Rising and Falling Powers: Will the United States Peacefully Exit the Global Stage?

“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

– John F. Kennedy, 1963

Since the close of World War II, the United States maintained a strong international presence, strengthened the international order, and took the lead on global free trade, the pursuit of human rights, and the spreading of democratic ideals. As the champion of liberty and democracy, the U.S. upheld this liberal world order over 70 years. Recently, however, the rise of nationalism and protectionist policies in the United States call the viability of the global order into question. Indeed, it is hard to wrap our minds around a world in which the United States is not a global superpower. Taking a step back and removing the American-centric veil reveals the stark reality of international politics – a political reality in which the United States’ global influence is contested by rising nations, specifically China. In this scenario, international conflict has the potential to be a likelihood or an inevitability, especially as the United States and China pursue their respective interests.

The United States’ status of preeminence and stability within international politics is beginning to wane. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s, the United States gradually lost interest in maintaining its global influence. The lack of a power balance leaves little incentive to proactively engage in global affairs and, consequently, no overarching need to reconcile a state’s interests with the global common good. To this extent, the sentiment driving the election of President Trump and his “America First” platform was predictable. A substantial aspect of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign sought to capture the American peoples’ disinterest in pursuing global initiatives as a leading superpower. Both during his campaign, and during his current administration, Trump denounces the continued engagement and reliance on international pacts like NAFTA and the Paris Climate Accords and instead calls for fairer and more reciprocal global exchanges that benefit the United States. Concerns about whether a liberal world order will endure the United States’ exit from the national stage are valid. U.S. leadership spearheaded the past 70 years of international achievements. Yet, the resurgence of nationalism, protectionism, and an overall retraction of U.S. involvement in global affairs opens the potential for new global leadership.

Dr. Graham Allison, Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, recently published a book that addresses the current competition between the United States and China and more broadly the universal conflict between rising and ruling international powers.  The work, entitled Destined For War, refers to this concept as the “Thucydides’s Trap.” According to Allison, it was the Athenian historian Thucydides who was the first to articulate the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a ruling one in his work The History of the Peloponnesian War. In discussing a regional conflict between the city-states of Athens and Sparta, Thucydides writes that “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Allison identifies sixteen of these Thucydidean conflicts throughout history that reflect the underlying issue of the Peloponnesian War: a rising power challenging a ruling one. Out of those sixteen conflicts, Allison notes, twelve erupted in war – and predicts the next to be between the United States and China.

Throughout his book, Dr. Allison adopts an idea called “applied history” to support his argument as to why the rise of China is a threat to the United States. Applied history, Allison claims, allows key political actors to make rational decisions with reverence to historical precedents and parallels. Indeed, Allison does well to illuminate the potential conflict he foresees between the United States and China through historical analogues. Allison provides several historical examples of nations facing Thucydides’s Trap, ranging from political influence, land and sea power, and global economic dominance. Interestingly enough, the only example that Allison characterizes with a domain of “global power” is between the United States and the Soviet Union following the Second World War, a scenario that did not result in war. Allison’s analysis ultimately seeks to answer the question: how can the key political actors in the United States and China avoid Thucydides’s idea of “inevitable war” that the United States and the Soviet Union avoided during the second half of the Twentieth Century?

In answering this question, Allison diverges from the Thucydidean perspective that war is inevitable. He understands war as an increased likelihood between the United States and China, especially as both President Trump’s and Xi Jinping’s policy initiatives ignore issues of international importance in favor of their own respective national interests. Destined for War, as Allison frames it, attempts to uncover the root of the impending problem. He introduces his book with the humble and reflective words of Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Germany’s chancellor during the First World War: “Ah, if we only knew.” Although war may not be inevitable to Allison, the likelihood of potential conflict is a compelling reason to reflect on the past. In this regard, an international conflict will constitute the transition of global influence from the preeminent power to the rising power. Whether this transition will be voluntary and peaceful is questionable, given that the United States and China are pursuing their respective interests with firm determination. Both states are certainly determined to bolster and extend their spheres of influence, as President Trump proposes a military parade and Xi Jinping continues to expand economic influence into the South China Sea. Certainly, diplomatic sentiment and the potential for peaceful transition becomes an afterthought as both nations appear committed to their respective visions.  

