America and China: A Quick Critique of “The Thucydides Trap”

By Lambert Strether of .

Probably most readers have heard the catchphrase “the Thucydides Trap” used; unsurprisingly, since, like “The Bourne Identity,” or “The Andromedra Strain” it’s virulently memetic. It was popularized by Kennedy School professor, policy entrepreneur[1], and fully paid up Blob member[2] Professor Graham Allison (a self-publicist) in his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?. The boosts Allison’s book as follows:

Today, an irresistible rising China is on course to collide with an immovable America. The likely result of this competition was identified by the great historian Thucydides, who wrote: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

But the point of Destined for War is not to predict the future but to prevent it. Escaping Thucydides’s Trap is not just a theoretical possibility. In four of the 16 cases, including three from the 20th century, imaginative statecraft averted war.

Can Washington and Beijing steer their ships of state through today’s treacherous shoals? Only if they learn and apply the lessons of history.

In Destined for War, eminent Harvard scholar Graham Allison explains why Thucydides’s Trap is the best lens for understanding the most critical foreign policy issue of our time.

(“The best lens”? Really? How would we even know?) Allison, with less heavy breathing, explains in :

[A]s China challenges America’s predominance, misunderstandings about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war.

Of the cases in which war was averted — Spain outstripping Portugal in the late 15th century, the United States overtaking the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, and Germany’s rise in Europe since 1990 — the ascent of the Soviet Union is uniquely instructive today. Despite moments when a violent clash seemed certain, a surge of strategic imagination helped both sides develop ways to compete without a catastrophic conflict. In the end, the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

There are only two problems with Allison’s thesis: He’s wrong about Greece, and he’s wrong about China. But before I get to that, two sidebars:

First, The Blob has taken to defending itself by pointing to its role in America’s victory over the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War, way back in the ’90s; the Belfer Center’s call for “imaginative statecraft” and Allison’s call for a “surge of strategic imagination” amount to a call to reinforce The Blob’s hegemony on China policy based on its track record (which would be why ). My concern is that the same class saying “We got this” on China also said “Hold my beer while we take down Iraq,” so I’m very much in “What have you done for us lately?” mode. To be fair, Allison’s faction seems determined to use the history of the Peloponnesian War to avoid conflict, while to foment it. Bringing me to my next point:

Second, Allison seems determined to avoid war, which, given — and the and — comes as a welcome relief. :

A U.S. military conflict with China would be a global disaster. But while Allison believes it is entirely possible, he does not call it inevitable. His book identifies 16 historical case studies in which an established power like Sparta (or the United States) was confronted with a fast-rising rival like Athens (or China). Twelve of those cases led to war. Four were resolved peacefully. Allison hopes that readers—including officials in the Trump administration—can draw from the latter examples. “I am writing this history to help people not make mistakes,” he says.

Mistakes that could occur on the scale of World War I. (2015):

When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.

And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.

And . Back to Allison on China and Greece. In essence, Allison’s critics charge that his rising vs. ruling power paradigm is oversimplified (although, if Allison’s intended audience was decision makers, especially those who deep thinkers, like strategist Steven Bannon, that may be a good thing).[3]

So, let’s ask ourselves two questions:

1) Is China really a “rising power”? (At least as Allison understands the term as applied to Athens.)

2) Was the Peloponnesian War really a conflict between a “rising” Athens and a “ruling” Sparta?

Is China Really a “Rising Power”?

A controversial point, but the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Waldron argues that China is not, at least, “rising” as Athens was “rising” with respect to Sparta. , aggregating material that NC readers will be familiar with:

China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports a huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: In China, one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India, the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water, too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: Mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level, but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.

What’s more, Chinese are leaving China in unprecedented numbers. The late Richard Solomon, who worked on U.S.-China relations for decades, remarked to me a few weeks before his death that “one day last year all the Chinese who could decided to move away.” Why? The pollution might kill your infants; the hospitals are terrible, the food is adulterated, the system corrupt and unpredictable. Here in the Philadelphia suburbs and elsewhere, thousands of Chinese buyers are flocking to buy homes in cash. Even Xi Jinping sent his daughter to Harvard. … For the first time this year, my Chinese graduate students are marrying one another and buying houses here. This is a leading indicator…..

Forget the fantasies, therefore, and look at the facts. In the decades ahead, China will have to solve immense problems simply to survive. Neither her politics nor her economy follow any rules that are known. The miracle, like the German Wirtschaftswunder and the vertical ascent of Japan, is already coming to an end. A military solution offers only worse problems. …

Perhaps not war, but cultural and political synergy, is what is, in fact, “destined.”

