Explaining The Thucydides Trap

What Does Athens & Sparta Tell Us About China & The USA?

Is The Thucydides Trap Inevitable? Can War Be Avoided?

Thucydides Trap Quote

“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”

— Athens ≈ 460 B.C

The Thucydides Trap. Like many Greeks before him and after, Thucydides has been immortalised for being the ‘first‘ to make an observation that we ≈ 3000 years later, have been able to apply in repetition to history.

Thucydides observed, quite rightly, that it is was not assassination, attack or political rivalry that caused the eventual war with Athens, but rather it was their threat as an incumbent power. The world of superpowers are winner take all domains. In our world of extraordinary interconnectedness, both through communication but more importantly through trade. It is truer than ever that superpowers cannot be contained regionally. Todays regional is planetary. Yesterdays regional was just an ocean divide.

The Thucydides Trap Explained

The term was coined by US political Scientist, Graham Allison. Graham used Thucydides old throw away line to explain a tendency towards war throughout history when a rising power comes to challenges the status of a dominant power.

Given the cyclical rhythms of natural life, it seems an inevitability that the rise and falls of power will always meet this Thucydides inflection. Graham forcefully makes the assertion that in the case of a rising power usurping an existing dominant, violent clash is the rule… not the exception.

Does Violent Conflict Have To Be The Norm?

This is the question political scientists the world over plus those well inclined are desperately trying to solve.

The trouble is, in my estimation, that they are trying to attribute an absent narrative that aligns with their preferred conclusion. This dynamic of desperately trying to find a solution is playing out in terribly transparent fashion on the world stage as I write this post, 21/03/2021.

United States V. China – A Modern Day Thucydides Trap

Ever since the US levelled Nagasaki and Hiroshima to conclude WWII, the world has been stood at attention to the possibility of self inflicted annihilation.

The US positioned themselves firmly as the global superpower with this assertion of dominance and have remained undisputed in their global supremacy since. Sure, they wrestled for a while with the Soviet Union, but were never truly threatening as a global superpower incumbent. The USSR had a military worth fretting over, but could never double down their threatening incumbency with an economy to care about or a political system worth living under.

The US have remained the unchallenged global superpower for nearly 100 years now. It has not been until the recent confirmation of China that the US has been threatened.

The question is! Will modern day USA & China succumb to the same forces that drew Athens and Sparta to war?

I think yes, but not in the way you might expect.

Rather than an all out war of violence, I think conflict is going to manifest in every other area instead. The US & China are separating drastically, and with a separation of the economy first, it might be enough to stay the incumbent at bay. In our extraordinarily interconnected world there can be only one superpower. Regional powers could exist without conflict beforehand, but this was a consequence of distance. What was once before regional is now planetary. Earth can exist in harmony with but one superpower.

And so, yes. China & The US will succumb to the Thucydides trap, but will it reap violence upon the world. I think not, but only time will tell such things.

The world is different now, but just cast your lens the pages of history and you will find a much bloodier story.

The Thucydides Trap Throughout History

Graham documents a series of the incumbent powers challenging the status of sitting superpower since Medieval times.

Notice that, importantly, not all clashes of the Thucydides trap have resulted in a war as promised. Like many things that are presented to us as binary, the actual reality of a thing is rarely that simple.

Is it war or not war? Are these the only two possible outcomes? I think plainly the answer is no. The complexity of the incumbent China threatening to usurp a sitting United States is complicated. A complexity that will not be solved along binary means.

There is much happening below the surface, how it swell into existence is anybodies guess.

examples of thucydides trap
Graham Link

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