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The Alcibiades Trap: The Stupidity of Anglo-American Arrogance

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by Gerry Rose

The “Thucydides Trap” thesis has become a very influential way of considering an approach to war avoidance with China. The phrase “Thucydides Trap” was coined by Graham Allison, and the book in question here is the one which made this phrase famous. Allison purports to demonstrate that war is almost always the inevitable outcome when a rising power reaches a point of economic and military strength such that it challenges the hegemony of the existing dominant power. Allison coined the term “Thucydides Trap” from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which describes the decades-long conflict between Athens and Sparta.

The basis for the book was a project run by Harvard’s Belfer Center, which examined sixteen cases since the year 1500 in which a rising power eclipsed an entrenched power. In twelve cases this led to war, and in four cases it did not. Allison’s mentor, as he discussed it at a Harvard seminar at the releasing of his book, is Henry Kissinger. So, the Thucydides Trap thesis, as a strategic doctrine, has the authority of both Kissinger and Harvard University.

The first time I ran into this thesis was in a report by General Martin Dempsey, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which referenced it by name at a Carnegie Endowment event. Dempsey was warning President Obama not to get into a war provocation with China simply to maintain American dominance in Asia. General Dempsey put it in this way: The Thucydides Trap “goes something like this—it was Athenian fear of a rising Sparta that made war inevitable. Well, I think that one of my jobs as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and as an advisor to our senior leaders, is to help avoid a Thucydides trap. We don’t want the fear of an emerging China to make war inevitable. So, Thucydides—so, we’re going to avoid Thucydides’ trap.” This was a very sane view of war with China. General Dempsey was very clear that a dialogue with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was imperative.

This made sense to me. General Dempsey was warning the Obama administration that, despite the reality that China was on the rise, war was something to be avoided. Given Obama’s narcissistic insanity, it was a very welcome voice of reason in an otherwise insane administration.

The Thucydides Trap thesis is also the terms of reference for war avoidance for both the current National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and even Steve Bannon. Allison starts his book with an anecdote referencing a meeting in the office of then head of the CIA, David Petraeus, where he briefed Petraeus on the insights he had gained into China by his interviews with Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore for three decades. Lee was one of Asia’s most venerated advisors to both Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, and it is clear that both Kissinger and Allison are knowledgeable about the diplomacy of the region.

Many have accepted the legitimacy of the Thucydides Trap analysis. Even China’s Global Times has chimed in, stating that the Thucydides Trap warns us that there is a real danger of war, and that relations with respect to China and America must be handled wisely. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi has been much more insightful, stating that “There is no such thing as the Thucydides Trap,” but only an environment where “major nations time and again make mistakes of strategic miscalculation, and create such a trap for themselves.” President Xi was explicitly referring to the current Belt and Road Initiative, where major nations, the United States included, are making a “strategic miscalculation.”

Let me be clear. There is a very deep epistemological flaw in Allison’s and Kissinger’s entire thesis and method. In fact, it is this devastating flaw that provoked me to write this review. It jumps out at anyone familiar with the period of the 19th Century and the rise of the American influence. By reducing each instance of warfare to an individual case, in isolation from the profound systemic changes caused by Alexander Hamilton’s anti-imperial economic discoveries, what you are left with is a blatantly fraudulent argument that completely misses the point. This glaring axiomatic error can not possibly be a result of mere incompetence. It is an evil of a certain sophisticated type. As Herr Kissinger is well aware, all of the wars of the 19th and 20th Centuries were caused by the British reaction to the global influence and spread of Hamiltonian economic methods throughout the world. To miss this—or to deliberately omit it—is to miss everything important.

This type of flaw is not new in the history of science. A ground-breaking study, conducted by a scientific research team under Lyndon LaRouche’s direction, on the work of Johannes Kepler, gets at the same principle in a clear, devastating way. In the team’s work on Kepler’s fundamental breakthrough on Universal Gravitation, there is a very stunning account of how all the other systems—of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Brahe—merely described, in one way or the other, what the appearance of the orbits of the different planets were. Ptolemy, for instance, used epicycles to explain the orbits and their relationships to the Earth. All three, each with their different schemes, using the same kinds of data, were only able to describe the appearance. It was left to Kepler to investigate the causality.