In other words, Allison’s “ruling” vs. “rising” paradigm is greatly over-simplified.[4] Surely, then, China has “vulnerabilities” that are nothing at all like those of Athens?

Was the Peloponnesian War Really a Conflict Between a “Rising” Athens and a “Ruling” Sparta?

Waldron also aggregates material on (citing, ironically enough, the Kagans):

Allison’s argument draws on one sentence of Thucydides’s text: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian Power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” This lapidary summing up of an entire argument is justly celebrated. It introduced to historiography the idea that wars may have “deep causes,” that resident powers are tragically fated to attack rising powers. It is brilliant and important, no question, but is it correct?

Clearly not for the Peloponnesian War. Generations of scholars have chewed over Thucydides’s text…. In the present day, Kagan wrote four volumes in which he modestly but decisively overturned the idea of the Thucydides Trap. Badian did the same.

The problem is that although Thucydides presents the war as started by the resident power, Sparta, out of fear of a rising Athens, he makes it clear first that Athens had an empire, from which it wished to eliminate any Spartan threat by stirring up a war and teaching the hoplite Spartans that they could never win. The Spartans, Kagan tells us, wanted no war, preemptive or otherwise. Dwelling in the deep south, they lived a simple country life that agreed with them. They used iron bars for money and lived on bean soup when not practicing fighting, their main activity. Athens’s rival Corinth, which also wanted a war for her own reasons, taunted the young Spartans into unwonted bellicosity such that they would not even listen to their king, Archidamus, who spoke eloquently against war. Once started, the war was slow to catch fire. Archidamus urged the Athenians to make a small concession — withdraw the Megarian Decree, which embargoed a small, important state — and call it a day. But the Athenians rejected his entreaties. Then plague struck Athens, killing, among others, the leading citizen Pericles.

Both Kagan and Badian note that the reason that the independent states of Hellas, including Athens and Sparta, had lived in peace became clear. Although their peoples were not acquainted, their leaders formed a web of friendship that managed things. The plague eliminated Pericles, the key man in this peace-keeping mechanism. Uncontrolled popular passions took over, and the war was revived, invigorated. It would end up destroying Athens, which had started it. Preemption would have been an incomprehensible concept to the Spartans, but war was not, and when the Athenians forced them into one, they ended up victors. The whole Thucydides Trap — not clear who coined this false phrase — does not exist, even in its prime example.

(“Then, as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error” –Frank Herbert.) Again, Allison’s “ruling” vs. “rising” paradigm is greatly over-simplified, if only because Athens already had an empire.

Conclusion

In conclusion, and FWIW, I’m all for a “realist” foreign policy (which to me would involve at the very least a drastic pruning of the imperial project, since self-licking ice cream cones and mean except for a very few 10%-ers (in The Blob) and 1%-ers on up (ka-ching). And, well, the Pentagon and the arms merchants, who would otherwise have to , but you know what I mean…). I’d also be happy not to go to war with China; that would be bad, and if Allison’s White House briefing reins in whatever crazypants faction is in control over there (as opposed to the different crazypants faction in control of the Clintonites), then some good will have been done in the world. And I’m all for informing realism with a careful reading of history; in fact, I don’t think there’s another way to be realist. I just don’t think “The Thucydides Trap” is that reading.

NOTES

[1] : “[Allison’s] book would be more persuasive, however, if he knew more about China. Allison’s only informants on the subject appear to be Henry Kissinger and the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, both of whom he regards with awe. This leads to some odd contradictions and a number of serious historical howlers. On one page, quoting Kissinger quoting the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, Allison assures us that China likes to outclass its enemies without using force. On a later page, he warns us that Chinese leaders may use military force ‘preemptively to surprise a stronger opponent who would not have done likewise.’ Allison says that he wishes, with ‘my colleague Niall Ferguson,’ to set up a council of historians to advise the U.S. President, and yet his own grasp of history appears to be rather shaky.” “Niall Ferguson.” .

[2] That is, Allison is one of the “several hundred” bureaucrats and, presumably, Flexians who form the de facto “national security directorate” identified by.

[3] It’s worth noting that Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that he the Thucydides Trap applies:

[T]he phrase was coined by Graham Allison, a political scientist at Harvard, in reference to an observation by the Athenian historian Thucydides that the growth in Athens’ power led to the fear in Sparta and made war inevitable. Mr. Xi said on Tuesday that “there is no Thucydides Trap” and that the promotion of mutual understanding would help avoid strategic misjudgment by the United States or China.

(Then again, applies, does it not?) Other Chinese officials accept the frame, ; as indeed Allison would wish to do.

