For someone who died 2,415 years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides has been getting quite a bit of press recently. In Seattle, President Xi Jinping of China declared: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.” Xinhua, China’s official news agency, quickly followed up on Xi’s proclamation with ten reasons why China and the U.S. can avoid the Thucydides trap.
Most historians and IR scholars would certainly concur with many of the proffered reasons: the international system has evolved in significant ways, e.g., there is now a strong norm against aggressive war; China does not dream of empire; tight economic interdependence binds the two nations together, making interactions positive sum; cooperation is required to tackle the tough questions of global governance; the wide Pacific Ocean, which separates the two nations, ensures there is room enough for both; U.S.-China diplomatic interactions, like Xi’s visit to the U.S., help to avoid miscalculation; massive student exchanges encourage more general understanding between peoples; finally, crisis management and mutual respect can ensure Thucydides remains dead.
And yet, not everyone is convinced. Graham Allison, who coined the term “Thucydides trap” in 2012, for example, recently published an extended essay in The Atlantic expanding the concept. In Allison’s interpretation, the Thucydides trap has two essential elements: shifting power and growing fear. He derives this interpretation from a famous line in Thucydides’ history: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” Rising powers seek new influence and authority, which causes fear in the status quo power and makes confrontation probable. Such a confrontation can be triggered by a dispute over credibility or a clash between lesser allies. In the case of the Peloponnesian War, as Allison narrates in a recent volume, “When Corcyra attacked Corinth, Sparta felt it necessary to come to Corinth’s defense, leaving Athens little choice but to support a member of its league. Subsequently, one blunder after another produced the Peloponnesian War.”
Allison’s point—that power transitions are dangerous times in international history—is correct. The broader analogy that China is a rising power and America a status quo power, which would make China something akin to Athens and America something akin to Sparta, also is defensible. Insofar as President Xi’s invocation of a “new type of major-country relations” is an effort to avoid the dangerous dynamics of such a power transition, then the Thucydides trap warning is useful.
Having conceded the analogy’s potential worth, however, I must register a significant reservation: many discussions of the “Thucydides trap” frankly either ignore or misuse Thucydides. In making this claim, I join a long line of classicists and political scientists who have complained of the “use and abuse of Thucydides.” Yet the problem remains important. Alternatively quoting or denouncing Thucydides is becoming an integral part of U.S.-China discourse. So shouldn’t we look at what Thucydides actually had to say?
The first point to clear up is that Thucydides did not believe that power transitions made war inevitable. It is true that popular translations of Thucydides say, “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta” (1.23, trans. Rex Warner). But specialists believe this to be a mistranslation of the Greek. Forty years ago, the classicist Raphael Sealey wrote an influential article criticizing Warner’s translation and proposing an alternative. Since then, important scholarly treatments by classicist Arthur Eckstein, historian Andreas Osiander, and political scientist Richard Ned Lebow have presented powerful supporting evidence. Sealey’s more accurate translation reads thus: “Now the most genuine cause, though least spoken of, was this: it was the Athenians, in my opinion, as they were growing great and furnishing an occasion of fear to the Lacedaemonians [Spartans], who compelled the latter to go to war.” The differences matter: the war was not caused by an impersonal dialectic of history, but by tous Athenaious, the Athenians and their specific actions. What were these actions?
This is a complicated story, and it brings us to a second point of clarification. Allison’s narration of the chain of events that led to war is factually incorrect. A brief venture into Thucydides himself quickly reveals this.
After the Persian invasions of the Greek world, the second of which occurred in 480 B.C., a rivalry—driven by a grand contest for honor—gradually developed between Sparta, Greece’s reigning hegemon, and Athens, a rising power. As the rivalry intensified, the Greek system became increasingly polarized—i.e., polities were forced to choose one side or another. Indeed, Thucydides reports that the rivalry split the Greek world “into two divisions” (1.18).
In this context of rivalry and competing alliance systems, a war broke out between the two polities, triggered by a Spartan “insult.” Many Athenians were eager to expand their empire into continental Greece anyways, and the “insult,” combined with the favorable defection of a Spartan ally, enabled the Athenian hawks to force a war. This war, which occurred on and off from 460-446 BC, we call today the First Peloponnesian War.
