Last night, Harvard Prof. Graham Allison gave a talk, moderated by former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, at the Commonwealth Club in SF. The topic was his new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Five centuries BC, Thucydides noted that the threat from a rising power, Athens, as perceived by Sparta- the ruling power in ancient Greece- led to the Peloponnesian War. He drew a parallel with US/China relations- acknowledging some of the shortcomings of such a comparison, which have been amply pointed out in various reviews of the book. China, he said, has caught up with the US in every major parameter, and surpassed it in some. For example, when Reagan was president, China’s GDP was 10% that of the US, and now it is 110%. In many aspects of technology, China is taking the lead: social media, AI, robotics, clean energy, electric vehicles etc. The US still leads by far in the military arena, but China may not care as much as we suppose (Allison reminded us that, when US and South Korean troops once pushed back a North Korean invasion almost to the Chinese border, China used conventional weapons to fight the sole nuclear power on Earth, all the way down to the 38th parallel). Economic “warfare” is just as important these days, and as the US withdraws from the world stage (see TPP), you have to wonder: which country now represents Sparta, and which Athens? Sharing common interests- such as avoiding nuclear holocaust and preventing global warming- lowers the risk of war, but then having a belligerent and unpredictable president who denigrates NATO and pulls out of the Paris Accord weakens those commonalities. It seems to me that under our Chaos President, fear of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) and climate change may not be enough to prevent war. Also, the strong chauvinism and national fervor among Chinese- not mentioned in the talk- may tilt the balance towards war when a crisis erupts, for example on the Korean Peninsula or South China Sea. As I pointed out in an earlier blog (A Day Without Women), the world is a lot more complicated now, but Thucydides may be right after all.
Here’s an excerpt from my sci-fi novel Fourth World, in which Chou Xia-Yu, leader of the world government in 2196, ponders the fate of expatriate anomaly Benn Marr: will he have to be destroyed?
Chou silently nodded his satisfaction at the inherent justice of it all: descendants of the American colonists on Mars had paid a steep price to atone for the imperialist policies of their ancestors. And now, he speculated, this Benn Marr represented another level of reward for years of experimentation. The ability to read and to project thoughts was similar to what Chinese monks (particularly in the Tibetan District) had been practicing for a thousand years. The difference was that Eunigen had given Benn his abilities by modifying his genes, so that they could be passed on to future generations in large numbers: the hypothetical implications for the PWE were staggering! Unfortunately, Benn Marr, although of Chinese descent, had lost touch with his ethnic roots on Mars, and had no understanding of his rich cultural heritage. As with all traditional Chinese, Leader Chou harbored the conviction that the Chinese civilization had greater value- it was simply superior- and should be promoted above all others; Benn was unlikely to feel such loyalty.