It’s fear that causes war. Ask Thucydides

| April 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

A citizen-soldier of Ancient Greece. Thucydides said the Peloponnesian War began from the Spartans’ fear after the rise in power of Athens.

By Fen Osler Hampson
and Len Edwards

It is now a matter of official government policy that Canada sees itself as a nation of the Asia-Pacific in what many are now calling “the Pacific century”— a century that will be increasingly dominated by China and many of the emerging economies of the Asia-Pacific region such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.

The policies of the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper are now primarily focused on developing and strengthening our trading and investment ties with key countries in the region, including Japan, which has long been an ally and close friend of Canada.

However, as it courts the different countries of the region, Canada is fast discovering that there is every expectation that our relations will also include a strong security dimension. In the Asia-Pacific, prosperity and regional security go hand-in-hand. Our new partners won’t just let us “do” economics. They want a much broader and deeper set of engagements in our evolving partnerships.

In the past, Canada was an energetic and deeply committed security partner in the region. This July marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice, that ended the Korean War — a war in which our navy and army were actively deployed in a military action against an aggressor nation and 516 servicemen gave their lives in combat.

In the 1980s, under the government of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s creative diplomacy in Northeast Asia laid the conceptual foundations for what eventually came to be known as the Six Party Talks on North Korea, though we were not a party to that exercise.

In the 1990s, Canada, with its Indonesian partners, conducted “informal diplomacy” for conflict prevention in the South China Sea by fostering dialogue among East and Southeast Asian nations on a wide range of issues that included putting some imaginative ideas for environmental protection and joint resource development on the table — ideas that were welcomed at the time by senior Chinese participants in those talks.

In the harsh fiscal climate of the late 1990s, our enthusiasm for innovative engagement in the region waned. Our security commitments today operate on a much narrower bandwidth that is essentially limited to those areas where we have compelling national interests such as combating the scourge of human smuggling, counterterrorism and nuclear non-proliferation (through our membership in the Proliferation Security Initiative — PSI — that was launched under the administration of George W. Bush in an attempt to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions).

The major challenge today is that the security dynamics of the region are changing dramatically with uncertain consequences that create their own dilemmas for our future engagement.

In the period 1945-1975, the Asia Pacific region was the most violent and conflict-ridden of the globe. It has since become one of the most peaceful as the countries of the region have embraced capitalism and economic growth with a vengeance. But will the region’s peace and prosperity last?

The tectonic plates of the international system are now shifting with the rise of China and the unsettling consequences of China’s newfound assertiveness vis-à-vis its neighbours. Some commentators believe that history is not on the side of a peaceful transition with China’s rise. That is because, since the times of ancient Greece, great power transitions in world politics have typically had deeply unsettling consequences. As Thucydides wrote about the origins of the Peloponnesian War, it was the rise in the power of Athens and the fear created in Sparta that led to war. Since the origin of the modern Westphalian inter-state system, such massive transformations experienced as major and unanticipated shifts in the tides of history have stoked the fires of great power war in five out of the six occasions.

Those same commentators believe that this drama is now being re-enacted in the U.S.’s relations with China. Like Athens, which bullied its smaller neighbours in the Aegean Sea, China is now doing the same as it asserts its territorial claims in the South and East China seas.

To others, there is much more stability in the international system because of the deep bonds of economic interdependence and global production value chains. In terms of great power relations, they argue that the U.S. and China have simply too much at stake to re-enact Thucydides’ account of the origins of the Peloponnesian War.

Related to this view is the notion that China is likely to continue along a path leading to greater integration into the international system. Despite a revolutionary period in the early history of the People’s Republic, China is now reconciled to modern diplomacy and international law; indeed, it is rapidly becoming more skilful in employing these practices.

There is, in our opinion, more truth to the second proposition than the first.
Nonetheless, however much war has been devalued and delegitimized as an instrument of national policy over the decades, it may be unwise to discount the chance that major state rivalry, structural tests of strength or sheer miscalculation could trigger outbreaks of inter-state war, including in the Asia-Pacific.

We also cannot take continued domestic political stability in the region for granted. Writing in 2005, former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski foresaw that “the central challenge of our time is posed not by global terrorism, but rather by the intensifying turbulence caused by the phenomenon of global political awakening. That awakening is socially massive and politically radicalizing.” This scenario foresaw that the world’s somnolent would rise into political awareness and demand change in the relation between rulers and the ruled.

Most attention has focused on the roots of this regional phenomenon and on predicting the future of this explosion of Arab street power. However, this awakening movement is a global phenomenon that is being experienced in places as diverse as the post-Soviet states and other autocracies, including China. The behaviour of leaders in these places suggests that — whatever we may think of the likely scenarios — they consider themselves to be much more vulnerable than previously to spontaneous pressures from “below” and may seek to divert popular discontent by manufacturing foreign policy crises with neighbours, especially on territorial issues about which public sentiment is the most intense.

A careful examination of scenarios that could draw the U.S. and China (or China and various combinations of neighbours, such as Japan, the Philippines, India, or Pakistan) into armed hostilities leads to the recognition that peaceful co-existence is not inevitable. And it likewise leads to a heightened appreciation of the importance of managing and deflecting these risks through imaginative diplomacy and regional confidence-building measures of the kind that reduced tensions between East and West during the Cold War and allowed for a peaceful transition when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended.

Many western countries, Canada among them, are now handicapped by deficits, debt and investor pessimism. Budget cuts and loss of popular support for the wars tightened the schedule for military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan despite the continuing violence in both countries.

In the U.S., the increased focus on Asia implies a very different kind of fighting force than has been produced in the last 10 years. No matter how the relationship with China is worked out over the next decade, from a military point of view, the focus will probably pivot from emphasizing large land-based forces toward highly mobile and technologically capable naval and air forces.
Canada will have to decide whether it wishes to follow the U.S. security pivot to Asia, recognizing that as we engage China economically, our own national interests are not necessarily in complete alignment with the U.S. on all security and economic matters.

Those countries in the region that are in transition may also need a variety of responses, including help countering violent extremism, talking to unpalatable opponents, strengthening regional organizations and their capacity to manage conflict and training local police and security forces.
Beyond great power and regional rivalries, there is a wide range of new security challenges, such as cybercrime and espionage, natural disaster management, transnational crime and drug trafficking that will command policymakers’ attention.

There is no shortage of things Canada can do with the myriad new challenges of this fast-changing security environment in the Asia-Pacific. But we can’t do everything and we are going to have to make some tough choices in terms of where we engage, with whom we work, and, more fundamentally, what we do.


Len Edwards retired as a career diplomat after 41 years, the most recent of which were spent as the prime minister’s G8 and G20 representative and as deputy minister of foreign affairs. Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

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Category: Diplomatica

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