I recently finished reading one of the scariest books ever, which was discussed at a breakfast group I belong to that debates national issues.  The book is entitled “Destined for War”, and is by Graham Allison, an eminently qualified writer, with extensive experience both in national government and in academia.  In it, he describes what is known as “Thucydides Trap”, from that historian’s account of the Peloponnesian War between ancient Sparta and Athens, and then applies it across history to present times.


The trap is that when a rising power infringes on a more established, status quo power, war may not be inevitable, but it is likely.  He describes 16 of such circumstances in history, from Athens/Sparta, through 15th Century Spain/Portugal, 19th Century Germany/France, both World Wars, the Cold War between USSR/US, and others.  In 12 of the 16 occurrences, war resulted, and in only 4 did the powers involved manage to escape hostilities.


Why did I find it so scary?  Because the circumstances between China, a rising power, and the USA, an established and status quo power, have frightening similarities to many of the prior confrontations, and a war between China and the USA would be devastating to both nations, even if no one used nuclear weapons.  The four that managed to escape war had three with reasons that don’t apply—adjudication by the Pope, changing circumstance bringing the nations involved into alliance, etc.  The only example of escaping the trap that I found was the status quo power having more pressing priorities, and thus allowing the rising power its own sphere of influence.  That one was when 1900 Great Britain, worried about rising German naval power, withdrew its navy from the Caribbean basin, allowing the rising United States to exercise hegemony there.


Is a similar modus vivendi possible between China and the US today?  I believe it is, but neither side seems to have leadership that could exercise restraint without appearing weak, which is not how the leaders of great powers believe they can appear to their people.  The points of contention seem to be economics, culture, military, sphere of hegemony, and alliances, each of which has in the past triggered confrontation between two powers.


I believe war can be averted, but only if each side is willing to negotiate, knows what is truly important to it and to the other side as well, and is willing to cede on issues vital to its opponent, and not so important to it.  We would find that a large percentage of the issues then disappear, making it easier to find solutions to the few that are critical to both.


In order to do this, we need for our part to have leadership that is not dominated by views of the very vocal extremes of either or both parties, leadership that represents the large, center majority that has had no representation in the Executive branch in the recent past or in the present.  We also need to remember as a society that democracy and peace are built on compromise, which is a way forward, and not a betrayal of perfection.

4 thoughts on “Thucydides Trap

  1. I think there’s another way to think about this challenge in today’s world that’s very different from the conflicts of history. It is easy to frame conflicts as “I win/you lose,” in which case your framework above about “think about what matters most to me and give on the others” makes sense. But in today’s much more highly interconnected and economically interdependent world, relationships and conflicts between nation states should be able to look more like corporate partners and competitors, where good negotiating strategies are about “expanding the pie so both parties benefit.” I wonder how that kind of thinking could apply to the US/China that could not have applied to Thucydides or others.


    1. Interesting way of looking at it, Matt. If we could, it might yield good results. Our current leader instinctively looks at any negotiation as “one wins, one loses”, which is not conducive to either approach! Most leaders of nations get to their position by scrapping and fighting, with only one winner. It would require an alliance, of sorts, and usually that comes about in the face of a common enemy.


      1. That spurs another interesting thought. Churchill’s old quote that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has produced interesting political/military alliances over time, and perhaps the US and China can come to that point as well around terrorism, a rogue state like (one hopes) North Korea, or something currently not problematic. But I’d like to hope that economic interests, or even environmental interests, could change the frame of reference here.


  2. I am more worried by Roy Moore in the near term than I am about 1.3 billion Chinese. Roy Moore and the Trump voter. The Trump voter seems to be concerned about growing income inequality, which I share, but they have assessed the blame to the non-White, non-Native-born, and non-Christian. Trump and the non-Trump Trump-like candidate Roy Moore have capitalized on this concern-blame-fear. I fear the threat from within more than I fear the threat from the outside.

    I agree the Pope probably won’t be the middleman. Maybe it will be Tim Cook. With the trade interdependence and internet connectivity there is hope we are living in a better time.

    Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan show there is no win in war. We are not prepared to conquer and occupy China and I hope they feel the same about us.


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