#Reviewing: The Journey to Safe Passage

Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony. Kori Schake. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Must the rise of power in China and the fear it causes in America lead to war? Kori Schake’s new work, Safe Passage: The Transition From British To American Hegemony, probes this question, albeit obliquely, via an inquest into why the passage of power from Great Britain to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth century was pacific and whether such passage is repeatable. What emerges from this eminently readable, incisively argued, and keenly erudite history is how precarious such passage was: a contingently calm transition, only tranquil because universal ideals mollified the augured storm. To grasp the contingency though, requires its own journey. We set off, initially, to revisit the great war between Athens and Sparta, as well as its modern interpretation, highlighting what that conflict suggests about how nations interact. To expose the nuance of that interaction, however, involves a further detour through propositional logic and the theory of idealization and ideals. With these conceptual tools, we then return to Schake’s Safe Passage with an informed perspective with which to fully appreciate what a unique beacon it is. 

Our circuitous route begins, as expected, with Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War and the Thucydides Trap zeitgeist.[1] Before scrutinizing the trap, it is worth pausing to consider classicist Mary Beard’s caution from “Which Thucydides Can You Trust?” She writes, “Many of our favorite ‘quotations’ from Thucydides, those slogans that are taken to reveal his distinctive approach to history, bear a tenuous relationship to his original text.”[2] Moreover, given that the text is written in what she deems “almost impossibly difficult Greek,” there is great onus on the translator to render an apt interpretation.[3] Yet, as Emily Wilson so eloquently observed in her translator’s note to Homer’s The Odyssey, “There is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original.”[4] Further complicating matters, Beard suggests, “As a general rule, the catchier the slogans sound, the more likely they are to be largely the product of the translator rather than of Thucydides himself.”[5] The Thucydides Trap—the notion that the rise of power in Athens and the fear it caused in Sparta led to inevitable war—may be just such a slogan. To reconcile these concerns—between an opaque text, a necessarily obscured original, a catchy slogan, and an inability to read ancient Greek—we can compare translations, creating not a window, but a kaleidoscope.[6]

While we are still unable to view the text unvarnished, we can adjust our multiple lenses to identify the conceptual commonalities and filter out the poetic chaff.[7] In Thomas Hobbes’ 1628 interpretation, the trap is presented as “the growth of the Athenian power; which putting Lacedæmonians into fear necessitated the war.”[8] Next, in 1874, Richard Crawley—whom Beard describes as “a not very successful nineteenth-century Oxford classicist”—translates, “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.”[9] Rex Warner’s 1974 modern version reads, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”[10] Finally, Steven Lattimore, in 1998, reinterprets Thucydides as “increasing Athenian greatness and the resulting fear among the Lacedaemonians made going to war inevitable.”[11] These translations should be semantically equivalent, even though they need not be isomorphic; they should mirror the same underlying content, even as they depict it differently.

Such variations in form are quite often benign, provided they proffer the same content. Kwame Anthony Appiah, highlights in his recent work, As If: Idealization and Ideals, “Form and content exhaust the properties representations must have as representations though, like sentences on paper or coming out of your mouth, they will have myriad other properties as well.”[12] Such additional properties might include poetic license: Lattimore’s choice to write “increasing Athenian greatness” or Hobbes’ construction, “putting Lacedæmons into fear.” As Appiah explains, however, since all statements must have content and form, the evaluation of “causal powers of representations as such requires, at a minimum, consideration of “the sum of their logical powers and their conceptual powers.”[13] To fully appreciate the trap and its powers, we need to consider both its conceptual and logical powers. Considerable ink has been spilt on the trap’s content—war is inevitable between two actors given the rise of power in one and the fear it causes in the other—but less so on the trap’s logical form.[14]

To begin a logical inquiry, let’s paraphrase the trap in such a way that we can apply propositional logic. This will allow us bring out nuance within the trap’s causality that is a function of its logical powers while maintaining the conceptual commonalities found between the translations. Unlike translation, the goal of any paraphrase is to eliminate ambiguity and differentiate the logical operators—implication, negation, conjunction—from the simple sentences that make up the complete statement or argument. These simple sentences—for instance Athens is a rising power or Sparta fears Athens—are atomic and can be considered either true or false.[15] Next, linking atomic sentences with logical operators establishes a molecular sentence that can be holistically evaluated for its truth or falsity strictly based on the truth or falsity of its component parts and the rules associated with the logical operators.[16] Given these tools of propositional logic, how do we describe the Thucydides Trap?