The First Peloponnesian War ended with Athens’ defeat and a treaty of peace. This peace was no treaty of perpetual war, as Douglas MacArthur was to describe the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, the peacerecognized Athens as Sparta’s equal—a great victory in the realm of honor—and assigned each spheres of influence: Sparta continental Greece, Athens maritime Greece. By reflecting the reality of the circumstances and meeting both sides’ vital interests, the peace brought the potential for stability. Nonetheless, uncertainty remained: many Spartans still wanted revenge, many Athenians still desired continental empire, and, ominously, the Corinthians, who had fought against Athens in the war, had begun “to conceive a bitter hatred for Athens” (1.103). The system had been stabilized, but rivalry and animus remained strong in a context of polarization and contending alliances.
This background allows us to discuss the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404), the one Thucydides concentrates his history on. In 431 BC what Thucydides calls “the greatest war of all” (1.21) began. This war would last twenty-seven years: it would be started by fathers and left to their sons (1.81). What caused this war?
Three events in particular, interacting with the structural background of rivalry and polarization, led Athens and Sparta down the road to war.
First, a dispute broke out in Epidamnus, which is located in modern day Albania and in the fifth century was a backwater of little importance. By way of context, Epidamnus was a colony of Corcyra and Corcyra was itself a colony of Corinth. Corinth was the great ally of Sparta, while Corcyra was unaligned and independent. Corinth and Corcyra, however, were great rivals and had fought wars in the past. One faction at Epidamnus requested Corcyra’s aid, but the Corcyraeans rejected this request. The faction then made the same request of the Corinthians, who were happy to offer aid in order to spite the Corcyraeans. When Corcyra found out that Corinth was aiding a faction at Epidamnus, it immediately dispatched a fleet to attack the Corinthians and to aid the other faction. This resulted in a battle between Corcyra and Corinth in which the Corinthians were decisively defeated.
Corinth, its hackles raised, now prepared a great expedition to exact revenge on the Corcyraeans. In response, Corcyraean representatives appeared before the Athenian assembly and pleaded for Athens to enter into an alliance with their city in order to deter or defeat the coming Corinthian attack. Guided by Pericles, who believed war with Sparta and its allies to be inevitable, the Athenian assembly decided to make the alliance with Corcyra in order to create the most favorable balance of power (1.44). Undeterred by Corcyra’s alliance with Athens, Corinth launched a second fleet. It was also defeated, but only barely, when Athenian ships intervened at the last minute.
The importance of Athens’ alliance cannot be understated: the first Peloponnesian War had been caused when Athens allied itself with a polity which was at war with Sparta’s ally Corinth; now Athens had made the same decision a second time. This decision was also to result in war, but first a few more mistakes had to be made.
A second contingent event further heightened tensions between the Spartan and Athenian camps. At some point around the time of the crisis at Epidamnus (the precise date is debated), Athens—directed by Pericles—imposed a punishment, called the Megarian Decree, on Sparta’s ally Megara. The Decree, which apparently Athens imposed to punish Megara for some religious insults (1.139) was something of an embargo against Megarian goods and people (1.67). The Decree was carefully designed to insult and anger Megara but not to violate the terms of peace, which protected Megara as an ally of Sparta. Regardless of Athenian intentions, it was interpreted by Sparta and its allies as a signal of Athenian aggression and revisionism vis-à-vis the Thirty Years’ Treaty.
A third dispute can be said to have broken the camel’s back. This dispute centered on Potidaea, which was both a Corinthian colony and part of the Athenian empire. Athens figured the Corinthians might stir up trouble in response to its alliance with Corcyra, so the Athenians preemptively imposed harsh measures on the city of Potidaea. Corinthian “volunteers” (think little green men) were then dispatched to the city to defend it from Athenian aggression. Athens responded by laying siege to the city. This added an important time component to the present disputes: unless Athens could be forced to back down, Corinth would be defeated at Potidaea. Such a defeat alongside the disagreements with Corcyra and Megara would demonstrate Spartan impotence and possibly even break apart its alliance system.
In this context (the details cannot be covered for reasons of space, but for those interested please see my Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy study on the topic), Sparta decided on war unless Athens would offer up some—any—concession. Athens would make no such concession and so war was the eventual outcome.
How does this narrative contradict that offered by Allison? And how is it useful for thinking of U.S.-China relations today—especially of the “Thucydides trap”?
