Thucydides Trap or Tug-of-War?

After Stalin, Churchill and Truman ratified what amounted to a spheres-of-influence deal at Potsdam in 1945, George Orwell was seized with a sense of inevitability about perpetual war between the world’s rival blocs—especially after the testing of atomic weapons. Orwell had already been influenced by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which appeared in 1941 and posited the development of a world in which three superstates carved up the globe between them. And so Orwell, a keen witness to the homogenizing rigidity of both European colonialism and Soviet communism, depicted all three of the megacontinental superstates in 1984—Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia—as totalitarian regimes.

There is a stunning prescience to the map corresponding to 1984. If we correct for continental Europe not having been conquered by the Soviet Union and cede it to Oceania (America), it accurately depicts the three-pillared Western constellation of North America, South America and the European Union (with London and New York as twin regional capitals). Meanwhile, Russia (Eurasia) retains sway over the “Mongolic” mass of northern Eurasia, while “death-worshipping” Eastasia (China) expands and subsumes Japan, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Orwell’s tableau conforms comfortably to the world neorealists take for granted. It is a multipolar world of perpetual stalemate, with no single power—or even alliance of two against the third—able to dominate the planet.

 And yet there are profound differences between Orwell’s model of great-power interaction and neorealist theory. In a perverse twist, one Orwell never could have imagined at the time of his death in 1950, the superstates’ primary mode of interaction is not the quest to conquer each other’s territory but the pursuit of access to each other’s resources and markets. North America, Europe and China are each other’s largest trade partners and foreign investors. Two of America’s largest companies, Apple and Walmart, have stationed most of their supply chains in China. European trade with Asia now exceeds its trade with America, and the two ends of Eurasia are embarking on a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure program to build a seamless continental commercial zone. Indeed, the geoeconomic gravity of trans-Eurasian ties may even be pulling apart Orwell’s Western alliance of Oceania, as Europe shifts its orientation away from the United States and towards Eurasian opportunities.

In the most fundamental ways, today’s geopolitics would be unrecognizable to Orwell: Superpowers are not waging war but a tug-of-war. Tug-of-war is mankind’s oldest team sport. Ancient stone etchings found in Egypt, Greece and China depict resplendent royal ceremonies, in which the soldiers of great armies engaged in tug-of-war to build strength in preparation for combat. In the eighth century, the Tang Dynasty emperor Xuanzong was known to pit over five hundred warriors on each side of a rope over 150 meters long. In the early twentieth century, tug-of-war was officially included in five successive Summer Olympics. And yet tug-of-war is the world’s most brutal non-contact sport. In thousands of years, almost no one has ever died in tug-of-war. It is an apt metaphor for our times.

Indeed, war among states has declined while tensions over trade and supply chains are rising. Unlike traditional war, tug-of-war is waged not over territory but over flows—of resources, money, goods and technology. These flows are like the rope in tug-of-war: a medium of competition and connectivity. The global tug-of-war is about pulling the world’s value chains toward oneself, to be the largest producer of resources and goods and gain the maximum profit from transactions. Each power wants to build the most complex yet autarkic economy, wealthy and free of excessive dependence on foreign capital or technology.

Tug-of-war represents the shift from a war between systems (capitalism versus communism) to a war within one collective supply chain system. Whereas traditional wars are finite in duration and scope, the ongoing supply chain tug-of-war is without end. In the absence of major conflict between great powers, tug-of-war is war. Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” should be revised: War is the continuation of tug-of-war by other means. And though war among major powers has the appearance of historical cyclicity, it is by no means foreordained. More than any previous era of globalization, today’s major powers are keenly aware that in tug-of-war, if the rope snaps, both teams stumble and fall; nobody wins.

Today, however, a different analogy to ancient times has gained currency in international discourse, namely the “Thucydides Trap,” popularized by legendary Harvard professor Graham T. Allison in his new book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? History is replete with examples of great-power conflict breaking out in a manner evoking Thucydides’s warnings about the overpowering nature of fear, honor and self-interest in dictating state behavior.

The national-security and broader intellectual community, however, is so focused on the inevitability of wars that have not in fact occurred that we ignore—and lose—the tug-of-war playing out on a daily basis. This unsophisticated fatalism stems from a variety of interrelated factors: a bias towards pessimistic thinking as a false proxy for serious analysis, the conflation of military-led strategy with strategy as a whole, and a lack of economic and technological knowledge that inhibits a thorough understanding of complex global dynamics. Ironically, it is these intellectual weaknesses that make the Thucydides Trap such a worrying scenario.

