David Epstein
Friday, 21 January 2022

Remind me: what’s the Thucydides Trap? Do we need to worry about it?

Malcolm Turnbull used to talk a lot about the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’. You could not help wondering whether it was one of his devices to remind us what a smart guy he is; someone who stands apart from us because he had some classical education during his secondary school years. You know the sort of thing: focus on a historical reference or classical quotation that’s familiar enough for others to have possibly heard of it, but not enough to form part of most people’s core general knowledge.

Despite that, the ‘Thucydides Trap’, as popularised by prominent US Strategic Studies academic, Graham Allison, several years ago, has contemporary relevance. It has informed how many western leaders think they should manage relationships with China today.

The theory goes that war is inevitable when an emerging power threatens to displace an old one. So it is interesting to read Lawrence Freedman, writing in The New Statesman, argue that when it comes to the Sino-US rivalry, the logic fails. No ‘Wet’ or appeaser, Sir Lawrence is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London and is widely credited as the author of the Blair Doctrine of UK strategic policy. He’s also lectured British Army officers on strategic doctrine for decades.

According to Freedman:

‘Allison’s notion of the Thucydides Trap … fails to address the risks involved in conflict and … why wars occur. The story told by Thucydides is much more complicated than the “Trap” suggests. ‘… Pericles made poor strategic calls. Different decisions would have avoided war’.

‘These choices were largely about the cohesion of the respective Athenian and Spartan alliances, and the possibility of a smaller state defecting because it did not feel protected. A major difference now is that there are asymmetrical alliances: China is far more isolated geopolitically than the US.

‘[C]ontrary to the logic of the Thucydides Trap, in the past China went to war –with Korea in 1950, India in 1962, and Vietnam in 1979 – when it was in a position of weakness, not strength. Its military and economic power is now second only to the US, but that also means China has much more to lose in any kind of protracted, multi-front conflict.

‘The “Trap” argument is also undermined when you consider the view held by many experts that China’s power may have already peaked. The nation is facing a series of system problems that may halt its rise, including an unbalanced economy, an ageing population, environmental degradation and political dysfunction resulting from President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian turn.’

Freedman is challenging some common assumptions about the inevitably of a Sino-US conflict and the strength of China’s capacity to engage in kinetic conflict on a large-scale bi-polar basis. You can read more here.

Calling Bull…

According to two Seattle academics, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, ‘… the world is awash in bull…’ and we need to equip ourselves to deal with it.

Recognising what they label as the casual racism and sexism of previous efforts, such as How to Lie with Statistics, they’ve started a course, launched a public access website – named, politely, Calling Bull – and written a book on how deal of the Tsunamai of untruths we all face. It’s worth looking at in an election year, particularly with Scott Morrison just starting to limber up his political gamesmanship and ‘coat-trailing’ form.

What Bergstrom and West say:

‘….While bull may reach its apogee in the political domain, this is not a course on political bull. Instead, we will focus on bull that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse. Traditionally, such highbrow nonsense has come couched in big words and fancy rhetoric, but more and more we see it presented instead in the guise of big data and fancy algorithms — and these quantitative, statistical, and computational forms of bull are those that we will be addressing in the present course.

‘Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but do you know whether the TED talk you watched last night is also bull — and if so, can you explain why? Can you see the problem with the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some startup’s big data analytics? Can you tell when a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?

Startup culture elevates bull to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bull — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bull of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bull.

‘Bull involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

‘Calling bull is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bull alone. You can call bull on bull, but you can also call bull on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.’

Calling Bull is not merely jest, it’s a serious exercise, with serious intent and a solid syllabus. It’s worth looking at before you next wade through claim and counterclaim on pandemic responses or economic performance.

Lessons of the Spanish Flu

Before we go, and before we leave the topic of muddled thinking. It’s salutary to read what historian Jeff Kildea has had to say in a revisit to the subject of ‘Living with Covid: lessons from the Spanish Flu pandemic’ written for John Menudue’s website Pearls and Irritations.

‘As with Spanish flu, which began in the northern hemisphere about February 1918 but did not arrive on our shores until January 1919, Australia has avoided the worst of Covid-19 compared to the rest of the world by keeping its borders closed – a lesson well learnt. At less than 2500, the current death toll is small compared to the more than 12,000 who died in 1919 when the population was one-fifth the size it is today. But otherwise, as this survey indicates, for the most part we have not learnt well the lessons of the Spanish flu pandemic.’

This is Kildea’s second go at divining contemporary lessons on pandemic management from what occurred when the Spanish Flu swept the world after WW1.

The main thing he wants to remind us is:

‘We are all sick of Covid and the disruption it has wrought. But the pandemic will not be over until it is over. Glib slogans won’t alter that reality’.

Kildea’s call should be a common-place conclusion, but it’s one that lacks traction among many conservatives and quite a few so-called ‘business leaders’.

As Kildea says:

Lesson 1: Policy needs to be co-ordinated at the national level

The … states have primary responsibility for health and thus bear the opprobrium for deaths, hospitalisations, and case numbers, while the Commonwealth has primary responsibility for the economy and bears opprobrium should economic activity decline. The national cabinet model has failed to resolve this conflict of interests. Hence the crazy standoffs over border closures.’

Lesson 2: There is a need for a coherent program of measures that the public will embrace with conviction

‘…The problem was recently highlighted in the Novak Djokovic case with the debate over what constitutes a medical exemption to mandatory vaccination.

Lesson 3: Know thine enemy

‘Today we understand far more about viruses than they did, yet like them we are still struggling to find effective pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical measures to combat the pandemic. And we are still debating many of the same questions: e.g. should masks be mandatory, should schools be closed, should travel be restricted?

Lesson 4: When restrictions are lifted be prepared to reimpose them quickly and thoroughly

‘[In] …December: a new [NSW} premier, Dominic Perrottet; a new mantra, ‘personal responsibility’; and a new and more virulent variant, Omicron. As in July 1919, case numbers surged after the government declined to reinstate the strict measures it had lifted in November following the previous lockdown, reaching levels previously beyond contemplation. Poor planning meant the testing regime was stretched beyond breaking point.

Yet, despite the lifting of government restrictions, economic activity did not bounce back as the ‘economy first’ advocates had promised. In fact, it slowed as the infected and their close contacts self-isolated, disrupting supply chains and the healthcare sector. Lockdowns had not been banished; they were simply privatised.’

Lesson 5: Be prepared for the long haul