It is the same with the Thucydides Trap. Yes, indeed, there were sixteen cases from more modern examples, in which a rising power eclipses an entrenched power. Yet, as this article shall detail, the underlying causes for war are on a much deeper level. It is actually what might be described as the “Alcibiades Trap,” not the Thucydides Trap.

So Far So Good

A couple of details jump out as you read Allison’s book. First there is an accurate description, in the beginning of the book, of what China has achieved. In several charts from the chapter, “The biggest player in the history of the world,” the book makes several startling comparisons between China in the 1980s and China in 2014. It also compares these differences in China with the United States.

• In 1980 China’s GDP was 7% of the U.S. GDP; in 2014 it was 61%.

• In 1980 China’s imports were 8% of the U.S.A.; by 2014, they rose to 73%.

• In 1980 China’s exports were 8% of the U.S.A.; by 2014, they rose to 141%.

• In 1980 China’s foreign reserves were 16% of the U.S.A.; in 2014 they were an unbelievable 3,140%.

While the comparison is stunning, Allison points out further that in total terms of production, China is now already the largest producer in the world of ships, steel, aluminum, clothing, furniture, textiles, cell phones, and computers.

In another chart, projecting into the future, it gets even more interesting. In comparing China’s GDP and U.S. GDP:

• In 2004 China had a $5,709 billion GDP; the U.S.A. had $12,275 billion.

• In 2014 China had a $18,220 billion GDP; the U.S.A. had $17,393 billion.

• By 2024 China is projected to have $35,596 billion GDP; the U.S.A. $25,093 billion.

The book goes on to detail that China will graduate 1.3 million students in science and mathematics, compared to the United States graduating 300,000. China has the largest R&D budget in the world. China already has the fastest computer in the world, along with the largest radio telescope.

The book quotes from many western leaders such as former Prime Minister Rudd of Australia, and others, and makes the point that it is just wishful thinking that this miracle will at all subside. If anything, by 2050 the Chinese economy will be four times that of the United States.

With the evidence of the Chinese economic miracle that Alison provides, the obvious question should be: “What has China done right, and what are we doing wrong?” However, that topic is verboten for Allison and Kissinger.

Kissinger and Allison Get It Wrong!

After presenting his evidence of the Chinese economic miracle, Allison tries to make an analogy to Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, and it is here that he makes a fundamental axiomatic blunder. Yes, Thucydides does say from the very beginning of his history that the cause of the war between Athens and Sparta was, indeed, the eclipsing by Athens of Sparta, which was then the dominant power in Greece. That fact was argued explicitly by the Corinthians, Sparta’s erstwhile ally. They argued that sooner or later there would be a war and that the Spartans would be in a worse position if they did not declare the war right then and there.

Yet Allison, as would be the case for any Kissinger student, entirely misses that this so-called “Trap,” as described by Thucydides, only applies when two oligarchical powers clash over who will be hegemonic. The current leadership of China has made the point, repeatedly, that under no circumstances do they want to be hegemonic and replace one hegemon with another. The struggle for hegemony is rooted in the very oligarchical system itself, and the war which Thucydides describes falls within that oligarchical matrix.

The key to Thucydides’ treatment of the Peloponnesian War, is a section from that work called the Melian Dialogue. Allison even quotes the critical message delivered by the Athenian ambassador to the Melians: “We [Athenians] shall not trouble you with specious pretenses. . . . You know as well as we do that right is a question that only has meaning in relations between equals in power. In the real world the strong do what they will and the weak must suffer what they must.” That is the oligarchical outlook, one based on sheer might. What Allison neglects to point out is that the Melians fought heroically, and as their punishment for fighting, the Athenians put to death every male in Melos. This massacre was immortalized by Euripides, the Athenian tragedian who hated the war, in his play Hecuba, where he details the same type of massacre of the Trojans by the Greeks as was displayed in the massacre of the Melians. The point to be made is that imperial Athens had become an immoral disgusting abomination.