[4] I’m leaving out the section where Waldron essentially accuses Allison of “appeasement.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

58 comments

  1. Thuto

    I’m not sure if the elucidation of China’s vulnerabilities is meant to water down the narrative of China as a rising threat to the pre-eminence of the US as a sole imperialist power. If it is, then the warhawks in the whitehouse could read this article then think they could somehow “ask somebody to hold their beers while they deal with China”, which would of course amount to a serious and potentially lethal (on both sides) miscalculation of the situation. Secondly, if outsiders could, with diligent research, become aware of these vulnerabilities, I’m pretty certain the chinese themselves are acutely aware of them and are working actively to devise mitigating strategies. My reading of the situation is that China (add to this its alliance with Russia) is every bit the rising power/threat that it’s made out to be and war between the resident and the rising power will only be averted by the dynamic present in the current power struggle which previous historical standoffs lacked: by waging war on China, America would lay waste to much of its, and its western allies, industrial manufacturing infrastructure. If shenzhen lay in ruins from American bombing, wall street would bleed as companies like apple have their value wiped out by having their offshore manufacturing bases flattened. This, imho, is what will avert war between China and the US…

    1. vlade

      I’d also point out, that not an uncommon way of eliminating one’s vulnerabilities was to go to war – so that you can get a cleaner territory than the one you already managed to foul up..

      That said, I don’t believe there’s an alliance between China and Russia any more than between say China and US. Some of the cleaner territory China could use lies in Russian Siberia, and both sides are very well aware of it. Siberia is pretty much last part of Earth not turned over for minerals, but it’s not going to last for long.

      1. cbu

        “Ethnic Chinese” have never been a native of Siberia since prehistoric time. China will clean up its environment eventually like every developed nation did.

        1. Blennylips

          clean up its environment eventually like every developed nation did

          I would love to see some references for that.

  2. Quentin

    Well, would’t an Athenian want to put the onus on the fabricated enemy, Sparta? Maybe Thucydides would have pinpointed Russia as Sparta instead of China. No matter, I find the whole idea pretentious goofiness.

  3. gnatt

    nothing you wrote has any bearing on the possibility of a mistake militarily between two military powers maneuvering for power in, say, the south china sea. both allison and you have gotten hung up on concepts such as “rising power” and the weak analogy to ancient greece. Xi Jinping has had himself named “core leader,” the first since mao to choose that title. in trump we have the most unstable leader in my lifetime (and this has nothing to do with the warlike hillary or the deep state. this is about egomaniacal and unstable personalities, both of whom feel they have something to prove. an internally messy china is all the more reason for the leaders to look for outside victories, military or economic.if china has proved conciliatory so far in pronouncements on korea for example or in buying american beef, this doesn’t mean they will back down in a direct military challenge, which given our current leader, is entirely possible. and in that he might well be backed by the blob. isn’t this at least possible? if not, why not.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > nothing you wrote has any bearing on the possibility of a mistake militarily between two military powers maneuvering for power

      Consider reading the post:

      (“Then, as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error” –Frank Herbert.)

      After quoting Allison on how accident removed Pericles from power, “invigorating” war advocates.

      I don’t know where you got the idea I buy into the “rising”/’ruling” dichotomy. If I implied that, I wrote carelessly.

  4. etudiant

    China currently enjoys the fruits of empire, global access to raw materials and markets, while bearing very little of the burdens. It is doubtful China wants to change that. Indeed, the whole China Sea brouhaha seems deliberately designed to lead the US to discourage a greater and more costly international role by China.
    So I’d expect China to remain a peaceful power, increasingly focused on internal problems, which are very substantial, as Waldron highlights above.

    1. Altandmain

      The question is what the US elite will do.

      They may trigger a conflict with China for their own reasons at the expense of the rest of the world.

  5. Synoia

    How the Sparta – Athens analogy is relevant is questionable because many of the conditions are very different.

    The scale of the US and China vs two very old Cit States, the degree of interconnected trade, and the cross border money flows, all very different between Sparta and Athens.

    Nor is the forced (by the US) entry of China into the WTO analogous, the desire to move work to cheap Chinese labor, and China’s drive to embrace the US’ own trade policies for their own benefit.

    In addition, modern economic belief (or dogma) embraces the item of faith that trade ties are key to ending war, by intertwining dependence among economies.

    The situations are only parallel when using poor measurements.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Agreed. I’m trying to figure out how it would make sense for either to go to war with the other given that one manufactures a large portion of the goods consumed by the other. Not saying it couldn’t happen, I guess, but I don’t see any historical parallel. It would have to be done against the will of the business classes of both countries.

