Who Set the Real Trap: Thucydides or Cobden?

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 4, April 2019

A military parade marks the 70th anniversary of the Chinese people’s victory in the War of Resistance against Japan and the end of World War II, Beijing, 2019. Source: Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons.

William R. Hawkins
International Economics and National Security Consultant

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been presenting the world with a number of recent events and declarations which appeasers in the West will undoubtedly use to reinforce the claim by Graham Allison that resisting China’s rise is no longer possible because “China has already passed the United States” in economic strength and military potential.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy celebrated its 70th anniversary with several provocative exercises (including around Taiwan) and a multinational naval review which featured new designs for surface warships and nuclear submarines, as well as China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (named for a province on the North Korean border). The PLAN has declared that the carrier has graduated from training and testing to a combat ship ready for action. Two more carriers are under construction. The one similar to the Liaoning is expected to enter service by year’s end. The second is much larger and will bring China’s capabilities to new levels. At the naval review, a new class of guided missile destroyer was unveiled. It is larger with more missile-launching cells than the U.S. Navy’s Burke-class destroyers which are the mainstay of our surface fleet. Showing his commitment to China’s naval expansion, President Xi Jinping donned a military uniform and sailed with the armada during the April 23 celebration.

On the sidelines of the review, top Iranian and Chinese naval commanders pledged closer ties as both countries threatened counter-action against U.S. sanctions on trade in Iranian oil. And on April 29, China and Russia started their “Joint-Sea 2019” naval exercise.

Two days after the PLAN review, President Xi gave the keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. On hand were leaders from 37 nations and delegates from over 150 countries and international organizations. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) envisions China investing up to $4 trillion in infrastructure projects across Eurasia and Africa to recreate the legendary Silk Road. How the first trillion will be used is already under discussion. The aim is to impose what President Xi calls a “common destiny for Eurasia” dominated by Beijing and encompassing over half the world’s population. It is an integral part of Xi’s “China Dream” which has his country becoming the world’s preeminent power, carrying his cultish “thought” across the planet as the new font of universal wisdom.

As the BRI forum was closing, China’s National Space Administration announced it intends to build a manned Moon base within the next ten years. Though the U.S. conducted six manned landings from 1969-1972, it has not been back. Beijing’s plans for space exploration also include Mars and the asteroid belt. On January 3, China landed a rover on the dark side of the Moon, something the U.S. never bothered to do. America has squandered half a century of opportunities to explore the heavens. China is poised to show how foolish we have been to think sitting on the couch watching satellite TV is the height of adventure.

Graham Allison’s claim was made in his 2017 book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? which has become the best known, though certainly not the only, vehicle for the advocacy of a policy of appeasement towards the rise of China under its Communist regime. Allison’s message is that too many wars, starting with the conflict between Athens and Sparta described by the ancient historian Thucydides, have been the result of an established power (like America today) trying to resist a rising power like China. So it is better to accommodate the challenger. This will take “huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions” including accepting that America is doomed to fall to second place behind China. It is better to lose without a fight, is his decadent advice. And he just waves off deterrence.

Yet, his own historical examples show how such an approach fails. In each of his twelve examples of modern war between a “ruling” power and a rising power, it is the rising power that starts the war with acts of aggression. In none of the cases, does the ruling power act in a pre-emptive manner to push its rival down before it feels strong enough to attempt an outright seizure of power. Even Allison’s core example of Sparta reacting to Athens’ rise notes that the two Greek city-states had a 30-year peace treaty during which as Thucydides writes Sparta did little until “the better part of Greece was already in their [Athenian] hands.” This means that the ruling powers behaved exactly as Allison wants the U.S. to do: they did nothing to protect their position. But instead of the peaceful outcome Allison desires, war was the result as inaction invited aggression. The logic is obvious to anyone not blinded by Allison’s liberal ideology.

Allison is not the only one pushing appeasement. Tom Miller’s China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building along the New Silk Road appeared the same year as Destined for War. Miller, managing editor of China Economic Quarterly, spent more time on the BRI and like Allison lays out the scale by which China is preparing for a world “empire.” He even acknowledges “China’s true motivation in the South China Sea is to gain strategic control of its shipping lanes.” Yet, he still favors appeasement. He denounces “hawks” in Washington for wanting to “contain” China. “Saner voices within the foreign policy community believe the U.S. needs to reach a tacit accommodation with Beijing.” He blames America for making Beijing feel insecure because “it does not accept China as an equal power” thus provoking it to build up its military and take a hard line in self-defense. Miller also observes though that “China has no desire to negotiate because it believes it is making slow but steady progress towards supplanting the US.”

China’s leaders are happy to welcome scholars like Allison for visits where they can reinforce beliefs that favor their advance. After a visit last year, Allison argued “For four decades, Republican and Democratic administrations alike saw China as a ‘partner’ or ‘strategic partner.’ But the Trump administration now publicly calls China a ‘strategic rival’ or ‘adversary.’ Obama, Bush, and Clinton pursued a strategy of engaging China and welcoming its integration into the global economic and security order the United States has led for seventy years.” This statement confirms that past presidents practiced appeasement. They did not just allow, but encouraged the massive transfer of capital and technology across the Pacific to empower the Beijing regime. An epic blunder in grand strategy. But Allison cannot read history in that way. To him, it is President Trump who is in error, risking a wider war than just over trade if he continues to try to keep America great.