The immorality which overtook Athens was identical to the moral disease which dominated Sparta. This is defined precisely by Friedrich Schiller, in his insights into Sparta in his essay, The Legislation of Lycurgus and Solon . Unfortunately, both Kissinger and Allison have made a living by avoiding such profound insights. Kissinger’s scribbling about the Congress of Vienna, A World Restored, asserts the view that morality has no place in politics. In this, he is at best Kantian. He concedes that there may be such a thing as morality, but it is unknowable in any sufficient way to act on it. As weak mortals, we can only act to negate heteronomy, i.e., the “negation of negation.” There may be universal truths, and we may know them as a feeling, but they are unknowable in any scientific way. The awful result of such a mindset is that—for Kissinger and Allison—the idea that there is a new paradigm emerging, one which goes beyond geopolitics and functions on an entirely different orientation toward mankind’s future, is inconceivable. For them, only some kind of “cold war” is possible. Only the management of conflicts between new powers eclipsing entrenched powers is possible. Xi Jinping’s philosophy of Win-Win, to them, is an unknowable construct. This is the basis for the “Strategic Miscalculation” that President Xi is referring to.

The Alcibiades Trap: The Deeper Truth

We have no greater insight into the Peloponnesian war than the Platonic dialogue Alcibiades. It might shock you to know that the two men who founded Western civilization, Socrates and Plato, were violent opponents of the Peloponnesian War. In some sense, the disaster that struck Athens in the wake of Athens’ devastating defeat in that war, inspired Plato to inspire Athenians, in perhaps the most profound way in history, to rethink the basis for Government. Plato wrote many of his dialogues attacking the very sophistry which had led Athenian Democracy to war. Also, in the Alcibiades dialogue and in the Republic, he defines the necessary moral character for leadership. It is the deeper comprehension of Plato’s insight that gives us the key to avoid the Thucydides Trap today.

It was well known that Socrates, Euripides and Plato opposed the Peloponnesian war. Euripides was almost killed by the Athenian democracy for producing his plays Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis. In Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides demonstrates the absolute horror of human sacrifice that the Greeks had to commit in order mollify the Olympian gods and to launch the Trojan War. In Hecuba he details the unbelievable inhumanity of what was done by the Greeks to Troy in the wake of that city’s defeat. It was clearly understood by the Athenians of that time that these were no mere historic curiosities but polemics against the current war and, explicitly, against the horror that was committed against Melos. It was even said that Socrates had written some of the sections of Euripides’ plays.

There is critical background to the Alcibiades dialogue. The most disastrous adventure of the whole war was known as the Sicilian Expedition, which was launched by Alcibiades. Every Athenian reading the Alcibiades dialogue would know that. The dialogue was written more than a decade after the end of the war. It was the Sicilian expedition which was the beginning of the end that brought utter ruin to Athens. Alcibiades argued forcefully for the invasion of Sicily, which swayed the ‘Athenian Democracy’ to vote to invade Sicily under the guise of treaties with allies on that territory. The expedition was a thinly veiled attempt to increase the Athenian Empire in the midst of the war with Sparta. It is in the nature of Empire that Athens would have to aggrandize itself, to awe other Empires like Sparta and Persia. That was Alcibiades’ explicit argument. Sparta and Persia would never expect such audacity, and the invasion would gain their respect. If carried out and successful, all of the Greek states would join Athens.

As it turned out, the expedition was a total failure, in which some 20,000 or more Athenians and their allies were massacred (an enormous amount for that time), and most of their fleet was destroyed. The Athenian commanders were put to the sword, and the 7,000 soldiers who remained alive were sold into slavery. No Athenian could possibly not know what Plato was referring to in the Alcibiades dialogue.

Plato sets the dialogue before the disaster and sets it just as Alcibiades is about to enter the arena for the first time, to sway the Athenian democracy to his will and to take leadership of Athens. It begins with Socrates telling Alcibiades that he has kept watch over him, and the Gods have bid him to break his silence and speak. Alcibiades was of the noblest family and was trained by Pericles, the original spokesman for the Peloponnesian War.