      1. witters

        But if a large chunck of that “business community” was bound up with armaments and other “defence” matters? (I mean, consider how much mercenarism and outsourcing there is already with the US military…)

  6. Tony Wikrent

    First, I think I know what you mean by “the Blob” but I would be better tuned in with an explanation. Is it the Ivy League educated establishment, clustered around the Council on Foreign Relations? Is it the Eastern Establishment? Does the Blob include Silicone Valley? Does it include elements of the Deep State?

    Second, I think that USA surpassing the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century did result in war, just not between USA and UK. I accept the interpretation that the first war with Germany and the Great Depression resulted from London’s desperate maneuvering to maintain British power, particularly the dominance of the Pound as the world’s reserve currency. And, of course, the debris of the first war and the Depression led to the Second World War.

    Third, the mention of the statistics of capital intensity of production is very interesting. Since the cutbacks in the federal bureaucracy under Reagan in USA, official national income accounting and statistics have become highly suspect, and lack the power to provide an accurate picture of economic health.

  7. Jim Haygood

    Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

    Does anyone actually say Thu-cy-di-des-es to denote the possessive? There are better ways, for goodness’ sake:

    One method, common in newspapers and magazines, is to add an apostrophe s [’s] to common nouns ending in s, but only a stand-alone apostrophe to proper nouns ending in s.

    Examples:
    the class’s hours
    Mr. Jones’ golf clubs
    The canvas’s size
    Texas’ weather

    Another widely used technique, the one we favor, is to write the word as we would speak it. For example, since most people saying “Mr. Hastings’ pen” would not pronounce an added s, we would write Mr. Hastings’ pen with no added s.

    But most people would pronounce an added s in “Jones’s,” so we’d write it as we say it: Mr. Jones’s golf clubs. This method explains the punctuation of for goodness’ sake.

    You’d think the blunderbuss approach of mindlessly appending apostrophe-s to form all possessives would be eschewed by the august Houghton Mifflin Harcourt … but you’d be wrong. Moran’s …

    1. Vatch

      People continue to disagree about this. Here’s a site with some discussion inspired by Strunk and White:

  8. Mark P.

    In essence, Allison’s critics charge that his rising vs. ruling power paradigm is oversimplified

    To say the least. Allison’s ‘Thucydides Trap’ is his ‘pop’ narrative/Cliff Notes version of two rather more sophisticated analytic approaches to this general problem, both of which have occupied better minds than Allison’s for decades.

    One is Power Transition Theory, in the international relations realm —

    The other is in game theory, where there’s been lots of work done on Challenger-Defender scenarios as, forex, here —

    ‘Sequential Analysis of Deterrence Games with a Declining Status Quo’

    Nobody should buy these two approaches without scepticism either. But Allison’s take is, essentially, the equivalent of a Deeprak Chopra self-help book about International Relations.

  9. ennui

    Both Kagan and Badian note that the reason that the independent states of Hellas, including Athens and Sparta, had lived in peace became clear. Although their peoples were not acquainted, their leaders formed a web of friendship that managed things.

    I don’t know the context this comes from but, on it’s face, it’s a bizzarely tendentious reading of ancient Greek history. Any basic reading of Thucydides and Herodotus would conclude that the Greek city-states were in an almost constant state of war with each other. Whenever one side got too powerful, the rest would gang up, back and forth and over and over. Add into that the Greek death-cult ie. the belief in the absolute value of an honorable death and you begin to see what the ancient Persians ran into in Greece: a host of cities, with professional, regularly exercised military forces and a desire to die well.

    But then, the great irony of the Kagans is how they cheered on America’s own expedition to Syracuse, using Thucydides! However, this is Washington DC where reading a book, any book, makes you an intellectual.

    1. WobblyTelomeres

      “this is Washington DC where reading a book, any book, makes you an intellectual.”

      Well, THAT explains Ted Cruz.

      Do you like
      Green eggs and ham

      I do not like them,
      Sam-I-am.
      I do not like
      Green eggs and ham.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Any basic reading of Thucydides and Herodotus would conclude that the Greek city-states were in an almost constant state of war with each other.

      Excellent point! Recently finished a book about Alexander’s campaigns in Afghanistan called Into the Land of Bones and the author makes mention of the fact that peace treaties in that period of Greek history came with built in expiration dates as nobody expected (or wanted it would appear) the peace to last very long.

      They liked fighting with each other – got to rack up those κλέος points!

  10. I Have Strange Dreams

    If Sparta had 7,000 nuclear warheads and Athens 300, and Thebes 6,000 and… well you get the picture. Comparisons to bronze age states’ international relations is just a wanking exercise for neocon dickheads with a classical education and no creativity.

    1. IowanX

      +100. Thank you IHSD, and Lambert for the post. As Tom Ricks has pointed out, our general officers are not up to snuff. Neither are our “public intellectuals” which is why sites like NC are so important!

