The US, China and the Real Thucydides’ Trap | Institute of International, Defense & European Analyses

The US, China and the Real Thucydides’ Trap

Analyses | 22/09/2017 | Ilias Kouskouvelis

During the last decade there has been a lot of discussion among international relations experts and foreign policy analysts on whether the rise of China as a major international player could lead to a confrontation with the United States. Most recently, with China’s activities in the South China Sea, the Korean peninsula crisis, and the new U.S. administration, this discussion was reanimated. The debate was also fueled by Graham Allison and his question, that is, whether the U.S. and China may avoid what he called the “Thucydides’ trap”, and not go to war. Further, it was reported that Allison briefed President Donald Trump’s National Security Council on what Thucydides and his work could teach them about U.S.-China relations. The same author says that war between the two is not inevitable. The answer is correct, not just because a person of his academic authority says so, but simply because the content of the so-called “trap”, attributed to Thucydides, is not right. The real trap, the one Thucydides warns for more than 2.400 years now, is different than that described by Allison.

The phenomenon of international politics students turning to ancient thinkers, such as Thucydides, in order to find answers in strategic matters, is not new. What authors often do is pick a phrase from Thucydides, separate it from the rest of the text, and build an argument, which projects rather their ideas than those of the classical author. This is precisely the case with the so-called “Thucydides’ trap”. Obviously, the work of Thucydides belongs to everyone; and everybody may use it and build upon it. Yet, a few things need to be respected, if the “trap” to go to war is linked with the name of Thucydides, and, most important, if it is linked with the possibility of a war between two major and, in this case, nuclear actors.

At first, one needs to bear in mind that ancient Greek thinking is multi-causal and not uni-causal, as the thinking of Western modernity. Therefore, maintaining initially that just the fear of a competitor’s growing power could lead to war, may be seen as cherry picking; and, afterwards, saying that “Thucydides does not really mean inevitable” may appear as inconsistency. Read more…