The dialogue starts with the obvious irony, in which Socrates proves to Alcibiades that he has no idea of what Justice is. Through a series of questions about knowledge and what knowledge is, Socrates shows Alcibiades that his views are based only on opinion. Yet opinion about Justice, which Socrates draws out of Alcibiades, is unlike steering a boat, or mending a shoe. He has no assurance that what he believes is true. In fact, as Socrates demonstrates, nothing is more in dispute than the nature of Justice. In steering a boat, you do know if the man at the tiller is competent or not. In medicine, you know the same. There is a certain type of knowledge which is communicable with knowable results. So how would a 20-year-old youth plan to lead Athens in the making of war and peace? Socrates draws out of Alcibiades that the very subject of war and peace resides in the idea of Justice, of which he has no knowledge. He only has opinion.

Socrates: I do not suppose that you ever saw or heard of men quarreling over the principles of health and disease to such an extent as to go to war and kill one another for the sake of them.

Alcibiades: No indeed.

Socrates: But quarrels about justice and injustice, even if you have never seen them, you have certainly heard from many people, including Homer; for you have heard of the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Alcibiades: To be sure, Socrates.

Socrates: A difference of just and unjust is the argument of those poems.

Alcibiades: True.

Socrates: Which difference caused all the wars and deaths of Trojans and Achaeans and the deaths of the suitors of Penelope in their quarrel with Odysseus.

Alcibiades: Very true.

Socrates: . . . But can they be said to understand that about which they are quarreling to the death?

Alcibiades: Clearly not.

Socrates: And yet whom you thus allow to be ignorant are the teachers to whom you are appealing.

The dialogue shifts to the real subject in which Socrates demonstrates a different species of knowledge.

Socrates: Let me make an assertion which will, I think, be universally admitted.

Alcibiades: What is it?

Socrates: That a man is one of three things.

Alcibiades: What are they?

Socrates: Soul, body, or both together forming a whole.

Alcibiades: Certainly.

Socrates: . . . But since neither the body, nor the union of the two, is man, either man has no real existence, or the soul is the man?

Alcibiades: Just so.

Socrates: . . . ..And that is what I was saying before—that I, Socrates, am not arguing or talking with the face of Alcibiades, but the real Alcibiades; or in other words, with his soul.

Socrates goes on to prove that the soul rules the body.

Socrates: But he who cherishes his money, cherishes neither himself nor his belongings but is in a stage yet further removed from himself?

Socrates: . . .The reason was that I loved you for your own sake, whereas other men love what belongs to you; and your beauty, which is not you, is fading away, just as your true self is beginning to bloom. And I will never desert you, if you are not spoiled and deformed by the Athenian people; for the danger which I most fear is that you will become a lover of the people and will be spoiled by them. Many a noble Athenian has been ruined in this way.

. . .

Socrates: . . .Have we not made an advance? For we are at any rate tolerably well agreed as to what we are (the soul) and there is no longer any danger, as we once feared, that we might be taking care not of ourselves, but of something which is not ourselves.

Alcibiades: That is true.

Later on in the dialogue, Socrates makes the point, “But if we have no self-knowledge and no wisdom, can we ever know our own good and evil?”

Socrates goes on making it clear that without knowing yourself, i.e., “Your soul,” it is impossible to know what belongs to you and what does not. Further, if you do not know what belongs to you, you cannot know what belongs to others. “And if he knows not the affairs of others, he will not know the affairs of State? And such a man can never be a Statesman?” Socrates continues to prove that without self-wisdom and knowledge there is misery, because of the inability to solve problems, and this leads States to make terrible mistakes. He then tells Alcibiades, “You have not therefore to obtain power or authority, in order to enable you to do what you wish for yourself and the state, but justice and wisdom.” Finally with great irony the dialogue ends after Socrates details the nature of freedom, which is based only on virtue, and of slavery, which is Vice and Ruin.

Socrates: And are you now conscious of your own state? . . .And do you know how to escape out of a state which I do not even like to name . . . by the help of God . . .

Alcibiades: Strange but true; and henceforward I shall begin to think about justice.

Socrates ends with an incredible irony:

And I hope you will persist; although I have fears, not because I doubt you; but I see the power of the state, which may be too much for both of us.