First, the trap is a conditional.[17] The antecedent concerns relations between properties about Athens and Sparta, while the consequent is the fact of war of between them.[18] It requires that Athens is a rising power and Sparta fears this property in Athens.[19] Paraphrased we can write, If Athens is a rising power (P) and Sparta fears Athens (F) then war results (W). This is translated into propositional logic as: ( ( P & F ) > W ). We must also remember though, fear is a conditional itself; fear has its own logical powers. Fear is an attitude that Sparta adopts given a certain belief about the state of the world, namely that Athens is a threat. Therefore, to fully account for the attitude, the paraphrased trap becomes If Athens is a rising power and Sparta believes Athens is a threat (T) and Sparta fears Athens then war results. Wordy, which is why propositional logic helps, and translated now as: ( ( P & ( T & F ) ) > W ).[20] They are structurally similar except for the introduction of the atomic sentence T in the latter formulation; this difference has implications for the ability to negate the war consequent.

Before we continue, we need to acknowledge that the trap is just an idealization. It is what Appiah calls “a useful untruth.”[21] It is an idealization that is useful to describe and explain interactions between, to use anachronistic terms, international actors that eventually, importantly, and unavoidably, wax violently political. So, on Appiah’s account, on some levels it does not matter if the trap is empirically true—“the value of an idealization isn’t to be assessed only by the accuracy of its predictions”—but whether it is useful.[22] Even if the trap is ultimately a slogan, we can still ask, as Appiah would, does it help explain, control, or order the world? And if it does, then it’s worth acting, in those cases, as if that idealization is true. A quintessential example is the discovery of quantum mechanics, which didn’t render classical mechanics futile, it just circumscribed its valid application to the macroscopic. Similarly, Schake’s work can be seen, albeit implicitly, to outline the limits of the trap by uncovering how Great Britain and the United States escaped from the alleged inevitability of war. Our foray into propositional logic only underscores Schake’s conclusion; combined, the contingent outcome becomes both conceptually and logically clear.

Even retrospectively it should not have been the case. The question of why the transition from British to American hegemony was “the only peaceful transition” is equally a question about why there was not war, why it was “an outlier.”[23] Noting the absence, Schake finds nine critical points over 100 years that reveal how this “contingent outcome” came to pass: “the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine; the Oregon Boundary Dispute; the recognition of the Confederacy; America’s westward expansion; the Venezuelan debt crises; the Spanish-American War; World War I; the 1922 Washington Naval Treaties; and World War II.”[24] Each chapter cogently summarizes what happened while contextualizing Great Britain’s and the United States’ actions, or inactions, within the shifting power dynamic of the international order. Tracing these inflection points, Schake looks to identify why, in Appiah’s words, “the agent doesn’t behave in the way the model [i.e., the trap] requires.”[25] Why didn’t the material implication of war hold true? At these junctures Schake accentuates the contingency: without the accumulation of such individual choices it would not be necessary to qualify “replacements of hegemonic powers in the international order occur by violence” with “most” or “nearly all.”[26] This exception is extraordinary. 

Even retrospectively it should not have been the case... 