Analyzing the relationship between the United States and China with international schools of thought helps to clarify the circumstances surrounding the two nations. Thucydides writing is actually understood as a prominent example as a realist school of thought. Dr. Allison applies these realist ideas to historical events. Thucydidean realism demonstrates how key international actors, like world leaders and states, see “politics as power” as a means to create opportunities and increase influence – typically by force. This idea would explain global affairs like Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine, as well as Xi Jinping’s naval response to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.  Realists see the ultimate objective of states as the rational maximization of power. Those with a more liberal-minded perspective of global affairs are concerned with the viability of the liberal world order that the United States forged following World War II. Thomas Wright, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institute, understands the liberal order as incredibly fragile and malleable to the behavior of President Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping, writing in a recent Brookings Institute blog that “It is the combination of Trump, Xi, and Putin that makes the present situation so dangerous.” From this school of thought, the world order is threatened by key individual actors all following ambitious visions for their states.

The concept of “politics as power” is often dismissed as base and amoral, while engaging in diplomacy and embracing a common humanity are often hailed as great international achievements.  Both of these schools of international theory are too often seen as distinct and mutually exclusive. In actuality, aspects of each theory build off of one another. This implies that realists see value in alliances and international treaties, but will not rely on these pacts if it conflicts with a state’s interests. Likewise, liberals understand that fear is a compulsory factor in human behavior but try to reconcile this drawback by encouraging trust building. Certain political realities, however, make a faithful implementation of either of these theories difficult within international relations. The existence of a world order and its demands on the state are restraining and unattractive to many, like President Trump. Trump’s election signaled a shift in the United States’ interests, but the liberal order will not cease to exist. Accepting the reality of a world order guided by China’s political, cultural, and economic norms is equally unattractive to states that have grown accustomed to U.S. leadership. In such a likely case, the U.S. will need to become accommodated to its new global role of limited influence.

As the United States continues to decrease its global influence, which President Trump seems intent on doing to achieve his “America First” initiative, the issue remains whether there will be a peaceful transition of political, cultural, and economic influence. The Cold War offers an interesting example of a situation in which peace was desired, but the political reality of the situation impeded its achievement. With the Soviet Union challenging the United States’ superpower status, the world watched as each power deterred the other with weapons of mass destruction. Fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) checked the other power from acting irrationally. Yet, even at the most critical period of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis,  President Kennedy made explicit choices that increased the risk of war: publicly confronting Soviet Premier Khrushchev, threatening airstrikes, and offering an ultimatum that, if denied, would require the U.S. to respond with force. Kennedy certainly desired a solution to the bitter tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also understood the devastation that violent international conflict would bring. He used the tense backdrop of the Cold War as a basis to advance global cooperation and embrace “the most important topic on earth: world peace.”

President Kennedy presented his concept for a new world order to the American University Class of 1963, speaking of a renewed political order:

“genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children–not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

Even on the brink of war, Kennedy balanced his realist approach to the Soviet Union’s encroachment on Cuba with an optimistic vision for a self-sustainable world order free from the United States’ guidance. As peace and order were sought in the face of global violence, Kennedy understood the importance of balancing respective interests with a common good. However, this occurred under a balance of power. Today, the United States’ authority continues to wane and countries will continue to seize opportunities to gain the regional influence that the U.S. is relinquishing.

Whether this observable tension between the United States’ self-interests and China’s interests of power will come to physical war has still unknown. Both countries can make efforts to avoid such conflicts, but the actions of President Trump and Xi Jinping indicate that there will be an eventual collision of interests. If anything, it is important to hold historical events in reverence and to recognize their value. In a rapidly changing world, history provides a sound basis for reason and gives meaning to Thucydides’s History “as a possession for all time.”

About Kevin Weil

Contributing Editor, Political Theory. | Dabbles in political science, Partisan to Reason. | Email: kevinmichaelweil@gmail.com | Twitter: @KevMWeil