BEWARE THE THUCYDIDES TRAP
A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – June 2017
‘In times of war, only the dead can smile!’[i]
I would like to begin with an experience from the 2014 Kailash Mansarovar Yatra – my fellow yatris included many hindutva types, and one of the several strange conversations I was a participant to was with a group of Gujaratis trying to tell me that they (Gujaratis) were the bravest people in the country. I interrupted my laughter with a question – ‘how many regiments does the Indian Army have from Gujarat?’ – and mentioned that the so-called traitors in Kashmir have the J&K Light Infantry, the so called want-aways in Nagaland have the Naga Regiment, and that my time in India Today working with the Indian Army’s battle casualties from the 1999 Kargil Conflict took me across the country, including the Kashmir valley and the North East, but it did not take me to Gujarat[ii]. The reason for recounting this is not to suggest that Gujaratis rectify the situation by enlisting en masse – it is to point out the thinking that results when like-minded buffoons reinforce each other within narrow circles.
My worry is that policy makers at the country’s highest levels suffer from a similar affliction on strategic issues, and that this could lead to wars that nobody wants, wins or gains anything. Allow me to introduce the Thucydides Trap.
Thucydides was a Greek historian who chronicled the Peloponnesian Wars that were fought by Sparta and Athens more than 2,400 years ago (this 30-year war left both in ruins and Greece vulnerable to the Persians). He focused on the structural stress caused when a rising power (in this case, Athens) bumps up against an established one in an environment of a rapidly changing balance of power between the two, and suggested that the growing sense of entitlement of the former coupled with the determination to defend status quo of the latter combine to make war an inevitability.
Thucydides is in the news because of the term ‘The Thucydides Trap’ (I will use TT as an abbreviation henceforth in this note) conceptualized by the political scientist Graham Allison[iii] in a study of 16 cases of rising powers challenging established ones over the past 500 years, wherein he found that 12 of them led to war, and those that didn’t required large and painful adjustments in attitudes and actions by both the challenger and the challenged. He concluded that ‘when a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen.’
Allison goes on to apply the TT concept to today’s world; he sees the preeminent geo-strategic challenge as not Islamic militancy or economic nationalism, but the impact China’s ascendance will have on the US-led international order. Everyone knows the rise of China, but few realize its magnitude – so rapid that we have ‘not yet had the time to be astonished’. He says that war between the US and China is not only possible but also much more likely than currently recognized, that current underestimations and misapprehensions of the hazards inherent in the relationship contribute to the hazards, and that a risk associated with the TT is that business as usual can trigger conflict just as effectively as an unexpected extraordinary event.
It is certain that both Chinese and American strategists have read Allison’s paper – Xi Jinping even announced that ‘there is no such thing as the Thucydides trap’ during a 2015 visit to the US – and considerable effort has gone into debunking the analysis and reassuring the public that all is well. And yet, the US now has a leader with a narrow definition of American interests, China has begun aggressive expansion on the economic front (the Belts and Roads Initiative is a step towards a Chinese-led world) and bumping shoulders with its neighbours, and multiple possible flashpoints exist including the 38th parallel dividing the Koreas and the LoC in J&K.
Where would such a war leave India? History suggests that great wars are far less kind to the secondary powers (think Poland in WW2) than they are to the main protagonists, and the chances are that we will be roadkill unless we can somehow contrive to stay out of the conflict a la Switzerland in WW2. And this, in turn, will require shrewdness, strategic flexibility and pragmatism from our policy makers.
Do our current masters in Delhi have it in them? Or will the requirements of elections in UP or wherever drive our country’s strategic interests? And this is where I am somewhat pessimistic – indications are that a small group of not very well-educated people decide these things today, and they see a narrow self-interest in belligerence, actively believe their own PR, and suffer heavily from group-think. Given that these deficiencies have served them well on the domestic stage, we are likely to see more of the same on the international one – with egregious outcomes for the country.
I would have been sanguine had we been in a pre-nuclear era, wherein we could see war as ‘the continuation of politics by other means[iv]’ and a convenient way to cull the large numbers of useless young men at a time when there are no jobs and no futures for them (yes, most wars happen when there is a bump in the population of youth in participating countries). But nukes change the equation! And while there is the argument that nuclear wars’ characteristics of very high costs and no winners force even dumb-asses to see sense, the whole point of the term ‘trap’ in TT is to emphasize that the parties can also act incrementally and rationally towards war.
If there is a ray of hope for India staying out of a future Sino-American conflict, it would be the one institution in south Asia that has a keen sense of self-interest, all the pragmatism in the world, and plenty of experience in navigating geo-political pressures towards its own ends. You guessed it – the Pakistani Army! I just don’t see those guys being drawn into a fight for Chinese or anyone else’s (including, for that matter, their own country’s) interests unless there is something in it for them. And if they manage to stay out, our own masters would face the problem that James Bond films had in the aftermath of the cold war and the inability of Russia to play the convenient enemy, of shifting gears from ‘ooh – danger of World War 3’ to ‘ooh – danger of water crisis in Bolivia’. China the enemy will not pay an electoral dividend.
[i] This is from a Russian poetess named ‘Anna Akhmatova’.
[ii] The former UP CM Akhilesh Yadav recently asked ‘how many Gujarati martyrs?’, and an article by Aakar Patel (Reason Behind So Few Gujaratis in Army’, www.outlookindia.com of 13th May 2017) suggested that Nepal, which has half the population of Gujarat, had many more of its citizens in the Indian Army.
[iii] Allison, G; The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China Headed for War?; The Atlantic, 24 September 2015.
[iv] This was the great Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.