    2. SufferinSuccotash

      The 5th century BCE was well past the Bronze Age, but Allison still furnishes a prime example of why you should never get your history from political scientists any more than you should get it from graphic novels or Hollywood.

  11. Steven

    This goes beyond “pretentious goofiness”. It is an attempt to use history to obscure the present, not to learn from it (history). I don’t pretend to be a China scholar or be able to read what’s in the minds of its leaders. But it is a pretty safe bet at least some of that leadership is looking for ways to escape the exploitative relationship in which it finds itself with Western nations, especially the United States. Those huge environmental problems China faces are in large part the product of producing the detritus of products used to sustain the ‘American lifestyle’ in exchange for more of what Michael Hudson succinctly describes as “debts that can’t be repaid (and) won’t be”.

    What’s at stake for Western elites is not simply victory in some ‘Great Game’. It is an economic relationship in which those elites can continue grabbing the world’s resources and wealth by just writing more hot checks (AKA ‘financial engineering’, backed when required by ‘sovereign debt’), more exploitation of the global economy’s need for money, for a reserve currency.

    Both China and Russia know it is the resources and ability to produce real wealth – not gold-plated weapons and large bank accounts for an elite few – that is the ultimate source of national power.

    1. jo6pac

      Yes and here’s few articles that show what is going inside of China today. China is over 4000yrs old and they and Russia are playing the long game and Amerika is still playing quarter to quarter.

      1. Steven

        China … and Russia are playing the long game

        That pretty well sums it up. Let’s just hope there will be a long game. Especially with Trump, I keep hearing the lyrics of the old Joan Baez song “Blessed Are” (the stay at home millions who want leaders but get gamblers instead).

        1. jo6pac

          Thanks as a Joan Baez lover who can’t listen to her voice without crying the song nails it.

        2. Eimear

          It absolutely is a long game.

          Has been in the works for over a decade.

          An article from 2015 by Pepe Escobar gives an excellent rundown on the scale of ambition/determination behind the Chinese agenda :

          .

          Reports are now coming in that the mercenary armies of jihadists in Syria, Libya are being deployed to Afghanistan to stop OBOR….

      2. Blennylips

        Remarkable, no mention of pollution in your list … some fly in that ointment!

        2008, just prior to the Olympics, traveled Beijing to Urumqi by bus and train (total solar eclipse). Pollution levels mind numbing and debilitating and deadly.

        way underestimated

        1. jo6pac

          At lest China is working on it as my last link points out. Yes they have a long way to go but something tells me they will b there before Amerika and that goes for Russia also. If you look around there is even more on China and energy.

  12. Andrew Watts

    The whole concept of the Thucydides Trap is in essence a mythological truth. Like virtually any other myth it tells small lies in the course of revealing a greater truth. Nothing is inevitable until it actually happens.

    It’s appealing to people who are not avid zealots of the school of historical determinism and equally repulsive to believers of that creed. It’s a curious dichotomy at any rate.

  13. hush / hush

    I find it interesting how much of the broader story of the Peloponnesian War seems to be overlooked in this whole narrative of a “Thucydides Trap”:

    1) Athens gained its empire by leading the sea contingent of Greek forces against the vastly superior forces of an invading Persian army and, against all odds, winning. This unlikely success led Athens to form the Delian League to defend against future Persian incursion. Only gradually did the Delian League become an implement of Athenian empire and even then …

    2) The “empire” was more of a treaty organization and a pretty loose and self-contradictory one. Eventually, it got to the point where Athens (mostly) built, maintained and manned the entire Greek navy while the other cities and colonies paid taxes to sustain it. When Persia’s power wained Greek city states and western colonies got tired of paying Athens to maintain this huge navy (when most of the specific benefits accrued to Athens) but the Ionian colonies — many of which were actually in Asia — still feared Persian (Eastern) intervention and were content with the status quo. It was a recipe for catastrophe …

    3) The Peloponnesian War was tragic and potentially avoidable but there was a lot going on internally in the Greek world that fed it and I surely do not see anything resembling such a simple dynamic as “a rising power vs. established power.”

    4) Athens and Sparta never really beat each other and generally avoided direct engagement… Athens only lost when it tried to invade and humble the powerful colony of Syracuse in today’s Sicily (which paid a lot to help maintain that huge Greek navy and saw little benefit and did not fear Eastern intervention and thus became a huge thorn in Athens’ side.) The Greek (Athenian) navy was destroyed in Syracuse by a combination of hubris, bad choices and acts of God. Only after Syracuse were the Spartans able to take the fight to Athens and win.