Trade is at the heart of the appeasement narrative. Economic interdependence was the core of the post-Cold War euphoria; the way to keep even militant regimes like the PRC in hand. This idea comes from the classical economists of the early 19th century who tried to proclaim a similar new world order after decades of war sparked by the French Revolution and Napoleon. Foremost among these liberal philosophers was Richard Cobden. His most famous claim was that commerce was “the grand panacea” that would remove “the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great fleets would die away.” It is Cobden’s naïveté that sets the real “trap” that national leaders should avoid but have too often fallen into. Across the channel, the French economist Frederic Bastiat argued that “Free trade means harmony of interests and peace between nations” and went on to state that “we place this indirect and social effect a thousand times above the direct or purely economic effect.”

An earlier theorist of “free trade” was David Hume. He saw this idea as the basis for international cooperation but it became instead (and remains in Chinese thinking) the basis for imperialism and conflict. Hume’s liberalism also turned him against his own country for a time. He proclaimed that nations were mere “accidents of battles, negotiations and marriages.” He denounced mercantilist trade practices for strengthening the nation-state, promoting wars and crippling the economic advancement of rival powers. Like other intellectuals, he considered himself a cosmopolitan. His love for French culture led him to oppose his own country’s efforts in the Seven Years War (often considered the first world war) and to claim that there was “nothing ever equal in absurdity and wickedness as our present patriotism.” David Ricardo, whose theory of comparative advantage is the basis for a global division of labor as if the world was a single polity, shared Hume’s sentiments. Opposing going into debt to fight Napoleon, Ricardo complained that “parliaments have something more to do than furnish ministers with the means of preserving the greatness and glory of the country.”

Though the passage of time has knocked liberal sophistry down again and again, its message of hope over history keeps bringing the zombie back. Consider the record of Norman Angell. His book The Great Illusion was published in reaction to the “naval scare” of 1909 when the expansion of Germany’s High Seas Fleet menaced the Royal Navy’s command of the sea. Angell was opposed to a British naval buildup in response as wasteful because trade had already so entangled the major economies that war was impossible. He was proven wrong in 1914. The Royal Navy needed those battleships. Yet one grand failure was not enough. Angell was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933—the same year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.  In 1938, the prominent British publishing house Penguin put out a special edition of The Great Illusion. That was the year of the infamous Munich conference, where Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (whose name is synonymous with appeasement) sold out Czechoslovakia to Hitler for “peace in our time.” A year later, Germany invaded Poland and World War II was under way.

On April 30, 2002, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick cited Angell’s book favorably in a speech to the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. His theme was that we could choose the kind of world we wanted; apparently without regard for what other powers were doing. Zoellick went on to head the World Bank, but he is also a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard where Allison does his work. Zoellick has often been called a “panda hugger” for his advocacy of closer ties with China.

At the libertarian Cato Institute classical liberalism thrives in a bubble. There Doug Bandow, who has spent his career trying to lull Americans to sleep, continues to rely on the old Cobden sophistry, claiming “The creation of a larger [Chinese] middle class offers hope of a more settled and less adventurous PRC as well as additional customers” even after writing in the same essay, “Chinese nationalism is strong and today generates far more passion than communism…. Even younger Chinese, who disdain state controls over their lives, support a more powerful and active PRC abroad.” Another example of how ideology dictates conclusions even when contrary evidence is seen.

It is the Cobden Trap that should be the center of study, as it has actually been used to make policy. At his January 2011 summit with Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, President Barack Obama resorted to the classical liberal model to ease tensions. During 2010, confrontations erupted from the Korean peninsula through the South China Sea to Iran. Obama told a meeting of American and Chinese business executives meeting on the sidelines of the summit that he was depending on them to keep the peace. In the years since, Beijing’s behavior has only gotten worse on all fronts.

The good news from Allison’s work is that in most cases, the “ruling” power has been able to turn back challengers by drawing on its deeper reserves of strength. This is also true in those cases which did not result in war. Allison counts the Cold War as a success because it did not turn hot. Yet, appeasement had nothing to do with its outcome. U.S. strategy was based on containing the Soviet Union to hobble its economic development. Controls blocked technology transfers. There were “hot spots” where covert actions, proxy wars, shows of force, arms races and the support of dissidents and insurgents were used. In the end, the stronger power won. The Soviets collapsed both at home and abroad when President Ronald Reagan gave them a push. As Vladimir Putin pursues a revanchist policy, a smaller Russia is still constrained by an underdeveloped economy with little to offer the world.

The policies of President Trump are based on doing the same thing to Communist China. And it is already showing some impact. The task will be more difficult because the appeasers have built Beijing into a stronger adversary than was the USSR. But America is still preeminent with the edge in all the means needed to protect itself and keep the balance of power in its favor. Its leaders just need to make the effort.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican staff member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. JPR Status: Opinion.