Thousands of years later, Thucydides’ lessons are eerily familiar to some; others reject it as “simplistic readings of a classic”
It might seem odd that a Greek philosopher who has been dead for over 2,400 years is now back in the limelight. According to some political experts, Thucydides, an Athenian historian who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, deserves every bit of the attention. In fact, the historian’s insights on human behavior suggest that he knew more about President Trump and China than we know about Trump and China.
That is one side of the argument. But, as with any topic, there is a differing voice. Opposing experts have advised the use of caution when reading the works of Thucydides — it is all a gross misrepresentation, a poor interpretation of the facts.
Here we are, arguing about the foreign policies of an Ancient Greek leader, hoping to somehow feel validated in our own statements. These are strange times, indeed.
Before examining both sides of the argument, perhaps we should look at the origination of the debate. The term “Thucydides Trap” was initially coined by Dr. Graham T. Allison, a Harvard professor and former Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Clinton years. Allison used the term to refer to a scenario where a rising power threatens an established power, leading to war. In his scenario, the rising power (China) poses as a substantial threat to the established power (the United States), and this creates a high possibility of conflict.
The term is not unfounded — as far as references to literature go, it actually seems legitimate. In his account of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”
Dr. Allison published myriad articles on studies related to this topic, and it’s important to note that the studies were performed many years before the inauguration of President Trump. We might forget it now, but tension between the United States and China has been high in the decades following the end of World War II. The Thucydides Trap was not initially phrased to refer to Trump, but an escalation of tensions has pushed the term into the center-stage once again.
Here’s where things get very, very interesting. In a series of studies on historical events, Dr. Allison examined the veracity of the Thucydides Trap. His studies showed that 12 of the past 16 instances where an emerging country has threatened an established country have led to war. In a 2015 article for The Atlantic, Allison presented the following graphic:
If you consider the Cold War between the USSR and United States as more of a war than “No war” (taking the overall impact into consideration), then there have been 13 wars in the past 16 chances. Or 81.25%, if that makes the numbers easier to stomach.
Allison’s article is insightful and thoroughly written, and it provides an interesting analysis of the Greek historian’s works. One passage provides what is perhaps the crux of the argument:
…Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Note that Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.
Other articles by the Harvard professor draw similar lessons, as shown in this example from an 2017 analysis published in Foreign Policy. Allison writes,
Thucydides’s Trap teaches us that on the historical record, war is more likely than not. From Trump’s campaign claims that China is “ripping us off” to recent announcements about his “great chemistry” with Xi, he has accelerated the harrowing roller coaster of U.S.-China relations.
If Graham Allison’s assessment is correct, then we should be paying more attention to Thucydides’ lessons. Allison hopes that the two countries can establish common ground, avoiding war by sharing similar goals and finding ways to work together. The professor expressed his hope in a 2018 TED Talk, stating: “we conclude again with the most consequential question, the question that will have the gravest consequences for the rest of our lives: Are Americans and Chinese going to let the forces of history drive us to a war that would be catastrophic for both? Or can we summon the imagination and courage to find a way to survive together, to share the leadership in the 21st century…”
That perspective — the idea that the United States and China are facing an inevitable conflict, as warned by Thucydides — is not shared by everyone. Some professors believe that the Thucydides Trap is only emphasized to present China as a major threat, thereby furthering the hawkish efforts of politicians who favor interventionist policies.
In a 2017 article for The Atlantic titled “The Summer of Misreading Thucydides,” Dr. Kori Schake explains that the Greek historian’s lessons have been misinterpreted. Thucydides, the man credited with saying that “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must,” was not such a hard-edged realist. According to Schake, who serves as the Deputy-Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Thucydides was an elitist who favored the establishment. He was not a populist leader who cared about the ordinary people, and much of his writing in his History of the Peloponnesian War focuses on elitist policies for the upper class.
What does this mean? If Schake is right, then China and the United States are not substitutes for Athens and Sparta; Thucydides’ writing does not actually predict that China and the United States will go to war. We’ve taken it all out of context. The lessons from Thucydides lend little credence to President Trump’s hawkish stance on American-Chinese policies.
We are left at an uncertain impasse, one that favors the arguments of both Allison and Schake. Allison implies that Thucydides’ writing shows that the United States and China are headed to war. Schake writes that Thucydides’ writing focuses on a different issue altogether, one that indicates nothing about a future war. Who is right?
This is not a zero-sum game, because both Schake and Allison’s theories are somewhat accurate. Allison’s studies may have over-emphasized Greek history, stretching Thucydides’ words to draw a tight parallel. But the impressive and notable detail of Allison’s analysis is the case study of the past 16 possible conflicts. There were slight variances in the situations, but the historical cases are thoroughly researched and outlined.
Dr. Schake may be correct in stating that Thucydides intended a different lesson in his writing. After all, it is ludicrous to say that a book written 2,400 years ago can serve as a template for creating foreign policy. But like all historical writing, there may be valuable lessons in Thucydides’ works. We can glean from the past to prepare for the future, even as unsure as the future may be.
At the end of his 2018 TED Talk, Dr. Graham Allison quoted George Santayana, the Spanish philospher: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
If nothing else, surely those words hold truth.
© Aaron Schnoor 2019
For additional insight, please read the writing that was referenced in this article. The analyses can be found below.