Balancing and Thucydides Trap

The dynamic functioning of the international system, the balancing of power (Waltz) / balancing of threat (Walt), seems to exist also in a unipolar system but partly different way than in other polarities.

According to Birthe Hansen (2011), the core of the debate on unipolarity and balancing explains why the United States has not been counterbalanced.

Hansen explains that the conventional great power balancing dynamic is logically inoperative in a unipolar system. Instead, what encourages and limits the single superpower’s position and manoeuvring room and affects its relationship with the other states in the system is the flocking or free-riding by the other states, on the one hand, and the superpower’s balancing of its own resources on the other.

Balancing strategies are expected to come in different forms due to different incentives; the other states cannot balance the single superpower in conventional ways, but they still have incentives to prevent the situation from turning into a monopoly of power. Apart from free-riding, they may pursue soft and issue-specific strategies.

The balancing of power has been regarded as “the organizing principle” in the neorealist paradigm and symmetrical great power balancing has been regarded as the dynamic affecting the conditions of all states in neorealist theory. According to Waltz (1979), an international system is more stable with a smaller number of great powers, as “complexities and uncertainties multiply” as numbers increase.

As Hansen concludes, the challenges to the single superpower affect the stability of the system. While the system is robust, it is not necessarily durable. The superpower might exhaust itself by engaging in management efforts that are either too numerous or too big; or it might leave challenges unmanaged, thereby leaving room for international problems to spiral out of control and competitors to rise.

The alliance question is such that the following equation is crucial to symmetrical non-great power alliance formation under unipolarity: if one party succeeds in aligning with the superpower, this outweighs the other party, no matter how strong it is or whether it has attracted other non-great power allies and combined their strength. The other party cannot seek alignment from an alternative superpower (not existing) and the question of superpower alignment becomes an either—or issue.

Alliance formation is elaborated within the neorealist paradigm and closely connected to the notion of the balancing of power. According to Waltz (1979), the classic prediction is that alliances are formed as a balancing act against the stronger party. Walt later specified the circumstances under which power balancing encouraged action in terms of alliance formation (rather than hesitation); that is, the balancing of threats (Walt 1987). Finally, Hansen states that under unipolarity, the expectations comprise no symmetrical great power alliances and the full variety of asymmetrical alliances, but flocking and free-riding rather than counter- alignment.

Based on the findings of the study on this website, the situational development of the post-Cold War era deviates somewhat from those features stated above (Hansen et al.),

  • the findings confirm those “traditional” principles by Waltz (balance of power) and Walt (balance of threat and alliance formation) but with the time lag being a decisive explanation
  • the findings disqualify many of “new” interpretations by primacists:  Wohlworth, Ikenberry, Hansen et al. who allege long duration of unipolarity and unchallenged, permanent superior military power of the US without taking into account latest RMA development and inability to realize the fatal combination of the US debt burden and the de-dollarization processes
  • the findings disqualify also those concepts of declinists like Charles Krauthammer’s phrasing of a “unipolar moment”

The durability of unipolarity got its solution, as stated before above, and turned out to be as the period of a quarter of century (25 years).

It is true that for the first ten years or so (1990s), majority of states, including China and Russia, were bandwagoning or flocking/free-riding with the US.

However, from the outset of this whole period of unipolarity, China and Russia have indicated clear desire of balancing, even in the state of deep degradation. Some firm evidences can be once again mentioned in 1990s:

  • China’s FM Qian Qichen’s warning statement in 1991
  • China recognizes the Russian Federation and joint summit process started in 1991
  • China-Russia five years defense cooperation agreement 1993
  • China-Russia partnership 1994 and upgrade in 1996
  • Shanghai Five formation founded in 1996 (later SCO)
  • Primakov’s famous “U-turn” in 1997
  • China-Russia joint letter on multipolar world order to the UN in 1997

The process of hardening balancing by China and Russia can be consistently seen in the triangle game of great powers 2000-2019. The key driver of this balancing behavior is the deepening political-military cooperation between the parties (China and Russia).

This process and the events are in consistence with both Waltz’s and Walt’s theories and principles but prove the “eternal durability” of the US unipolar position as obvious fallacy.

One of the most characteristic features in great powers’ mutual relations is the question of security, which manifests in practice in the mutual trust/mistrust, fear/faith, confidence/ lack of confidence.

Graham Allison and Thucydides Trap

Graham Allison found, when analyzing the relations of the present unipole, the US, and the rising challenger power, China, that those two nations should avoid the “Thucydides Trap”. The analogy to Thucydides is a reminder of the dangers that can emerge when the rising power challenges a ruling power as Athens did Sparta in Ancient Greece. In the History of Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote ”what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”.

Under such circumstances, unexpected actions by third parties can provide a spark that leads to results neither competitor would have chosen. Thucydides noted also that this may lead to strengthen alliances referring to old principle of international politics where “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. When looking at this structural dynamic creating the Thucydides Trap from the view point of the modern theory of realism, the big picture and composition are in conformity.

More importantly, the US and China are on a major principled collision course irrespective of what happens in their trade war. It is not the question of actually about trade but in reality about geopolitical power.

The US wants to knock China down a notch and consolidate its own global hegemony, which is why it has been pressuring China on a variety of fronts. Based on the Chinese history, it is obvious that China will fight back. In other words, this is not simply an attempt to reorganize trade between the US and China, but only one piece of a much larger historic competition to define what the next great paradigm of world history will look like.

Living through modern days of Thucydides Trap means “the old world is dying and a new one is being born”, expecting plenty of chaos in between.

Anyhow, if just the US and China were taken as actors, the time horizon of this phenomenon should be up to 2050, which is the year China has officially announced as being the world class military might. It is important to remind on the national heritage of China and “Chinese mental time horizon” when looking around the outside world. On the other hand, when taking into account the intensifying strategic partnership of China and Russia, it seems to confirm the above-mentioned principles and features by Thucydides and Graham Allison.

In this case as “Sparta” is the US, and as “Athens” there are the twin-partnership China &Russia. Both in the historical and this present case, two balancing elements are common: robust economic growth and assertive military might and the conjunctive factor being the similar structural dynamic.

There is another great ideological struggle on the background, arguably far more important than nation-state tiffs over geopolitical power, which centers around a conflict between decentralization and centralization, between liberalism/freedom and top down control.

Humanity now possesses powerful tools on the playing field it never had before. The overall availability of the internet has made instantaneous person-to-person global communication a trivial exercise for the first time in history. This battle between centralization and decentralization is the true struggle of our era.

Based on the historical experience and the comprehension of the present international relations of great powers, the following statement seems to be again valid:

“When rising assertiveness becomes hubristic and fear turns to paranoia, mutual exaggeration can feed misperceptions and miscalculations. This in turn can spur unintended consequences.”