If today’s world would be unrecognizable to Orwell, the same goes in spades for Thucydides. The most notable difference between the traditional logic of interstate rivalry and today’s tug-of-war geopolitics is that in the latter, the notion of discrete geographic blocs becomes untenably twisted, displaced by the physical glue of infrastructures and the institutional glue of treaties. Unlike the Cold War, in which the United States and Soviet Union had insignificant economic ties, today interest groups across rival powers converge as their supply chains blend together. This is the process that has so rapidly advanced across the world’s three largest economic zones: America, Europe and Asia.

Since the end of World War II, the transatlantic free-trade area has become the densest axis of world trade, with economic bonds reinforcing the Western security alliance. But U.S. and European attitudes towards Asia differ markedly. America has been at best schizophrenic, with its multinational companies and free-trade advocates (including the Obama administration) pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to liberalize Asian markets, an effort that was promptly killed by President Trump in the name of protecting workers whose jobs may have continued to be outsourced to Asia.

The anti-TPP logic is specious, given how an estimated forty million American jobs depend on exports, as does the bottom line of most of America’s Fortune 500 companies, with Asia in general and China in particular being the most significant and fastest growing destination. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine the United States meeting its goal of doubling exports or genuinely opening China’s markets without TPP-like arrangements that pressure member states to reduce subsidies for state-owned enterprises. Historically, it is foreign investment and commercial engagement that open and reform economies, not tough talk and trade wars. This is why TPP would have been an important pillar of an American grand strategy for Asia.

With TPP no longer in the cards, even America’s allies have wasted little time in moving forward with engaging China in greater trade liberalization. In March, all Western hemispheric and Asian TPP negotiating partners came together in Santiago, Chile, to plot the future course of the trade zone in a “TPP minus one” framework—without the United States—while China attended as an observer. Most ironically, the same TPP arrangement once advanced by Washington as a tool for isolating China now has China as a potential member, with America sitting on the sidelines. Even Canada is now pushing for a free-trade agreement with China.

This episode is instructive, for it reveals the new reality of multi-alignment—states not wanting to choose sides between great powers. Countries seek supply-chain complementarities rather than ideological blocks. Indeed, all Asian TPP-accession countries have also been participating in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific negotiations, of which China sits at the center. Both are now moving forward with greater momentum in light of America’s failure to push TPP. This even includes America’s closest regional allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.

An equal, if not more significant, drift caused by tug-of-war dynamics is Europe’s deepening convergence with Asia. By the conventional logic of cultural alliances, it would appear that the larger China’s and Asia’s economies grow—and grow together—the more the United States and the EU must join forces to maintain leverage. But America’s anxieties about China are not shared uniformly within Oceania, as evidenced by the deepening connectivity between Europe and China across Eurasia’s Ural Mountain divide. Unlike America, Europe doesn’t view China as a security threat. Instead, Britain, France and Germany are China’s leading source of advanced defense technologies. In the reverse direction, Europe is the main beneficiary of China’s surging overseas asset binges into everything from real estate to clean energy. EU-China trade will soon surpass EU-U.S. trade in volume, while Europe’s trade with Asia as a whole already exceeds transatlantic trade. Bottom line: connectivity across Eurasia now competes with culture across the Atlantic.

No wonder, then, that the United States so badly botched Europe’s response to the launch of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014. At the time, the Obama administration went to great lengths to cajole European allies not to join this new multilateral organization it saw as competing with the World Bank. But given that European foreign policy is constructed largely along commercial priorities rather than military ones, and Europe is home to half the world’s top engineering contractor firms that stand to reap massive gains from participating in projects related to the so-called “One Belt, One Road” initiative across Eurasia, it is hardly surprising that Europe ignored Obama’s overtures and enthusiastically curried favor with China. Rarely has so little thought gone into understanding allies’ motivations. There is little doubt that in the coming decade, trans-Eurasian trade will easily double transatlantic volumes, a scenario not lost on German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has little patience for the U.S. Treasury’s call for Germany to reign in its surpluses when Asia is hungrily absorbing them. As she bluntly stated in a January 2017 speech, America has no “eternal guarantee” of cooperation with the EU.

All of this should be sufficient evidence of how drastically geopolitical dynamics have shifted. In a landscape where major powers are so thoroughly intertwined through global networks, the nature of geopolitics is evolving from war over territory to a contest for the maximum value added from connectivity.

