Date: June 2, 2018
By: Clay Chandler
Are the U.S. and China “destined for war“? Harvard professor Graham Allison posed that question in a provocative book published last summer. I’ve written previously in this space about Allison’s thesis, but it seems newly relevant in light of developments over the last month, if not the last few days.
The gist of Allison’s argument is that the modern world’s two most powerful nations are stumbling into a “Thucydides Trap.” That’s Allison’s shorthand for the theory of an ancient Greek general who identified sudden, significant shifts in the relative strength of major powers as a primary cause (if not the primary cause) of military conflict. Thucydides, considered by many the world’s first true historian, floated the idea in his chronicle of the Peloponnesian Wars, the series of devastating conflicts between the two most powerful Greek city states, Athens and Sparta, in the fifth century BCE. Thucydides posited that, whatever superficial frictions and flashpoints might be blamed for hostilities between the two sides, the underlying cause of war was the frustration of leaders in the rising power, Athens, and the fear the growing strength in Athens inspired among leaders of the established power, Sparta.
Allison sees the same dynamic in conflicts between a rising England versus the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, a rising Germany versus Britain in the early 20th century, and a rising Japan versus the United States in the 1940s. In his book he argues that Thucydides’ theory perfectly explains the growing animosity between the U.S. and China. Allison doesn’t say war between the U.S. and China is inevitable. But he does argue that, “on the current trajectory, war between the U.S. and China in decades ahead is not just possible, but more likely than currently recognized.”
Allison expanded on those ideas in an appearance at the Asia Society here in Hong Kong in late April. He got a big laugh by observing that, if Hollywood were to produce a “Thucydides Trap” movie depicting the clash of the modern era’s two great powers, Central Casting couldn’t have contrived more perfect antagonists than Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. (Alec Baldwin, call your agent!) The line stuck with me, though, because in the weeks since, the two leaders have seemed to be reading almost line-for-line from the Thucydides script. [FULL STORY]