The Trap of Thucydides

The Greek historian Thucydides (460-396 B.C.), in his work, “The History of the Peloponnesian War” (438 404 B.C.), developed the hypothesis known as “the trap of Thucydides,” which argues that war is almost inevitable when a rising power threatens to displace another established power. The fear instilled in Sparta by the growth of Athens made war inevitable.

In 2017, American historian Graham Allison published “Destined for War: Can China and the United States Avoid Thucydides’s Trap?” Its objective was to recommend actions to avoid war between powerful nations. He analyzed 16 cases in which, after a change in hegemony, 12 were accompanied by war. Four did not follow this pattern: Portugal versus Spain at the end of the 15th century; the United Kingdom versus the United States at the beginning of the 20th century; and currently, the U.K. and France versus Germany. He also included the change in hegemony during the Cold War.

China challenges the supremacy of the United States. From an economic point of view, China’s gross domestic product — measured in purchasing power — is higher than that of the United States. China’s GDP per capita is 23% more than that of the U.S. Technologically, they are at comparable levels, but China’s growth is greater. Militarily, they are both nuclear powers, capable of massive assault. Although military confrontation has not occurred, there have been “trade wars,” a ban on the import and export of sensitive products, and the arrest of powerful Chinese executives. The West’s decisions on 5G technology were geopolitical, not technical-economic.

China is regaining the first place it held for much of the history of civilization. Its foreign policy seeks not only to make a presence in the Asian area, but also to venture into Africa and Latin America, regions the U.S. believes to belong exclusively within its own sphere of influence.

There is no shortage of potential conflict. China has disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan, while Joe Biden’s statements are of the following tenor: “China’s illegal maritime claims …”* On his recent visit to Japan, Biden suggested that he would use military force to help Taiwan if it is invaded by China. In response, Beijing said, “There is no possibility of any agreement.” The president then qualified this statement, saying that the U.S. would provide military aid to Taiwan so that the island could defend itself.

The AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to share information and technology from nuclear submarines, and China’s policy of claiming territorial sea for the construction of airports and bases on the Senkaku Islands provide evidence of the tensions of a shift in hegemony between U.S. and Europe versus China.

It has been suggested that the war in Ukraine is not unrelated to this geopolitical reality. The Russian invasion violated the sovereignty of a country. Ukraine, for its part, did not comply with the Minsk agreements on the autonomy of the eastern regions. Russia reneged on its 1994 commitment when Ukraine dismantled nuclear weapons in return for Russia’s promise to ensure its safety.

Europe and the United States see this war as a way to weaken Russia and thus, in their hypothetical conflict with China, China would not have a powerful ally.

There is some truth in observing that Europe and the United States will fight to the last Ukrainian.

*Editor’s note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be verified.

About this publication

About Patricia Simoni 180 Articles
I began contributing to Watching America in 2009 and continue to enjoy working with its dedicated translators and editors. Latin America, where I lived and worked for over four years, is of special interest to me. Presently a retiree, I live in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I enjoy the beauty of this rural state and traditional Appalachian fiddling with friends. Working toward the mission of WA, to help those in the U.S. see ourselves as others see us, gives me a sense of purpose.

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