All actors ensnared by the trap are necessarily snared in the same way, while all escapes are exceptional.[27] Applying propositional logic opens the trap up and exposes its conditional guts. What becomes apparent is how each and all of the premises must be true for the material implication of war to hold true (in a non-vacuous way), while to avert the implication of war (again in a non-vacuous way) requires just the falsity of any one of the premises. Further, accepting that fear is a conditional attitude introduces another premise, T, which must be true for war to result, just as it is, equally, another opportunity with which to avert it.[28] But just because it is logically simple does not imply that in practice it is easy. In fact, it is difficult, which is why, as Schake shows, there has only been one instance so far. She highlights:

The peaceful transition was a highly contingent outcome, unlikely to be replicable. The probability is very small of stars aligning such that both the rising and relatively declining power each possesses and recognizes in the other similarities, considers them distinguishing from all others, and fosters unique trust that enables a shifting of power without violence.[29]

Schake pinpoints that it was this “unique trust” that deprived the premise of its power. In particular, it was “a sense of the two countries being alike and different from others” that eventually unraveled the threat—i.e., established the falsity of one of the premises—and averted war.[30]

The special relationship that developed between the United States and Great Britain was not a given. It was cultivated over time.[31] At first, Great Britain did view the United States as a threat. Schake finds, “Democratization was not the only threat America posed to British policy,” but it was also that “Choices about America had a unique resonance because of immigration.”[32] Great Britain was unable to act without wounding itself; to sanction the United States would entail domestic turmoil, because, “like no other power in the international order, a rising United States could turn foreign policy into domestic challenge.”[33] Schake continues, “Democracy was thus a structural advantage for a rising America as it engaged the established great power. That would not have been the case if Britain were not democratizing; an authoritarian state would have had greater latitude in ignoring public attitudes.”[34] What nullified the threat (and the material implication of war) was the inverse duality: as the American ideal took hold in Britain, the United States’ empire expanded, and, consequently, “Britain and the United States came to perceive each other’s power in uniquely unthreatening terms.”[35]

America, it seems took a different slogan from Thucydides by listening to Pericles’ Funeral Oration, “It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else.”

It is not just the fact of the transition, but why it was so that makes the safe passage remarkable. What drove the international order’s changing of the guard was also what made it unique: “The truths Americans hold to be self-evident they also claim to be universal, and they worked to make them so.”[36] America, it seems took a different slogan from Thucydides by listening to Pericles’ Funeral Oration, “It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else.”[37] Even still, as Schake cautions, “America was not only a government that was illiberal in the nineteenth century but Americans were an illiberal people.”[38] Britain observed the blatant moral inconsistencies, still the belief that all men are created equalendowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness was intoxicating and contagious. Moreover, “America was becoming more liberal as it was becoming more powerful.”[39]

It is fitting that Schake describes this transition as a passage and not a moment. The duration is just as important as the choices; it took time for Great Britain to recognize America was not a threat just as much as it took time for America to more realize its idealistic potential. Schake explains, “Whereas a rising America had defined itself in contravention to British mores and politics, a risen America considered Britain its only confidante and ally.”[40] Thus, what was required, logically, to negate these premises, and thus the implication of war, was a strategy that was both necessary and contingent, unique and exceptional, and evolved over time.[41] Schake, rendering her own conditionals, concludes:

If America had not come to act like a traditional great power rather than continuing to propound its ideology in foreign policy, Great Britain might well have countered rather than encouraged America’s role in the world. If Great Britain had not become a related government, the United States might well have forced foreign policy concessions from Britain as it did from other countries.[42]

This was potent enough to ward off war and to thwart the so-called Thucydides Trap. What makes Schake’s work so magical is that what made America special—as a country, an idea, an ideal, an idealization—is just what blunted the threat. Her work implores us to look around and see how delicate the current world order is, how contingent its formation, how necessary it is to attend to it, because averting future wars is conditional upon it. However, to return to our opening question on the rise of power in China and the fear it inspires in the United States, Schake advises, “China lacks an ideology likely to appeal to America in the seductive way America’s ideology appealed within Britain and beyond. Without such an ideology, any hegemonic transition will require imposition by force.”[43] Before we concede here, let’s be sure to exhaust the logical possibilities too.