    5) The outcome of the Peloponnesian War(s) were mixed. The defeat of Athens and the retreat of Sparta into its customary isolation meant the end of Greek independence. Within a generation Greece was conquered by the Macedonians, never to be independent again. But … following on the triumphs of Alexander the Great, Greek culture and art has been present and incredibly important throughout the West and Near East ever since.

    1. H. Alexander Ivey

      If I could get this kind of executive summary in Wikipedia, I would be estatic. But I don’t so one day I’m going to get a complete set of Encyclopedia Brittania, hardcopy, and go back to the old days of “checking out things” at the library.

    2. Eustache de Saint Pierre

      hush / hush

      Thank you for that….my own personal view would be if either side were anything like the modern day US, it would be Athens rather than Sparta. The Dorian Spartans basically stayed put as they were paranoid about uprisings from their Helot slave population. The Ionians ( mainly the Athenians ) expanded into Asia Minor & the Mediterranean & formed the Delian league which could be compared loosely with today’s NATO.

      The tussles on payment of dues today is a bit of a rhyme – you pay we protect you.

      One thing that has always amused me is the glorification of the Spartans by military types of the obvious fighting strength of the Spartans, while ignoring the homosexual nature of that culture, it’s slavery of a whole population which included the possibility of being murdered by young Spartans as a part of their graduation.

      As with the Theban sacred band being another ” 300 ” that is largely ignored due to the fact it was made up of 150 pairs of lovers, who fought savagely to protect their other half. Killed to a man by Philip of Macedon & a young Alexander at the battle of Chaeronea. A testimony to how well they fought was Philip building a monument to them on the battlefield where they fell.

      I discovered a little while back that there are Spartan summer camps in the US & elesewhere, the difference I hope between those & the ancient version, are probably just one instance of a massive cultural gulf between then & now.

    3. lyman alpha blob

      Thanks for the summary. I was always more of a Herodotus guy myself but my understanding of the time is as you described. There were several city state powers at the time and they had been established for quite a while already. If there is an analogy to be made, it seems like the US as Athens would be much more apt – both striving for empire and making other nations nervous.

      Also there wasn’t really a winner in this conflict – both city states paid the price for the decades long war which as you noted, left them sitting ducks for the Macedonians.

      If these is a lesson to be learned from the Greeks here, it would be the one about hubris in general.

  14. Disturbed Voter

    Historical myopia. The Peloponnesian War wasn’t a two way contest … Persia was involved as a third party, first financially supporting one, then the other. It wasn’t just the disaster in Syracuse that did Athens in … it was the Persians paying for a Spartan fleet that could face down a weakened Athenian fleet. And Athens not only lost their early leader to plague, but had a traitor in their midst, the original sociopathic grifter … Alcibiades. In what way is there a third party in this modern analogy? Russia. Russia won’t want either China or the US to be too powerful. Who is playing the role of Alcibiades?

    1. hush / hush

      Good points. My understanding is that Persia was certainly looking for advantage but that it is not clear that their intrigue was decisive. Alcibades is an interesting character. He strikes me as a consummate opportunist less than a “sociopathic grifter” or 5th columnist. I find it interesting that Athens had enough of a functioning and confident democracy to (effectively) ostracize Alcibades in the first place. I can’t imagine our democracy forcing any of our oligarch’s to stop all involvement in politics, to preclude them from contributing money to political causes and to legally restrain them from meeting or conversing with politicians and lobbyists which was, essentially, the role ostracism was meant to play. Maybe we should bring ostracism back! It would be revealing to see which of our “patriotic job creators” would flee America to work with the Saudis or Chinese, or any number of foreign actors with their power and prestige cut off domestically. Plague was an important factor all around. A wild card, kinda like climate change …

    2. albrt

      Who is playing the role of Alcibiades?

      Victoria Nuland? I guess we should keep an eye on her.

  15. VietnamVet

    There is the problem of comparing China to Greece. China was already an Empire in 500 BC. I do think humans and society act according to clichés. “Grass is greener on the other side of the hill.” Cultures move and clash. Wars are fought over resources. The West is a newcomer. Its culture was ascendant from the 17th to 20th century thanks to engineering and science but that advantage was sold to the Chinese so a few western oligarchs could get wealthier. The problem isn’t the Chinese or the Communist Party. The Chinese are on the move like they always have been.

    The Atlantic Alliance has seven thousand hydrogen bombs. When the West collapses due to the people withdrawing their consent to be governed due to the forever wars and austerity, it could well take the rest of the world with it.

  16. Oregoncharles

    Something I’ve wondered about for a long time:
    ” China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water, too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: Mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future.”
    China has no margin; its resource base isn’t up to its population, and if this is right, neither is its technological base. Granted, the Netherlands and Japan have similar ratios, but both are much smaller and less diverse, and neither is a world power in the sense China is rising toward. (frankly, I don’t know how either country does it.)

