“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” When Athenian General-turned-historian Thucydides wrote these immortal words five centuries before the birth of Christ, he concisely and gracefully described the Thucydides Trap. While history is dotted with—and often written because of—war and conflicts that fit the definition of this Trap, in most modern contexts, the Thucydides Trap is used to refer to the possibility of war between the United States and China. What is a Thucydides Trap and how did it become shorthand for such a conflict? In this article, we investigate.
For the uninitiated, Thucydides was a general and historian from Athens. His book “History of the Peloponnesian War” detailed what caused the conflict between the Athenian Delian League and the Spartan Peloponnesian League, the conflict itself, and what happened in the aftermath. While the Peloponnesian League was declared the winner, much of Greece had been destroyed and the power in the region was almost entirely depleted, which left the remains vulnerable to Persian invasion.
Thucydides has been christened “the father of scientific history.” To understand why, contrast him to his predecessor Herodotus, who frequently attributed battlefield successes and failures to morality and which heroes were blessed with the gods’ favor, Thucydides was not interested in this. Rather, he focused solely on what the Athenians and Spartans did regarding battlefield strategy and grand strategy on the policy level.
Setting the Trap
As we know from the international relations (IR) theory of realism (to which Thucydides’ writings provided the foundations), sovereign states are the principal actors in international politics, they act in their own interest, and the simplest litmus test for the relationships between states is a comparison of their respective power and capabilities. This theme of power in particular is critical to understanding the Thucydides Trap.
At this point, we must introduce you to Harvard professor Dr. Graham Allison who, in 2015, discussed the possibility of a war between the U.S. and China through the lens of the Thucydides Trap—and though he says such a conflict would be senseless, World War I is a sobering reminder of how senseless humanity can be.
In his article, Allison reminds us that in the fifth century BC, Sparta was the dominant power in the Attic region, and—as a principal actor—saw another principal actor’s rising power as a threat to their dominance. He adds that at beginning of the 20th century, the United Kingdom was the dominant power and Germany was a threat to the existing balance of power. After the World Wars, Europe’s global dominance declined, and the United States emerged from the Cold War as the global hegemon. Now, in the 21st century, with the U.S. positioned as the dominant power and China as a rising power, Allison wonders whether Thucydides’ Trap has, once again, been set.
Springing the Thucydides Trap
To paraphrase Thucydides, has the rising power of China and the fear it has instilled in the United States make war inevitable?
The U.S. and China have the second and third-largest nuclear arsenals in the world, respectively, and an armed engagement between these two superpowers could quickly and easily escalate to a cataclysmic conflict. It is, therefore, an understatement to say such a conflict would not be in anyone’s best interest.
Allison and his team at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs analyzed 16 historical records in which the Thucydides Trap was set. Of these 12 resulted in war; in the four cases in which armed engagements were avoided, parties on both sides had to make major and painful adjustments to accommodate for each other. Would both the U.S. and China be willing to make such accommodations for the other?
Is War Between the U.S. and China Inevitable?
Though Allison is pessimistic about the U.S. and China’s abilities to avoid conflict, others don’t see it as an inevitability. Per the data the Belfer Center team investigated, the last three times a Thucydides’ Trap seemed to be set, conflict was avoided—though there were close calls along the way.
NDISC Director Michael Desch is among the skeptics. He says that while China’s rise is undeniable, it does not need to be viewed as the precursor to war. In fact, Desch says “Nor have Chinese leaders or scholars found the analogy between the great war between Athens and Sparta and the twenty-first century U.S.-China rivalry useful, save perhaps as an indicator of how America views their rise. Chinese President Xi Jinping categorically denied there is any ‘such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world.’”
So, in Desch’s view, China is unlikely to instigate a conflict because they don’t view their rise as competition for the U.S. and the U.S. is unlikely to strike first because the U.S. and Asian allies in the Quad (Japan, India, and Australia), South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam are still in strong positions within the region.
Avoiding the Trap
In his more complete thoughts, Desch emphasizes that “war is a choice, not a trap.” Though from the perspective of the defender, war is unavoidable, the U.S. and China are both in the position to choose not to engage in conflict. Rather, as Desch says, the U.S. should focus on an appropriate grand strategy to maintain our allies’ stature in the region while also actively avoiding conflict.
If you’re a student or practitioner of International Relations, foreign policy, or diplomacy and you’re interested in learning more about the current state of affairs concerning U.S.-China relations, grand strategy, and the Thucydides Trap, the Notre Dame International Security Center’s faculty wants to be part of your journey. Contact us to learn more about how we can enrich your education.