Known stories and stories to know

If the grazing land could talk, this Pampa would tell you
of the way I loved her, of the fever with which I adored her.

(Carlos Gardel, Tomo y obligo).

In a context of multidimensional and multipolar geopolitical conflicts, territories such as the Argentinean will be in dispute by the largest powers, unless the country is able to achieve unity, solidarity, and good leadership.

From the pampa, I know well the pastures in several Argentine provinces. I also know the more sparse pastures of Patagonia, from Bariloche to Ushuaia, passing through Calafate and the glaciers. I know that my blood treasures the memory of my parents, because, as I was told, I was conceived in an estancia (today flooded beneath the waters of a reservoir) along the banks of Limay River. It was called Estancia La Argentina, in Neuquén province. I also know that another distant relative of mine, Don Florentino Ameghino, discovered there the remains of ancient dinosaurs and other animals that inhabited the pampa long before us humans.

If the pastures talked, this pampa would tell us that there were many tolderias (natives’ encampments) and that the first peoples were killed or pushed towards ever-farther places due to landowners’ greed, first by Rosas’ troops, the restaurateur, and then by General Roca’s army, who perfected the extermination with the use of the telegraph and the Remington repeating rifle.

If the pastures would talk, they would tell us that it was there where Juan Domingo Peron had his first military assignment and where he met his first wife.

If pastures would talk, this pampa would tell us that there were also some disputes and massacres among whites, such as Patagonia Rebelde (Rebel Patagonia) and Semana Trágica (Tragic Week) in 1919-1921. It was the same time that my grandfather, enriched by the meat business, used to travel around the world with his family—nine travelers, in nine months, enjoying nine million (strong) pesos.

If pastures would talk, this Pampa would tell you that she is being sown with soybeans, trampled by cattle, perforated by oil wells, drilled by miners, visited by tourists avid for landscapes and adventures and that weird antennas and new peoples are settling there. A Chinese base was established in Neuquén[1] and an American one in Tierra del Fuego[2].

There is an African proverb that says when two elephants fight (in Patagonia they would be mastodons); he who suffers is the grass. Indeed, it is for this grassy connection and its metaphor that we fully arrive to the geopolitical dimension.

It is a truism repeating that history provides us with important lessons and that it is above all a great teacher, the supreme magister vitae.  This presumption is and has been the fundamental justification for including history in every basic teaching curricula and even in the advanced ones.

However, such teacher’s lessons depend on our perspective. In fishing for history lessons, everything depends on the type of net that one casts. For example, it is tempting to draw lessons from ancient history, especially when we have inherited excellent texts from good historians. Such is the case of Thucydides. His masterpiece, History of the Peloponnesian War, is a classic in terms of logic, details, and writing fluency. It is easy to draw “lessons” by analogy from such bulky volume, for example, when comparing the failed Athenian expedition to Sicilia (515-513 BC) with the American intervention in Vietnam (1964-1975 AC).

More recently, a veteran historian from Harvard drew another lesson from the same text, the so-called “Thucydides’ Trap,” in reference to the rivalry between Sparta and Athens, which, as Thucydides explained, lead to a series of wars, which in turn, before long ended Athenian democracy. From that warlike process and its episodes, the same contemporary historian behooves us to draw a geopolitical “lesson;” that is when a hegemonic power is being threatened by a rising power, rivalry ends in a war (which, as every war, has no foreseen result). According to the alleged law, the course of the war is practically inevitable—something like the fatal logic of a Greek tragedy. Our historian applies such example to the rivalry and growing hostility between United States and China.

While re-reading Thucydides’ text, I observe that in no moment the ancient historian considers the Peloponnesian wars as inevitable, that is, subjected to an iron law or an undisputable fatality[3]. Then, as now, much depended on which were the chosen perceptions selected among many possible ones, as well as the chosen decisions, mistakes, and omissions.  In other words, history’s algorithm is not easy. In Borges’ words, it is a garden of forking paths. Believing the opposite would be to fall into the retrospective fallacy already well formulated by our ancestors: post hoc ergo propter hoc (fallacy that consists in making believe that one thing is another thing’s cause, just because it happened before). Even if we suspected the presence of a trap, one might as well not fall into it, or at least prepare oneself to avoid it. Maybe it is this the intention of Harvard’s historian when he uses the word.

With this preamble of caveats, I return to today’s conflict between United States and China. In this article, I present a list of reasons that make me doubt that both China and United States might fall into the alleged Thucydides’ trap. The nature of the strategic conflict has mutated.

  1. Traditional war has long since cease to be such. Contemporary wars are asymmetrical and the disparity of forces is no guarantee of the triumph or conclusion in favor of the strongest.
  2. The last super-war, that is, the so feared WWIII was overcome without firing a single shot. The “pacific” collapse of the Soviet Union did not turn cold war into a bipolar thermonuclear war.
  3. Warlike outbreaks have multiplied and some of them could trigger one or more regional nuclear wars, with consequent humanitarian disasters.
  4. World has gone through the following stages: from bipolarity to unipolarity and then to the current multipolarity.
  5. Globalization and the correspondent multilateralism are in crisis and the result is a contradictory multipolarity that is not sustainable from the point of view of the planetary crises to tackle. Therefore, neither the globalization nor the multilateralism will disappear.
  6. Third world war is not on the verge, but rather is already in progress, with unusual characteristics.
  7. It is about an anarchic and multidimensional war, where the distinction between the military and non-military has been erased.
  8. The states are no longer the exclusive warlike actors.
  9. The weight of sub and super-state actors is increasing, from terrorist groups to transnational corporations and organizations.
  10. There is no new world order to replace the previous one. Therefore, humanity is heading towards a tragedy of the commons at a planetary scale.

It is in this context and with these variables that we can now place the pastures of our Patagonia—“our” for now as it already is and is becoming more and more a desired territory by rival powers, in particular by United States (which is strategically withdrawing from old domains) and China (which is in strategic upsurge in search for supplies, bases, and areas to populate, that is, in search for a new taxpayer empire).

To avoid being trampled over with impunity, these pastures need a united country, with solidarity, and an intelligent leadership—ingredients which unfortunately are lacking now.

[1] .

[2] .

[3] . That is the reason why today we consider Thucydides a historian and not a playwright.

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