A public lecture given by Prof. Alan Henrikson, at the 43rd Meeting of Deans and Directors of Diplomatic Academies and Institutes of International Relations [delivered on Tuesday, 20 September 2016, at The Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Hedley Bull Centre, Australian National University, Canberra].
Amidst the current discussion of “rising” powers in Asia and the Pacific Ocean, I am mindful, as a diplomatic historian, that the United States was a rising power in the region once too . Is it still rising, one is tempted to ask, or has it become an “established,” even status quo power? Or is it now a “declining” power, relative to the movement of others, if not in a physical, absolute sense?
The stakes implied by the question of the U.S. power status are high, for there is an attendant question involving the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, if not the entire world: namely, that of whether a marked rise in the power of one country in terms of military and economic strength and political influence, alongside that of other countries in a regional international system, is inherently conflictual—and even likely to result in war.
There is a currently fashionable idea, formulated mainly by political scientists though, to be sure, based on the comparative analysis of relevant cases from the past, that power discrepancies, particularly when levels are unstable and can shift, are in themselves causes of conflict. An especially effective presentation of this idea, termed “The Thucydides Trap,” is that of Graham Allison and his colleagues in the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. Theirs is a serious study and deserves to be taken seriously as a projection of what could well, and even “likely” will, occur. Their starting point is the conclusion of the Athenian general (strategos) and historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” In 12 of the 16 cases that the Belfer Center group examined over the last 500 years in Europe and Asia, the result of a “rising” power challenging a “ruling,” or established, power was the outbreak of war. In the Asia-Pacific region today, given current power trajectories, the Belfer Centrer group contend, “war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than is recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not.” In the realm of popular literature too, including the technologically very well informed book by Peter Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (2015), a power showdown between the United States and China in the Pacific is presented as not just plausible but as entirely possible.
Full presentation available here.