When an emerging power attempts to supplant a hegemonic power in international politics, major conflict often ensues. Harvard professor Graham T. Allison describes this scenario as the “Thucydides Trap.” His recent book on the subject — “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” — has received worldwide attention.
In this book, Allison asks whether the current power shift, namely China’s precipitous rise and fierce pursuit of the world’s postwar hegemon, the United States, will lead to war between the U.S. and China. Allison also identifies ways in which a war between these two powers could be avoided.
The term “Thucydides Trap” derives from the ancient Greek historian’s account of the Peloponnesian Wars, which unfolded in Greece in the fifth century B.C., when the rapid rise of the maritime city-state of Athens provoked fear in Sparta, the continentalist hegemon, and ultimately plunged the two city-states into war.
Thucydides concluded that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” This zero-sum mentality between the pursuer and the pursued, characterized by the overconfidence of the rising power and the loss of confidence and paranoia of the declining hegemon, is the greatest enemy to the balance of power and international stability — in other words, a “trap.” Allison analyzed 16 cases in which a rising power challenged a ruling power over the past 500 years, and concludes that the result of a full 12 of them was war — the so-called Thucydides Trap.
I attended a presentation by Allison at the 2017 “Summer Davos” World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian, China. It was a full house. Following the presentation, I talked briefly with a Chinese journalist seated next to me. Our casual conversation eventually turned to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
This journalist told me: “The U.S. welcomes the worsening of relations between China and North Korea, and by forcing China to put pressure on North Korea, the U.S. hopes to bring about a decisive deterioration in the China-North Korea relationship. Many Chinese believe that the U.S. has set a ‘North Korean trap’ for China. Chinese and American doubts beget doubts when it comes to the Korean Peninsula — mutual distrust is deepening. A Thucydides Trap is already in place.”
One of the primary causes of war is the obsession that “war is unavoidable.” Indeed, this is the essence of the Thucydides Trap. It is desirable for both the U.S. and China to discern the danger posed by this trap, and compel each other to exercise self-restraint.
However, we should avoid the simplistic assumption that the contradictions in the U.S.-China relationship can be overcome as long as both sides develop a theoretical understanding of the Thucydides Trap.
First, we must consider a crucial question: Can China’s “rise” continue in the long term to the point that it overtakes the U.S.? A great number of severe problems await the rising power: these include China’s national debt, its aging and declining population, environmental destruction, corruption and stratification, and the ethnic tensions in the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region. China cannot expect the type of linear growth and rapid ascendance that has characterized the past three decades to continue in the future.
It is likely that the level of instability (including psychological unease) in Chinese domestic affairs will increase. Internal insecurity has already forced China’s power elite to adopt an unyielding stance toward the outside world, heightening tensions in the region and the world at large.
Indeed, Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye argues that it is not the Thucydides Trap but rather the “Kindleberger Trap” that should concern us most — in other words, a China that appears weaker, not stronger. Nye is referring to the work of the late MIT economic historian Charles Kindleberger, who once argued that when the U.S. supplanted Great Britain as the global hegemon, it failed to assume the latter’s leadership role. The former hegemon Great Britain “was willing but not able” to fulfill it. Meanwhile, as the rising world power, the U.S. “was able but not willing.” Kindleberger explained that it was precisely this mismatch that brought about the collapse of the global system in the 1930s.
Whether China will demonstrate leadership and collaborate with other countries to create a new global system will ultimately depend on its willingness to provide global public goods. For the time being, however, China is likely to continue in a state of “being able but not willing.” For as long as the current regime continues, it is hard to imagine China sharing a set of universal values with the wider world.
Additionally, there is a danger the Thucydides Trap theory could ensnare the U.S.-China relationship within the dramatic historical narrative of “the rise and fall of the great powers.”
This view of history, which sees the great powers as pieces on a giant chess board, tends to dismiss the importance of robust regional orders to the creation of the overall global order, when in fact these regional orders are of decisive importance. China’s behavior at the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization is far less revealing than the way China behaves toward its neighbors, or with regard to territorial disputes. After all, in geopolitics, “the devil lies in the regions.”
China has stubbornly pressed the U.S. to establish a “special relationship” between the two countries — in other words, “a new type of major power relations.” The Thucydides Trap could easily be transformed into “a new type of major power relations” trap. This is the trap that must be avoided at all costs.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.