A Few Important Things to Learn about History and the Thucydides Trap

I’m glad to see that Graham Allison’s thoughtful Thucydides Trap hypothesis is attracting attention but I am worried that people might be learning the wrong lesson from it.

The Cliff Notes explanation of the Thucydides Trap is that states can be trapped into war when a rising power challenges an established empire or dominant regional power. Allison’s classic example of this is the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece when the city-states of Athens and Sparta destroyed each other jockeying for power. Thucydides was the ancient historian who chronicled that conflict.

Now that Allison’s book Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? is available the debate about the trap is heating up. This debate has given rise to a number of dangerous fallacies about history and international relations. These fallacies include:

  1. “This time it’s different.” These of course are some of the most famous last words in history. Michael Vlahos; a professor of strategy and war makes this argument in an American Conservative article. Vlahos’ argument is that we don’t have to worry about the Thucydides Trap because the Ancient Greeks were a bunch of ignorant bloodthirsty warmongers, but we peaceful moderns are too smart to get trapped into war. That sounds like the Europeans who were shocked by the outbreak of World War I. Given the popularity of violent video games, action movies and ignorant nationalism I’m not sure we moderns are as peace loving as Vlahos thinks.

  1. We can understand the behavior and motivation of today’s leaders simply by studying history. This is patently untrue, history can serve as a sort of guide to the past but it will not repeat itself. Today’s Chinese leadership is not the German government of 1913. Their motivations and beliefs are very different from those of the Kaiser and his generals. Thinking Xi Jinping will act like Wilhelm II even in a similar situation is stupid.

 

  1. Common language, values, institutions and culture will help us avoid war. Not true, the Spartans and Athenians spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods they still fought decades of bloody war. In 1914, Germany and Britain had a lot in common; both were constitutional monarchies, imperial powers and shared a common culture. The Kaiser was even Queen Victoria’s grandson but war still came.

 

  1. China and America are the only nations that might be caught in the Thucydides Trap. Not true it might also ensnare China and Russia, US and Russia, China and India, Iran and Saudi Arabia and even China and France. My view is that conflict between India and China or Russia and China might be more likely because nobody expects it. Many people are aware of the possibility of a Sino-American clash and are working to prevent it. Nobody is trying to stop a Russian-Chinese conflict.

  1. The Thucydides Trap is the only way war might develop. Not true, there are many other dangerous situations out there. Rogue nations, terrorists and even hackers now have the ability to trigger war both deliberately and inadvertently. A particularly dangerous situation is in Syria where U.S. and Russian military forces are conducting military operations at the same time. That sounds like a recipe for accidental war to me.

 

  1. Countries with different values, ideologies, cultures, religions, languages, etc. are doomed to war by the Thucydides Trap. Not true history is full of countries that put avoided the trap despite vast differences. During the First Century A.D. the Roman and Parthian Empires avoided a destructive war through shrewd diplomacy. Britain and France were able to put aside their historic differences in the late 19th Century and create a mutually beneficial alliance. Japan and the United States avoided a conflict in the late 20th Century because of trade and relationships. The U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided destructive conflict during the Cold War. The Soviet Union and China were able to avoid all-out war during the Cold War.

The good news is that the Thucydides Trap can be avoided. The bad news is that we have to be aware of the trap in order to avoid it. Disturbingly many of our leaders might be as blind as those in the past.