When the USSR collapsed in the late 1980s, there was one superpower remaining, the USA. Not for long though. Fast forward to 2019 and there are now two superpowers, the USA and China. One is in decline and one is rising.
US ruling class think tanks are acutely aware of this. One of their most prominent advisers, Graham Allison has written a book (first published in 2017) about it called "Destined For War - Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?"
Allison is Director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an adviser to the Secretaries of Defense under Reagan, Clinton and Obama. So, his thinking is an insight into the USA ruling class dilemma of what they should do about the new superpower on the block, China.
Allison's book is intended to be a warning to his ruling class leaders, especially in the military and government, that the USA is on a "collision course for war - unless both parties take difficult and painful action to avert it". His big idea is phrased as "Thucydides's Trap".
Thucydides was a Greek historian who wrote about the rising power of the Athenian state and what he saw as an inevitable war with the existing most powerful state of Sparta two and a half millennia ago.
Thucydides explained that "...It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable."
Allison likened the current situation between China's claimed "peaceful rise" on the world political, military and economic stage and the USA 's desperation to remain the world's only superpower to Thucydides's Trap.
In 2015 Allison's "The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China Headed for War?", published by the Atlantic, was the subject of discussion between Xi Jinping and US President Obama. Obama said "The two countries are capable of managing their disagreements". While Xi Jinping said "Should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves."
Allison in his book argues that an analysis of history over the last 500 years shows that in sixteen cases a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power and in twelve of those the outcome was war. In the most recent 20th Century, there were the two World Wars between imperialist powers but Allison points out, the seeming inevitability of a (nuclear) war between the rising superpower the USSR and the established superpower the USA did not eventuate. Allison points out the obvious: that under Trump, the degree of rivalry on a global scale between the USA and China has significantly increased both economically and militarily, leading him to the conclusion that "if leaders in Beijing and Washington keep doing what they have done for the past decade, the US and China will almost certainly wind up at war."
Allison's book provides evidence that China is being successful in maneuvering the USA economically into an unfavorable position from which escape is becoming impossible. China's foreign policy through economics has positioned it as the largest trading partner of 130 countries and 15% of ASEAN's current trade compared with the USA accounting for only 9%. On top of this there is China's One Belt One Road linking it to 65 countries and the equivalent to 12 Marshall Plans according to IMF economist Stephen Jen.
Allison is acutely aware that it is the underlying economic forces and economic expansion goals that drive world powers to war in the age of what he like many other capitalist commentators call "globalization". He sees China as in front of the USA on the economic front and gives the following scenarios for USA leaders to consider:
1. Clarify vital interests
"In a struggle as epic as the one between China and the United States, American leaders must distinguish the vital from the vivid."
2. Understand what China is trying to do
"China and the US would be better served not by passive-aggressive "should diplomacy' (calling on the other to exhibit better behavior) or by noble sounding rhetoric about geopolitical norms, but by un-apologetically pursuing their national interests. In higher stake relationships, predictability and stability - not friendship - matter most. The US should stop playing 'let's pretend'"
3. Do Strategy
"In today's Washington, strategic thinking is marginalized or even mocked....this cannot be sustained when the underlying economic balance of power has tilted so dramatically in China's favor."
4. Make Domestic Challenge Central
"If the leaders in each society (USA and China) grasped the seriousness of the problems it faced on the home front and gave them the priority they deserved, officials would discover that devising a way to 'share the twenty first century in Asia' was not the most serious challenge"
Allison seems genuinely concerned about the growing likelihood of a major war between the declining US empire and the rising China. His hope for an avoidance of such a war is that both leaderships of the two world powers, but particularly the US rulers, refocus on domestic issues and restrain their global power reach. He does not see the power of people's struggle against the threat of war as having any influence on the question of whether the two world powers are "destined for war".
History also tells us that it is people's struggle and collective power that can prevent war and defeat imperialist aggressors.
This lesson of history is arguably more important than the lesson of the Thucydides's Trap.