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THE FOUR TRAPS

Excerpt 

GREAT-POWER COMPETITION AND 
THE RISING US-CHINA RIVALRY
TOWARDS A NEW NORMAL?
Bart Gaens & Ville Sinkkonen (eds.)
Source: Finnish Institute of International Affairs
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All four traps are based on empirically-driven historical analogies. Im-portant difference exist in the ease with which their historiography can be transposed onto the present time. Two of the traps – the Thucydides Trap and the Ibn Khaldun Trap – originate from the 5th century BC and 
 the 14th century. By contrast, the Kindleberger Trap and the Kennedy trap are born out of 20th century experiences, which more easily apply to the 21st century despite technological and structural changes.Mindful of the Difficulty in interpreting classical texts outside of their own socio-ecolog-ical system, and of the care required of international-relations scholars 
to interpret political philosophy from classical and medieval times, I rely on authoritative understandings of these works instead of my own understanding of the original texts.70

 ♦️ The Thucydides Trap
The most famous of the traps is the deadly Greek trap in which the fear of a hegemonic power sparks catastrophic war with a rising power. In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides writes “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”71 A great deal of controversy exists as to whether this really reflects what Thucydides meant. Quite regardless of Thucy-dides’ meaning, Donald Kagan disputes that Athens was rising, punching a rather big hole in the principal causal factor driving the ‘Thucydides 
Trap’.72 Scholars have generally been unhappy with how international relations theorists have interpreted Thucydides’ work to fit their own 
purposes, without the requisite knowledge to understand classical texts (or China’s rise).73 Whether true to its original meaning, Thucydides’ statement has been widely adopted as a metaphor for great-power tran-
sition, particularly its dangers. Both Organski’s power transition theory and Gilpinian realism see great-power  wars as most likely to occur when a rising challenger is about to surpass a declining hegemonic power.74 Some 
debate exists as to whether the rising power attacks first in an attempt to turn the tables on the dominant power or whether the dominant power launches a preventive war against the rising power. The former perspec-tive is associated with Organski and Kugler’s power transition theory, the latter with Gilpin.75 Both perspectives stress the rising power’s incentives to establish, and then take advantage of, its own rules of the game, more explicitly conceptualized as status quo dissatisfaction in Organski and Kugler’s theory.

♦️ The Kindleberger Trap

The Kindleberger Trap refers to the failure of the rising power to provide international public goods once the dominant power has lost the abil-ity to singlehandedly provide them. Public goods have two properties, non-rival benefits and non-exclusion.76 They are goods everyone can enjoy without diminishing anyone else’s enjoyment. Since no one can be excluded from the benefits, this creates a dilemma. When everyone is able to benefit from public goods without limitation, no one will contribute to their realization. If no one contributes, public goods will fail. Exam-ples of international public goods are free trade, international security and international financial stability. While everyone has an interest in their realization, the extent to which any single country can afford to contribute will depend on its size. Despite having an interest in seeing public goods succeed, small countries cannot afford to make the sizeable contributions required to fully provide the good. Even if they contribute to their utmost ability, the good will not become available. They simply cannot enjoy the public good unless large actors also contribute. Since small countries’ contributions do not significantly affect the availability of the good, they face weak incentives to chip in with their small con-tributions and strong incentives to freeride on large contributions. By contrast, an exceptionally large actor has the wherewithal to make the big contributions required to fully provide the good. Since systemically large countries’ independent contributions are sufficient for everyone to enjoy the public good, they have strong incentives to contribute even as smaller countries freeride on their big contributions.

The lessons drawn by Charles Poor Kindleberger of the failed he-gemonic transition during the interwar years inspired Joseph S. Nye’s  Kindleberger Trap.77 Kindleberger blamed the severity of the Great De-pression on the United States’ failure to lead when the flailing Great Brit-ain no longer had the capacity to fully provide the public good of financial stability.78 Had the United States stepped in to cover the public good 
burden of ensuring financial stability, the Great Depression may have been averted. By analogy, as the United States declines and is unable to  provide the public goods undergirding the contemporary international 
order, China should pitch in to ensure their adequate supply.

♦️ The Kennedy Trap

Perhaps better known as the “imperial overstretch myth”, I introduce a second quagmire, the Kennedy Trap, which sees the dominant actor’s international security role as triggering economic decline, sparking rel-ative decline and ultimately absolute decline.79 According to the British historian Paul Kennedy, all great powers in the West from the 16th century onwards have succumbed to a similar quandary: military expansion has driven a downward security-economic spiral towards absolute decline. 

In his magisterial work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he charts the well-trodden path whereby military over-extension results in a higher defense-to-GDP burden, higher budget deficits and public debt with a squeeze on productive investment.80 The detrimental consequences roll over into ensuing economic decline, which continues to reverberate 
negatively on the country’s military capability. Emphasizing the favora-ble effect of a strong economy on military might while de-emphasizing the favorable impact of a strong military capability on economic might, 
the Kennedy Trap dooms the dominant military power to failure and decline. Kennedy famously predicted that the United States would meet the same fate.


♦️The Ibn Khaldun Trap

In the Ibn Khaldun Trap, networks support each other and rise to power under a dominant leader, only to see group loyalty recede as they fight over the spoils of conquest and the leader of the pack seeks to consolidate power, resulting in the group’s ousting by another network with stronger social ties. Ibn Khaldun proposed a cyclical theory of the rise and fall of   dynasties. The concept of Asabiyyah, a strong group feeling, esprit de corps and shared identity, is central to his theory. A tribe held together by Asabiyyah conquers a polity and succumbs to weakness, profligacy 
and declining solidarity, making it easy prey for a more socially cohesive  tribe.81 Scholars of Arab literature and Islam, as well as geographers and anthropologists, have seen leadership as integral to Ibn Khaldun’s Asa-
biyyah.82 For them, leadership is required for social cohesion. A leader is critical to the success of the ascendant group, which will fail to “form a harmonious whole except when arranged hierarchically with an un-disputed leader at the top”.83 However, once the summit of power has been attained, the leader propels dynastic decline by undermining “the  solidarity of his own supporters as he seeks to assert his royal domi-nance”.84 In the West, Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory has been interpreted as pertaining to tribal societies based on “blood ties”, namely “family ties”, although it is unclear whether such ties were essential to Khaldun’s theory. According to Alrefai and Burn, Ibn Khaldun repeatedly says so-cial cohesion, “… derives more from a long history of companionship and joint efforts than from genealogies based on blood ties”.85 While it is clear that Ibn Khaldun’s social cohesion does not exclude affinity based on “blood ties”, his theory likely includes affinity based on ties other than blood, particularly broader “ethnic ties”, including ties not based on kinship as well as ties beyond ethnicity based on other forms of social cohesion.



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