What an Ancient Historian Says About the U.S.-China Clash

(Bloomberg) -- Are the U.S. and China doomed to battle? Or to put it another way, are they Sparta and Athens? That’s what’s meant when foreign affairs observers toss around the phrase “Thucydides Trap.” Thucydides (thoo-SID-i-deez) was a Greek historian in the 5th century B.C. who explained the Peloponnesian War of his day as an inevitable clash between Athens, a rising city-state, and the already established superpower, Sparta.

1. Who came up with the Thucydides Trap?

Not Thucydides. He was a historian trying to explain what had already happened rather than seeking to predict future events. The modern term was coined in 2012 by Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Allison argued that as China becomes stronger, it will threaten to displace U.S. influence, which could result in an unhealthy rivalry leading to armed conflict.

2. Does the trap explain other conflicts?

Allison counts 16 cases in the past 500 years in which rising powers threatened to dislodge dominant ones, with 12 resulting in war. In the run-up to World War I, for example, Germany sought to assert its military might over Europe and to create its own empire overseas, straining relations with the leading power of the day, Britain. Similarly, the Thirty Years’ War of the 1600s followed rising tensions between emerging Protestant powers, initially a collection of German and Dutch states, and the established Catholic one, the Holy Roman Empire.

3. Is the trap inescapable?

No. World powers can coexist peacefully. In the last century, the U.S. overtook the U.K. as the major military and political power, and the transition was fairly smooth. After Germany, which was divided after World War II, reunified in 1990, it regained significant power within Europe without sparking conflict. Even the Cold War showed how the sour rivalry between two superpowers need not escalate into full-blown war, though the U.S. and Soviet Union certainly clashed through proxies. Some analysts consider the Thucydides Trap an oversimplification of war’s causes and are skeptical of using it to understand relations between the U.S. and China.

The Reference Shelf

  • Graham Allison’s recent book on whether China and the U.S. can avoid the Thucydides Trap, the editorial in which he first used the term, and a more recent article on the matter.
  • Harvard Kennedy School’s special initiative on the Thucydides’s Trap.
  • Bloomberg QuickTakes on the U.S.-China trade war, the growing Chinese economic sphere of influence and tensions around the South China Sea.
  • A critique of the theory by historian Arthur Waldron.

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