    Essentially, the margin beyond dire necessity is what you use to project power. China is so huge that even a small margin amounts to a lot, but that’s also a very shaky construct, the other aspect the quoted author points out. I wouldn’t count on China becoming a full-scale world power, or even on the regime lasting much longer. They’ve had a remarkably good run as it is.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think a key issue for the future is not that China aspires to projecting power, but that internal forces give it no choice. The Belt and Road initiative seems at least partly motivated by a need to find investment opportunities for sur capital and to maintain the giant construction industry, not to mention satisfy the exporting sector. If China had sufficient internal demand for its products this wouldn’t be necessary, but a continual process of finding external markets is essential for their particular brand of capitalism.

      I think that politically, China would be quite content with ceding global military and economic dominance to the US if their borders were secured and their key immediate neighbours were sufficiently tied to them economically that they didn’t constitute a threat – historically, China has never had much interest in the outside world beyond its immediate neighbourhood. Unfortunately, the failure to create a balanced internal economy means they simply have to extend their economic influence much wider. This means some sort of clash of influence with the US, Japan, Russia and others seems quite inevitable.

    2. cbu

      China became the world’s largest economy (in PPP terms) without using its resources very efficiently. Imagine a future China when the efficiency of their productions reaches even 50% of that of the developed nations.

  17. RBHoughton

    There is something from ancient Greece that we might revisit – the adoption of democracy was one part of a two-part initiative.

    The other was the creation of theatre in which Sophocles and Euripides were able to explore the hard choices of politics and put them before the newly empowered people.

    We have mostly lost that today but one gets an inkling of its force in “The Trojan Women” which was filmed in 1970s

  18. Damson

    What about OBOR, BRICS, SCO (the latter has India and Pakistan, historical foes now in the fold)?

    This is where the perception of ‘China rising’ is coming from, as a Eurasia leader in a geopolitical shift that bypasses US maritime hegemony.

    It’s internal problems are significant, but no more so than the US.

    Arguably considerably less so, since OBOR is a huge investment plan to project Chinese tradecraft far beyond its own borders.

    With cheap gas from its strategic economic and military partnership with Russia, and a network of transport infrastructure transfiguring McKinder’s ‘world child’ – from Vladivostok to Lisbon – OBOR is a geopolitical seismic game changer.

    Not for nothing are the drums of war being beaten by the Blob….

  19. The Rev Kev

    For some 70 years now the US Navy has been treating the Chinese coastline as its own personal boating lake. It is only now that the Chinese has developed its own missile defense grid and pushed them back out to sea that this whole concept of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ has been dredged out of the history books as a lens for viewing US/Chinese relations with. Probably the Punic Wars might be a more worrying comparison when you think about it but nobody wants to talk about that because of what happened to Carthage whereas Athens was treated magnanimously by the victorious Spartans.
    It is no secret that the US military have for a long time thought of themselves as the new Spartans (except for the gay bits) which may be why you see US tanks sport the Spartan Λ symbol. Culturally, however, the US is much more like the Athenians as can be seen in hush / hush’s account as well as that of Kagan in this post. Sorry, but the current approach of surrounding China with US bases and parking THAAD missiles in Korea will not work to keep China down. The Chinese have already set up island bases to outflank this chain of bases and they are not going away.
    Instead of dragging some ancient war out of the textbooks and forcing all current events to fit through the lens of this event (or should that be a Procrustean bed?) how about we simply see things as they are. I think that it was Bismarck that said that if you showed him a map of a country that he would tell you the foreign policy of that country. The map the Chinese are seeing is their country surrounded by hostile military bases hence their push back which we now call aggressiveness and arrogance – huh? China has a great future as part of the world community but treated as a always hostile enemy may end up making the perception the reality. Sure hubris could turn the Chinese hostile down the track but trying to lock them up militarily will only ensure so.

  20. surtt

    I think everyone is missing a huge point.
    China is not fast-rising rival like Athens, it was grow by US companies.

  21. ewmayer

    It is interesting to consider the assertion that the Cold War ended relatively quietly as an example of a ‘peaceful outcome’. If one considers the many millions who died both in the proxy wars of the Cold War (e.g. Korea and Vietnam), the mass-scale immiseration which resulted from the superpowers propping up or installing one autocratic client regime after another (e.g. the CIA-sponsored Iranian coup of 1953 or support for a series of incredibly repressive S. Korean regimes which ended only with the ‘Seoul Olympic thaw’ of the late 1980s), not to mention the number of incredibly close calls in which the world was within an eyelash of global thermonuclear holocaust, the fact that this not-so-cold-after-all 40+ years of conflict ended with a whimper rather than a bang strikes me as a rather dubious ‘accomplishment’ in the sense of any kind of US ‘statecraft’ deserving credit for it.

