“It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” — Thucydides said circa 500 BC.
Thucydides, an ancient Athenian, is known as one of the most important historians of all time. He famously wrote a book about the Peloponnesian War titled, “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Thucydides combines his first-hand accounts and other sources into an epic retelling of the war. In the end, he drew the lesson that a war between a ruling power, Sparta, and a rising power, Athens, is unavoidable or even inevitable.
Harvard Professor in Government, Graham Allison, took Thucydides a step further to argue that this inevitable pattern has reoccurred many times in history, and a similar conflict is bound to take place in the near future between the hegemonic U.S. and rising China.
However, as certain as that may seem, I contend that both countries, being nuclear armed and prone to escalating low-level conflicts into armageddon, know that it is in their self-interest to avoid direct conflict and prolonged war.
Professor Allison argues that the inevitable nature of the Peloponnesian War reveals a pattern in history — all ruling powers view rising powers as a threat and are bound to engage in a war to contain the rising power. Graham Allison terms this phenomenon the “Thucydides Trap.”
The word “trap” implies that these potential clashes are difficult to escape; in other words, a war is inevitable. Professor Allison illustrates his assertion by citing sixteen historical instances of rising power gradually growing to challenge the ruling power.
Of the 16 precedents he referenced, 12 of them resulted in war. With this convincing pattern, Professor Allison coined the “Thucydides Trap” to spotlight the high likelihood of a direct conflict that may occur between rival countries, especially the U.S. and China.
For around a century, America has enjoyed global supremacy. From the victories of the two World Wars to the Brentwood Conference, the U.S. proved to be a formidable force both militarily and financially. In spite of these global dominances, Professor Allison points out America’s sluggish infrastructure progress.
As an example, he mentions a bridge in Cambridge that took over 5 years to complete and finished almost three times over budget. In contrast, China built a much larger bridge with many more lanes within 43 hours.
Thus, China is not only becoming mightier but is also growing faster than expected. Truly, China went from the rags of the Cultural Revolution to the riches of modern-day industrial power so drastically that the nation will soon challenge the US for its position as the head world power.
Though the current political dynamics between China and the U.S. seems a classic case of the “Thucydides Trap,” other more powerful factors exist to prevent a direct conflict between the U.S. and China.
For one, according to Brookings, both countries have nuclear arms that can annihilate the opposing country. Both countries may hesitate to engage in open war because low-level battles could easily escalate into exchanges of nuclear missiles. Millions of people could die on both sides, never mind the sheer amount of physical destruction.
If these nations were to escalate their tensions, it would be in their self-interests to limit conflict to a proxy war. For example, during the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union never engaged directly. Instead, both nations fought proxy wars in countries such as Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan. Likewise, China and the U.S. may also settle their animosities via proxy wars in disputed regions, such as the South China Sea or Taiwan.
Currently, the U.S. placed multiple sanctions on several allied nations to prevent China from gaining the materials needed to manufacture advanced technological chips used in a wide range of military systems, according to CNBC.
If the U.S. succeeds at sustaining this technological supremacy, then China will hesitate to clash in a direct war. Instead, the Modern War Institute finds that China, the rising power, will prefer to participate in asymmetrical warfare, such as cyberattacks or energy disruptions, to weaken the US, rather than engaging in head-on conflicts.
Thus, even though the “Thucydides Trap” aligns with past power conflicts, international circumstances in the 21st Century have changed, making the “trap” no longer inevitable. With the creation of nuclear weapons and targeted use of sanctions, the U.S. and China are redefining what global tension and conflict look like.
Regardless of the outcome, the ways in which this conflict is settled will become a noteworthy moment in the century to come.