CAMBRIDGE – As US President-elect Donald Trump prepares his administration’s policy toward China, he should be wary of two major traps that history has set for him. The “Thucydides Trap,” cited by Chinese President Xi Jinping, refers to the warning by the ancient Greek historian that cataclysmic war can erupt if an established power (like the United States) becomes too fearful of a rising power (like China). But Trump also has to worry about the “Kindleberger Trap”: a China that seems too weak rather than too strong.
Charles Kindleberger, an intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan who later taught at MIT, argued that the disastrous decade of the 1930s was caused when the US replaced Britain as the largest global power but failed to take on Britain’s role in providing global public goods. The result was the collapse of the global system into depression, genocide, and world war. Today, as China’s power grows, will it help provide global public goods?
In domestic politics, governments produce public goods such as policing or a clean environment, from which all citizens can benefit and none are excluded. At the global level, public goods – such as a stable climate, financial stability, or freedom of the seas – are provided by coalitions led by the largest powers.
Small countries have little incentive to pay for such global public goods. Because their small contributions make little difference to whether they benefit or not, it is rational for them to ride for free. But the largest powers can see the effect and feel the benefit of their contributions. So it is rational for the largest countries to lead. When they do not, global public goods are under-produced. When Britain became too weak to play that role after World War I, an isolationist US continued to be a free rider, with disastrous results.