. But, paradoxically, the plausibility of both options may be precisely what keeps catastrophic war at bay.
Students of international affairs who take the long view have for some time been worried about the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. While in theory a cooperative relationship would be most beneficial to both parties, in practice dominant powers and rising challengers rarely are able to work out a fruitful accommodation. Instead, most often the two stumble into a conflict that devastates both countries' interests.
Graham Allison calls the underlying theory — detailed in his new book — the Thucydides Trap. So long as both powers rationally assume that the dominant power aims to maintain its supremacy, even accommodative policies will be interpreted as a way to get the rising power to settle for less than it might achieve by revisionist agitations. So if the dominant power is accommodative, the rising power will take advantage, provoking a reversal by the dominant power and a confrontation. But if the dominant power is confrontational and tries to encircle the rising power, it will provoke the rising power to break out — and in the meantime the dominant power will exhaust its resources more quickly than the rising power does, accelerating the power transition.
So how can war be avoided?
Allison's prescription is for robust communication along with a willingness on the part of the dominant power to think big in terms of how the international order will have to change to accommodate the rising power. Rather than try to prevent or limit the power transition, the dominant power has to facilitate it, get the rising power to understand that this is in fact the policy, and thereby forge a cooperative path through the transition that gives both powers an appropriate role to their new relative power position. I've argued in this space before that Korea would be a perfect place to try to achieve those twin goals.
The Obama administration's much-touted but never-completed "pivot" to Asia could be understood as an effort to preserve America's position within the context of partnership with China — or as an effort to contain China and maintain American supremacy. Strengthened alliances with countries like Australia and Vietnam were intended to discourage China from adventurism in its near-abroad, while the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to counter Chinese economic leadership in the region. On the other hand, the TPP did not explicitly exclude China, and it is plausible to think that its ultimate purpose was more to keep America in than to keep China out. Obama clearly saw a value in working with the Chinese rather than merely against them, but he also recognized that China intended to challenge America's interests in the western Pacific and aimed to counter it.
We'll never know whether the Obama strategy would have been a way out of the Thucydides Trap, or whether it would have led us right into it. We'll never know because President Trump has trashed the strategy entirely, pulling out of the TPP, musing about abandoning the one-China policy, threatening unilateral action in Korea, and calling for tariffs on Chinese manufacturers. His initial policy mix looked like it was premised on the assumption that war was inevitable, so we might as well make it happen on our terms.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the battlefield: The Chinese realized we were bluffing.
Our military options in Korea aren't really viable, and Trump has proved that he knows they aren't by his eagerness to get the Chinese to handle the problem — eagerness so overwhelming it has already led him to abandon a core campaign theme, confronting the Chinese on trade. Trump has already reaffirmed the one-China policy. And he has not only gratuitously insulted key allies, but demonstrated tactical incompetence in his communications about the mission of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. Watching Trump, America's Asian allies surely are questioning our reliability and basic competence, while the Chinese surely are far less worried that America will be able to restrain their rise even if we desire to do so.
Normally, this would provoke the rising power to be more confrontational. But if the Chinese really understand Trump, they'll see that they could get far more by picking his pocket than by mugging him. Trump is transparently eager for a deal — almost any deal. The Chinese could probably ask for the moon and the stars — or control of the South China Sea — in exchange for minor promises — to let their currency rise a bit (which has already happened), to build a few manufacturing plants in Ohio, to get North Korea to restrain itself for a few months. Why wouldn’t the Chinese try to get what they want at the table rather than taking the risk of a confrontation?
Of course, normally a political leader would pay a gruesome price for cutting a terrible deal with a key rival. If Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had rolled over for the Chinese, the Republican Party would go ballistic. But Donald Trump's brand is all about making America great again. His most vocal liberal critics, meanwhile, are more concerned that he's going to stumble into World War III than that he is going to be insufficiently firm in defending America's interests. While, as with Syria, they may support any military actions he does take, they are unlikely to provoke him into backing up his blustery threats with actual shows of force.
Paradoxically, Trump could achieve by sloth and incompetence what is very difficult for dominant powers to accept: a transition out of that dominant position. The most prominent example of a power transition completed without war is the case of Britain and the United States. Enemies in the early years of American independence and rivals for much of the 19th century, Britain came first to accept American supremacy in the Western Hemisphere and then, in the 20th century, convinced America to support her against another rising power — Germany.
America offered that aid because it was able to structure it in a manner that mortgaged Britain's future, removing her as a rival to American supremacy, while the defeat of Germany would prevent it from becoming a full-fledged rival to America as well. Britain lost its empire — but its supremacy was inherited by a rival with a similarly liberal vision of world order within which Britain could feel at home.
But through much of this process, the British had to delude themselves into believing that their actions were preserving Britain's position, whereas in fact they were surrendering it. The important choice they had was not how to preserve their supremacy, but which power to surrender it to. Surrendering to America was more in Britain's interest than surrendering to Germany — but they could only surrender to America if they could make themselves believe that they weren't surrendering at all.
Perhaps America and China are in a similar position. If the power transition is inevitable — which is a big if; there are certainly scholars who believe that China's relative power has peaked, and will never truly be able to rival America, while America still has room to grow demographically as well as economically — then America will inevitably have to cede primacy. But this is something dominant powers have a great deal of difficulty doing. We may only be able to do it if we can make ourselves believe that we've done nothing of the sort.
In the end, the key to avoiding the Thucydides Trap may be for the dominant power to delude itself into believing that surrender is victory.
Who could better achieve that goal than President Donald Trump?