Xi Jinping and Donald Trump on the first day of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7.
By Niall Ferguson JULY 10, 2017
“The growth in the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta made war inevitable.” This is the most famous line of Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War”. Will a future historian one day write that the growth in the power of China, and the alarm which this inspired in America, made war equally inevitable?
Since the election of Donald Trump, the probability of a Sino-American conflict has soared. Last year Trump ran an aggressively anti-Chinese election campaign, repeatedly threatening to impose tariffs on Chinese imports. Trade is only one of several bones of contention. The United States remains committed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China’s island-building program is designed to make that sea Chinese in fact as well as name. Trump is less committed than any US president since Richard Nixon to the “One China” policy.
But the biggest flashpoint is without question North Korea — which brings me back to Thucydides and Graham Allison’s “Destined for War,” this summer’s must-read book in both Washington and Beijing.
Small powers can cause big trouble. The initial clash in the Peloponnesian War was in fact between Athens and Corinth; war came when the Corinthians appealed to the Spartans for help. Think of the role Serbia played in the First World War, or Cuba in the Cold War. Today’s catalyst for conflict is North Korea, which last week successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile — a weapon with the capacity to hit Alaska. Experts such as my Stanford colleague Sig Hecker believe the North Koreans are just five or so years away from being able to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the nose of such a missile.
Trump says he won’t tolerate that. On June 30 he tweeted: “The era of strategic patience with the North Korea regime has failed. That patience is over.” But what exactly to do? In essence, he has four options, three of which have already failed.
Option one is yet more jaw-jaw of the sort favored by South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in. But we have seen this movie before under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Whether in bilateral talks or in six-power talks, the North Koreans can be relied upon not to be relied upon.
Option two is what President Obama tried: sanctions and yet more sanctions, backed up with UN Security Council resolutions. Obama didn’t just fail to halt the North’s nuclear program; he speeded it up.
Option three is the one President Trump has been trying since his summit with President Xi at Mar-a-Lago: press China to deal with the problem. If you follow Trump on Twitter, you will know how that has been going.
Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2017
Option four is military action. The conventional wisdom rules this out because any US strike against North Korea would trigger the destruction of the South Korean capital Seoul. As Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a television interview in May: “A conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
Yet that did not mean (as many commentators inferred) that Mattis would resign rather than fight such a war. On the contrary: national security adviser H.R. McMaster — like Mattis, a highly experienced general — has made it clear that the military option is on the table.
Does that mean the Trump administration is willing to incinerate Seoul to stop Kim Jong Un from menacing Alaska? Again, no. With an appropriate naval build-up, the United States almost certainly has the capacity to destroy such a large portion of North Korea’s arsenal so swiftly that damage to Seoul would be limited.
Would military action be risky? That’s a stupid question. Military action is always risky, and Mattis is right to warn that a new Korean War would be highly destructive. The right question is whether or not the risk of inaction would ultimately be greater. Three presidents in succession decided that it would not be — and here we are. Is Trump capable of breaking the sequence? I’d say so.
The biggest risk of a showdown with Pyongyang is not the proximate one (damage to Seoul). It is (as in 1950) the second-phase risk of Chinese intervention on the other side. And that is what makes Graham Allison’s book so important. “China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war,” he writes. Yet in four out of Allison’s 16 historical case studies, the rising power and the incumbent power did not end up going to war — the most relevant being the Cold War.
If Allison is right to compare today’s North Korean missile crisis with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, then surely Trump has no option but to threaten to use force and bank on the other side’s blinking (with a little help from back-channel diplomacy).
Donald J. Trump as John F. Kennedy? Such a parallel is beyond the ken of the legion of Trump haters. But those same people missed completely the Kennedy-like tone of Trump’s fine speech in defense of western civilization in Warsaw on Thursday. The lesson of history is that not every great power falls into the Thucydides trap — but most journalists just keep falling into the trap of underestimating Donald Trump.