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The Danger of the Thucydides Trap

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Twenty-four hundred years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides warned about how competition among states can lead them to stumble into conflict. He made his observation while chronicling the Peloponnesian War of the fourth century BCE. The trap he wrote about is of concern today as China and the United States flex their muscles.

Athens and Sparta

The Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 BCE and lasted for 27 years. The city state of Athens was a rising force in a world where Sparta was the major power. Thucydides wrote “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

According to Thucydides’s analysis, Athens, coming from its own sense of growing importance, demanded a greater say in regional affairs. Sparta saw this as a threat and was determined to defend its position against the upstart.

Prior to the conflict, each city state had been busy building up alliances and skirmishes among these secondary players led to all-out war. Sparta won, but the dominance of Greece in the ancient world suffered. Eventually, it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

The fall of the Athenian army.

The fall of the Athenian army.

The Thucydides Trap

Harvard University Professor Graham Allison is a leading international relations scholar. He and his colleagues studied the changing balances of power going back 500 years. War was the result in 12 out of 16 cases. This led to the coining of the phrase “The Thucydides Trap.”

As Prof. Allison wrote in a 2015 article in The Atlantic, in the context of a rising power challenging the dominance of an existing power, “Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations …”

  • In the 17th century, England challenged the dominant Dutch Republic and the two come to blows.
  • The rising power of France confronted the United Kingdom in the late 18th and early 19th centuries resulted in the Napoleonic War.
  • Germany threatened the alliance among the United Kingdom, France, and Russia and that brought on the wholesale slaughter of World War I.

First World War

The Great War is the Thucydides Trap writ large. None of the combatants wanted war. The monarchs at the head of Russia, Britain, and Germany were cousins. On a visit to Britain in 1910, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany told U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, “I was brought up in England, very largely; I feel myself partly an Englishman. Next to Germany I care more for England than for any other country.”

On the other hand, he was adamant in his desire to build up Germany’s naval power as a counterbalance to Britain’s Royal Navy.

Just as Sparta and Athens had done, Germany and the U.K. had built up alliances to strengthen their positions. Then, the seemingly inconsequential assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir the Austria-Hungary throne, triggered those alliances.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, the home country of the assassin. Russian stood by its ally, Serbia, and Germany supported Austria-Hungary. Within a week, France, Belgium, Great Britain and others were drawn into the unthinkable conflict they were powerless to avoid.

Four years and almost 20 million dead later, the exhausted enemies stopped fighting, having been drawn into battle by the Thucydides Trap.

Professor Allison commented “However unimaginable conflict seems, however catastrophic the potential consequences for all actors, however deep the cultural empathy among leaders, even blood relatives, and however economically interdependent states may be—none of these factors is sufficient to prevent war, in 1914 or today.”

U.S.-China Relations

Campbell Clark is a foreign policy specialist with Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.

In November 2019 he wrote “In Beijing and Washington, it is now common for foreign-policy thinkers to see the world’s two superpowers as trapped on a path toward eventual war.”

If the wrong people believe that conflict is inevitable, then conflict will be inevitable because both sides will prepare for its inevitability. Then, all that will be needed to get the bullets flying is a misreading of the other side’s intentions.

It was supposed that as millions of Chinese people were lifted out of poverty by free market economics, a liberal democracy would follow. That didn’t happen and under President-for-life Xi Jinping there has been a marked return to the old Communist-style, strongman leadership. And, says Jonathan Marcus of the BBC “China is pursuing the world’s largest comprehensive naval build-up.”

Xi and Trump put on happy faces for the public.

Xi and Trump put on happy faces for the public.

Meanwhile, an erratic and impulsive U.S. President Donald Trump, a man with only the thinnest grasp of geopolitics, is talking tough in Washington. While campaigning for the presidency he said “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.” So, he has embarked on a trade and technology war with Beijing.

And, that brings us back to Prof. Allison, who warns about how such rivalry can turn nasty: “Something happens in Taiwan, and then China reacts, then the U.S. feels obliged to react, then one thing leads to another and we end up with a general war,”

Jonathan Marcus of the BBC opines that “The two countries are at a strategic crossroads. Either they will find ways to accommodate each other’s concerns, or they will move towards a much more confrontational relationship.”

How to Avoid the Thucydides Trap

In a quarter of the cases examined by Dr. Allison and his team, war was averted: “When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.”

The obvious way out of the trap is diplomacy not chest thumping. This is the conclusion of a 2018 study from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. Reporting on the study, The Diplomat commented that its authors believe the Thucydides Trap can be avoided “as long as the United States strategically accommodates China’s rise. They hasten to add that accommodation does not mean appeasement, but instead means welcoming the rise of a ‘peaceful, stable, and prosperous China’. ”

The writers of the report are mostly military people and they strongly advocate for cooperation not confrontation. However, for that to be effective it has to be done from a position of strength.

Let’s let a couple of world leaders from the past have the last words of advice:

  • Winston Churchill said “Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.”
  • Theodore Roosevelt was more succinct: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
Thucydides.

Thucydides.

Bonus Factoids

All figures are for 2017.
Sources: armedforceseu and index Mundi

 United StatesChina

Gross Domestic Product

$19.36 trillion

$23.12 trillion

GDP growth

2.2%

6.8%

External debt

$17.91 trillion

$1.65 trillion

Military Budget

$610 billion

$228 billion

Active military personnel

1,281,900

2,300,000

Total military aircraft

12,304

4,182

Total warships

437

780

The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”

Singapore’s late leader, Lee Kuan Yew

Sources

  • “Peloponnesian War.” History.com, October 29, 2009.
  • “As U.S.-China Tensions Mount, Non-Superpowers Are Caught in ‘Painful Straddle.’ ” Campbell Clark, Globe and Mail, November 18, 2019.
  • “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” Graham Allison, The Atlantic, September 24, 2015.
  • “The Thucydides Trap.” Graham Allison, Foreign Policy, June 9, 2017.
  • “Could an Ancient Greek Have Predicted a US-China Conflict?” Jonathan Marcus, BBC News, March 25, 2019.
  • “How to Avoid the Thucydides Trap: The Missing Piece.” Francis P. Sempa, The Diplomat, March 7, 2018.
  • “China vs. United States.” Index Mundi, 2019.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 22, 2019:

Let's hope we do not fall into this trap!