When Corcyra laid siege to Corinth’s forces at Epidamnus, Sparta did not come to Corinth’s aid as Allison says (quoted above). Nor was Athens left with “little choice but to support a member of its league.” To the contrary, Athens intentionally allied itself with a polity actively at war with a Spartan ally and one that heretofore had not been part of its league. It was Sparta that had little choice but to support its member. In confusing these basic facts of the war, Allison joins good company: in 2012, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey thought that Sparta’s rise caused the Peloponnesian War. It was the other way around.
Let’s examine how our revised narrative of the Peloponnesian War helps us better understand the Thucydides trap. The first point here is that structural variables made the war possible while contingent variables actually brought the war about. The structural variables in fifth-century Greece were contests for honor, rivalry, polarity, and alliances. The situation could have been improved had the strength of any of these variables been lessened. In U.S.-China relations today, analysts and statesmen need to carefully monitor these same structural variables.
Today we have a different word for honor—credibility—but the meaning shares some similarities (see Pericles’ speech in 1.140). Statesmen fear backing down because they fear they will be seen as losing credibility. This fear likely rests on an errant theory of credibility. But even if it does not, there is a larger point—if systemic war is the probable outcome, then, excluding the most extreme scenarios, the game is not worth the candle—let credibility be damned.
Rivalry can be defined as a condition in which two states obsess about each other. When one state makes some marginal gain, the other worries and seeks to match it—this leads to arms races and to petty disputes. Rivalry is a contest to one-up the other. It creates an action-reaction cycle in which refusing to play the game is seen as appeasement. Today many analysts sternly call for the U.S. to contest China’s “expansion” into the South China Sea. They insist that the U.S. should seek to “impose costs” on supposed Chinese infringements of international norms.
Unless these hawkish analysts consider the implications of a heightened Sino-American rivalry—and thus far they by and large have not—their recommendations ring hollow. An intensifying Sino-American rivalry would likely undo most of the positive ways in which the two countries interact today. Instead of Xinhua’s ten optimistic reasons why the U.S. and China will avoid the Thucydides trap, think instead of zero-sum economic mercantilism, the end of cooperation on pressing global questions (e.g., nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea), the termination of serious bilateral diplomacy because of the pressures of nationalism, the elimination of current student exchanges, the emboldening of America’s Asian allies, and a tense environment in which crises will occur frequently, heightening the risk for war. “Imposing costs” will come at an extraordinary cost. In the 430s, no one but Archidamus—one of the two Spartan kings—who passionately but ineffectively argued against war, bothered to do the calculations. Today, we must not make the same mistake.
Polarization indicates how tense relations in a system are. Thus far, most Asian states have insisted that they do not want to choose either the U.S. or China. In terms of structural variables, this is a positive trend and one that should be encouraged. As states choose, or are forced to choose, one hegemon or the other the system tends to become more polarized, brittle, and primed for conflict. The U.S. in particular should bear this in mind as it appears to be cozying up to states such as Vietnam. For its part, China may need to moderate its behavior and reassure its neighbors in order to ease the region’s growing wariness of its rising power.
Finally, alliances should be at the very heart of the “Thucydides trap.” Had the Greek world not been divided into alliance camps in 431 there would almost certainly have been no systemic war. If we are going to consider China something akin to Athens today, and the U.S. something akin to Sparta, we must also ask: who is Corinth? Possible, and inexact, options include Japan or the Philippines. Both of these states have territorial disputes with China and both do their best to draw the U.S. into these disputes. Japan also has a long history of rivalry with China. Unfortunately, U.S. intervention, which equalizes the regional power balance, ensures that the disputes are never resolved. Without U.S. intervention, smaller states like the Philippines and Japan would have significant incentives to negotiate a compromise settlement. With the U.S. involved, the wiser position for China’s smaller neighbors is to concede nothing, which is exactly what has happened so far. Disputes thus linger even as alliances ensure the probability of their wider contagion in the event of a crisis.
Graham Allison has done us all a service by highlighting the important connection between shifting power and conflict. But he does Thucydides a disservice by putting one mistranslated passage from the History of the Peloponnesian War at the heart of the Thucydides trap and by confusing the progression to war. For Thucydides, power was merely one important variable. A contest for honor, intense rivalry, and a polarized alliance system should all stand alongside shifting power as variables that prime a system for conflict.
Today, nothing can be done about China’s rising power. But much can be done to reduce competitions for honor and fears of lost credibility, to moderate rivalry, to avoid alliance polarization, and to ensure allies do not pull a country into conflict. To recognize this is to put Thucydides back into the Thucydides trap.