12:00 AM, May 24, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:44 AM, May 24, 2018

The 'Thucydides trap' might become a reality

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently gave what observers touted as his major Iran speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

The likely reenactment of the Athenian historian's account of the 27-year-long Peloponnesian War which Graham Allison draws his imagery from in his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? (war resulting from a dominant power's fear of a rising power) by portraying equivalence between the US, the dominant power (Sparta), and China, the rising power (Athens) respectively, may well-nigh eventuate.

However, it may not be China that the ruling power considers the threat which must be suppressed but two “recalcitrant” countries that won't fall in line with American diktat. One a country not quite far away from China which it has tended and nurtured throughout its 65 years of existence—North Korea—and the other Iran, which the US considers a threat to its vital interests, particularly a direct threat to its principal ally and proxy in the Middle East, Israel, and its Arab allies whose pathological animus towards Iran the US and Israel have so cunningly exploited.

In some ways it is the Middle East conflict that has kept an important driver of American economy, the military-industrial complex, running. It is the behemoth that Eisenhower had warned against because of its strong and pervasive control on the powers of decision-making of the state, which has increased consistently since his farewell speech in 1961. To quote from a New York Times article, “roughly 10 percent of the $2.2 trillion in factory output in the United States goes into the production of weapons sold mainly to the Defense Department for use by the armed forces (of its own and of a large many other countries).” Perpetual war, as one writer puts it, assures perpetual profit for companies and their lobbyists but causes perpetual loss to the families, which the government hardly notices. And this industrial complex is bolstered by some Middle Eastern countries which have outsourced their security to America. What with the Saudi-US arms deal worth nearly USD 110 billion signed last year, to face what Saudi considers the main threat to the Arab world—not Israel but Iran.

The apprehension of rising powers drawing the ire of the ruling power is a historical reality that the world has witnessed regularly over the ages. And in the present-day context, the Chinese vying for influence in not only the region but in regions far distant from its shores have the lone superpower in strategic overdrive to counter it. The recalibration of American strategic focus from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific, though not a new formulation in terms of geographic identity, indicates US' renewed interest in the region. And that has been spelt out in the US National Security Strategy published in December 2017.

The possibility of such an eventuality had been articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping way back in 2012 during his meeting with President Obama, and in his writings too. But then he had also discounted such a possibility on the grounds that such a situation might prove counterproductive and result in defeat for the aggressing big power, a fate that befell Sparta for a variety of reasons.

North Koreans have proved a pain in the neck for the Americans. But when it appeared that after 70 years of uncertainty, and of possibility of war breaking out in the peninsula, the statesmanlike approach of the new South Korean president shedding the baggage of history, brought the possibility of a rapprochement between the main contending countries in the conflict—the Koreans, and the supra regional power, the US.

Of course China's role in persuading its protégé Kim Jong-un to accede to a meeting not only with his southern counterpart but also with the American president was vital too.

But the prospect of the US-North Korean summit is uncertain. All because the US had presented the North Koreans unofficially with a “heads I win, tails you lose” option when the hawkish US National Security Advisor John Bolton offered the so-called “Libyan option” as the basis for the forthcoming negotiations. It is only natural that anyone with a modicum of self-dignity will dismiss a fait accompli of complete capitulation. The fate of Gaddafi cannot be lost on anybody, particularly an autocrat whose survival in the face of US might depend entirely on having a credible deterrence. But what was equally worse than the Bolton suggestion was the usual Trumpian ignorance of history, threatening Jong-un with the same fate as Gaddafi if the North Korean leader didn't make a deal on his nuclear weapons programme, betraying his ignorance that the Libyan option was actually Gaddafi agreeing to surrender his nascent nuclear weapons programme, including allowing his uranium centrifuges to be shipped out to the US. “Decimating” Gaddafi was not in US' plans but it did not grudge the dictator's ultimate fate that the US-backed rebels brought on Gaddafi, since that fit in with the West's plan to get rid of a man it felt threatened by.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's threat to crush Iran by economic sanctions—as a first resort—sounded like the beating of war drums. It was long predicted, after the fall of Saddam, that Iran would be the next US target. It is coming to pass; whether that will actually happen is a matter of opinion. Bringing Iran down to its knees through sanctions because it seeks to pursue its national interest—just as the US wants to pursue its own interest which is the complete dominance of the region—is a first step. That is a recipe for war, because pressure without a workable alternative cannot lead to anything but confrontation. And that is perhaps what the regime-change obsessed advisers of Trump want.

Thus, while China may not be in US crosshairs at the moment, those that stand directly in the way of US hegemonic proclivities are. And that is the subtext of The History of the Peloponnesian War which Thucydides penned in his account of the epic war that the Athenian representative told the representative from Melos (immortalised as the Melian Dialogue): the powerful will do what they will and the weak must suffer what they must. While this metaphor is often used in diplomatic relations, what is almost always forgotten is what the Melos representative told the Athenians. That there must be just dealings between all states. Otherwise one might find one's own “fault attended by the most terrible consequences.”


Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.


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