Olivia Garard interviewed Kori Schake on the subject of Safe Passage and other questions.

Olivia Garard: Why this book, and why now? What do you value most about this book?

Kori Schake (Hoover Institution)

Kori Schake: I actually thought I was writing a different book when I started—I thought I was writing a political science book, looking at five or six different peaceful hegemonic transitions and drawing comparisons and contrasts. I actually didn’t know there was only one peaceful transition. But you can’t do political science with n = 1, so I had to write a history…and then I fell in love with the story.

What I liked best about the book was the reminder that while we now think about Britain and the U.S. as so similar, that’s not what they looked like to each other when the transition started. It’s the result, not the cause, of the transition. So it was fun trying to conjure up a lost time and tell the story as people lived it.

Do you have a favorite edition of Thucydides? 

My outstanding TA at Stanford for Thinking About War was a soldier and classics major, Sean O’Grady, and I let him pick the one I taught from because he cares desperately about the language, but I’m big church about translations—I like to explore different versions, think about what they say about their time.

I don’t know whether you’ve read the new Emily Watson translation of The Odyssey, but it revolutionized how I think about the story. Even her first line is a shot across the bow of other translations: “Tell me, muse, about a complicated man.” So different from other descriptions of Odysseus. And I’ve always loved that Robert Fagles translated The Odyssey because he realized Homer used the identical words to describe both Odysseus and Penelope, and only them, and it gave him the key to the story.

I have the privilege of being on the War Studies faculty at King’s College, and I’m sorely tempted to teach a class wholly comprised of comparing different translations of The Iliad to explore what the different interpretations tell us about what is enduring about war and what felt new to different generations of translators.

What surprised you most about this “safe passage” between the United States and Great Britain?

So I didn’t know most of the history of it when I started writing—I knew I was on to a great question about what makes for peaceful transitions between an established, rule-giving and rule-enforcing state and a rising challenger...and desperately fearful someone smarter than me was going to write the book before I did! But I didn’t know the story, so it was all new and exciting to me. The biggest surprise was the Venezuela debt crisis of 1895—such an out-of-the-way, unimportant issue, with a president so opposed to imperialism that he wouldn’t proceed with the annexation of Hawaii, and a U.S. Caribbean fleet of about six ships, and we end up threatening to fight the strongest power of the international order. Cleveland gets unanimous support from both houses of Congress for his policy. It was a chastening reminder how reckless rising powers can be, how much respect matters as they come into their own.

Since, as you’ve mentioned, you are not a trained nineteenth-century American historian: What other tools, in particular, did you bring to this analysis? What did you have to learn, or rely on others for? Would you consider this work interdisciplinary?

I’m actually not kidding when I say I’m poorly trained in several disciplines—I was living in terror that Harvard’s Reviewer #1 would say, “Well, this may be interesting history, but it isn’t political science,” and Reviewer #2 would say the reverse. I hope this book merits being described as interdisciplinary, because that’s a wonderful compliment.

I had to learn the entirety of the history, I had to plod through international relations theory, revel in the fun of reading travel writers from the 1870s to figure out when the cultural sense of similarity begins. I struggled to understand the trade disputes of the 1880s that kept upending American politics as our economy became international.

The most important tool I had is insistent intellectual rigor in demanding “what would prove this argument right or wrong, and where can I find that information?” I relied on others for most of the book—there’s very little original research in it. I read widely of smart people and tried to tell a story that felt true to me.

What was your favorite primary source that you found? What was the most unusual fact that you learned writing this book—whether or not it made it in?

My favorite primary source is also the source of the most unusual fact: the letters Jefferson and Madison sent Monroe about whether to ally with Great Britain in 1823. We think of Jefferson as cautioning against entangling alliances, but he was in favor of Monroe making the deal to keep continental Europeans out of the Americas. To be in the company of his limber thinking as he argued the case was magical.

What would you say to a defense official as you pressed this book into his or her hands? Is the answer different if he or she is military or civilian?

