What Ancient Rome can teach us about the US-China trade war

Staring down the enemy.
Staring down the enemy.
Image: AP Photo/Claude Paris
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The current trade war between the United States and China and charges of espionage against Huawei have left the world wondering: What does China want?

As suggested by its military buildup, its financial outlays abroad, and its aggressive rhetoric, it seems that the Chinese government wants nothing less than to make the country the hegemon of East Asia and a global power. The fate of Taiwan, the two Koreas, and Japan is at stake. So is the future of a peaceful world.

The question is then how the United States should react. How can it keep the peace without betraying democracies and allies?

For this answer, both sides would do well to remember the lessons of a distant model: the history of relations between ancient Rome and Persia.

The tension between war and peace

For centuries, two empires—the Romans and the Parthians—faced each other at the crossroads of the Middle East, on a line extending roughly from the Euphrates River northeastward into Armenia. Each side tried to conquer the enemy’s prize province across the border: The Romans coveted Parthian-controlled Iraq, while the Parthians wanted Roman Syria. In a sense, the two empires were mirror images, each a powerful, militarized monarchy claiming to rule the world.

Sound familiar?

It’s not surprising that the two powers went to war with each other again and again over the centuries. In 53 BC, the Parthians crushed an invading Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae in today’s southern Turkey.  In 40 BC, the Parthians overran the Roman Near East, from Syria to Judea, only to be pushed back out again. During the next decade, Roman general Mark Antony launched a massive invasion of the Parthian Empire, but it turned out to be a bloody and costly failure. Still, there would be many more battles. The ancient world, after all, with its when-men-were-men ethos, needed little excuse to fight.

But the extraordinary part wasn’t the bloodshed: It was the number of times the two sides took action to keep the peace. It was an uneasy and fragile peace, but peace nonetheless.

As usual in Roman history, the key figure to negotiating this centuries-long agreement was Augustus. Rome’s first emperor (31 BC–14 AD) was shrewd and shameless. Augustus used violence with gusto, rising to power through a series of civil wars, but he also knew when to cut his losses. Several decades of war with Parthia had led to repeated Roman defeat, so he knew a new war would be expensive and dangerous in domestic politics. Victory would bring glory to whatever general Augustus sent to the front, while defeat would be blamed on himself, the emperor.

So Augustus decided to strike a deal. He gave back some frontier land to Parthia in exchange for the surviving Roman prisoners of war, and the two empires agreed to keep the key border state of Armenia neutral territory.

But the sweetest part of Augustus’s deal was the public-relations stunt he pulled. He got the Parthians to return the several legionary eagles they had in their possession. The eagle was a Roman symbol, and each unit of their army would carry a physical precious metal eagle with them into battle—something the men would never give up unless thoroughly defeated. Augustus celebrated with a victory parade and erected a triumphal arch. He built a temple for the eagles and commissioned a statue of himself in armor with the enemy returning an eagle carved prominently in front. He minted coins showing the Parthian king kneeling. He purveyed slogans about national greatness restored.

In short, Augustus declared victory without fighting.

It was flim-flam, but it worked. Augustus’s peace with Parthia lasted more or less intact for a century. Even the hedonistic emperor Nero (54-68 AD) proved responsible enough to keep it going.

But a generation later, a militaristic Roman emperor reversed course. In pursuit of glory, Trajan (98-117 AD) invaded Iraq. He conquered it all the way to the Persian Gulf, only to see his victories collapse in an insurgency soon afterward. Trajan’s successor, Hadrian (117-138 AD), wisely decided to pull back and restore peace along pre-war borders.

Unfortunately, peace didn’t last. Greed, glory, and fear on both sides of the border brought a return to war. The two empires even bequeathed a legacy of conflict to their successor states: the Sasanian Persian Empire, which replaced the Parthians in the third century AD, and the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, which survived after the fall of the Roman West in 476 AD. Victories were won and lost; cities besieged and sacked; victory monuments raised and forgotten. Sasanian conquerors captured the capital of Roman Syria, and Roman armies in turn devastated Iraq.

Neither side won a decisive or long-lasting advantage. What they achieved, instead, was mutual exhaustion.

When a new, sudden, and unexpected challenge arose from outside, neither empire proved strong enough to resist. That challenge was the rising power of the Arabs. The dynamic, triumphant armies of Islam captured most of the Byzantine Empire and all of the Sasanian Empire in the mid-600s AD. They could do this because both Byzantines and Sasanians were depleted from centuries of fighting.

In the end, the result of the many-centuries’ war between Rome and Persia was that both sides lost.

What China and the US can learn

There’s a lesson here for Beijing and Washington today. It’s not easy for two proud, militarized, ambitious great powers to keep the peace when they face each other across a long border, as the Chinese and American navies do with the Pacific Ocean. It’s a dangerous situation. The risk is surely not that of a general war, which neither side will want to risk. The threat is more that small wars or cyberattacks might appeal to some, in spite of the inherent danger of those spiraling into disaster.

Anyone contemplating such a confrontation ought to remember what the Romans and Persians learned: When two great powers are locked in a rivalry for hegemony, sometimes the price of victory is just too high. They are both better off maintaining the rivalry, so long as they avoid war. Otherwise, they risk handing victory instead to some new power or alliance of states that takes advantage of them both. Perhaps someday India, Russia, or a revived Muslim caliphate could play that role.

Democracies like the United States always prefer peaceful solutions. Authoritarian states like China are a different matter, which makes compromise more difficult. Still, diplomacy—backed up by force, sustained by alliances, and nourished by civil-society contacts—is the way to keep the peace. With full knowledge of what is at stake, China and the United States can learn from the mistakes of Rome and Persia’s long relationship and emulate the successes.