The trade war between the U.S. and China falls within the current transition of power in the international system. No one doubts we’re witnessing the decline of the dominant power (the U.S.) and the ascent of the second-class powers (China, Russia and maybe India).
Harvard University Professor Graham Allison published a very interesting article in Foreign Policy, suggestively entitled “The Thucydides Trap.” Drawing on the famous book “Peloponnesian Battles,” he wrote, "As China challenges America’s predominance, misunderstandings about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.’" And Allison added, "The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war."
We hear about the trade war between the U.S. and China every day. It exists and it is serious enough to deserve our attention. However, the issue is even more serious. Strictly speaking, we’re facing the classic contemporaneous wars of power transition in the international system. In the past, these wars were solved with direct military confrontations between great powers. Today, since most powerful states have nuclear weapons, they assume mainly (but not exclusively) the form of trade wars, whose purpose is to weaken the power of the adversary via economic means.
It is precisely this strategy that Donald Trump’s administration has been following. For more than a year now, the Trump administration has been raising tariffs on a great variety of Chinese products. This month alone, the U.S. has imposed new tariffs of 15% on nearly $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. And the president has already announced he will raise taxes from 25% to 30% on another $250 billion.
You may not like it and fear the consequences of these decisions in the global economy. However, not only isn’t Trump doing anything new, the main issue here is not economic, but rather the distribution of power in the international system. We don’t have to look any further, the economy played a major role in the Ronald Reagan administration's overthrow of the Soviet Union. And how did they do that? By deepening the reversion of the so-called normalization of trade relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Reagan didn’t stop there, but trade had a decisive role in the end of the bipolarity.
The trade war between the U.S. and China falls within the current transition of power in the international system. No one doubts we’re witnessing the decline of the dominant power (the United States) and the rise of second-class powers (China, Russia and maybe India). Moreover, there’s a consensus as to the fact that the world is no longer unipolar, even though it’s not multipolar either. Finally, there are an increasing number of authors who believe that this implies the end of the current liberal international order, a luxury only possible thanks to unipolarity.
We know these transition processes take a long time and their aftermath is uncertain. Therefore, no matter whether we’re witnessing some easing, or moments of negotiation, or even some agreement, the trade war is here to stay until one side wins. It is naïve to think that a classic military conflict between great powers is impossible nowadays. The best we can say is that it is far less likely, since it is much more irrational, and that there are means to decrease such a risk.
The key to avoid total war is in the international order that will be built on the debris of the current one. There are two major hypotheses: either the Americans are successful, reverse the rise of China and remain the dominant world power using its enormous superiority to return to being a hegemonic order (like the one that has existed since the end of the Cold War), or ascending states such as China, Russia and India rise until they become great world powers, the result being a balance in power.
In line with the majority of the academic international relations community, I support the idea that the transition of power will give place to a new multipolar system and a new balance of power. In this case, there are two hypotheses: either an international order such as Westphalia, which we can call an “automatic balance of powers,” or an international order such as Vienna, which we can call a “balance of powers concerted among great powers.”
History (and theory) shows us that in a multipolar international system, a concerted order among great powers is more stable, peaceful and long-lasting. It seems right now the best way, if not the only one, to avoid the “Thucydides Trap.”
OPD: 12 Sept 2019
Edited by Margaret McIntyre