When a severely fractured, rudderless United States confronts an increasingly powerful, assertive China does war between great powers become inevitable? An ongoing project by Graham Allison and researchers at Harvard’s Belfer Center is dedicated to investigating this historically-tested risk, what scholars call the Thucydides Trap. Namely, can global power shifts between nations occur peacefully?
The Trap was conceived by Thucydides who sought to identify the principal causes of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E). The main protagonists could not have been more distinct. Athens was a bustling civilization based on democratic principles and commerce. With a powerful naval fleet, it developed far-reaching trade ties and alliances with other city-states, securing influence and prosperity. Traditionally rooted to the land, Sparta was the established regional hegemon. Oligarchic, militaristic, and inward-looking, Spartans nervously noted the expanding Athenian empire and its growing defensive strength.
While Thucydides notes multiple factors that led to the conflict (particularly entangling alliances and war-mongering leaders), he cites the crucial fuse as competitive power politics. “The growth of Athenian power and the alarm this caused in Sparta” he writes is what ultimately made the conflict inevitable. As the growing power pulls its weight, assuming greater influence and receiving more support, the faltering power fears the loss of power, prestige, and security. While Sparta triumphed in the war, continued conflict weakened the rivals and promoted the rise of a new power: Macedonia.
Allison and his researchers look at 16 instances of significant power transitions (a mixture of regional and global cases) stretching back 500 years. Twelve of those ended in war. The unfortunate conclusion is conflict between rising and stagnating powers is highly probable, if not inevitable. Even in the four peaceful cases, Allison writes, “it required huge, painful adjustments in the attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger, but also the challenged.” But the researchers note, more research is needed to precisely pinpoint the factors promoting peaceful transitions.
To that end, let’s look at a South American example: Brazil’s pacific eclipse of Argentina.
Should we samba or tango?
Peace between the Latin American neighbors was never assured. On three separate occasions (Cisplatine War [1825-8], Uruguayan Civil War [1839-51], and Platine War [1851-2]), Brazilians and Argentines fought each other for influence over the Rio de la Plata region. Tempers crescendoed until the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) waged between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay against Paraguay, the bloodiest war in Latin American history.
After independence, Paraguay had become an insular, closed society and economy. However, its protectionism spurred local industrial development and relative prosperity. A student of European military history, dictator Solano López quickly modernized the national military while mandating compulsory military service for males. A vocal admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, he dreamed of eventually annexing Brazilian territory to have direct access to the ocean.
Distrustful of this emergent power, Brazil removed an Uruguayan president that was deemed too sympathetic toward Paraguay. Upset at the apparent lack of deference, Paraguay responded by declaring war on Brazil and invading Mato Grosso. After Argentina prohibited Paraguayan troops from passing through its sovereign borders, Paraguay declared war on Argentina. What was supposed to be a several month mop-up effort devolved into a brutal six year conflict. The results for Paraguay were devastating. Casualty estimates vary, but Paraguay likely lost 40-50 percent of its population and forfeited 40 percent of its territory. Some 50,000 to 75,000 Brazilians and Argentines died and both governments racked up considerable international debts that took decades to repay. Although Paraguay was not likely a first-rank regional rival to Brazil or Argentina, the severe punishment inflicted on the country and the duration of the conflict demonstrated how seriously Brazil and Argentina felt threatened by the new upstart. Like ancient Greece, when the status quo was threatened, the regional hegemons favored conflict over accommodation.
By 1900, Argentina was the leader of South America. While Brazil had a larger population and territory, after four decades of 6% annual growth, Argentina was vastly wealthier with a GDP per capita placing it among the richest countries in the world. The only Portuguese-speaking country in the hemisphere, Brazil seemed largely content to resolve lingering border disputes and shift its focus to domestic issues. For the intervening decades, Brazil and Argentina avoided direct conflict. Political instability and repeated economic crises in both countries reduced their ability to think much outside their national borders. Nevertheless, for most of the 19th and 20th century, distrust between governments simmered. Economic nationalism and import substitution industrialization blocked any serious efforts to promote trade or cultural ties.
