What is the “Thucydides Trap”?
Map of Ancient Greece. Source: Wikipedia
Thucydides was an ancient Athenian general who wrote about the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens. Sparta had been the dominant power in Greece. They had a harsh military culture built around their seemingly invincible army. Athens was a rising power, commercially and at sea. They had built the most powerful navy in the Mediterranean Sea. War between the two city-states was inevitable, according to Thucydides, because Athens’ growth challenged Sparta’s dominance. An irresistible force met an immovable object. The Peloponnesian War was the result.
The Thucydides Trap is a conundrum that’s been written about by the historian Graham Allison. He found 16 instances when a dominant nation was threatened by the rise of a growing power. Three quarters of those cases ended in war – the most destructive of which was when the Germany’s rising industrial power challenged the British Empire in the early 20th century. That did not end well: two world wars and over a hundred million dead.
Today, the Thucydides Trap could describe the relationship between China and the US. China is rising; the US is dominant. After the Cold War, we were the world’s sole remaining superpower. Western political and economic institutions became so dominant that several scholars declared that our liberal democratic and capitalistic system was the “end of history”: there is no comparable, coherent system to compete with this structure on a global scale.
But China’s rise threatens Pax Americana. They have a fast-growing economy, a rising middle class, and the desire to be taken seriously on the global stage. They are now the world’s largest producer of ships, steel, aluminum, autos, cell phones, and computers. Baidu rivals Google as the world’s largest search engine. Alibaba rivals Amazon as the world’s largest online marketplace. Conflicts at sea, in space, in cyber-space, and in trade are all possible, and need careful, deliberate management.
Qing dynasty flag, 1900. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia
War isn’t inevitable when a rising power displaces an established power. The UK took the long view in the 1890s when President Cleveland accused the British government of establishing a new colony in Venezuela, violating our Monroe Doctrine. They could have sent warships, but Britain backed down, and agreed to go to international arbitration rather than war. Our special relationship with England has been the result.
Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia
War doesn’t always happen, but war has happened 12 out of 16 times with the “Thucydides Trap.” If we do business as usual with the Chinese, we may end up with history as usual. Let’s hope we can work things out peacefully.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
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