There is a popular belief that history dooms the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America to some sort of conflict. The pundit-class slang term for this gloomy view is the Thucydides Trap.
The term Thucydides Trap comes from historian Graham Allison’s fascinating book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?Graham’s thesis is that when a rising power challenges a declining dominant power in a region a destructive conflict is inevitable.
To demonstrate his thesis, Allison turns to the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides. Thucydides epic work The History of the Peloponnesian War chronicles the conflict that devastated Ancient Greece.
What is the Thucydides Trap?
The concise history is that one city state Sparta dominated Greece for centuries. However, a cocky new power from Athens arose and challenged Sparta’s dominance.
The two nations stumbled into war because of entangled alliances. The resulting conflict: the Peloponnesian War was so destructive it reduced both city states to third-rate powers.
In Allison’s thesis, our modern world is Ancient Greece, America is Sparta, and China is Athens. Allison thinks this way because he thinks the Thucydides Trap is a historical inevitability.
In Destined for War, Allison examines several rising power/declining power conflicts and finds that war is the usual result. For instance, the conflict between Germany and the British Empire in the first half of the 20th Century.
The similarity between the present America/China rivalry and the German-British conflict is frightening. To explain, before 1914, the British Empire was the world and Europe’s dominant military power. Germany was a rising power with enormous but limited military, financial, industrial, technological, and scientific resources.
Before 1914, there was no real ideological dispute between Imperial Germany and the British Empire. However, British fears and German resentments drove a growing conflict that led to Britain and Germany to take sides in Europe’s alliance system. That led to the catastrophe of World War I.
Today, the ideological dispute between America and China is small. Both nations are capitalist and imperialistic despite different political systems. However, hysteria about China is rising in the United States, as Chinese resentment at American arrogance rises. Thus, Allison has a point.
Is the Thucydides Trap Real?
On the other hand, historical realities are more complex that Allison notes. For instance, weaker nations often spring the Thucydides Trap by dragging great powers into their conflicts.
Notably, the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire dragged Germany into World War I by declaring war on Russia. Russia was allied with France, which was allied with Britain. However, the British did not enter the war, until the Germans invaded another ally; Belgium, to attack France.
Hence, the beginning of World War I, shows history is not as simple as Allison suggests. In fact, the British-German conflict was peripheral to the crisis that triggered World War I. Conversely, the British-German conflict became the dominant battle of World War I.
For example, World War I began in the Balkans as a conflict between a Russian-client state Serbia and Austria-Hungary. To elaborate, the Austrians blamed the Serbs for the terrorist attack that killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to their imperial throne. War broke out because Russia took Serbia’s side in the conflict.
Yet the principal theater of World War I was the Western Front, where German and British Empire forces did much of the fighting. The war in Serbia became a sideshow most histories of the Great War ignore.
Is the Thucydides Trap Inevitable?
So yes, there is a Thucydides Trap, but is the Thucydides Trap Inevitable? Unfortunately, history offers no obvious answers to this question.
I can think of historical examples where rising and established power conflicts did not lead to the Thucydides Trap. One of the most interesting was in mid-19th Century Europe.
By the 1850s, Europe’s dominant power, the British Empire had withdrawn from continental affairs. The British felt free to pull out because they had crushed their great rival France in the Napoleonic Wars.
In the 1850s, France was reviving as Napoleon III’s Second Empire. Industrialization, new technologies, and colonialism allowed Napoleon III to rebuild French military power.
The Second Empire was a direct challenge to British dominance, but it did not lead to a British-French war. Instead, France and Britain entered an uneasy alliance which led to another far more destructive conflict.
A Thucydides Trap that did not Spring
There was no British-French conflict in the mid-19th Century for several reasons.
First, steamships created opportunities for imperial expansion beyond Europe that distracted the British and French. Notably, China opened to Europe for the first time, the British completed their Indian conquest, and new opportunities for conquest appeared in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Second, Napoleon III had no interest in challenging the British Empire. Instead, Napoleon III cultivated a British alliance and a friendship with Queen Victoria.
In particular, Napoleon III offered the British the deal that his French armies would police Europe, leaving Her Majesty’s forces free to police the Empire. That deal appealed to the British, especially in the late 1850s when the Great Mutiny in India and the Crimean War, tied up most of their military resources.
Third, there was another power that scared both the British and French to death. The power was Imperial Russia, which was on the march in both Asia and Europe.
Notably, many Frenchmen of the 1850s were old enough to remember Czar Alexander I reviewing his troops in Paris. The British feared the possibility of a Russian invasion of India through Afghanistan. Czar Nicholas I added to these fears with his attempts to conquer the Middle East, particularity, Syria.
Napoleon III cleverly manipulated British fears of Russia by taking the British side in the Crimean War. Thus, the nephew and heir of Britain’s greatest enemy became an ally against the Czar.
Finally, conflicts outside Europe tied down most of the British Army. In particular, the British faced an all-out battle for India in the Sepoy Revolt or Great Mutiny or Indian War of Independence. There were also the Opium Wars in China and the Crimean War.
Another Danger, the Unseen Thucydides Trap
Strangely, a Thucydides Trap Napoleon III did not see or expect destroyed the Second Empire.
The Emperor was so focused on the British and Russian threats that he ignored a more dangerous rising power: Prussia. Like most Europeans, Napoleon III believed his famous uncle had finished Prussia’s days as a major power.
Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, however, ignored that memo. Instead, Bismarck bet that a modern Prussian Army backed by a United Germany could beat France.
Meanwhile, Napoleon III isolated France by turning almost every nation in European against the Second Empire. The Emperor antagonized the Austrians by helping the Italians conquer many of their territory.
The Emperor angered by the Italians by garrisoning the Papal states, allowing the Pope to retain his temporal power. The Emperor drove the Russians into Prussia’s camp, by siding with the British in the Crimean War. By the late 1860s, Napoleon III even offended the British with his clumsy attempt to conquer Mexico.
The result was that France found itself in a Thucydides Trap with no allies. Napoleon III did not care because, like many of his contemporaries, he believed France had the greatest army in the world.
Bismarck thought differently and realized he could use the Thucydides Trap to achieve his goals. Those goals were uniting Germany under Prussian leadership and making Germany the most powerful nation in Europe.
To that end, Bismarck had to trigger war between Prussia and France but make sure the other great powers stayed out. In particular, Bismarck needed the Russians and British to stay neutral.
Meanwhile, the Austrians were not about to help the man responsible for losing their Italian empire. In addition, Bismarck could buy the Italians off by promising to remove French troops from Rome, opening the door for Italian unification.
Thus, in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out and the French found themselves alone and at the mercy of a newly reunited Germany. The war revealed numerous weaknesses in the French Army including poor training, obsolete weapons, low morale, and lack of an effective command structure.
Without allies, the French armies collapsed under German pressure. Eventually, the Prussians captured Napoleon III himself at the Battle of Sedan, leaving France without leadership.
Hence, the unseen Thucydides Trap can be the genuine danger. In particular, Napoleon III’s obsession with placating the great powers he knew left France unprepared for a growing Prussia.
The Thucydides Trap Today
One problem with today’s Thucydides Trap theories is that they often leave out two great powers that will complicate and perhaps any Chinese-American conflict.
The first of these powers is India, which could become the world’s third largest economy behind China and the United States by 2030. China could become the world’s largest economy, which will drive many Americans crazy.
Notably, India was number three in military spending in 2019, Statista estimates. To elaborate, the United States is still the world’s leader in military spending with $732 billion in military spending in 2019. China was a distant second with $261 billion in 2019 military spending and India a distant third with $71.1 billion in military spending.
Hence, we could face a situation where India, the United States, and China are roughly equal in military and economic power. How that will play out is hard to fathom.
One probable outcome is two of the great powers joining forces to throttle the third. That’s exactly what happened in World War I when Britain, the United States, and Germany found themselves in competition. The United States and the British Empire joined forces to throttle Germany, which led to World War II.
A plausible scenario is an American-Indian alliance against “Chinese imperialism.” Remember, the United States and India are both English-speaking and democratic countries. The countries have similar histories as former British colonies that glorify their independence struggles yet secretly want to relaunch the Empire with their country at its head.
Another possibility is a “cold peace” in which all three nations face off and compete around the world and possibly throughout the Solar System for resources or markets.
The 21st Century Thucydides Trap
One problem is that there will be a host of smaller, weaker nations trying to play the big three off against each other.
The most troublesome of the weaker powers will be Russia, a declining state with delusions of Imperial Grandeur. Statista estimates Russia had the fourth largest military budget of $65.1 billion in 2019.
Other potential troublemakers include the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea. A growing problem is Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia’s habit of meddling in other countries’ affairs.
Russia and Iran deployed military forces to Syria to prop up Bashar Assad’s loathsome dictatorship, for instance. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Iran have turned Yemen into a humanitarian nightmare with their proxy war. Any of those situations could provide a spark for great power conflict.
Beyond traditional intrastate conflict, there are all the existential threats to modern civilization. Climate Change, Global Warming, technological unemployment, new technologies, cyberwarfare, pandemics, income inequality, and terrorism, to name a few.
Any of those crises could spark new conflicts. Notably, the United States and China are blaming each other for the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 name calling could be a preview of leaders blaming other countries for their problems.
One future conflict is countries blaming each other for Global Warming. For example, Indian politicians blaming America or China for burning fossil fuels and raising temperatures. Similarly, American politicians could blame China for global warming.
A longer term conflict could involve space, and the potential riches of the Moon, Mars, or the Asteroid Belt. Notably, the space race and talk of interplanetary colonization everywhere these days. Space could become a theater of conflict because entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are space travel cheaper and easier.
I think all it will take is one sensor reading showing enormous gold deposits on Mars to start a scramble for space similar to the 19th Century Scramble for Africa. Some historians believe the scramble for Africa is partially responsible for World War I.
To explain, many Germans, including Kaiser Wilhelm II, felt the British and French conspired to keep their empire out of Africa. Notably, the Kaiser expanded his Navy to create a fleet capable of challenging the British Royal Navy.
The Thucydides Trap is real and dangerous in today’s world. International rivalries could lead to catastrophe because our leaders cannot understand the Thucydides Trap and avoid it.