Ah, I love this question, Olivia. Same for civilian or military: I would caution that hegemons recreate the international order as a macrocosm of their domestic political order. Britain believed the U.S. was so aligned that we’d run the order the way they did, and of course no sooner were we dominant than we started insisting our values were universal and prejudicing the order in favor of our values.

You consider the Venezuelan Debt Crisis as the kind of tipping point, more than just an inflection point between the United States and Great Britain. What might be such a tipping point between China and the United States? Would we even make it there?

...playing team sports is what made the U.S. paramount, and keeps our primacy affordable (in part because our values prevent others bandwagoning against us).

Two are weighing on my mind just now: the U.S. ceding our allies’ interests to get a splashy agreement with North Korea and the horrible spectacle President Trump made of allied relations at the G-7. China’s and Russia’s own reprehensible behavior is about the only thing holding our alliances together at the moment. President Trump seems genuinely not to understand that playing team sports is what made the U.S. paramount, and keeps our primacy affordable (in part because our values prevent others bandwagoning against us). I fear we’re about to get a historically significant lesson in squandering our assets.

You cite from Whitman’s Song of Myself, writing, “Walt Whitman captures the difficulty of summarizing American society in Song of Myself: ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’ As a fingerprint of the culture, it sings; as explanation, it is unsatisfying.” Are there any other poems, novels, or works of art that you draw on for inspiration?

So very many! I’ve never stopped feeling incredibly lucky that I get to read for a living. I feel like I’m robbing a bank that the depositors want robbed. My nephews’ impersonations of me generally start with “as no less a source than __ tells us…” as I dredge up some dead guy I consider relevant to the conversation. I never have Emily Dickinson far from reach (“tell the truth, but tell it slant”), nor Christopher Logue’s War Music (his version of The Iliad), and Ovid’s Metamorphosis may be my very favorite book, because I love the way story flows into story. A vagabond poet from the 1920s, Richard Hovey (with enough liquor in me I can recite all nine or ten stanzas of Barney McGee). P.G. Wodehouse’s delicious sense of the ridiculous I always find inspiring. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay gets my vote for the great American novel.

Endnotes or footnotes? Stickies, notecards, or marginalia?

I prefer footnotes as a reader, so that I can assess information as I’m thinking through the argument. I take notes in a gigantic computer file, that I then organize as the argument starts to form in my mind, so the writing becomes just stringing together the sources that have informed my thinking.

Do you have a next question that you’re starting to prod? Or how do you know when you’ve found your question?

Yep. I want to write about previous periods of rapid technological innovation and what finally defanged the political turbulence in America. I think the 1820s and 1890s certainly fit the febrile feel of our time, but I don’t know enough about the subject yet. I know I’ve found my question when I can’t find anything that explains it to me.

Since #TheBridgeReads what are you currently reading? Or next up? If you could recommend one book, other than your own, what would it be?

I just finished reading Exit West, a beautiful novel about immigration, am starting Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, and Richard Ford’s story of his parents, Between Them.

Thanks so much for the fun of this conversation, Olivia!

Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: United States and United Kingdom Flags (Lingua)


[1] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, 24 September 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/. For a formulation of the trap, see the opening sentence of this article.

[2] Mary Beard, “Which Thucydides Can You Trust?” The New York Review of Books, 30 September 2010, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/09/30/which-thucydides-can-you-trust/.

[3] Beard.

[4] Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Emily Wilson (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.): 86.

[5] Beard.

[6] Or wait a few more years for Google Translate to not just mirror, but outshine the best of our classicists. See Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ “The Great A.I. Awakening,” The New Yorker Magazine, 14 December 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/14/magazine/the-great-ai-awakening.html.

[7] This technique works great for Clausewitzians (like me) who do not spreche Deutsch either.

[8] Thucydides, The History of the Grecian War, trans. Thomas Hobbes (London: John Bohn, 1843): 27, http://lf-oll.s3.amazonaws.com/titles/771/0051-08_Bk.pdf.

