Skip to main content

When Superpowers Compete: The Thucydides Trap

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Clash of the titans.

Clash of the titans.

Stumbling into War

Twenty-four hundred years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides warned about how competition among states can lead to them stumbling into conflict. He made his observation while chronicling the Peloponnesian War of the fourth century BCE. The trap he wrote about is a concern today, as China, the United States, and to a lesser extent Russia, flex their muscles.

Athens and Sparta

The Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 BCE and lasted for 27 years. The city-state of Athens was a rising force in a world where Sparta was the major power. Thucydides wrote: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

According to the analysis of Thucydides, Athens, coming from its own sense of growing importance, demanded a greater say in regional affairs. Sparta saw this as a threat and was determined to defend its position against the upstart.

Prior to the conflict, each city-state had been busy building up alliances; skirmishes among these secondary players led to all-out war. Sparta won, but the dominance of Greece in the ancient world suffered. Eventually, it was conquered by the Macedonian Alexander the Great.

The fall of the Athenian army.

The fall of the Athenian army.

The Thucydides Trap

Harvard University Professor Graham Allison is a leading international relations scholar. He and his colleagues studied the changing balances of power going back 500 years. War was the result in 12 out of 16 cases. This led to the coining of the phrase “The Thucydides Trap.”

As Professor Allison wrote in a 2015 article in The Atlantic, in the context of a rising power challenging the dominance of an existing power, “Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations . . . ”

  • In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic was the dominant world power and England challenged it; the result was warfare.
  • The rising power of France confronted the United Kingdom in late 18th and early 19th centuries resulted in the Napoleonic War.
  • Germany threatened the alliance among the United Kingdom, France, and Russia and that brought on the wholesale slaughter of World War I.

First World War

The Great War is the Thucydides Trap writ large. None of the combatants wanted war. The monarchs at the head of Russia, Britain, and Germany were cousins. On a visit to Britain in 1910, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany told U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, “I was brought up in England, very largely; I feel myself partly an Englishman. Next to Germany I care more for England than for any other country.”

On the other hand, he was adamant in his desire to build up Germany’s naval power as a counterbalance to Britain’s Royal Navy.

Just as Sparta and Athens had, Germany and the U.K. created alliances to strengthen their positions. Then, the seemingly inconsequential assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir the Austria-Hungary throne, triggered those alliances.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, where the assassin came from. Russia stood by its ally Serbia, and Germany supported Austria-Hungary. Within a week, France, Belgium, Great Britain and others were drawn into the unthinkable conflict they were powerless to avoid.

Four years and almost 20 million dead later, the exhausted enemies stopped fighting, having been drawn into battle by the Thucydides Trap.

Professor Allison commented: “However unimaginable conflict seems, however catastrophic the potential consequences for all actors, however deep the cultural empathy among leaders, even blood relatives, and however economically interdependent states may be—none of these factors is sufficient to prevent war, in 1914 or today.”

Miscalculations cost millions of lives in World War I.

Miscalculations cost millions of lives in World War I.

U.S.-China Relations

Campbell Clark is a foreign policy specialist with Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. In November 2019 he wrote: “In Beijing and Washington, it is now common for foreign-policy thinkers to see the world’s two superpowers as trapped on a path toward eventual war.”

If the wrong people believe that conflict is inevitable, then conflict will be inevitable, because both sides will prepare for its inevitability.

Belligerent rhetoric of the sought engaged in by former U.S. President Donald Trump, a man with only the thinnest grasp of geopolitics, pushes the opposing realms further apart. As he campaigned for the presidency, he said: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”

Diplomats, and those charged with trying to keep the peace, found such bluster not at all helpful.

Meanwhile, China has been increasingly threatening towards Taiwan. It is an article of faith in Beijing that Taiwan belongs to China, although it never has in the past, and that its existence as an independent nation is illegitimate.

Chinese military aircraft have been making daily flights close to the island. Is it the hope of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping that someone in Taiwan's defence system will press the wrong switch and shoot one of his planes down, so he would have an excuse to invade?

Here's U.S. President Joe Biden in May 2022 being asked by a reporter, “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” and answering “Yes. That’s the commitment we made.”

China's dictator Xi Jinping seems intent on expanding China's power and influence.

China's dictator Xi Jinping seems intent on expanding China's power and influence.

And that brings us back to Prof. Allison, who warns about how such rivalry can turn nasty: “Something happens in Taiwan, and then China reacts, then the U.S. feels obliged to react, then one thing leads to another, and we end up with a general war,”

Jonathan Marcus of the BBC opines that “The two countries are at a strategic crossroads. Either they will find ways to accommodate each other’s concerns, or they will move towards a much more confrontational relationship.”

“The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”

— Singapore’s late leader, Lee Kuan Yew

How to Avoid the Thucydides Trap

In a quarter of the cases examined by Dr. Allison and his team, war was averted: “When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.”

The obvious way out of the trap is not chest-thumping, but diplomacy. This is the conclusion of a 2018 study from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.

Reporting on the study, The Diplomat commented that its authors believe the Thucydides Trap can be avoided “as long as the United States strategically accommodates China’s rise. They hasten to add that accommodation does not mean appeasement, but instead means welcoming the rise of a ‘peaceful, stable, and prosperous China’.”

The writers of the report are mostly military people, and they strongly advocate for cooperation, not confrontation. However, for that to be effective it has to be done from a position of strength.

Let’s have a couple of world leaders from the past offer the last words of advice:

Winston Churchill said “Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.”

Theodore Roosevelt was more succinct: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

Bonus Factoids

GDP 2022

China: $14.72 trillion

United States: $20.89 trillion

Russia: $1.48 trillion

GDP Growth 2022

China: 4.4%

United States: 3.7%

Russia: -8.5%

Military Budget 2020

United States: $778 billion

China: $252 billion

Russia: $61.7 billion

Active Personnel 2022

United States: 1,390,000

China: 2,000,000

Russia: 850,000

Total Aircraft 2022

United States: 13,247

China: 3,285

Russia: 4,173

Total Warships 2022

United States: 484

China: 777

Russia: 605

Sources

  • International Monetary Fund
  • World Bank
  • Global Firepower

The Big Dilemma

Despite its ill-conceived and illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russia is really a bit player in the geopolitical chess game. (That is unless Russian dictator Vladimir Putin decides to go nuclear, in which case, everything changes.)

The Russian economy is a shambles, its troops are poorly trained, poorly led, and poorly equipped. While it's a menace, Russia cannot be considered a threat to global stability, the nuclear option notwithstanding.

More than 30 years ago, the British television show Yes Prime Minister satirized the difficult decisions Western leaders must make in the face of Russian aggression.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor