Last week Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs released some disturbing news. In a video and report entitled “Destined For War: Can China and the United States Escape the Thucydides Trap”, a Harvard professor claims that war between the United States and China is likely within the next 10 years. They also put some of these claims in an article in the Atlantic that has been very popular.
Thankfully there’s almost nothing to it. As this video explains, their own data fails to support their argument.
Wow… That’s terrifying. That’s a Harvard professor saying we’re going to war with China within the next ten years, Because history says so. Is this really true? Not at all, and today we’ll look at why that is.
Over the past few months, I’ve been documenting how the Military Industrial Complex is constantly pushing the United States to fight more, and fight dumber. I’ve talked about how universities and think tanks are very much a part of this process, but I haven’t been too specific. Thankfully, last week the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government was kind enough to provide a perfect example.
They published a research project on their website. They launched it with an article in the Atlantic by Graham Allison, the Harvard professor we saw at the beginning of this video. It talks about his concept of the “Thucydides Trap”. It’s named after the Ancient Greek historian who told the story of the war between a rising Athens and the more established Sparta. THIS IS SPARTA! Sorry I couldn’t resist. The general idea of the “Thucydides Trap” is that when one country is powerful, and another accumulates power quickly, war is likely to result. China’s rising economy has rightly gotten people thinking about this challenge.
The last paragraphs of Professor Allison’s article in the Atlantic are actually excellent on this. He calls for serious thinking by Chinese and US policy makers, and for careful engagement between the two governments to avoid this trap. It’s exactly the kind of seriousness we’d want from a Harvard Professor. The stakes are incredibly high, seriousness is required.
Unfortunately those paragraphs are the only serious thing about this project. There is nothing in the report or the article to justify the professor’s extraordinary claim that war is likely within the next 10 years. What the project does do is present a list of Thucydides Trap type situations from the past 500 years, and draw some simplistic and frankly foolish lessons from it. In 12 out of 16 situations war was the result, therefore war with China is more likely than not.
If we were talking about coin tosses then maybe this conclusion would make sense. But we’re not we’re talking about history. We’ve grown a lot over the past 2700 years, and especially over the past 500 years. This famous scene from the Movie 300 actually has a historical basis. The Spartans and Athenians really were the kinds of people who kicked ambassadors down wells. Modern diplomacy is a little more sophisticated than that.
Most of the data from the Harvard report comes from the silly hat era of European politics, where millions died because of the ambitions of single individuals who ruled as kings and emperors. We really only grew out of the era of dynastic politics in the 20th century, and it has made a massive difference. Harvard’s data shows this. Over the past 500 years, 75% of these situations have ended in War. Over the past 100 years 50% have ended peacefully, and over the past 50 years, we’ve got a perfect no-war record among great powers. The data demonstrates that we’re getting better at this.
But that’s not the message Harvard is selling here. This is PR, not history. The goal here is to be scary, and it has been very effective. What’s with the military drum soundtrack? The article is currently the most read on the Atlantic website, as it has been for the past week. The first half of the article talks about how modern times are just like the run-up to World War I, a ridiculous assertion I’ve dealt with elsewhere. The headline itself is pretty scary. Why is Harvard doing this?
The answer comes down to money. Harvard’s Belfer Center, and thousands of other institutions across the country, owe their existence to the Cold War. If there isn’t a big enemy to talk about fighting, there isn’t much of a reason for these think tanks to exist. So they create Fear. As Thucydides could tell us, the only way we will end up in a war with China is if we are ruled by exactly the kind of fear the Belfer Center is spreading. Harvard may just be trying to pay the bills, but when they publish stuff like this, they really are trying to kill us.
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