Hanging over Donald Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week was the warning of Graham Allison’s book Destined for War, Can America and China Avoid The Thucydides’ Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). The book won’t be in stores for another month, but as long ago as 2013 Xi was talking about the metaphor, well before an early version of the Harvard government professor’s argument appeared in The Atlantic.
What has happened historically when a rising power threatens a ruling one? “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,” Thucydides wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War. In the 2,400 years since, Allison has found, 12 of 16 such cases have ended in war.
After boasting to the Financial Times, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump reinforced the message by striking a Syrian airfield while Xi visited him in Florida. Do you wonder why Bashar Assad chose last week to attack a rebellious village with nerve gas? A senior White House official told The Wall Street Journal that the gesture was “bigger than Syria” – representative of how the American president wants to be seen by other leaders. “It is important that people understand this is a different administration [from that of Barack Obama].”
(Different in more ways than one, the spokesman might have added. Trump sought last week to reduce quarrelling among his most senior advisers. How must the president’s record-low favorability rankings in opinion polls complicate the way he is seen by other leaders?)
The defect in The Thucydides Trap is the faulty map it generates. The U.S. is facing not just a single rising power on the world stage, but a diminished and angry giant as well in the form of still-powerful Russia. It has become the habit of much of the U.S. media to tune out Russian President Vladimir Putin on grounds that he does not play by American rules. He murders journalists and opponents, it is said, conducts wars against his neighbors, controls the media, games elections, and has become “President for Life.” Just last week, a Russian court banned as “extremist” an image of the Russian president wearing lipstick, eye-shadow, and false eyelashes, The New York Times reported.
Why not also view Putin as a serious political leader with serious issues governing a nation seeking a new role in the world? One set of these has to do with shaping norms and rules of post-communist civil society. Another set concerns the nation’s economic prospects. Perhaps the most serious of all has to do with the maintenance of Russian’s defense policy – its nuclear deterrent force, in particular. In this respect, The Thucydides Trap misses the point pretty badly.
It’s been 30 years since I consulted an issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The magazine was familiar reading in my youth, when the minute hand on its iconic doomsday clock was set a few minutes before midnight – two, or three, or seven, depending on the circumstances.
For a few years after 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 independent states, the clock showed a comforting 17 minutes before the hour. The peril has been growing ever since. Earlier this year the editors moved the interval to two-and-a-half minutes – the most alarming warning since the high-peril year of 1984.
Last month, BAS authors Hans Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, and Theodore Postol explained, The U.S. nuclear forces modernization program underway for 20 years has routinely been explained to the public as a means to preserve the safety and reliability of missile warheads. In fact, the program has included an adjustment that makes each refurbished warhead much more likely to destroy its target.
A new device, a “super-fuze,” has been quietly incorporated since 2009 into the Navy’s submarine–based missile warheads as part of a “life-extension” program. These “burst-height compensating” detonators make it up to three times more likely that its blast will destroy its target than their old “fixed–height” triggers.
Because the innovations in the super-fuze appear, to the non-technical eye, to be minor, policymakers outside of the U.S. government (and probably inside the government as well) have completely missed its revolutionary impact on military capabilities and its important implications for global security.
The result, the BAS authors estimated, is that the US today possesses something close to a first-strike capability. Already US nuclear submarines probably patrol with three times the number of enhanced warheads that would be required to destroy the entire fleet of Russian land-based missiles before they could be launched. Yes, the Russians have submarine-based missiles, too. And they are understood to be developing ultra-high-speed underwater missiles that could destroy American harbors.
But the very existence of the possibility of a pre-emptive strike will surely make Russian strategists jumpy, the BAS authors say. And since Russian commanders lack the same system of space-based infrared early-warning satellites as the U.S., they could expect only half as much time as the Americans have in which to decide whether or not they are facing a false alarm – fifteen minutes as opposed to half an hour. A slim margin for error in judgement has become much thinner.
When Science magazine polled experts about the BAS story, two of the most prominent judged the report to be “solid” or “true.” Thomas Karako, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was unpersuaded. He derided the “breathless exposé language” and dismissed the authors’ concerns about Russia’s discomfiture. You can make an early acquaintance with the March 1 BAS story here, if you like. A wider, fuller examination of the latest chapter in the story of the doomsday clock has only just begun.
David Warsh, a veteran journalist focusing on economic and political matters and an economic historian, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this piece first ran.