The Thucydides Trap: Why the Spratly Islands Should Scare You to Death

One of the scariest big ideas out there comes from a Greek historian who died around 2,400 years ago. The idea is called the Thucydides Trap, and it explains why the United States and China could end up going to war over some worthless specks of dirt in the South China Sea.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that the Chinese government is upset because an American guided missile destroyer called the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles, or 22 kilometers, of two of the Spratly Islands. The Spratly Islands are a small group of islands in the South China Sea; claimed by both China and America’s ally and former colony the Philippines.

Many people are rather confused by this incident, which has some Chinese military commanders threatening to take any action possible and Chinese newspaper writers talking about war. They are wondering why two great powers could end up at each other’s throats for something so stupid.

How an Ancient Greek Historian Can Explain U.S.–Chinese Relations

Strangely enough, Thucydides could have the answer. Thucydides was the ancient Greek writer often referred to as the “father of history.” He is best known for his chronicle of the Peloponnesian Wars, a series of highly destructive conflicts that devastated Ancient Greece.

Not your father's People's Liberation Army, modern Chinese Special Forces solider with weapons.
Not your father’s People’s Liberation Army, modern Chinese Special Forces solider with weapons.

Thucydides’ account of that conflagration shows us how conflicts develop between great powers and lead to needless wars, Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, believes. Allison has labeled this scenario the Thucydides Trap, and he thinks great powers often get caught in it.

In an Atlantic magazine essay in September, Allison outlined the Thucydides Trap and how it works. He also admitted that he thinks the United States and China could now be caught in the Thucydides Trap.

What Is the Thucydides Trap, and How Does It Work?

The Thucydides Trap is actually an escalating cycle of conflict in which a growing nation or state challenges or threatens an established power or empire. The Peloponnesian War is a classic example of this situation because it was a conflict between an aggressive newcomer, Athens, and an established dominant power, Sparta. This quote from Thucydides himself describes the situation:

The People's Liberation Army's firepower on parade.
The People’s Liberation Army’s firepower on parade.

“The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon (the Spartan king), made war inevitable.”

Allison’s thesis is that American fears of growing Chinese power and China’s desire to expand its power and resentment of U.S. dominance could make war inevitable. The Peloponnesian Wars are a disturbing example because Athens and Sparta effectively destroyed each other in that conflict. After the wars ended, the two city states were so weak and Greece was so devastated that an outside power, Macedonia, was able to conquer the country.

Naturally, many people will wonder if the world faces such a situation today. After all, we have a fast-rising power, China, and an established power, America, that have a history of conflict.

Are America and China Caught in the Thucydides Trap?

To answer that question, we’ll have to compare the classic Thucydides Trap scenario—the Peloponnesian Wars—with today’s Sino-American tensions. This can also show us if some sort of conflict is inevitable or not.

An examination of the Peloponnesian Wars and an analysis of 16 similar historical situations by Allison and his colleagues at the Belfer Center shows us the characteristics of a Thucydides Trap. We can compare these to the present situation to see if we should be worried about this scenario.

The basic characteristics of a Thucydides Trap include:

  • A situation in which one power has dominated a region for a long time and believes it has a historic or moral right to such dominance. Sparta had been the top power in Greece for a long time, while Athens was the cocky new kid on the block. America has dominated the world since the end of World War II, and many Americans believe the United States has a moral; or even a God-given, mission to impose its values on the world.

 

  • A fast-growing power that is resentful or jealous of the dominant state. After the Persian Wars, Athens’ military and economic power began growing at a staggering rate while Sparta stagnated. China is certainly growing fast; in the last eight years its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, has nearly doubled. Many Chinese resent the United States for cultural reasons. Like Americans, many Chinese believe they have a historic right to rule the world and impose their values on other countries. There is also a lot of jealousy involved; a lot of Chinese would like their nation to become America or  as powerful and as influential as America.

 

  • Deep political, cultural and ideological differences between the two powers. Athens was a democracy and a highly capitalist society. Sparta was an oligarchy with a political system that was similar to a modern totalitarian state and an economic system we could call communist. Sparta’s ideology was similar to fascism. The United States is a democracy, while China is a dictatorship that claims to be communist. The two nations have vastly different cultures and histories.


Above is a Chinese video game that shows Chinese Naval Forces attacking the US bases on Okinawa.

  • Conflicting spheres of influence. The Peloponnesian Wars broke out largely because Athens tried to expand its influence into regions of Greece that Sparta regarded as its sphere of influence. The present conflict is brewing because the Chinese are operating in a body of water that many U.S. policymakers consider an American lake—the South China Sea.

 

  • Networks of entangling alliances that can enable smaller or weaker states to play the great powers against each other. The first of the Peloponnesian Wars started as a conflict between Athens’ client state of Corinth and Sparta. The Spratly Islands conflict is actually a dispute between an American client; the Philippines, and China.

Can We Avoid the Thucydides Trap?

Okay, so the present dispute certainly qualifies as a Thucydides Trap. The question we need to ask is, will we fall for it or not? Allison is rather pessimistic because his team studied 16 such situations from the past 500 years, ranging from the conflict between France and the Hapsburg Empire in the 16th century to the Cold War. In 12 of those conflicts, the result was war.

Thucydides
Thucydides

That observation is rather sobering, but it might not be applicable because there are some mitigating factors present today that did not exist in earlier conflicts. The existence of nuclear weapons, which prevented the Cold War from turning “hot,” is an obvious one. The fear of mutual destruction more than anything else may prevent a conflict.

Another is international trade and the close relationship between the U.S. and Chinese leadership. Although, very close relations between Britain and Germany did not prevent World War I—Kaiser Wilhelm II was Queen Victoria’s grandson.

