Thucydides Trap: US & China Relations


Warning, the following post briefly discusses ancient history, so if you haven’t had your coffee yet, you may want to click the “back” button and avoid this post at all costs!!!

Thucydides, an Athenian (ancient Greek) historian, is considered to be a father figure of international relations theory. This is thanks to his seminal work entitled, History of the Peloponnesian War, a portrayal of war (431-404 BC) that broke out between Athens and Sparta. In this work, Thucydides shows us one of the first historical case studies that fall under Power Transition Theory. This is a theory of international relations about conflict and its relation to the distribution of power between states.

Professor Graham Allison at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has created a “special initiative” at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs entitled Thucydides Trap. This initiative aims to illustrate the current “trap” in which the United States and China may find themselves. Professor Allison and his team analyzed sixteen (16) historical cases (15th-century to present) of a “rising power” challenging the “ruling power,” or status quo. The evidence is quite clear and shows a historical tilt toward conflict. In twelve (12) of the sixteen (16) cases, this power transition produced war. Obviously, policy makers on both sides can learn from the successes and the failures associated with all of these historical cases.

For further reading, I highly suggest Professor Allison’s piece in the Atlantic at a minimum. If this topic interests you then I would consider picking up a copy of his bookDestined for War: America, China, and Thucydides’s Trap. For further reading on Power Transition Theory, one should seek out the writings of political scientists A.F.K Organski and Jacek Kugler.


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