Essays & Reviews

The Thucydides Trap: Does it Exist?

In 2012, Harvard’s Graham Allison posed this question: Can China and the US escape Thucydides’s trap?  According to Allison: “The historian’s metaphor reminds us of the dangers two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling power – as Athens did in 5th century BC and Germany did at the end of the 19th century. Most such challenges have ended in war. Peaceful cases required huge adjustments in the attitudes and actions of the governments and the societies of both countries involved.”  Athens’ dramatic rise in the Greek work shocked the then-leading power, Sparta.  Fear compelled its leaders to respond. Threat and counter-threat produced competition, then confrontation and finally conflict. At the end of 30 years of war, both states had been destroyed. Thucydides wrote of these events: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Allison observed that the rapid emergence of any new power disturbs the status quo. “If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to the question about Thucydides’s trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred. Think about Germany after unification as it overtook Britain as Europe’s largest economy. In 1914 and in 1939, its aggression and the UK’s response produced world wars.” Allison did not think that a Sino-American war was inevitable, but he argued that war-avoidance depended on both sides recognizing the risks of the situation, talking with each other candidly, and “making substantial adjustments to accommodate the irreducible requirements of the other.”

The “Thucydides Trap” has since become a controversial shorthand for describing the potentially dangerous dynamics in East Asia, and the source of debate about the policy implications for dealing with the PRC. In 2013, Naval War College Professor James R. Holmes, who has written extensively on Chinese naval strategy, challenged Allison’s “rather mechanical reading of Thucydides’ history, and about whether the father of history meant to propound a general rule of international affairs. Straight-line projections often say something important. They help reveal the context within which power politics unfolds. But human decisions, actions, and interactions matter as much as any measure of national power or any trend the observer may chart — often more so.”

Holmes pointed out the difference in circumstances between the two cases (the position and policies of the United States cannot simply be conflated with Sparta, nor modern China with Athens); and the typically complicated nature of international politics, in which there may be more than one rising power, and more than one status quo (or declining) power, at any given time.  Further, he noted, accommodations have occurred (e.g. between the United States and Britain at the turn of the twentieth century), without either side making “substantial” adjustments, i.e., concessions.  These adjustments actually improved the position of both parties.  (I doubt that Allison would think that his central argument was undermined by Holmes’ important qualifications.)

Holmes’ Naval War College colleague and frequent collaborator, Toshi Yoshihara, recently discussed the Thucydides Trap in a video interview provided by the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMS) The conversation addressed whether the Trap is truly inevitable, how it relates to the rise of China, and how navies fit into the equation. Yoshihara also delved into the roles of strategic studies in professional military education and about Thucydides’ unique history in the Naval War College.  (I thank Sophia Leddy of the Ashbrook Center for reviewing and commenting on this video)  Yoshihara made several points that caught my attention:

  • The Sino-US relationship is too complex to simplify into a simple Thucydidean Trap model; there is both cooperation and competition between them.  China has clearly done certain things that increased the fears of the United States, especially the development of its anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its maritime and aerial claims of control.  The United States naturally will respond to preserve its regional strategy of access to East Asia.  China’s military modernization is still in the beginning stages, however, and the Chinese remain very far behind the US militarily.  We need more time to develop an accurate view of the situation.
  • One important thing to note is that the many of the capabilities that the Chinese are developing, including its aircraft carriers, might be characterized as “dual-use” – they could be used to deny the United States access to East Asia, or they could be employed in conjunction with the United States (and other nations) to defend the global commons, something that the United States should welcome.  Naval capabilities are only tools, in and of themselves they do not define a nation’s policy.  The situation remains murky; China could still go either way.
  • Much has been made about the importance of direct naval (and military) talks between the two sides to clarify and moderate the political-military situation.   Yoshihara agrees that the talks should be pursued, but he is skeptical about the lasting effect; naval interactions of this sort can only treat the symptoms but not the causes of strategic tension.
  • The war between Athens and Sparta war was started by territorial disputes.  Athens lost in part because many of the islands were against its rising power.  In this case, islands (including Taiwan and Japan) are also currently aligned against the rising power.  Japan in particular adds to the ability of the United States to fight in China.  What Japan thinks and does is going to be critical, as is the nature of the U.S. alliance system as a whole in the regional security dynamic.
  • Chinese leaders were well aware of the Trap even before the terms was coined.  Xi Jinping has explicitly mentioned the Trap — he is identifying the problem and risk, and he is trying to figure out how to escape it.  Chinese writers have noted in particular how nations seemingly on the rise have fallen, especially the Soviet Union and Prussia/Germany.  But it is not clear that they have learned the proper lessons from this analysis.

David Welch, CIGI Chair of Global Security, Balsillie School of International Affairs, recently offered a skeptical take on the Trap. He notes that nearly a decade before Allison coined the term, he (Welch) published an essay, “Why International Relations Theorists Should Stop Reading Thucydides” (Review of International Studies July 2003, pp. 301-319) The gist of which:  Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian War is arguably anachronistic, inaccurate, and does not offer a firm “takeaway” message for international relations theorists.

According to Welch, Allison’s thesis pithily captures the core idea of A.F.K. Organski’s power transition theory, which postulates that great power wars are likeliest when a rapidly rising challenger threatens to overtake a declining hegemon.  Both presume a rational calculation: namely, that war now on relatively favorable terms is preferable to war later on relatively unfavorable terms (the question is, whether that makes war inevitable; or highly likely but avoidable). But Welch sees a number of circumstances that render the context very different than it was for Athens or Sparta (even if one accepts Thucydides interpretation), or for the great powers leading up to World War I:

Leaders in Sparta in 432 BCE and in Vienna and Berlin in 1914 had no way of foreseeing the consequences of an escalation to all-out war, but thanks to what Joseph Nye calls the nuclear crystal ball effect, we have a very clear idea of how cataclysmic a no-holds-barred Sino-American war would be. Even a limited conventional war would be extraordinarily costly, sending shock waves through the global economy, poisoning regional relationships, and overwhelming available mechanisms of security governance. We can safely assume that U.S. and Chinese leaders would never willingly opt for war unless they felt they had no other choice.

Welch asks, what might cause them to think they had no other choice? Broadly speaking, he sees three possibilities: they could be pushed into war; they could be pulled into war; or they could stumble into war.  Each of these are very real possibilities.  In the first case, the pressures of intensively nationalistic public opinion on the Chinese leadership in the midst of a crisis is the most probable pathway.  The “pull” pathway could result from, for example, a conflict between North and South Korea, a Sino-Japanese showdown with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands; or an overt Taiwanese move toward independence.  Finally, the United States and China could stumble into war through misjudgment, misperception, overconfidence, or wishful thinking. Perfectly normal psychological pathologies can incline people to underestimate the risks they run and overestimate the prospects of achieving what they consider a desirable or “just” outcome.

Upon closer examination, Welch notes, each of these pathways is in fact present in Thucydides account of the dynamics of the Peloponnesian War. He concludes:

Arguably, “The Thucydides Trap” may prove to be moot. There is nothing inevitable about China’s rise. It is entirely possible that China may sputter, fragment or collapse.  But if it does continue to rise, the main dangers lie not with “THE” Thucydides Trap—a conscious calculation on the part of American leaders that war with China sooner is preferable to a war with China later (or kowtowing to Beijing once it has risen fully)—but with one of the many other (more likely) push, pull, or stumble traps so eloquently described by Thucydides that have largely gone unnoticed.

So, it appears Thucydides is perhaps worthy of study, after all.