Whereas warfare may involve a limited segment of the population and resources, tug-of-war is a truly national enterprise for most of the population, even if they don’t realize it. Very few societies are at war today, but all societies are caught in the global tug-of-war. Britain’s elite Royal Military Academy Sandhurst publishes a manual of strategies for success in tug-of-war, pointing out that a good team “synchronizes its movements to the point that their pull feels like it comes from a single, unified being.” Does America act like this? Do Washington politicians, Wall Street bankers, Texas oil companies and the other players on America’s team act like a single, unified being whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts? Or does China do it better? Smart teams dig in their heels to hold ground and tire out opponents, while collectively taking small steps to ultimately gain control of the rope. At the same time, evolving conditions in technologies and markets constantly shift the playing field. That is why tug-of-war is a marathon without a finish line.

And yet a tug-of-war world is far preferable to repetitive cycles of major-power conflict with increasingly lethal technologies and far higher demographic and economic stakes than previous eras. As the University of Virginia political scientist Dale Copeland has demonstrated, interdependence forestalls conflict if leaders expect its benefits to continue—if they learn the benefits of fighting tug-of-war instead of the real thing.

In the 1990s, as the dust settled on the Cold War, Pentagon strategists were already worried about World War III. Geopolitical history suggested that it would take place in the region of most rapidly concentrating power (Asia) between a declining hegemon (America) and a rising power (China). The answer to what they would fight over was unanimous: Taiwan. Yet fast-forward twenty-five years and almost nobody believes World War III will take place over Taiwan. What happened to defuse what once seemed inevitable?

Deterrence, of course, plays an important role. After four decades of American arms sales and security guarantees, Taiwan’s military has become a formidable force, even as China’s huge investments in modernizing the People’s Liberation Army give it the ultimate advantage. At the same time, relations between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China have evolved from the dogma of “no contact, no compromise, no negotiation” to something that resembles “one China, two interpretations.” There are more than three hundred weekly flights between Taiwan and the mainland, many carrying the droves of Taiwanese who are moving across the Strait to capitalize on higher growth. China has even proposed the construction of a 120-kilometer tunnel across the Taiwan Strait from Fujian Province. China is by far the largest destination for Taiwanese exports, earning the island a trade surplus of over $100 billion per year. Eighty percent of Taiwan’s foreign investment goes to China as well; think of Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that makes (in China) most of the world’s iPhones and iPads. The supply chain on which Taiwan—and American consumers—depend is very much a Chinese supply chain as well.

Even though former president and Kuomintang leader Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese president Xi Jinping held a historic meeting in 2015—the first between the leaders of both sides since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949—there are plausible scenarios whereby the gradual rapprochement toward peaceful reunification stalls or even reverses. The nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which now leads the government under Tsai Ing-wen, could push for its platform of Taiwan becoming the country’s official name instead of the confusing “Republic of China” and assert greater sovereignty in island disputes. Then there is Foxconn, whose chairman, Terry Gou, wants to relocate his factories—and install docile robots instead of restless humans—to Indonesia to save on costs. If Taiwanese businesses begin to unlink their supply chains in China while the DPP asserts independence, reunification will seem far from inevitable. None of this means that war will ensue, but it guarantees that the tug-of-war will continue.

In every other case of severe military escalation over the past two decades, not only have leaders similarly stood down from the brink, but, as with China and Taiwan, the underlying dynamic of steady integration has advanced as well.

Since their simultaneous independence in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three major wars, built substantial nuclear arsenals and continue to dispute the status of Kashmir. But in recent years, they have opened their borders to more regular commerce in textiles, pharmaceuticals and other goods. They have eased visa restrictions for each other’s citizens, approved more direct airline routes, considered granting each other most-favored-nation trading status and discussed extending an Iranian natural-gas pipeline through Pakistan to India.

India and China also fought a major war in 1962 along their still-disputed border. India is home to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan exile community, whom China considers dangerous separatists. And yet trade between China and India has skyrocketed to over $100 billion per year and climbing. During his state visit in 2014, Xi Jinping signed $3.5 billion worth of investment deals, including the construction of a new industrial park in Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat. During a reciprocal visit to China in 2015, $22 billion worth of new deals were inked covering energy, logistics, entertainment and other areas—and, crucially, the installation of a hotline linking military commanders.

Strategic discourse on South Asia over the past several decades has focused on simple geometric assertions such as the “strategic triangle” of India, Pakistan and China, with the latter two teaming up to contain the former, while India gradually joins forces in a “global NATO” with the United States, Japan and Australia to encircle China. This is the kind of antiquated stratagem that sounds deep and grave, but reveals an almost cultivated unwillingness to appreciate more complex realities.

If any single historical row has replaced Taiwan in terms of geopolitical fatalism, it is China and Japan’s dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, a string of uninhabited rocks equidistant from Japan, China and Taiwan—the latter two in agreement that the islands belong to Taiwan, while Japan traces its claim to victory in the 1894–95 Sino-Japanese War. When China and Japan agreed to normalize relations in 1945, it was agreed that the islands would not be militarized and the dispute would be put off for future generations. With the discovery of large potential oil reserves under the islands, the dispute has heated up dramatically: coast-guard and naval warships jostle in overlapping zones of declared control, and fighter jets scramble to patrol and escort commercial planes crossing the skies above. The slightest miscalculation is an invitation to war. In 2014, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, made major speeches around the world to rally attention to China’s aggression, and in 2015 the Japanese parliament lifted the long-standing ban on overseas military operations. But whether Chinese actions or Japanese nationalism is to blame for the current bout of antagonism, the constant references to history show that they have learned something from it: deterrence massively raises the stakes of conflict, and the economic incentives align more with the status quo and integration than with escalation.

Indeed, while daily newspapers report about China impounding Japanese cargo ships and demanding war reparations, street protests and boycotts of Japanese carmakers, Japanese coast-guard ships ramming a Chinese fishing trawler and imprisoning its skipper, and China banning the export of rare-earth minerals to Japan, there are also the delegations of Japanese executives given red-carpet treatment by China’s commerce minister and vice premier, a huge rebound in sales of Japanese cars in China (Toyota sold a record number of cars in China in 2015) and over $340 billion in annual trade. Japan needs China’s market, and China needs Japan’s technology.

The fact that Asian political institutions remain immature leaves American military preponderance and regional commercial integration as the main brakes on escalation. Ideally, the U.S. military presence in Asia can serve to maintain a strategic balance in the Pacific, such that diplomatic bodies can rise to the occasion, as they did in postwar Europe when America’s security umbrella enabled political integration to advance. The French foreign minister Robert Schuman wisely foresaw that once the French and German commodities markets were integrated through the European Coal and Steel Community, the two countries would jointly own a merged supply chain and could never fight again. To some degree, this is clearly what is happening as Asian supply chains integrate across numerous sectors.

And yet American analysts and media constantly jostle for attention when it comes to shrill proclamations that war is afoot, echoing the drumbeats of nationalist leaders’ posturing from Iran to North Korea. But within days or weeks, when the situation has returned to idle, no public explanation is given, nor media attention devoted, to explaining why calm has been restored.

The commonsense truth is that while leaders talk about “red lines” for public consumption, and navies come dangerously close to trading direct fire, the stock markets churn forward, knowing that there are two kinds of mutually assured destruction at play: military and economic. Military maneuvers don’t tell us enough about what drives leverage among great powers nor what they are willing to fight over. The tangled complexities of today’s system force leaders to think beyond borders and make functional calculations about the cost-benefit utility of their strategies—knowing full well that supply-chain warfare involves not just an enemy “over there” but also one’s own deep interests “over there.”

Can we forever transmute war into tug-of-war? Each day we wake expecting to hear that Israel has attacked Iran, Russia has annexed another former Soviet republic or North Korea has launched an invasion of the South. World War III should have broken out ten times over by now, yet not one of these major geopolitical tensions has erupted. Even in today’s hot spots, tug-of-war dynamics are more revealing than resorting to Thucydides Trap warnings. Four decades of U.S.-Iran hostility have culminated neither in direct military confrontation nor successful isolation, but rather in a multidirectional tug-of-war over access to Iran’s markets, with Europe and China in the early lead as America fights with one hand tied behind its back in a futile attempt to maintain comprehensive sanctions. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also failed to escalate past the point of no return. Rather, Europeans have found plenty of ways around sanctions and, despite the Trump administration’s curious shift in treatment of Russia from campaign to White House, there is an inevitable sense that Russia’s seizure of Crimea will gradually attain de facto acceptance and Euro-Russian relations will normalize. And for all the bluster by Trump about the end of “strategic patience” with North Korea, neither the United States nor China will risk World War III or uncontrollable chaos on the Korean Peninsula. What Russia, Iran and North Korea have in common is that they are scarcely connected to the formal global economy. Russia only joined the WTO in 2012. Is the solution to rebellious countries on the fringes of the global system military punishment or greater integration?

