Thucydides’ Other “Traps”: The United States, China, and the Prospect of “Inevitable” War

The notion of a “Thucydides Trap” that will ensnare China and the United States in a 21st century conflict—much as the rising power of Athens alarmed Sparta and made war “inevitable” between the Aegean superpowers of the 5th century BCE—has received global attention since entering the international relations lexicon 6 years ago. Scholars, journalists, bloggers, and politicians in many countries, notably China, have embraced this beguiling metaphor, coined by Harvard political science professor Graham Allison, as a framework for examining the likelihood of a Sino-American war.

This case study examines the Thucydides Trap metaphor and the response it has elicited. Hewing closely to what the historian of the Peloponnesian War actually says about the causes and inevitability of war, it argues that, while Thucydides’ text does not support Allison’s normative assertion about the “inevitable” result of an encounter between “rising” and “ruling” powers, the History of the Peloponnesian War (hereafter, History) does identify elements of leadership and political dynamic that bear directly on whether a clash of interests between two states is resolved through peaceful means or escalates to war.

It is precisely because war typically begins with a considered decision by a national command authority to reject other options and mobilize for conflict (and thus always entails an element of choice) that insight from Thucydides’ History remains relevant and beneficial for the contemporary strategist, or citizen, concerned in such decisions.

Accordingly, this case study concludes that the Thucydides Trap, as conceived and presented by Graham Allison, draws welcome attention both to Thucydides and to the pitfalls of great power competition, but fails as a heuristic device or predictive tool in the analysis of contemporary events. Allison’s metaphor offers, at best, a potentially misleading over-simplification of Thucydides’ nuanced and problematic account of the origins of the epochal conflict that defined his age. Moreover, it overlooks actual insights from the History that can help political decisionmakers—including, but not limited to, those of the United States and China—either avoid war or, if ignored, pose genuine policy “traps” that can make an avoidable war more likely, and a necessary war more costly.           Purchase this volume