The Thucydides Trap, also referred to as Thucydides's Trap, is a term coined by American political scientist Graham T. Allison to describe an apparent tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as the international hegemon. It was coined and is primarily used to describe a potential conflict between the United States and the People's Republic of China.
The term is based on a quote by ancient Athenian historian and military general Thucydides, which posits that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta had been inevitable because of Spartan fear of the growth of Athenian power.
The term was coined by American political scientist Graham T. Allison in a 2012 article for the Financial Times. Based on a quote by ancient Athenian historian and military general Thucydides in his text History of the Peloponnesian War positing that "it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable", Allison used the term to describe a tendency towards war when a rising power (exemplified by Athens) challenges the status of a dominant power (exemplified by Sparta). Allison expanded upon the term significantly in his 2017 book Destined for War, which argues that "China and the US are currently on a collision course for war".
The term describes the theory that when a great power's position as hegemon is threatened by an emerging power, there is a significant likelihood of war between the two powers. Or in coiner Graham Allison's words:
Thucydides's Trap refers to the natural, inevitable discombobulation that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power...[and] when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception.
To advance his thesis, Allison led a case study by the Harvard University Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs which found that among 16 historical instances of an emerging power rivaling a ruling power, 12 ended in war.
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The term and arguments surrounding it have had influence in international media, including Chinese state media, and among American and Chinese politicians. A case study of the term by Alan Greeley Misenheimer published by the Institute for National Strategic Studies, the military research arm of the National Defense University, states that it "has received global attention since entering the international relations lexicon". Furthermore, BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus has quipped that Graham Allison's book expanding on the Thucydides trap, Destined For War, "has become required reading for many policymakers, academics and journalists".
China–United States relations
The term is primarily used and was coined in relation to a potential military conflict between the United States and the People's Republic of China. Xi Jinping, the paramount leader of China, has himself referenced the term, cautioning that "We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap". The term gained further influence in 2018 as a result of a surge in US-Chinese tensions after US President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on almost half of China's exports to the US, leading to a tit-for-tat series of economic escalations.
Western scholars have noted that there are a number of pressing issues the two nations are at odds over that increase the likelihood of the two powers falling into the Thucydides trap, including the de facto independence of Taiwan, China's digital policing and its use of cyber espionage, differing policies towards North Korea, China's increased naval presence in the Pacific and its claims over the South China Sea, and human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Some also point to the consolidation of power by Xi Jinping, supposedly irreconcilable differences in values, and the trade deficit as further evidence the countries may be slipping into the Thucydides trap.
A number of scholars have criticized the application of the Thucydides trap to US-China relations. For instance, Richard Hanania, a research fellow at Columbia University, has argued that there is no Thucydides Trap between the United States and China because China's ambitions are limited primarily to combating internal issues, signifying that China does not pose a significant threat to US interests. Hu Bo, a professor at Peking University's Institute of Ocean Research and one of China's foremost naval strategists, has similarly said that he does not believe the current balance of power between the United States and China supports the Thucydides hypothesis. Other scholars like Historian Arthur Waldron have claimed that China is still far too weak for such a conflict, pointing in particular to China's "economic vulnerabilities" and an exodus of Chinese people out of China.
Others have derided the Thucydides Trap as a quaint piece of ancient history that is not particularly applicable to modern times. James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy, in his article "Oh God, Not the Peloponnesian War Again", wrote of the Thucydides Trap that "conflicts between city-states in a backwater Eurasian promontory 2,000 years ago are an unreliable guide to modern geopolitics—and they neglect a vast span of world history that may be far more relevant". He further noted derisively that Thucydides shouldn't "hold the same grip on international relations scholars that Harry Potter does on millennial readers".
In a reverse of Allison's concerns, Harvard University political scientist Joseph S. Nye has argued that the primary concern is not the rise of China leading to a Thucydides trap, but rather internal issues within China leading to a weakening of China in what he calls a "Kindleberger Trap".
Finally, some have noted that Chinese state propaganda outlets have latched onto the narrative of the Thucydides trap in order to promote a set of power relations that favors China.
The research by Graham Allison supporting the Thucydides trap has also been criticized. Harvard University political scientist Joseph S. Nye has contested the claim that 12 of the 16 historical cases of a rising power rivaling a ruling power resulted in war on the basis that Allison misidentifies cases. For example, he points to the case of World War I, which Allison identifies as an instance of emerging Germany rivaling established Britain, saying that Allison misidentifies the causes of World War I. Historian Arthur Waldron has similarly argued that Allison mischaracterizes several conflicts. For example, he says of the Japan-Russia conflict included by Allison: "Japan was the rising power in 1904 while Russia was long established. Did Russia therefore seek to preempt Japan? No. The Japanese launched a surprise attack on Russia, scuttling the Czar’s fleet."
Others have questioned Allison's reading of Thucydides. In a case study for the Institute for National Strategic Studies, the military research arm of the National Defense University, Alan Greeley Misenheimer says that "Thucydides’ text does not support Allison's normative assertion about the 'inevitable' result of an encounter between 'rising' and 'ruling' powers" and that while it "draws welcome attention both to Thucydides and to the pitfalls of great power competition" it "fails as a heuristic device or predictive tool in the analysis of contemporary events".
Harvard University political scientist Joseph S. Nye has argued that Graham Allison misunderstands the Peloponnesian War, arguing that it was not in fact a result of a rising Athens challenging Sparta. Historian Arthur Waldron relatedly argued that Professor Donald Kagan of Yale University and the late Professor Ernst Badian of Harvard University have "long ago proved that no such thing exists as the 'Thucydides Trap'" with regards to the Peloponnesian War.
- Power transition theory
- China's peaceful rise
- Chinese Century
- Foreign relations of the United States
- Foreign relations of China
- Potential superpowers
- Global policeman
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- Allison, Graham (24 September 2015). "The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
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- Thucydides. "The History of the Peloponnesian War". The Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Archived from the original on 7 April 2020. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
- Allison, Graham (2017). Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-1328915382.
- Allison, Graham (2017). Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. xv–xvi. ISBN 978-1328915382.
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- Yongding, Yu; Gallagher, Kevin P. (11 May 2020). "Virus offers a way out of Thucydides trap". China Daily. Archived from the original on 25 May 2020. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
- Misenheimer, Alan Greeley (4 June 2019). "Thucydides' Other "Traps": The United States, China, and the Prospect of "Inevitable" War". Institute for National Strategic Studies. National Defense University. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
- Marcus, Jonathan (25 March 2019). "Could an ancient Greek have predicted a US-China conflict?". BBC. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
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- Funabashi, Yoichi (10 October 2017). "Can we avoid the 'Thucydides Trap'?". Japan Times. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
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- Hanania, Richard (8 June 2020). "There Is No Thucydides Trap Between the U.S. and China". Real Clear Defense. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
- Waldron, Arthur (12 June 2017). "There is no Thucydides Trap". SupChina. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
- Palmer, James (28 July 2020). "Oh God, Not the Peloponnesian War Again". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on 29 July 2020. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
- Nye, Joseph S. (9 January 2017). "The Kindleberger Trap". Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs. Harvard Kennedy School. Archived from the original on 14 April 2020. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
- Cole, J. Michael; Hsu, Szu-Chien (2020-07-30). Insidious Power: How China Undermines Global Democracy. Eastbridge Books. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-78869-214-4.