Monday 11 January 2021

Can We Escape the Thucydides Trap?

The Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta,
leading to the latter's ultimate victory

Posted by Keith Tidman

The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, chronicled for posterity the 5th-century BCE Peloponnesian War as a 27-year conflict due in large measure to the ‘rise of Athens’ and the fear this instilled in the ruling power of Sparta locked in rivalry for preeminence in the region.


Sparta had become wary and threatened by Athens acting ever more assertively. Athens, meanwhile, resented the alleged wrongs it saw as inflicted upon it. Theirs had been a tense coexistence with overlapping spheres of influence, each perceiving the other as an obstacle to its ambitions. The Athenians asserted that a new world order should reflect what they regarded as a shifting balance of power. After war broke out between the two Greek city-states, Sparta went on to eventual victory with the surrender of Athens, though both powers felt war’s destructive sting.


But does competitiveness between so-called rising and ruling powers inevitably lead to war? The idea that it does is known in international-relations theory as the ‘Thucydides trap’, a term coined by scholar Graham Allison, in his book Destined for War. One aim of Thucydides was to inform peers and future generations of the dangers posed by such strategic rivalry.


With that in mind, what does this professed Thucydides trap portend for us today, some 2,400 years later? It would certainly be worrying if the realpolitik opposition between the United States, as the globe’s ostensible ruling power, and China, as the ostensible rising power, was a modern-day case in point, with the United States our Sparta and China our Athens? The theory would suggest that the competitive posturing, influence peddling, and power projection — economic, political, and military — by the two wary nations might eventually result in the folly of a calamitous war.


U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping discussed the Thucydides trap during their summit meeting in Seattle in 2015, toward the end of the Obama presidency. Xi had proposed a ‘new form of great power relations’, though that left tension in place over, for example, Asian spheres of influence. Indeed, just a few years earlier, Xi had ambitiously announced his ‘China Dream’, including ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.

Yet, Xi’s statement in 2015 went on to discredit the Thucydides trap, cautiously saying, ‘There is no such thing. . . . But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves’. Two days later, Obama reciprocally concurred, delicately adding, ‘The United States welcomes the rise of China . . . [as] a responsible player in global affairs’. The two nations’ otherwise ideological evangelism was prudently quieted in a moment of diplomacy.


Despite Obama’s and Xi’s carefully chosen words, other wars from history’s annals are indeed thought to support the idea that rising and ruling powers often resort to conflict. The Thucydides trap exposed in more-recent history than the ancient world. As one case in point, France’s dominion in Europe came face to face with the rising House of Hapsburg, with the 1519 election of King Charles of Spain as the Holy Roman emperor. To preserve its influence over Western Europe, France rallied allies to challenge Hapsburg hegemony, leading to 40 years of off-and-on conflict. The outcome was a century of Hapsburg preeminence.


Another historical example occurred in 1648. It was in this year that the Peace of Westphalia granted the Dutch Republic its independence, the country having developed as Europe’s leading trading power, with dominance of the seas while chalking up colonial possessions. The Dutch Republic’s rise led to enmity with England, with its holdings in North America and trade in the East Indies. The republic wracked up a number of naval victories during the years-long Anglo-Dutch war, ultimately resulting in the republic’s supremacy.


Heres one other instance. During the late 19th century, France, under Napoleon III, became a controlling land power, dominating Western Europe. Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, however, was emboldened by his rapidly expanding economy and a grand mission to unite Germany, with the aim to dislodge France. Bismarck saw war as necessary to bring about that unification, whereas Napoleon saw war as a means to check Prussia. Their one-year war led to realisation of Bismarck’s vision.


In each case, the hegemon was challenged. Though, of course, for each example from history’s archives, the aspirations, causes, and intentions, such as a strategy to displace a competitor, were unique. The defining question is, how enlightening are these equivalences in the context of today’s international-relations theory, particularly in U.S.-China relations?


Some historians and political scientists, besides Allison, have affirmed that per the Thucydides trap and contemporary international relations, there’s a correspondence with 21st-century China as the Athens-like rising power and the United States as the Sparta-like ruling power. The matter circles back to potential triggers, such as if Taiwan were to declare independence with the United States’ backing. Or if China were to block the South China Sea, preventing the free passage of the world’s commercial and naval vessels. Or if a full-on hot war were to break out on the Korean peninsula. 


All that is to say, the United States and China count on accurately assessing where the other draws its red lines in safeguarding core national and international interests, not to mention their jingoistic pride. And each country must assess where and how to project influence and power, whether militarily, economically, diplomatically, politically, or in other ways.


But the equivalences with 21st-century United States and China — geostrategic challenges and opportunities, international order, deepening and irreversible globalisation, myriad interdependences, robust trade, potentially existential nature of war’s massively lethal technologies today, and preferred resort to negotiation and diplomacy — don’t seem to hold up. The stakes for the two countries, and for the world, are exponentially more consequential today. The equivalence to the ancient city-states of Sparta and Athens especially stretches credulity.