Waiting for World War III thus reminds us of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which Vladimir and Estragon resolve to hang themselves if Godot does not arrive—so they simply sit endlessly. Their would-be savior, Godot, of course never comes, but the protagonists never actually commit suicide either.

It is easy to detect where the conditions for conflict are ripe and proclaim that war is at hand. While it is no doubt unwise to argue that World War III is a passé risk, in our haste to make analogies between today’s global dynamics and European conflicts of a century ago, most observers have missed the enormous differences. European nations traded heavily across each other prior to World War I, but they did so as vertically integrated mercantile empires exploiting raw materials from their own vast colonies. They traded in finished goods and didn’t outsource production to each other; we did not have today’s international manufacturing networks in 1895. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought trade interdependence; in the twenty-first century, we have complex supply-chain dispersal as well.

The growing depth of global cross-border trade and investment makes tug-of-war much more complex than in previous geopolitical eras. In numerous sectors, such as automobiles and electronics, the import quantity of exports hovers near 50 percent, meaning much of what we sell to each other is made from things we’ve bought from each other. Under a Cold War geopolitical paradigm, rivals wouldn’t invest in each other either; the United States and the Soviet Union certainly didn’t. But today’s robust flows of global investment among friends and enemies further highlight how we have shifted from a Westphalian world to a supply-chain world. The world’s leading powers have become financially integrated, with investment linkages as important as trade relations. This comes in the form of both the trillions of dollars of assets invested in each other’s currencies and equities and the tangible, productive capital—factories, real estate, banks, agriculture—they have bought and built inside others’ territory to efficiently and profitably access each other’s markets. Calculating one’s own wealth absent the stock and flow of foreign assets and trade becomes an increasingly tenuous exercise.

Supply chains thus diminish the incentives for conflict, while decoupling from them raises the potential for antagonism to escalate. Perhaps this is why President Trump and his economic advisers have so quickly dialed down their rhetoric about trade wars: They have realized both that there is no victory in a trade war, and that it is certainly not worth the price of stoking a real war—which would nullify any “victory” in a trade war. The future of global stability thus hinges on whether great powers think and act in terms of sovereignty or supply chains, war or tug-of-war.

Those who believe globalization can be switched off so quickly thus also inadvertently make the logic of war more likely. They also commit a more fundamental fallacy in believing that cyclical conflict is the “natural” order of things, and that globalization’s waves are merely permitted in the intervals between major world wars. But sixty thousand years of human history, from the crawling migration of homo sapiens out of Africa to today’s millisecond communications across the planet via fiber-optic Internet cables, tell us precisely the opposite story: globalization inexorably widens and deepens, while global military conflict is an infrequent and preventable occurrence. Warfare is an event; global network building is the deeper and more permanent process. Globalization always finds a way.

A hyperconnected multipolar world is uncharted territory, but the paradox of tug-of-war may be that the longer it goes on, the more everyone wins. The past seventy years of global economic integration and trade expansion have been the most prosperous in humanity’s history, with billions lifted out of poverty and modernization accelerating worldwide. For forty years, China has cleverly required that Western multinationals train its workers, transfer technology and effectively sponsor what have become China’s new industrial powerhouse companies that compete with them worldwide. Along the way, however, China has recycled its surpluses into U.S. Treasuries, keeping America’s interest rates low and become the revenue engine for much of the Fortune 500. Win-win.

To keep the system working for everyone, what America needs is less focus on U.S.-China military rivalry for the sake of maintaining primacy and more on smart tug-of-war strategy. One of the best decisions has already been made. In December 2015, the U.S. Congress lifted the forty-year-long embargo on exporting America’s oil and gas reserves. American LNG is now providing a lifeline to the Baltic states to ward off Russian cutoffs of their energy supply, while American oil tankers are crossing the Pacific to the country’s largest customer: China. Just five years ago, a U.S.-China conflict over Arabian energy resources was a popular superpower conflict scenario. Today it has been replaced by the peaceful logic of supply and demand.

In the reverse direction, Chinese foreign investment into the United States is also surging, including Chinese home buyers from high-end pockets like Silicon Valley to distressed communities across the South, as well as commercial real estate and other sectors. With Congress unwilling to finance America’s much-needed, multitrillion-dollar infrastructural overhaul, Washington should be devising bond instruments for Chinese capital to fund the repair of America’s ailing airports, roads and bridges—to bring them up to Chinese standards.