Another factor is that there seems to be little popular support for war in the United States. Lack of popular support does not always prevent war however; most Americans were strongly opposed to entering World War I, but the U.S. entered the conflict anyway.

How to Avoid the Thucydides Trap

Even if these mitigating factors have no effect, Allison’s analysis shows it is possible to avoid a Thucydides Trap. To defuse the trap, one power has to back down and make room for the other.

One of China's aircraft carriers the Liaoning
One of China’s aircraft carriers the Liaoning

This is exactly what happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when America was a rising power and the British Empire was the great power. Britain effectively backed down and even pulled out of areas of the world despite conflicts and provocations. The result was a strong relationship between the nations that led to a successful alliance in two World Wars and the Cold War.

The two nations had strong cultural ties, a shared language and similar ideologies, but there were vast political differences and plenty of room for conflict. The Thucydides Trap did not spring because British leaders were willing to tolerate growing American power, and Americans were willing to stay out of Britain’s way.

Britain benefited by avoiding a destructive war with America that would have benefitted only Germany and Japan in the long run. More importantly, instead of an enemy, the British had a powerful new ally when they most needed one. Britain survived World War II because an earlier generation of British statesmen successfully avoided a Thucydides Trap.

That is a lesson that Americans should remember. The Thucydides Trap is not inevitable, and it can be avoided as long as we are willing to share our world with other nations.

Appendix: examples of the Thucydides Trap from History

Peloponnesian Wars

Location: Greece/Sicily

Time: Fifth Century BC

Dominant Power: Sparta

Rising Power: Athens

Result: Mutual destruction, devastated Greece conquered by Macedonians

Punic Wars

Location: Western Mediterranean

Time: Third and Second Centuries BC

Dominant Power: Carthage

Rising Power: Roman Republic

Result: Destruction of Carthage, absolute victory for Rome

Roman-Parthian Wars

Location: Middle East

Time: First Century BC, First and Second Centuries AD

Dominant Power: Roman Empire

Rising Power: Parthian Empire

Result: Stalemate/Cold War eventual collapse of Parthia due to other factors

Spanish Armada

Location: Atlantic/Caribbean/Northern Europe

Time: Late 16th Century

Dominant Power: Spain/Holy Roman Empire

Rising Powers: England/Dutch Republic

Result: Ill-advised Spanish attack on England by Spanish Armada, destruction of Armada; Spanish army bogged down in Netherlands, stalemate, cold war; Spain eventually supplanted by France as dominant European power, England and Dutch dominate Atlantic.

Dutch/British Wars

Location: English Channel/Atlantic

Time: Mid to late 17th Century

Dominant Power: Dutch Republic

Rising Power: England

Result: Dutch victory results in political revolution that transforms England into constitutional monarchy with Dutch Prince William of Orange as King

France and Britain Round One: War of the Spanish Succession, etc.

Location: Europe, India, the Atlantic and North America

Time: Late 17th, Early 18th Century

Dominant Power: Kingdom of France

Rising Power: England/Great Britain

Result: British victory, rise of British Empire; loss of French Empire in New World and India, successful American Revolution with French help leads to formation of United States, and bankruptcy of France leads to revolution.

France and Britain Round Two – French Revolution/Napoleonic Wars

Location: Europe/World

Time: Late 18th, early 19th Century

Rising Power: French Republic/Napoleon

Dominant Power: Great Britain

Result: British victory, end of France as a world power

Franco-Prussian War

Location: Europe

Time: Mid-19th Century

Rising Power: Prussia/Germany

Dominant Power: French Empire

Result: Destruction of French Empire in Franco Prussian War, rise of German Empire, weakened French Republic becomes British client

Crimean War

Location: Black Sea/Middle East/Baltic Sea

Time: Mid-19th Century

Rising Power: Russian Empire

Dominant Power: British Empire

Result: Total British victory, Russian expansion to south effectively blocked

Britain and United States

Location: Atlantic/Caribbean

Time: Late 19th, early 20th Centuries

Rising Power: USA

Dominant Power: British Empire

Result: British back down, America and British Empire become allies

Sino-Japanese/Russo-Japanese Wars

Location: Northern China/Sea of Japan/Korea

Time: 1890s/1900s

Dominant Powers: Chinese Empire/Russian Empire

Rising Power: Japanese Empire

Result: Japanese victory effectively makes Japan the dominant power in the region until its defeat in World War II, China becomes Japanese client state for two generations after collapse of its Empire. Social instability in Russia leads to revolution and Communist dictatorship. Russia effectively withdraws from region until World War II.

World Wars (Europe)

Location: Europe/Atlantic/Middle East/Africa/Pacific

Time: First Half of 20th Century

Rising Power: Germany

Dominant Powers: Britain/United States

Result: Destruction of Germany, collapse of British Empire, American hegemony, collapse of world economic order, Cold War, Britain becomes American client

World War II – Asia/Pacific

Location: Pacific/Asia

Time: 1930s and 1940s

Dominant Powers: United States/British Empire

Rising Power: Japanese Empire

Result: Defeat and destruction of Japanese Empire, collapse of British Empire, American domination, and Cold War. Japan becomes American client.

Cold War

Location: Entire World

Time: Mid to Late 20th Century

Dominant Power: United States of America

Rising Power: Soviet Union

Result: Collapse of Soviet Union because of unsustainable military buildup and unworkable economy, collapse of Communism, weak American hegemony over world, capitalist world order, beginning of rise of China

Sino-American Conflict

Location: Entire World

Time: Early 21st Century

Dominant Power: United States of America

Rising Power: People’s Republic of China

Results: Unknown