So it is the corruption of the Demos (the People) that will be end of Alcibiades.

Is Morality Knowable?

Since the essence of the politics of war and peace is the question of Justice, and only the soul is capable of knowing Justice, then the real question to be asked is: Is there a scientific standard by which you can judge such questions?

The Alcibiades Trap rules out such questions entirely—thereby leading to the Kantian outlook, which is to strive to avoid bad consequences by negating our fundamental bestial instinct to rule over each other. In Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, he argues that only the rule of law prohibits us from our otherwise bestial instincts. “The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state; the natural state is one of war.” This is the mindset of Kissinger and his epigone, the imperial notion of British geopolitics. Imperialism claims that the Idea, which is the preamble to our Declaration of Independence, of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” is perhaps, a nice ideal, but ultimately chimerical and unknowable. The geopoliticians put the concept of the “General Welfare” in the U.S. Constitution into the same category—All we are capable of doing is prohibiting ourselves from killing each other. So the principle of Win-Win, or as Xi Jinping elaborates it as a “Shared Common Destiny” for mankind, is really only verbiage according to that Kantian outlook.

The Real Kissinger and Allison

In his strange chapter on the “Clash of Civilizations,” citing the “genius” of Samuel Huntington, one of the most evil men on the planet, Allison not only lets the geopolitical cat out of the bag; he gives it free rein. He defends Huntington’s thesis that, in the current era, new causes for wars are clashes of cultures. There is a very odd characterization of Confucian civilization and an even stranger view of Western civilization, both utterly fraudulent. He emphasizes minor points of difference between Confucian Civilization and Western Civilization, and then concludes with the grotesque claim that the causes for a war of annihilation between China and the West are located in these differences.

As Helga Zepp-LaRouche has developed in her discussion of Schiller and Confucius, it is, in fact, the universal characteristics which define human beings as human, that actually are the basis for escaping the Thucydides Trap.

Yet, ultimately, Allison returns to his basic theme, and insists that the real clash will be the inability of the entrenched power to acquiesce to an ascending power, short of war. For someone like Kissinger, the real point, which is the point that the Athenian Ambassador made to the Melians, is: “Right is a question which only has meaning for equals.” As Kissinger asserted years ago, in his NSSM 200 memo, the “balance of power” only has meaning for those who have power. For those who don’t have power: reduce their population. This is the dirty underbelly of Allison’s Thucydides Trap.

Stunning Incompetence or Willful Fraud?

Entirely missing from Allison’s analysis is any recognition or discussion of British imperial geopolitics. Every war of 19th Century and the 20th Century was a result of the British geopolitical commitment to maintain their dominance over all emerging powers, beginning with the Russo-Japanese war, manipulated by Britain against Russia, its ostensible geopolitical rival. While Allison’s book documents the extraordinary economic take-off of Japan, Germany, and the United States, not once is the question asked: Why this stunning take-off? Allison merely states that fact, yet makes no study as to why that fact is a fact.

In the same vein there is no reason for Kissinger and Allison to complain that America will be eclipsed by China. The Harvard idea that what made America great was “liberal Democracy”—and not the Hamiltonian Public Credit system of production—is incompetent beyond belief. Yet neither Kissinger nor Graham mention the American system even once in their elaboration of the wars of the 19th and 20th Century—the very time period which makes up the substance of the Harvard “Thucydides Study.” It is well known that the cause of the eclipsing by Japan of all the Asian powers, was the Meiji Restoration, an event which brought American republican economic methods to Japan. Similarly, Bismarck’s Germany began to eclipse Britain after it adopted the American system. Need it be said that we in the United States used our own system to eclipse Britain? So, Japan, Germany, and the United States all eclipsed the dominant, entrenched power, Britain, yet there is not one mention of Hamilton’s American System in the entire book.

Allison and Kissinger, in their dry, fact-filled academic recital, deal only with power. They do not distinguish between a system which brings progress to its people and one that brings wars and disaster to its people. Power Is Power. You cannot know Truth, and as a result Justice is also unknowable. The only question for Kissinger and Allison is: How can you keep the conflict below the level of war? There are no universal principles to be studied. You cannot make a moral judgment between different systems. Only the managing of insatiable conflicts, over the long term, is for them the real question.

