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September 19, 2021

Historical studies and strategic thought

Two scientific explorations into the relatively recent global history reveal a close connection between the “lessons learned” from history and the strategic thought of today’s great powers. It is true that such studies rely on what we would call historical “seriality,” and they express conclusions through the statistical tallying of the incidence of one finality or the other, everything subjected then to a “reading” through today’s magnifying glass (namely of what is very pressing in the evolution of the current system). This reading of the past is carried out in order to identify, based on the historical seriality thus obtained, what is probably bound to happen tomorrow, meaning in the short-, medium- or even long-term future.

Consequently, based on the results of such studies, which display high-credibility forecasts (the scientific basis is given maybe not so much by the methodology used but by the prestige of the author/authors or of the university that sponsors the research), decisions of extraordinary importance can be taken. Referring to today’s systemic situation, on their basis wars can be launched (whether “cold” or “hot”, trade wars or wars of a different nature), alliances can be changed, or unexpected developments on the international stage can be determined, etc. Such assumptions are called ‘scenarios’ and represent a preferred pursuit not only for analysts but also for political decisionmakers. Look how many scenarios on the evolution of the European Union by 2030 are to be found today on the global scientific “market.”

Such a historical research, already famous, was carried out by a reputed international relations expert based on the question – very legitimate today, especially after the relative decline of ‘Pax Americana’ after 2007-2008 – of whether a war between the great systemic powers could still take place, more precisely between the hegemon state and its main contender. Moreover, based on the research carried out to answer this question, the said expert – Graham Allison, professor at the University of Harvard – also wrote a book suggestively titled “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”. Based on 16 historical cases from the last 500 years, the author identified 12 cases in which war occurred between the contender of the systemic hegemon and the latter, in order for the hegemonic succession to occur. In other words, “historical seriality” proved that, in 12 out of 16 cases, hegemony was established within the system through war and not in any other way, meaning not through peaceful transfer, win-win negotiation or otherwise. This is the historical grounds invoked by Graham Allison to claim that the moment the “Thucydides’s trap” appears in the systemic context the probability of a hegemonic war is extremely high. “Thucydides’s trap” refers to the situation depicted in the “History of the Peloponnesian War” written in the 5th Century B.C. by Athenian strategist and diplomat Thucydides, a situation that led to war between Athens and Sparta for hegemony in the Greek world. Allison defines it as: “when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception.”

International actuality showed Allison ever since 2013-2014 that such a situation has intervened, given the competition exercised by China’s extraordinary economic growth on the first place that the U.S. holds in the system. His research was meant to warn about the possibility of the start of hegemonic war and to make the leaders involved visualise the danger and take the appropriate measures to avoid it. Significant is the fact that the formula “Thucydides’s trap” has gained impressive circulation at the level of global leadership, being used by the leaders of both the U.S. (B. Obama) and China (Xi Jinpin), showing that they understood the warning. Everywhere, international relations analysts have referred to “Thucydides’s trap,” hence the competition between the hegemon and its contender, as the main issue to avoid for the sake of the systemic future and the general future of humanity.

The nuclear vector of both great powers, U.S. and China, which are locked in competition and probabilistically destined to a historically-verified confrontation, can nevertheless consolidate the will to rule out such a possibility and encourage the leaders of the great global actors to caution and wisdom in order to avoid confrontation and the annihilation of human civilisation. It is what Allison pointed out in his conclusions: “History shows that major ruling powers can manage relations with rivals, even those that threaten to overtake them, without triggering war. The record of those successes, as well as the failures, offer many lessons for statesmen today.” In fact, ever since 2013, in an article published by the New York Times, he warned both U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinpin about this terrible historical incidence of war in the context of the emergence of the “Thucydides trap” (see: Graham T. Allison, “Obama and Xi Must Think Broadly to Avoid a Classic Trap,” New York Times, June 6, 2013). On 14 April 2015, Graham Allison, who also held high leadership positions at the Pentagon, was invited to a session of the Foreign Policy Committee of the U.S. Congress, where he explained the problems of his research and the conclusions he reached after carrying it out. It is worth pointing out that, during the hearing, Allison told the congressmen that the deepening of the research demonstrated a high probability of war in the historical cases investigated (basically, from 11 out of 16 cases, the continuation of the investigation pointed to a score of 12 out of 16 cases for the historical option for war).

What is encouraging for the current international situation – in which the signs that we are in the classical situation of “Thucydides’s trap” are increasingly frequent, the most recent being the great powers admitting in policy documents that between them there is competition for systemic supremacy – is that all the four cases in which hegemonic war was avoided were recent, occurring in the 20th Century.

The hegemonic succession from the United Kingdom to the U.S. took place without war (in the first decades of the previous century), as well as the confrontations between the U.S. and Japan in the 1980s, or the competitions for regional hegemony between the Germany/France duo and the UK from the early 1990s to 2016, or between the USSR and Japan in the 1970s. Something that would offer historically-justified hope that the current stage of the creation of a new international order will be able – despite the growing number of successive crises – to occur without hegemonic war. To quote Allison, “Managing this relationship without war will demand sustained attention, week by week, at the highest level in both countries. It will entail a depth of mutual understanding not seen since the Henry Kissinger-Zhou Enlai conversations in the 1970s. Most significantly, it will mean more radical changes in attitudes and actions, by leaders and publics alike, than anyone has yet imagined.”

This issue was not the only one that formed the object of research on historical seriality. Another one, just as important for the present situation, is dedicated to the circumstances in which the move from authoritarianism to democracy historically took place. But on this historical seriality of the establishment of democratic regimes – it is historically shown that this occurred more out of the mistaken calculations of the initiators of the process of change rather than because of a firm decision to do so – maybe in another editorial.

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