Only one decile of the world population—lower-middle-class citizens of North America and parts of Europe—has not seen incomes grow stratospherically in the past thirty years. As human beings and economic agents, they too have still been winners from globalization bringing affordable goods into their homes. The lack of sufficient Trade Adjustment Assistance for American workers is Washington’s fault, not China’s. Scapegoating populism has indeed caused wars in the past, but war today wouldn’t achieve President Trump’s goals to bring back jobs or double exports. Given America’s track record of wars in the past two decades, perhaps it should devote more resources to tug-of-war instead—just as the rest of the world has done. Preparation for war is always necessary, but smartly waging tug-of-war is an existential daily priority.

Allison’s pioneering work in applied history is cautionary but not fatalistic. Each historical episode he exhumes contains useful lessons that warn decisionmakers of the potential for accidental escalation. But there is a danger in the broader national-security community of presuming “Thucydides Trap” is inevitable when history teaches no such thing. If anything, this logic defeats the purpose of Allison’s work: to caution, not to predict. The Thucydides Trap is a scenario, not a certainty.

There is plenty of positive momentum in the current world order. Unlike centuries past, this is not an era of multipolar competition among proximate European powers, in which the intensity of geographic friction all but necessitated violent adjustments of imperial boundaries. Instead, today’s superpowers are separated by vast oceanic or continental distances and don’t encroach on each other’s territory. Their disputes over proxy relationships can be managed through calibration of interests or even subregional stalemates, as was the case in the Cold War. Furthermore, there is no need for “resource wars” as each participates in the global marketplace for energy and raw materials. America’s voluminous exports of oil to China are demonstrative of how redefining relations according to supply-and-demand calculus opens up new geopolitical horizons than territorial logic.

The global web that represents the world’s true distribution of power defies simplistic notions of unipolar hegemony or a U.S.-China “G-2.” Just because Pax Americana replaced Pax Britannica, it does not follow that a Pax Sinica will or should follow in a linear fashion. Instead, the past decade’s hype of the East surpassing the West, China replacing America and the Pacific displacing the Atlantic is giving way to a multicivilizational and multipolar world in which continents and regions deepen their internal integration while expanding their global linkages. Latin Americans, Africans, Arabs, Indians and Asians all want a world in which they can multi-align and trade in all directions, not be subject to either American or Chinese diktats. They will play the great powers off each other more than they will accept unilateral impositions.

Global order is no longer something that can be dictated or controlled from the top down. Globalization is itself the order. Supply and demand will shape how regions and powers interact. If America offers military support and technology, China provides infrastructure and export markets, Europe sends aid and governance advisers, and corporate supply chains smooth the flow of connections, this is the closest geopolitics comes to stars aligning.

Historical models of order have been built on spheres of influence, but a stable global society today must be based on such cocreation across civilizations. Such a balanced system is what the Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei describes as symmetrical rather than hierarchical. It is one in which maintaining stability requires self-restraint and mutual trust among diverse powers. These were the virtues that enabled the success of the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. As was the case two centuries ago, now is a time of great-power peace, during which a legitimate order must be designed. The United States and China will, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “coevolve,” but they will do so in a global context far deeper than themselves. There are limits, then, to the lessons of the past. Neither the 1814 Congress System nor the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations are the best guide to the future; if they were, neither World War I nor World War II would have happened.

For history not to repeat itself, we cannot wait for events to force a new paradigm of global strategic thought. Rather, we need strategies to avoid undesirable events. If the “Thucydides Trap”—war between dominant and rising powers—is driven by the dangerous brew of fear and pride, then taking emotion out of the equation is crucial to transmuting great-power rivalry. Regionalism and reciprocity become the most important barriers to escalation of tensions. Globalization’s advance is the only antidote to the logic of superpower-centric rivalries—replacing war with tug-of-war.

Allison says that we need a “surge of strategic imagination” to overcome the “Thucydides Trap.” If that is the case, then we should devote as much attention to imagining how greater connectivity can advance stability as we do to conjuring World War III scenarios. Tug-of-war is our oldest game, older than Thucydides’s prophecies and any geopolitical rivalry. If we dust off that playbook, we can ensure that tug-of-war never boils over into the real thing. 

This piece was first published in The National Interest