The Thucydides Trap: How to stop the looming war between China and the U.S.

The Thucydides Trap leads us to believe a U.S.-China war is inevitable. But is a 2,400-year-old school of thought really what the U.S. should base its foreign policy on?

Thucydides, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping
Is war with China inevitable? The U.S. must stop basing its foreign policy on 2,400 year old schools of though.

Brutality and warfare have followed humankind wherever we have gone. Throughout the years there have been epic battles between people that have been carved into Neolithic caves and immortalized in the Homeric Hymns. If we were naive enough, we might actually believe that this was the only mode of human existence and interaction.

By looking at the historical clashes of nations we can learn how the ancients overcame adversity through warfare and early types of diplomacy. Studying the choices of ancient nations can also prompt us to ask whether these solutions are still relevant to us today. Everyone now faces a new enemy worldwide that we must face together: ourselves. In a globalized and interconnected cultural ecosystem such as ours, we are required to come up with solutions for the common good of the world.

Through diplomatic and humanitarian efforts we can enter into a new world stage where peace and prosperity are the norm and diplomacy is the ultimate goal of those in power.

Revisiting the Thucydides Trap with China

Harvard Professor and political scientist Graham T. Allison has weighed the historical theory told originally by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides and put it into perspective with current U.S.-Chinese relations. In History of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), Thucydides writes:

"War began when the Athenians and the Peloponnesians broke the Thirty Years Truce which had been made after the capture of Euboea. As to the reasons why they broke the truce, I propose first to give an account of the causes of complaint which they had against each other and of the specific instances where their interests clashed: this is in order that there should be no doubt in anyone's mind about what led to this great war falling upon the Hellenes. But the real reasoning for the war is, in my opinion, most likely to be disguised by such an argument. What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta."

Allison coined the term 'Thucydides Trap' to describe the idea that when one great power is rising it will inevitably threaten to displace the established power, consistently resulting in war.

Allison believes that this doesn't have to be the case, and David C. Kang, Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California who spoke with Big Think recently, also believes that the Thucydides Trap must be avoided at all costs.

Throughout time, the Thucydides Trap has been reenacted multiple times across the world stage. Allison writes that over the past 500 years, of 16 documented cases where one rising power threatened to displace a ruling one, 12 resulted in war.

We're all unconsciously familiar with this phenomenon. If you're an American, it's part of the history that's celebrated every year: The United States rebelled against the British Empire and war was waged in the 18th century, a victory that led to America overtaking Britain as the world's dominant superpower in the 20th century.

The Battle of Long Island. (Wikimedia Commons)

While there are lingering fears that China's rapid economic and political growth will leave us in a similar state of competition and warfare, many great thinkers believe that we can avoid this trap. Professor Allison thinks we can avoid war with China by taking into account five lessons from the Cold War:

  • War between nuclear superpowers can't work because of “mutual assured destruction" or MAD.
  • The nuclear paradox: Leaders must be prepared to engage in a war they may not be able to win just to intimidate adversaries. If war occurs, both nations lose and millions die. See the above point.
  • The superpowers must define a list of “precarious rules of the status quo ... By reaching agreements on contentious issues, the United States and China can create space to cooperate on challenges..."
  • Domestic performance is just as important as what a nation does abroad. The U.S.'s democratic-capitalist model must succeed at home to win against Xi's Leninist-Mandarin authoritarian model, and vice versa.
  • Coherent, concrete policy strategies for dealing with China must be created. As Allison succinctly puts it: "Hope is not a strategy."

Leaders must realize that all-out war spells the end of the human race when it comes to superpowers with nuclear weapon stockpiles. This is planetary suicide and there won't be any game theorists or policymakers left to debate the outcome.

Even so, military men in Washington and Beijing must play through these wargames in their minds in order to keep the risk of total annihilation a thought that must never be acted upon. They must both do their best to deter potential actions that could lead to this world-ending situation. This same idea must be applied between all nuclear powers, which makes it relevant for curbing any battle between nuclear superpowers.

Policy, or "precarious rules of the status quo" as President John F. Kennedy called it during the Cold War, must be enacted to ensure arms-control treaties are upheld and mutual guidelines might limit any future cyber attacks or border disputes between allies. Also by ensuring domestic performance and international policy are on the forefront, our diplomatic channels will always be open with a rising power. Thus we can reduce the challenges of the Thucydides Trap arising once more.

Allison believes that this will lead to more prosperous times in America and around the world—particularly at a time when he believes America needs it the most. In Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?, Graham Allison states:

“I am a congenital optimist about America, but I worry that American democracy is exhibiting fatal symptoms. DC has become an acronym for Dysfunctional Capital: a swamp in which partisanship has grown poisonous, relations between the White House and Congress have paralyzed basic functions like budgets and foreign agreements, and public trust in government has all but disappeared.
These symptoms are rooted in the decline of a public ethic, legalized and institutionalized corruption, a poorly educated and attention-deficit-driven electorate, and a 'gotcha' press — all exacerbated by digital devices and platforms that reward sensationalism and degrade deliberation. Without stronger and more determined leadership from the president and a recovery of a sense of civic responsibility among the governing class, the United States may follow Europe down the road of decline."

Roots of historical diplomacy

There is some scant evidence that proto-diplomatic practices existed in some of the earliest of civilizations. We do know that the Romans used envoys to spread their messages in the late antiquities.

Left: The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, between the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire of Anatolia. Right: A French ambassador in Ottoman dress, painted by Antoine de Favray, 1766, Pera Museum, Istanbul.

One notable instance of early diplomacy was between the Pharaoh of Egypt and rulers of the Hittite Empire in 1274 BCE. There is evidence on a stone tablet that a peace treaty was signed between the two rulers and it is considered one of the first known international peace accords.

Some of our earliest foundations of modern diplomatic practices can be traced to medieval Europe and beyond. In nation-states that were emerging during the 14th to 16th century (in the early days of the Renaissance) diplomacy was beginning to be conducted between ambassadors and consuls of different countries. These professional diplomats would eventually form into the ambassador practices we use today.

Furthermore, the Italian city-states began to develop new forms of diplomacy as their empires grew richer and stronger. For example, a city state such as Milan would send a resident diplomat on a mission with a clear code of conduct. This was a new way of thinking about intrastate and international relations. Italian diplomatic culture began to lead the way forward as these missions would become the equivalent of our modern permanent resident diplomatic missions.

Globalization's effect on avoiding future wars

There have been many false starts and stops with the future of a globalized network of peaceful interaction. For example, after World War I the impetus to join the League of Nations with the herculean efforts shown by President Woodrow Wilson were largely ignored by opposition in the Senate. The onset of World War II would prove that this was a failed endeavor for striving towards world peace.

Eventually, the United Nations was created with the hope that it would ensure diplomatic international cooperation on a global scale. It now boasts over 193 members and it just could be one of the ways we deal with future clashes between nations.

The UN's mission to ensure peace between nations has been challenged throughout the years, but arguably upheld as we have never experienced a massive all-out war between two superpowers.

As a result of international governing bodies like the UN and increased communication lines between foreign powers, we've slowly built up a world political apparatus that can withstand potentialities of war. The Thucydides Trap is just that—a potential trap, but not a destiny.

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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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