The LaRouche Factor: A New Paradigm—Escaping the Thucydides Trap

The greatest scientific revolution of the Twentieth Century, arguably, was accomplished by Lyndon LaRouche. Henry Kissinger has hated LaRouche for more than forty years, precisely because LaRouche has insisted that morality or Truth, which is another way of saying the Good, can be defined by a scientific standard. Through his work on physical economics, LaRouche has obliterated the idea that the Good is unknowable.

In what can only be described as one of the most stunning forecasts Lyndon LaRouche ever made, he elaborates, in a book chapter, “The Dialogue of Eurasian Civilizations” (in Earth’s Next Fifty Years), the scientific principles by which mankind can successfully solve what seems to be a set of problems which threaten to destroy mankind as a whole.

LaRouche gets at the core of the issue, with the science of the Good. It is identified by a Dialogue of Civilizations, based on creativity, per se. Not rules or formulas, but creative discovery of principles of the universe and the cultures that allow mankind to do that.

The central thesis of LaRouche’s book is there are two preconditions for such a dialogue. One is that this dialogue can only be had by sovereign Nation States. The return to such a system breaks the Anglo-Dutch system’s hold over the world economic system. LaRouche forecast this in 2004, nine years before the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative. China, in introducing the Belt and Road, has actually laid the basis for a return to sovereign nation states negotiating their future without that Anglo-American imperial veto. This is most clearly seen today in the return of sovereignty in Africa.

LaRouche’s second precondition for such a serious discussion of the Dialogue of Civilizations is that it must focus on the idea of physical economics. LaRouche’s discoveries in physical economics are most succinctly defined by the concept of the Noösphere, which was developed by Vladimir Vernadsky. Real economics is about expanding mankind’s cognitive power in the universe; it is not reduced to money or accounting. It is defined by the relationship of creative discovery by mankind to the biosphere. It is this creative discovery which defines mankind as a unique species. This concept forms the only true basis for a valid Dialogue of Civilizations. Mankind is the most powerful “Geological force” on the planet. Mankind, as a species, increases the rate of free energy for the biosphere as a whole. This impact, identified by LaRouche, is measured by increases in the rate of increase of “Relative Potential Population Density.”

In this chapter, LaRouche develops in depth both the nature of creativity per se and the concrete actions to be taken to secure the future of mankind as a whole. In the section, “A Fixed Exchange Rate System,” LaRouche makes the point clearly:

We must bring to an end the delusion that issues of what is called “culture” could be competently separated from the issue of economy, or that principles of economy might be competently adduced from whatever were chosen as a set of ecumenical cultural values. . ..

The issue of culture is the issue of truth, as the Platonic dialectical method provides a formal standard of truthfulness: not the “absolute truth” of particular ideas of the moment, but the truth of freedom from the effects of reckless disregard for those notions of truthfulness which are best identified with that conception which I have labeled throughout this report as “the living word.” By “truthfulness,” we should intend to say, “A quality of that which is presently knowable.” Even if what is argued were formally correct, without a standard of truthfulness, there is no truth in what is believed, and, as a consequence, society may freely careen from one Sophists’-like catastrophe of uncertainty to another. Thus, the idea of truthfulness in policy-making depends upon engaging the populations of each culture in the kind of process I have summarily outlined here. We bring cultures together, by evoking a common experience of living words by means specifically appropriate to the background of shared, or at a minimum, shareable experience.

The object must be, therefore, not a compromise among differing opinions, but a search for the higher truths, . . .

These brief paragraphs give you a sense of the level of specificity with which LaRouche addresses the question of Truth as the basis for the emergence of the New Paradigm.

The Alcibiades Trap is defined in these new terms of reference. There really is no Thucydides Trap. It is an empty construct, a way of managing the status quo from the standpoint of the British Empire. Mr. Kissinger, Mr. Allison: China will never submit. The rest of the world will never submit. Since there is a fundamental genius on the planet well known by you since 1971, you have no excuse for your new cold war!