Will the postmodern world escape the Thucydides trap?

As the world sinks into conflict and complex modes of power relations and power sharing, the questions arises, will the postmodern world escape the Thucydides trap?

Thucydides trap

Thucydides was the father and founder of history as he wrote the first ever history book known as the history of the Peloponnesian war. It’s about the war betwixt Athens and Sparta that destroyed the two great leading city states of classical Greece. The idea which we call Thucydides trap is about a rising power that threatens to displace a ruling power to finally decide the rise and fall of empires at the end of a destructive war.

Thucydides argues that it’s rise of Athens, which rose spectacularly, and the impact that this had, the fear instilled in Sparta, which had ruled Greece for a hundred years that caused the war.  The past 500 years have witnessed 16 cases of Thucydides trap, 12 of these ended in war by failing to escape this deadly trap.

China’s President efforts to reshape power relations 

Is China rising or risen? The answer is yes. One person who clearly understands Thucydides trap is President Xi Jinping. As he frequently says, the challenge for China is, and the challenge for the U.S. and China is to build a new form of great power relations. And that if we were successful, Xi says, in contriving a new form of great power relations, we could avoid the Thucydides trap.

One Belt, One Road (OBOR), of which CPEC is sine qua non, is the Chinese most ambitious infrastructure project in modern history that’s designed to reroute global trade to finally build a new form of great power relations in line with Xi’s thinking. A change in status quo by poking the U.S. to take hostile steps by challenging China on every front by itself or through its allies whether it’s South China Sea or Ladakh, Taiwan, Hong Kong et al.

Read more: New Cold War: US-China relations threatened by a “political virus”

The problem with Thucydides trap is that it feeds upon two fertile grounds: growing alliances and multiple war-fronts. As the end seems nigh in terms of utter obliteration, all and sundry are caught in the trap on the ashes of existing world order to beget the new one. It’s how new empires rise at the crucible of old empires. Today we are exactly facing the situation as Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, was witnessing 106 years ago when he wrote in a letter in the summer of 1914, “This is very dangerous. It is not clear in which way we shall head.” What we see today is exactly the déjà vu of a century ago.

Thucydides trap shaping itself once again due to rising powers 

History is taking new turn with much more assertive China to finally disembark itself from the century of humiliation in the wake of post-world wars order. Not only China but Turkey also is inciting its Ottoman nostalgia by flexing the muscles in East Mediterranean.  Koert Debeuf, an associate researcher for the Institute for European Studies, is right.

Turkey seems to be heading to war with Europe in a possible repeat of a conflict last seen during Ottoman times in terms of territorial claims over Mediterranean. Today there are two enemy alliances, just as there were in 1914, when Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy were facing off against Britain, France and Russia. War against one country meant war against all. Today there is a ‘revolutionary alliance’ of Turkey, Qatar, Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. They are vying for the influence with the ‘status-quo entente’ of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and United Arab Emirates.

Read more: River Evros at the centre of latest Turkey-Greece tension

This is not about isolated incidents around a specific theme – such as gas or oil extraction – but about a complex conflict of interests in a broad theatre that stretches from Greece and Libya to Iran. This time, Europe is again showing signs of division. France, Greece, and Cyprus support the status-quo entente, while Spain and Malta seem more prepared to support the revolutionary alliance. France has sent warships and fighter jets to Greece. The UAE has dispatched F-16s to the Greek island of Crete. Egypt, conducting a military build-up on the border with Libya, is threatening action against Turkish-backed forces in Libya if they seek to extend an advance to take territory near the country’s oil reserves. Just as in 1914, none of these countries want a Great War, they only want to protect their national interests, just like they did a century ago, Debeuf said.

China facing off against India and the US simultaenously

To the extent of India-China face-off, experts warn that if military hostilities are not stopped, war could be next. “If diplomacy fails, guns talk. That is the natural culmination of what we have been witnessing during last four months,” said Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda, who was head of the Indian military’s Northern Command from 2014 to 2016. “Things are fast escalating out of control unless there is a breakthrough in talks.” Perhaps China is teaching lesson to the U.S. allies of which India is gigantic one. In South China Sea, China is literally warning the U.S. not to cross the red-line. For instance, China flooded the Taiwan Strait at the northern end of the South China Sea with warplanes over two days last week in an apparent attempt to intimidate the self-governing island democracy it claims as its own territory.

Read more: Why India-China standoff in Ladakh is a difficult challenge for Delhi?

The drills were timed to coincide with the visit to Taiwan by a high-ranking US envoy for talks and to attend a memorial service for former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, who led the island’s transition to full democracy in the face of Chinese threats. In later testimony before the Senate, Stilwell said it was now clear to the U.S. and others that China “seeks to disrupt and reshape the international environment around the narrow self-centered interests and authoritarian values of a single beneficiary, the Chinese Communist Party.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashed back at the US in last week’s ASEAN meetings, saying Washington was the “biggest driver of militarisation” and the “most dangerous factor damaging peace” in the region.

Read more: History of discord: The US, Taiwan and China

In sum, battlefields from South China Sea to East Mediterranean have already been staged. Informal alliances have already been formulated. A minor unfortunate incident can ignite a full-fledged war. We can hope for the best to escape from the Thucydides trap. But if history is any guide then such hopes are wishful thinking of few pacifists as “War”, to Will Durant, “is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.”

Ali Abbas

Author is a lawyer based in Islamabad and currently working with a law firm namely Kharal & Co.

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