    And the irony is that it is less a rising China than a reassertive Russia which has the US neolibcons united in screaming for a renewal of hostilities. First it was the “Russian invasion of newly democratic Ukraine” nonsense, now it’s the “Russians stole the election from Hillary” hysteria. To be sure ’tis sheer madness, but ’tis madness with a strategic aim, it seems to me – the aim being to resurrect another “big platform enemy”.

  22. vidimi

    wasn’t pericles the instigator of the peloponnesian war, not the man who held the peace while alive? and wasn’t the plague a result of the war when the athenians started hoarding foodstuffs within their city walls while the spartans were ravaging their fields?

    anyway, i think it’s a waste of time looking for similarities and differences with sparta and athens of antiquity and america and china of today, or whether the theucydides trap is real, or indeed whether china really is ascending, when the danger of war is very real for uniquely modern reasons.

    first, america is a uniquely aggressive power and views any perceived challenge to its hegemony with alarm and is likely to blunder or overreact into a situation that leads to a major conflagration.

    second, china really does have severe restrictions that will limit her ability to grow but these will lead to instability and, therefore, a higher chance for war, not a smaller one. as drought, famine and economic crises hit the overpopulated, over-male country, turmoil will increase and the party will seek a release valve for the mounting pressure that will threaten their rule. this will increase the odds that china instigates a military response from the US. unlike snowflake america, china can take a punch and can take an order of magnitude more damage than america and still win that war. mind you, i don’t see china as a threat to global hegemony, but they would be able to massively reduce or even expel american forces in asia.

    finally, i believe that current american aggresion against russia stems from a worry that the two countries, russia and china are bonding too closely and are becoming too powerful together. american dunderheads may think that they can pick off russia before that alliance becomes too strong but chinese officials would likely identify such a move as an existential threat and, i am sure, would react accordingly if a war did break out between russia and the US.

    so, whether the theucydides trap is real or imaginary, the risk of an all out war ought to be seen as unacceptably high.

  23. Mickey Hickey

    The US is still mired in the cold war of 50 years ago. Presently it is taking the form of attempts to damage the Russian economy and the placing of nuclear weapons on Russia’s borders. As in the case of similar attempts to damage Iran it resulted in both countries becoming more resilient as they pursued import substitution. It also led to Russia and Iran becoming closer militarily and economically. Now we have both Russia and Iran moving into the Chinese orbit. The US is working hard to ensure the emergence of EurAsia as an economic bloc stretching from Lisbon to Shanghai and Sicily to Lulea. Looking at the world through US eyes I see a scenario where gophers are popping out of the ground all around the world and the harder the US works to stomp them out the more that emerge. Much like what happened to Britain’s empire post WW1 first Ireland 1921 then India 1947 then the deluge.
    There is evidence of an abundance of wishful thinking when the prevailing attitude in the West is that Russia and China will self destruct with a little help from their “friends”.

  24. Rory MacIntosh

    Aren’t we forgetting one other thing that makes analogies difficult? … oh, yeah, the bomb.
    Since, as Clauswitz noted, wars by their nature tend to escalate, so any serious war, not just a local regional fender bender, is going to go thermal.
    A war between superpowers isn’t winnable and likely isn’t even survivable.
    Not sure how to use that to predict the future, but it’s got to have some bearing.

  25. Procopius

    I confess to being puzzled over the lack of concern by the neocons and Clintonistas who have been working for years to bring us to war with Russia (preferably) or China (second choice), over the fact that they are provoking two powers who have both nuclear warheads and ICBMs to put them on. Maybe they are relying on the “super fuses” Obama installed on all the American warheads, which are supposed to improve the likelihood of taking out a hardened missile silo and increasing the chance of a first strike being successful. That’s why the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their doomsday clock two minutes closer to midnight. It was a very destabilizing move, as was his program for upgrading the nuclear arsenal, which strategists in the Pentagon claim will make it possible to use smaller-yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield, which they think will make escalation less likely. Kind of another version of, “Hold my beer.” I’ve gotta say I ended up reluctantly voting for Hillary because I thought Trump would be incompetent, but I was concerned, because Hillary has been working for war for years. Who promoted Victoria Nuland? Which reminds me, didn’t anybody notice over the last eight years how many neoconservatives there are in the State Department? They did not go away when Obama came in.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Which reminds me, didn’t anybody notice over the last eight years how many neoconservatives there are in the State Department? They did not go away when Obama came in.

      I assume they were the. It’s a nice point whether 51 empty desks is better for the country than these guys, or not.

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