[9] Beard; Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, http://classics.mit.edu/Thucydides/pelopwar.1.first.html.

[10] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Books, 1972): 49.

[11] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Steven Lattimore (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.): 15.

[12] Kwame Anthony Appiah, As If: Idealization and Ideals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017): 97-98.

[13] Appiah, 100.

[14] For instance, see the Belfer Center’s seven common straw men arguments, https://www.belfercenter.org/thucydides-trap/case-file/seven-straw-men-thucydides; Albert B. Wolf’s  “What Thucydides’s Trap Gets Wrong About the United States and China,” https://mwi.usma.edu/thucydidess-trap-gets-wrong-united-states-china/’ and Declan Sullivan’s “Destined for Competition: An Analysis of Graham Allison’s Thucydides Trap,” https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/1/24/destined-for-competition-an-analysis-of-graham-allisons-thucydides-trap.

[15] I’m idealizing, see Appiah.

[16] At its most basic level, there are also rules of inference and replacement as well as indirect and direct deductions.

[17] Many thanks to Pauline Shanks Kaurin and her colleague Keith Cooper who saved me from myself and numerous gnarly, illogical rabbit holes.

[18] It is possible to evaluate the trap as an open sentence (i.e. for all… or there exists a…) which is interesting, but for our purposes extraneous.

[19] The trap does not parse out whether or not what Sparta fears most is the property of rising power, or the fact that it is Athens, as opposed to any other actor, who has the property of rising power. That’s why we read the rest of Thucydides!

[20] I initially formulated the former as ( ( P & ( P > F ) )  > W ) and the latter as ( ( P & ( ( P > T ) & ( T > F ) ) ) > W ). In these formulations the difference is between ( P > F ) and ( ( P > T ) & ( T > F ) ). However, ( ( P & F )  > W ) is a direct derivation of ( ( P & ( P > F ) )  > W ) as ( ( P & ( T & F ) ) > W ) is a direct derivation of ( ( P & ( ( P > T ) & ( T > F ) ) ) > W ). [Yes, I did the derivations.] Although, I prefer to maintain the material implications in the antecedent, logically there is no need. Each entails its respective formulation above, plus the introduction of T is more acute and far easier to follow.

[21] Appiah, 5.

[22] Appiah, 53.

[23] Schake, 272.

[24] Schake, 1-2.

[25] Appiah, 73.

[26] Schake, 1.

[27] This dynamic, now codified as the Anna Karenina principle, derives from Tolstoy’s line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.” (I’m grateful to Eric Murphy for this point.)

[28] International relations theorists can certainly unravel more conditionals from within the premise Sparta fears Athens, but for our purpose just a second-order conditional is sufficient to indicate the dimensional multiplicity and increase the surface area against which neutralization is possible. (For instance, see Stephen M. Walt “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power,” International Security, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Spring 1985): 3-43).

[29] Schake, 18.

[30] Schake, 197.

[31] This temporal element is important. It is also something that is not captured in my translation of the trap into propositional logic; that would take modal logic. Besides it is worth nothing that claims like Graham Allison’s from The Atlantic – “A risk associated with Thucydides’s Trap is that business as usual – not just an unexpected, extraordinary event – can trigger large-scale conflict” – can equally be applied in the reverse: “business as usual” (as well as “an unexpected, extraordinary event”), can avert conflict by cumulatively disarming the threat, sometimes known as diplomacy. 

[32] Schake, 277.

[33] Schake, 83.

[34] Schake, 278.

[35] Schake, 281.

[36] Schake, 19.

[37] Warner, 149.

[38] Schake, 129.

[39] Schake, 202.

[40] Schake, 210.

[41] Olivia Garard, “Uniqueness as Flexibility,” The Strategy Bridge, 17 March 2016, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/3/17/uniqueness-as-flexibility-refining-strategic-narrative.

[42] Schake, 281.

[43] Schake, 292