Yet, despite the United States’ and China’s careful circling of the other, underlying the wariness and abstract diplomacy-speak by their presidents was acknowledgment of the countries’ global power supremacy and the risks in their possibly geostrategically stepping out in front at the expense of the other. However it may have been couched, the Thucydides trap remained not too far from the room during Sino-American negotiations to tamp down flash points, where bilateralism may be hard to untangle.


The ancient strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu (5th century BCE) still inspires Chinese grand planning, informing contemporary issues directly tied to the Thucydides trap. There are many instances of Sun Tzu’s advice that shape Chinese philosophy on global affairs. Among the advice are these two laconic, yet telling, aphorisms from his The Art of War: ‘The greatest victory is that which requires no battle’. And ‘Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak’. Geostrategic predispositions to keep in mind as the two nations compete and seek advantage.  


There will, accordingly, continue to be positioning for supremacy in Sino-American relations. The stakes are high, the siren’s song irresistible. The United States and China will thus take each other’s measure for the foreseeable future. Each conditioned to eye the other as a determined rival, and each deciding how to deftly thrust and parry. This will entail a strenuous push-pull situation, predictably to include testing whether power incumbency can ever be safely challenged.


However, despite competitiveness and even spikes in chariness between the United States and China, I propose that’s a normal, eminently manageable, and very different dynamic than the irresistible trajectory toward war that Thucydides predicts. Shifts in power balance will occur, as issues of entitlement, clout, hubris, embrace of righteousness, differently aligned interests, the puffery of self-exceptionalism, and real and imagined threats play out.


War, though, is not the inevitable consequence. The ‘trap’ need not snap shut upon us.



Andrew Porter said...

In Chinese Empire times, the Middle Kingdom considered itself the center of the world. Perhaps China's leaders today perceive the country as deserving of a dominant and powerful status. The U.S. and China are both, it seems, arrogant. A conflict could start in a flash. May leaders and citizens have the wisdom to avoid conflict, even when resource tensions build. It is antiquated ways of thinking, with nationalistic pride at their center, that create a trap.

Keith said...

Thank you, Andrew, for your observations. To my mind, as the United States and China respectively grew in might and clout last century and this century from local, to regional, to global powers, their overlapping spheres of interest and influence enlarged. They continue to do so. The resultant competitiveness grew, too, aggravated by wariness and a misguided tendency toward zero-sum thinking. A classical display of muscle-flexing seen through history, engaged in by the main adversaries as well as classically by proxies.

I suspect, however, that the escalatory nature of this geostrategic jostling between the United States and China might be tempered by the realisation that the two countries’ getting into a full-on donnybrook, with the extraordinarily lethal weapons in their arsenals today, would set both back unacceptably. Notwithstanding the ‘ruling power’, ‘rising power’ dynamic -- which has credence -- or the messy bedrock of nationalism, hubris, hegemony, and self-exceptionalism to which you, and my essay, point. Still the bottom line from my viewpoint: The absence, albeit uneasy, of full-on war.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It seems to me that nations have inherent limits to power. They exceed those limits through the exploitation of other nations. So, for example (my being in Africa), the USA in Mozambique, or China in Cameroon. In other words, this may not merely be a case of China vs. the USA. It is dependent on what is happening beyond those borders. While it is easy to see how, say, the Romans did that, humanity has many devices, so that it is well disguised today.

Martin Cohen said...

I think the time of one country dominating the world is past already. What we have now is a world economy, with a common language (English) and rules (trade rules). China's rise, for example, is based on providing goods for Westerners, so the country is at once a 'power' and a 'supplicant'. The United States also relies on people buying its products, even things like films and social media! Russia annexed Crimea, but it's tanks are not going to roll across the Chinese border anytime soon - or vice versa. As Thomas suggests, todays's conflicts are proxy ones.

Keith said...

I believe the inexorable advance of ‘globalisation’ over these many decades, and its continuing today, has had a deep impact on world affairs on a broad range of matters, from economics to social norms, security, culture, human rights, communication, democratised information, the environment, and more. Greater multipolarity has emerged in the world as a result, though notably that concept isn’t unfamiliar to history. It’s the scale of today’s multipolarity that’s markedly changed. Also, if one removes romantic deceptions from the equation, what remains, to my mind, is the bald reality of equals and unequals, their figuring out how to coexist for the greatest individual and common good. As well as, folded into the geostrategic batter, the entitlement, self-exceptionalism, self-righteousness, hegemonic predispositions, and the other human and jingoistic factors mentioned in my essay. These factors, I believe, muddy relations and exacerbate dangerous, zero-sum competitiveness. Also, these factors not infrequently lead to war, whose destructive consequences are made worse by the orders-of-magnitude greater lethality of modern conventional weapons. There’s nothing inevitable, of course, about the ‘ruling power – rising power’ dynamic resulting in war, which Thucydides presciently brought to people’s attention. But some of history’s conflicts do seem to have given us examples of the hazards to watch for, even if the temptation is there for developed nations to slough off all that messiness onto proxies.

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