History – the science of change
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History – the science of change

I have made many posts in this blog referring to history.  This post takes another look at my fondness for history and my belief in its value for the world today.  Among others, I refer to two excellent articles in PRISM.

History is the best textbook. Studying the history of the party and the country is a required course for upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics and continuing to advance the cause of the party and the country.

President of China, Xi Jinping, 2020

Knowledge of the trials and struggles (of the past) is necessary to all who would comprehend the problems, perils, challenges, and opportunities which confront us today.

Winston S Churchill, former Prime Minister of UK, 1956

Political scientists have been unwilling to confront the way things have changed since World War II….We have learned how to grow economies much faster…and military technology has become vastly more destructive.

William Overholt, Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, 2021

History is, in its essentials, the science of change.  It knows and it teaches that it is impossible to find two events that are exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical.

Marc Bloch, Historian – ‘A strange defeat’ – 1946

As a would-be historian, in this blog I have regularly criticised Western politicians and media for their apparent ignorance of history.  ‘How can one deal with the present without understanding the past?’  I agreed with XI Jinping and Churchill.  

History repeats itself

Commentators selectively refer to history in discussions about China’s relationship with the USA and its allies.  The ‘Thucydides Trap’ typifies those who argue that history is bound to repeat itself.  American political scientist Graham T. Allison popularised this term to describe the probability of war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing one.  Athenian historian and military general, Thucydides, argued over 2000 years ago that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta had been inevitable because of Spartan fears of the growth of Athenian power.

Thus, Allison argues, war between China and the USA is inevitable.

It seems impossible that events among tiny, squabbling, city states on the fringes of the Mediterranean nearly 2500 years ago might predict a major global conflict in the 21stcentury.   Yet, as Allison points out, from the time of ancient Greece until the end of World War II, war resulted three out of four times whenever a rising power encountered an established one.

Is it so different today?  Are not the risks of war as great as they have always been?

by Stijn Swinnen
by Stijn Swinnen

A changing picture

Overholt is clear that they are not: “The path to becoming or remaining a great power has become primarily an economic one.  This is a fundamental shift in the way the world works – a new game.  To miss that, as most of our international relations writers and strategists do, is tantamount to an economist missing the industrial revolution.”

Marc Bloch’s too-often-overlooked book, ‘Strange Defeat’, goes further.  Bloch wrote his book at the time of the German invasion of France in 1940.  Later, he was captured by the German Gestapo and executed in 1944.  His book was published in 1946.  He showed how German forces were able to defeat France – and the rest of Europe – so easily.  After all, France learnt much from the first world war that had ended just 20 years before.  (To make the point, this would be the year 2000 today and thus seem quite recent to French tacticians.)

By 1939, France had built massive fortifications along its eastern borders.  Where there were no fortifications, there were ‘impenetrable’ mountains and forests.  France had huge armies ready and trained.  French generals convinced themselves that France was impregnable.  They had learned from the first world war: victory depended on solid defences and carefully planned set piece attacks.

History – the science of change

The Germans had learned differently.  Their military and economy had been wiped out by the victorious allies a mere 20 years before.  German tacticians realised that success in future wars would depend on air power and speed on the ground.  The technology to accomplish this existed during the last war; the Germans refined and improved it.  They built a large and powerful air force with the new technology.

Their armies employed sophisticated tanks that could cover scores of miles in a day on any terrain. 

The French military was powerless to stop them.  The French air force was almost non-existent.  Their armies could not move fast enough.  As a result, the Germans by-passed the French defences and captured Paris only six weeks after beginning their offensive. 

Both sides had studied history.  Each learned differently.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

The USA won the cold war after the Second World War because the former Soviet Union bankrupted itself pouring its resources into its military, while trying to maintain a traditional empire.   The USA, by contrast, developed its economic strength and that of its partners – as well as developing and maintaining the world’s most formidable military machine.  The outcome of the cold war was never in doubt.  

by Nik Shuliahin
by Nik Shuliahin

This lesson of history remains valid.  But still, circumstances are different today.  China is already a far more significant economic power than the Soviet Union ever was.  Also, the inter-dependency between the economies of China and the USA is so great that, in a war, the USA would possibly lose more than China.

Furthermore, the USA has suffered, arguably, its worst two decades in its short history, socially, economically and in its ability to influence other nations.  Even its world-leading military seems not to have been very successful.  Depending on how you count them, since World War II, the USA has fought 17 wars of significance and ‘lost’ all but two of them. Thus, once again, the dynamics have changed. ‘Winning’ two world wars no longer means that the USA can rely on winning wars in today’s world.

History – the science of change

In the animal kingdom, if one family of tigers invades another family’s space, fighting breaks out because both groups know there would not be enough food for two families.   The risk of similar conflict between human ‘tribes’ has always existed and will continue to exist.   Tribes have run out of space; at other times they have felt encircled by enemies; and, as with Thucydides, Rome, the British Empire, the Ottomans, no tribe likes to see its dominant position – and the consequent benefits – being threatened.

So it is today with the USA. 

However, in addition to the changes that Overholt notices, there is another factor overlooked by almost all western commentators: “China is not a rising power; it is a returning power.  The psychology is different. Misapprehending the nature of the problem will exacerbate it.”  The author, Walter Woon, is Chairman of the Society for International Law Singapore, formerly Ambassador to Germany and the European Union. He goes on:

The world’s interests are best served by a PRC intent on creating wealth rather than one that is truculent and resentful of attempts to frustrate her (return to) to prosperity.


President Xi and Winston Churchill are right; we need to understand the past to interpret the present and foresee the range of possible futures.   But, despite human history, war between the USA and China is the least likely (not to say the least desirable) of the options.

The USA may be worried about losing its dominance in world affairs.  But it is already too late for that.  The USA is no longer dominant.  China does not seek a Chinese hegemony to replace the USA, however.  Nor does the world seek a replacement for the USA.  The assumption that there must be a globally dominant power is another Thucydides trap.  

The world contains three times as many people as it did just 80 years ago.  ‘Tribes’ are inter-connected in ways that few could imagine as little as 40 years ago.  Understanding history, yet ignoring these profound and fundamental changes, is akin to Renaissance Popes insisting that the earth revolved around the sun. 

The USA and China need to compete.  Economic competition strengthens and enhances progress.   This is the way forward.  Talk of war should remain, if it exists at all, in the realm of political bluster.

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