Is War with China Inevitable? Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

A plaster cast bust of Thucydides, currently in exposition of Zurab Tsereteli’s gallery in Moscow (part of Russian Academy of Arts). Credit: shakko – Wikipedia.

American foreign policy mavens have long had a fascination with Athens as the fount of Western civilization. As the heir of Athens and leader of the West, America is duty bound to defend the values of Western civilization against all enemies. However, it is a mistake to assume that defending the values of the West means exporting them to others. Talk of spreading democracy may be useful propaganda, but it is not the real basis of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

In 1992, when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense under George H. W. Bush, he created a strategy for American foreign policy at the end of the Cold War. With the help of Paul Wolfowitz, who was the Pentagon’s under secretary of policy, they created a document known as the Defense Planning Guidance. It was a classified document that was never provided to Congress. Its main goal was the “benevolent domination” of the globe, which would require massive military spending. George H. W. Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton that year, so Cheney and Wolfowitz were no longer running the Pentagon. However, they played a significant role in the second Bush administration eight years later, and their vision continues to shape American foreign policy regardless of the party in power.

The document amounts to extending the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 to every corner of the world. It means that the United States has a right to interfere in the internal affairs of any country on the planet but would regard interference by any regional power in its sphere of influence as a threat to American security. In other words, a regional power such as China cannot exert influence on the internal affairs of Taiwan or Hong Kong without threatening America’s global hegemony and igniting a military confrontation with the superpower. The radical character of this doctrine has set the United States on a war footing with every regional power around the world. It is a recipe for the endless wars we have witnessed for more than thirty years. Will China be next?

In Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, Graham Allison argues that the realistic view of power politics provided by Thucydides makes a war between China and the United States very likely, if not inevitable: “When a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one,” the situation is likely to trigger a war. Just as Thucydides thought the rise of Athens led Sparta to start the Peloponnesian War, so Allison thinks that the rise of China might push the United States to war with China.

Even though Allison’s suspicion that the United States is likely to start a war with China is consistent with Cheney’s foreign policy, the comparison of the United States with Sparta as the dominant power and China with Athens as the rising power does not ring true. Sparta was not the dominant power in all of Greece; she was the dominant power in her own area of Greece—the Peloponnese. What alarmed her was not the rise of Athens but the hubristic turn of Athenian ambitions. Like the United States, Athens was an ideological power that was busy toppling oligarchies and replacing them with democracies throughout Greece. Like the United States, she believed that her empire was totally benign and was simply advancing the frontiers of human civilization. Like the United States, Athens was oblivious to the flaws of democracy—such as vulnerability to demagogues and their lies.

It was clear to Sparta that Athens thought of herself as the only viable model of political organization and was therefore determined to make the very existence of other models of government impossible. This is what the United States is doing to China and why the latter is justifiably alarmed. China is like Sparta—autocratic, cautious, reserved, conservative, and afraid of change. Like Sparta, China is threatened by American meddling in the internal affairs of others. She knows that no communist regime is safe, just as Sparta feared that no oligarchic regime was safe, not even in the Peloponnese. Sparta had to defend her very existence as an oligarchy, just as China must defend her existence as a communist country.

Moreover, annihilating Athens was not the goal of Sparta’s decision to go to war. That is made clear by the events at the end of the war—events that are neglected in North American universities because they fly in the face of the absolute adoration of Socrates in the academy. Thucydides’s History breaks off just before the final defeat of Athens. Xenophon continues the history of the war in his Hellenica. With the help of Persian gold, Sparta built a navy and won the war, and Athens was forced to surrender unconditionally in 404 BCE. However, the Athenians were neither massacred nor enslaved but allowed to live in their city. The victorious Spartan general, Lysander, appointed a group of thirty to draft a constitution for the defeated city.

Xenophon leading his Ten Thousand through Persia to the Black Sea. Credit: John Steeple Davis – The Story of the Greatest Nations, from the Dawn of History to the Twentieth Century (published in 1900).

Instead, this group became the famous Thirty Tyrants, led by Critias and Charmides, two close associates of Socrates and relatives of Plato, who were responsible for the terror that followed. Like Socrates and Plato, Critias and Charmides were champions of Sparta—which is why Lysander accorded them prominent roles in the new Spartan backed government and why Plato included them as part of the Socratic entourage in his dialogues. However, the atrocities of these extremists were too much for Sparta to stomach. Unable to support such a ghastly puppet regime, Sparta allowed the Athenian democracy to be reestablished, and the tyrannical friends of Socrates were defeated. If Athens had been regarded as inherently evil, or if Sparta was determined to be the sole superpower of the Greek world, the restoration of democracy would never have been permitted. So the war was not meant to annihilate Athens but to restore a balance of power that was upset by Athenian hubris.

In contrast to the rise of Athens, the rise of China is not a threat to American security or prosperity; it is a threat to American global dominance. A foreign policy designed to secure global dominance is a classic case of hubris. As pagan authors from Aeschylus to Euripides, Herodotus, and Thucydides never tire of pointing out, hubris is a recipe for self-annihilation. This is what makes the defeat of Athens a cautionary tale for American foreign policy—but America is deaf to the perils of her hubris.

Allison’s book is instructive because it provides several historical examples where a ruling power avoids war and agrees to live with the rising power. America’s posture on the global stage has always been an echo of the Revelation of St. John in the last book of the Bible, where the forces of God and the forces of Satan are arrayed against each other in the great war of the world. The dominant American view from the dawn of the nation to the present is not to wait for God to save the world but for Americans to transform the world by defeating the forces of evil. I fear that the dualistic modes of thought, which are endemic to America’s monotheistic culture, make the peaceful rise of China unlikely.

American foreign policy mavens have long had a fascination with Athens as the fount of Western civilization. As the heir of Athens and leader of the West, America is duty bound to defend the values of Western civilization against all enemies. However, it is a mistake to assume that defending the values of the West …