United States, China and Thucydides’ Trap

In 2015, Graham Allison, a Harvard scholar, published an influential essay about the rivalry between the U.S. and China.

Allison’s essay began with an observation from Thucydides that says that the war between Sparta and Athens originated in the fear that Sparta, then the dominant city in Greece, had of Athens’ growing power.

Allison traced 16 comparable cases throughout history, where a city, kingdom or country dominating its space was challenged by a rival that seemed capable of taking its place in power. In 12 of the 16 cases he studied, the result of the rivalry between the established power and the emerging one was a war.

The symmetry was obvious: The U.S. currently appears to be a waning world power, and China its substitute rival. That’s why both powers are thrown, along with the world, into what Allison christened “Thucydides’ Trap,” the title of his essay.

China and the U.S. have managed to coexist reasonably well outside of the fatality implicit in Thucydides’ trap, but the logic of their confrontation has only grown. China is starting to be a challenging power in many areas for the U.S.: economy, trade, technology and the geopolitical deployment over what China considers its hegemonic space, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, considers the U.S. a decadent power with an ineffective political system. In his opinion, Western democracy is not a civilizing strength, but a historical weakness over which China will prevail.

Meanwhile, in today’s divided and weakened American democracy, the only point of consensus is curbing China. Everything else is polarization, disagreement and allies’ doubt of Washington’s capacity for global leadership.

Ruling out the cataclysmic scenario of war, Mexico has a lot to lose and a lot to gain in the spaces that are opened by this struggle between the powers in today’s Thucydides’ trap. However, there is little reflection on this opportunity and risk in public conversation or government discourse.

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