Analysis & Opinions - USA Today

The 'Wonder Woman' guide to avoiding war with China: It might take a woman

| July 7, 2017

If we insist on business as usual in our conflict with a rising China, we'll get history as usual. That means war.

Is war the natural condition of mankind? That question drives a deeper story line in the summer blockbuster “Wonder Woman.” While she is stopping a massive German gas attack, Princess Diana also finds herself grappling with a fundamental question about the relationship between mass violence and human nature.

Her first face-off against a World War I villain, German Gen. Erich Ludendorff, takes a dark philosophical turn. “Peace,” Gen. Ludendorff sneers, “is only an armistice in an endless war.” Wonder Woman immediately identifies the author of the quote: the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. But she disagrees, arguing instead that war is a seductive spell on mankind, not a reflection of our inherent corruption.

Most moviegoers side with Wonder Woman. One of the bestselling books of the past decade is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker makes the case that, over the long run, violence is receding around the world as our better angels become more prominent. Indeed, since World War II, there have been zero wars between great powers — a remarkable anomaly in recorded history. Most Americans alive today have neither fought in war nor made any sacrifice for war. Memorial Day is known more for barbecues than honoring the fallen.

But Ludendorff understood a critical point articulated by my former professor and America’s greatest living statesman, Henry Kissinger: peace is an accomplishment, not a condition. On the historical record, periods of war are as common as intervals of peace. And history has not been kind to statesmen who declared peace to be at hand or imagined that they were fighting a war to end all wars.

On New Year’s Day 1914, the world’s richest man, Andrew Carnegie, sent New Year’s greetings to several thousand leaders around the world announcing a new era of permanent peace. “International Peace” would, he proclaimed, “prevail through … the Great Powers agreeing to settle their disputes by International Law, the pen thus proving mightier than the sword.” Six months earlier, he had christened the Peace Palace at the Hague, where (according to his plan) the new Permanent Court of Arbitration would resolve disputes among nations peacefully.

One of the most influential books of that era was The Great Illusion, which was published in 1910 and sold over 2 million copies. Author Norman Angell argued that war was a cruel “illusion,” since the cost of war would exceed any benefits the victor could hope to achieve. Conquest, he wrote, was “futile” because the “the war-like nations do not inherit the earth.”

By the summer of 1914, of course, a war no one wanted had engulfed Europe. By 1918, the Continent was in ruins. How could the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian terrorist group spark such a catastrophe?

Thucydides knew the answer. As the father of history, he was the first to document what really happened, focusing on the results of human choices, not the forces of fate nor whims of the gods. While he did not posit an iron law of history, he understood human nature — particularly the interplay of interests, fear, and honor — as the best lens to understand relations among nations. This deeply realist perspective influenced the great English political theorist and philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who translated Thucydides’ masterwork on the Peloponnesian War into English.

“So long as men are men,” Thucydides argued, the future will resemble the past. In the case of World War I, Thucydides would have understood it as the violent climax of a rivalry between a rising power (Germany) and a ruling power (Britain) that had been building for decades.

This dangerous dynamic of a rising power that threatens to displace a ruling power is Thucydides’ Trap. It is one of history’s deadliest patterns. Over the past 500 years, this has occurred 16 times. In 12 cases, the outcome was war. Today, the contest between an irresistible rising China and an immovable America is the 17th case. If Beijing and Washington insist on business as usual, we are likely to get history as usual. That would mean a war that would be catastrophic for both.

Fortunately, it does not take a Wonder Woman to escape Thucydides’ Trap. But the magical prowess she demonstrated in overcoming daunting challenges should motivate us to stretch our strategic imagination about ways to secure America’s vital interests by avoiding war with China.

Perhaps Princess Diana’s decidedly female heroics inadvertently underscore the truth of Thucydides’ observation that history will follow its violent track “so long as men are men.” Or as the actress Gal Gadot said in an earlier movie, “Don’t send a man to do a woman’s job.”

 

Graham Allison is the former director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

 

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“The 'Wonder Woman' guide to avoiding war with China: It might take a woman.” USA Today, July 7, 2017.