Meanwhile, multiple arms races from dreadnoughts to space programs and nuclear weapons drove increasingly antagonistic defense policies. Gradually Brazil’s economic development and concordant aspirations for regional influence caught up with its historic rival. After the 1960s, bipolarity transitioned towards clear Brazilian regional primacy. Yet, contrary to Thucydides’ fear, rivals slowly morphed into cordial colleagues.
Not always inevitable
Even as the military dictatorships that governed Brazil and Argentina (in the case of the latter intermittently) after 1964, identified their neighbor as a potential security threat, the nations started crucial trust-building exercises that reduced the potential for conflict between neighbors.
When Brazil and Paraguay concluded negotiations to construct the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, Itaipu, some Argentines expressed concern that the project was a defensive scheme to divert water from downstream basins or limit river navigability. Despite initial suspicions on both sides, though, the countries slowly negotiated a consensus that recognized Brazil’s right to build the dam and Argentina’s right to construct the smaller Yacyretá Dam downstream. Against CIA expectations, both countries rewrote new national security doctrines and negotiated agreements to permit the mutual inspection of nuclear facilities and develop shared missile ballistics technology. Finally, when Argentina launched an ill-advised war against the United Kingdom to reclaim the Falkland Islands, Brazil supported Argentina’s position.
Increased collaboration begat further cooperation and positive externalities, particularly freer trade and greater support for regional democratization. By reducing the security dilemma, the two nations could deepen political and economic ties that further reduced security concerns. This virtuous cycle culminated with the signing of the Integration and Economics Cooperation Program (PICE), which became the foundation for Mercosur. Since 1991, all participants from the War of the Triple Alliance peacefully entered a bloc promoting greater economic, political, and social integration.
In Seattle, Xi Jingping remarked, “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap, but should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.” While Brazil and Argentina are not the United States and China, the South American neighbors offer keen lessons.
To overcome 150 years of suspicion and competition, Brazil and Argentina needed to demonstrate strategic imagination. First, they identified key overlapping development interests. Tackling energy issues during the 1970s-oil crisis proved a reasonable starting point, but the two nations quickly moved to target the principal concern: security. They capitalized on positive momentum to address crucial issues like missile ballistics and nuclear programs. To administer these agreements, the two nations developed bilateral commissions and institutions like those monitoring the Paraná River or nuclear facilities. Once trust was established, it was infinitely easier to reach agreements on less existential issues like democracy promotion and trade. While multilateral fora like the United Nations and the Organization of American States provided key diplomatic channels, Brazil and Argentina created news institutions like Mercosur that could respond to their specific needs and concerns.
Finally, while increased engagement and dialogue is not without friction, it created a virtuous circle. Argentina’s largest trading partner is Brazil. Argentina is Brazil’s third largest export and import destination. Strolling the promenades of Buenos Aires, Brazilian Portuguese mingles with the staccato of tango chords. Argentine steakhouses have exploded across the neighborhoods of São Paulo. Growing cross-border awareness of music, telenovelas, and football (soccer) highlight shared passions. Gaucho culture spans borders. In 2007, their first joint space mission successfully launched a rocket into space and currently they are designing joint military kit: the KC-390 cargo plane and the VLEGA 4×4 vehicle.
As Brazil’s influence as a BRIC nation and global ambition grew in the past decade, it did not threaten their special relationship with Argentina. New Argentine and Brazilian leaders make their first official foreign visit to their counterpart. As both nation’s confront difficult political and economic circumstances, the solution appears to be deeper integration.
This path was never preordained. Frequently, critics allege Mercosur has been a typical Latin American integration scheme: more rhetoric than action. Yet, they miss the crucial counterpoint. Mercosur embodies a successful four-decade effort to avoid the Thucydides Trap. Other nations should take note.
Grant Burrier is an Assistant Professor of Politics & History at Curry College.