Senior White House aide Steve Bannon became obsessed with a book depicting an apocalyptic worldview about civilization’s second coming after a “trial by fire.”
The book, “The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny,” claims that every 80 to 100 years, the world cycles through a cataclysmic event that upsets the “old ways” of doing things and brings in a new one “in a trial of fire.”
According to Politico Magazine, the Trump administration brought in Graham Allison, a foreign policy scholar who served under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. His purpose was to address Trump’s National Security Council on America’s financial and trade battle with China before Chinese officials arrive Wednesday. But the group looked at it through the lens of the Peloponnesian War 2,500 years ago.
“What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta,” Allison cited Greek scholar Thucydides.
Allison is fearful the same could happen to the top two powers in the world today: the United States and China. He calls it the “Thucydides Trap.”
Yale University historian Donald Kagan called Thucydides’s depiction of the war “a source of wisdom about the behavior of human beings under the enormous pressures imposed by war, plague, and civil strife.” He’s considered to be the father of the “realist” school of international relations that maintains that nations act out of self-interest and not ideology, values or morality.
“In the real world, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must,” an Athenian ambassador described.
The Greek historian is “essential,” according to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who has taught it to students and quoted it in speeches and op-eds.
Gen. James Mattis has also quoted him. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen introduced him at a hearing, saying Mattis was probably the only person present “who can hear the words ‘Thucydides Trap’ and not have to go to Wikipedia to find out what it means.”
NSC spokesman Michael Anton owns two copies, saying, “The acid test for me is: Do you read the Hobbes translation?” he says. “If you’ve read that translation, you’ve got my respect.”
While the NSC is well versed, that’s not exactly the case in Trump’s White House, where Bannon is likely the only one fascinated with the conflict. Bannon even revealed that he used “Sparta” as one of his computer passwords, according to The Daily Beast. A former colleague of Bannon’s revealed to the New Yorker that he would go on “long diatribes” about the Peloponnesian War. He even related the feud between Breitbart News and Fox News as similar to the war, with Breitbart as Sparta challenging the Athenian Fox.
“Most people in Washington have almost no historical memory or grounding,” Allison says. “Mattis reads a lot of books. McMaster can quote more central lines from more books than anybody I know. And Bannon reads a huge amount of history. So I think this is an unusual configuration.”
Politico reports that there is no evidence that Trump has ever read the Athenian historian much less any Greek history, despite his claim, “I love the Greeks. Oh, do I love them,” Trump said during a Greek Independence Day event in March. “Don’t forget, I come from New York—that’s all I see is Greeks, they are all over the place.”
“I think their knowledge of Thucydides might remind them that the world works according to perceived self-interest, not necessarily idealism as expressed in the General Assembly of the U.N.,” Thucydides expert Victor Davis Hanson said. “That does not mean they are cynical as much as they are not naïve.”
A military conflict with China would be a global disaster, according to Politico, but Allison thinks it is possible. His book outlines 16 case studies where a country like Sparta (or the U.S.) was confronted by growing rivals like Athens (or China). In 12 out of 16 cases war was the result and only four ended in peace.
“I am writing this history to help people not make mistakes,” Allison explained.
But Bannon has long been seeking a major destabilizing event that can lead to rebuilding a new country after a war. A conflict with China would do exactly that.
Bannon has previously predicted that the United States would be at war with China within a decade.
“We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years,” he said in March 2016. “There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face – and you understand how important face is – and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.”
At the same time, Bloomberg reported Tuesday that China invited Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Chinese President Xi Jinping verbally offered to host the family in China during his recent trip to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
Trump spent the 2016 campaign railing against China as a currency manipulator but quickly changed his tune in April 2017.
“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” Trump tweeted. “We will see what happens!”
During a visit to Seattle in Sept. 2015 Xi said that there is “no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world.” He added that influential nations “time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”
Senior Trump administration officials complained to Politico that the U.S. has worked to try and influence China’s communism through Western economic influences. It hasn’t worked. Still, no one is clear on what Trump’s policy will be.
“If you’re worried about the Thucydides Trap, then you try to adopt a set of policies that reduce the threat of confrontation, and ultimately seek to reassure China,” former Obama NSC Asia Director Evan Medeiros said. “That’s very different from the hard-core realist view of the world, especially with people like Bannon.”
The NSC members intend to use the Peloponnesian War to avoid a conflict and it’s unclear if Bannon will use it as a roadmap to encourage one.