Two terms are likely to become familiar in political discourse as Donald Trump assumes the US presidency: the ‘Thucydides Trap’ and the ‘Madman’ theory of nuclear deterrence.
Thucydides, an ancient Greek general and historian, chronicled the Peloponnesian War, which saw Athens lose its dominance of the Greek world to Sparta. ‘What made war inevitable,’ he wrote, ‘was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.’ Nearly two and a half millennia later, students of history see parallels in the rise of China, and the fear which this causes in the United States.
Graham Allison, a Harvard academic, coined the term ‘Thucydides Trap’ to describe a situation in which a new power challenges the established one, leading to war. After analysing 16 such situations over the past 500 years, a team led by Allison found that the result was war in 12 cases – three-quarters of the time.
‘Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than [is] recognised at the moment,’ Allison wrote recently. ‘Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not.’ Whether or not he is being unduly pessimistic, it must be cause for concern that someone as impulsive and unpredictable as Trump is about to move into the White House.
What of the ‘Madman’ theory? It was devised by Richard Nixon, a Cold War president who believed that for American deterrence to be convincing, the Soviet Union had to believe he was irrational enough to use nuclear weapons. Donald Trump has declared his admiration of Nixon. And of all those elected to the presidency in American history, the next incumbent, with his sensitivity to the slightest hint of criticism, his late-night Twitter pronouncements and his fondness for far-right conspiracy theories, gives cause for his rationality to be questioned.
Not that Trump has any doubts about his own abilities. He sees himself as a ‘deal-maker’ who can solve problems that have taxed foreign policy establishments for decades. Even before he takes office, he has outraged China by speaking directly to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, and unsettled India by chatting on the phone with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. “Pakistan is not our friend,” Trump once tweeted, but, according to Islamabad, he told Sharif he was ‘a terrific guy’, and Pakistan was ‘a fantastic country, fantastic place’, adding for good measure that ‘All Pakistanis I have known are exceptional people.’
This might simply be dismissed as Trump-style backslapping, but it demonstrates the ‘one-to-one’ approach he is likely to adopt once he arrives in the Oval Office. There will be little room for traditional alliances – he has questioned not only the ‘One China’ policy but the purpose of Nato – or expert input. He has spurned the daily intelligence briefings offered to incoming presidents, and dismissed the CIA’s finding that Russia sought to interfere in the US elections. He appears to put more trust in his friendly relations with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin.
While institutions such as Nato and the US Congress may be strong enough to alleviate the worst aspects of a Trump presidency, in Asia there is a worrying lack of multilateral bodies capable of similar resilience. South-east Asian nations have inched towards military co-operation, but East Asia has never had an overarching security structure, merely a series of bilateral deals with the US, the future of which are now uncertain. Thanks to India-Pakistan tension, SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, cannot even gather its members together, let alone discuss security issues.
With so much uncertainty in the world, from Brexit to Islamic State, from tottering Italian banks to the threat of trade wars, 2017 was looking precarious enough without Donald Trump being inaugurated. Perhaps he should remember the fate of Nixon, the first president ever to be forced to resign, thanks to his paranoia, which led him to break the law. Trump’s temptation to play the strongman could be equally harmful to the office of the US presidency.