The Thucydides Trap and the Rise and Fall of Great Powers
Jacek Bartosiak * -Geopolitical Futures
A theory used to explain the Peloponnesian War
can also be applied to the growing tensions between the U.S. and China
2,400 years ago, Thucydides, a Greek historian and author of “History of the
Peloponnesian War,” expressed a view that resonates in strategic thinking
to this day. He argued that the real cause of the Peloponnesian War was
the rapid increase in the power of Athens and the fear this aroused in Sparta,
which had dominated Greece thus far. Author Graham Allison used this concept in
his book “Destined for War,” in which he described the relationship between the
U.S. and China as an example of the “Thucydides trap” – the idea that the
decline of a dominant power and the rise of a competing power makes war between
the two inevitable.
Thucydides focused his writings and analysis on the
structural tensions caused by a sharp change in the balance of power
between rivals. He pointed to two main factors that contribute to this change:
the aspiring power’s growing need for validation and its demand, either
implicit or explicit, for a greater voice and strategic place in
multilateral relations; and the current power’s fear and determination to
defend the status quo.
In the fifth century B.C., Athens emerged as a powerful
force that in mere decades had become a merchant maritime power,
possessing financial resources and wealth but also reaching primacy in the
Greek world in the fields of philosophy, history, literature, art, architecture
and beyond. This irritated the Spartans, whose state had been the dominant land
power in Greece throughout the preceding century.
As Thucydides argued, Athens’ behavior was understandable.
With its rising power, its confidence also increased, as did its awareness of
past injustices and determination to right the wrongs that were committed
against it. Equally natural, according to Thucydides, was the behavior of
Sparta, which interpreted Athens’ behavior as ungrateful and a threat to the
system that Sparta had created and under which Athens was able to emerge as a
great power. This combination of factors resulted in structural tensions and,
subsequently, a war that devastated Greece.
In addition to the objective shift in the balance of power,
Thucydides drew attention to Spartan and Athenian leaders’ perception of the
situation, which led to an attempt to increase their own power through
alliances with other countries in the hope of gaining a strategic advantage
over their rival.
The lesson that Thucydides taught us, however, is that
alliances are a double-edged sword. When a local conflict between Kerkyra
(Corfu) and Corinth broke out, Sparta felt that, to maintain the balance, it
needed to help its vassal, Corinth. The Peloponnesian War began when Athens
came to Kerkyra’s defense after Kerkyra leaders convinced the Athenians that a
de facto war with Sparta was already underway. Corinth also convinced the
Spartans that, if they did not attack Attica, they would be attacked by Athens
themselves. Corinth accused the Spartans of misunderstanding the gravity of the
threat to maintaining a favorable balance of power in Greece. Although Sparta
ultimately won the Peloponnesian War, both Athens and Sparta came out of the
30-year conflict in ruins.
The Thucydides trap, which many now call a “security
dilemma,” can also be seen in the context of U.S.-Chinese relations.
The United States is concerned about China’s growing
economic power and military capabilities, believing that it could challenge the
primacy of the U.S. and the existing security architecture in the Western
Pacific and East Asia. China, meanwhile, is concerned that, so long as the
Americans are present in this part of the world, they will limit the legitimate
growth of Chinese power and influence.
Political scientist Joseph Nye believes that the key trigger
in the Thucydides trap is an excessive reaction to the fear of losing one’s
power status and prospects for future development. In the case of Washington
and Beijing, the relative decline of America’s power and the rapid rise of
China’s power destabilizes their relationship and makes it difficult to manage.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S.
Armed Forces, even admitted in May 2012 that his primary task was to ensure
that the United States did not fall into the Thucydides trap.
As a result of the slow but noticeable erosion of the
U.S. position in the Western Pacific, it is highly conceivable that a scenario
could emerge in which the current hegemon is tempted to conduct
a strategic counteroffensive in response to an incident, even a trivial
one, in the South China Sea or East China Sea, believing falsely that it has
the edge over its inferior rival. This would trigger a modern Thucydides trap.
An in-depth reading of Thucydides’ work reveals
a second trap, even more complex and dangerous than the first. Thucydides
clearly warned that neither Sparta nor Athens wanted war. But their allies and
vassal states managed to convince them that war was inevitable anyway, which
meant that both city-states would need to gain a decisive advantage at an early
stage of the escalating confrontation. Thus, they decided to enter the war
after being urged to do so by their vassal states.
According to research conducted in 2015 by a team led by
Graham Allison at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International
Affairs, 12 out of 16 historical cases spanning the past 500 years and with
similarities to those described above by Thucydides ended in a war of
domination. Releasing the competitive tension, if that was even possible,
always required huge and often painful adjustments to one’s expectations,
status and international position.
As Allison recalls, eight years before the outbreak of World
War I, British King Edward VII asked the British prime minister why there was
disagreement with his nephew, German Emperor Wilhelm II, when the real threat
to the British Empire was the United States. The prime minister asked for an
appropriate response in the form of a memorandum from the head of the
Foreign Office, Eyre Crowe.
The memorandum, delivered to the king on New Year’s Day
1907, was, as Allison writes, “a diamond in the annals of diplomacy.” The logic
within it was truly consistent with Thucydides’ own: The key to understanding
the German threat was understanding Germany’s ability, over time, to deploy not
only the strongest army on the Continent but also the strongest fleet, given
the growing strength of the German economy and Germany’s proximity to Britain.
Thus, regardless of German intentions, Germany would pose an existential threat
to Britain, its maritime power and the security of communication routes
connecting the metropolis with the colonies that represented the backbone of
Three years later, both U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt
and the German emperor attended Edward’s funeral. Roosevelt, himself a keen
supporter of the expansion of the American fleet, asked the emperor whether
Germany would give up building a large fleet. The emperor said Germany was
determined to have a powerful fleet, and added that he grew up in England, felt
part English himself and believed that war was unthinkable.
At that time, in 1910, world war seemed as impossible as it
does now. But it turns out that cultural, spiritual, ideological and even
family ties, as well as economic interdependence and the global trading system,
are not enough to prevent conflict. Both then and now.
*Polish lawyer, expert
in geopolitics and geostrategy and a senior analyst with Geopolitical Futures. He
is founder and owner of Strategy
& Future. Author of three books: Pacific and Eurasia: About the
war (2016), dealing with the upcoming rivalry of great powers in Eurasia and
about the potential war in the western Pacific; The Commonwealth between land
and sea: On war and peace (2018), on the geostrategic situation of Poland and
Europe in the era of rivalry between powers in Eurasia; and The Past is a
Prologue on geopolitical changes in the modern world.
The Three Revolutions
of the Chinese Communist Party – By Walden Bello
The Communist Party of
China led three revolutions of world-historic significance in its short
100-year-history: national liberation, the “Cultural Revolution,” and China’s
rapid capitalist transformation. Reflecting on the meaning of the 10th anniversary
on July 1, 2021, of one of the most important institutions of our time, the
Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the first thing that entered my head was that the
present does change the significance of the past.