Arthur Waldron is a notable scholar of Chinese history and military affairs whose views are often out of sync with conventional wisdom. In this book review, he argues persuasively against a concept that has become a pillar of establishment thinking on China.
Book review: Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap, by Graham Allison (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2017)
Arthur Waldron writes: Let us start by observing that perhaps the two greatest classicists of the last century, Professor Donald Kagan of Yale and the late Professor Ernst Badian of Harvard, long ago proved that no such thing exists as the “Thucydides Trap,” certainly not in the actual Greek text of the great History of the Peloponnesian War, perhaps the greatest single work of history ever.
Astonishingly, even the names of these two towering academic giants are absent from the index of this baffling academic farrago. It was penned by Graham Allison, a Harvard professor — associated with the Kennedy School of Government — to whom questions along the lines of “How did you write about The Iliad without mentioning Homer?” should be addressed.
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. Every battlefield has been measured. The quantity of academic literature on the topic is overwhelming, dating as far back as 1629 when Thomas Hobbes produced the first English translation.
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. So now we can turn to the hash Professor Allison makes of the unfamiliar material he has chosen.
Ignoring all this, Allison takes Thucydides literally: Wars (sometimes) begin when rising powers like Athens threaten established powers like Sparta. But do they really? The case is difficult to make. Japan was the rising power in 1904 while Russia was long established. Did Russia therefore seek to preempt Japan? No. The Japanese launched a surprise attack on Russia, scuttling the Czar’s fleet. In 1941, the Japanese were again the rising power. Did ever-vigilant America strike out to eliminate the Japanese threat? Wrong. Roosevelt considered it “infamy” when Japan surprised him by attacking Pearl Harbor at a time when the world was already in flames. Switch to Europe — in the 1930s, Germany was obviously the rising, menacing power. Did France, Russia, England, and the other threatened powers move against it? They could not even form an alliance, so the USSR eventually joined Hitler rather than fight him. Exceptions there are, and Allison makes a half-baked effort to find them, but these are not the mainstream. Is this some kind of immense academic lapse?
No. What has really happened is that Allison has caught China fever, not hard around Harvard, although knowing no Chinese language and little Chinese history.
As a result, Allison seems to have been impressed above all by Chinese numbers: population, army size, growth rate, steel production, etc. So if that sentence from Thucydides is correct, then China is clearly a rising power that will want her “place in the sun” — which will lead ineluctably to a collision between rising China (Athens) instigated by the presumably setting U.S. (Sparta), which will see military preemption as the only recourse to avert a loss of power and a Chinese-dominated world. To escape this trap, Allison demands that we must find a way to give China what she wants and forget the lessons of so many previous wars. Many of Allison’s colleagues at Harvard also believe this to be true … (read more)
Why China and the United States Can Avoid the Thucydides’ Trap
Editor’s Note: During his recent state visit to the United States, President Xi Jinping dismissed fears that China and the United States might fall into the “Thucydides’ trap,” a theory that claims China’s rapid rise would prompt it to challenge the leadership of the United States and the two may resort to war. In an editorial published by Xinhua News Agency in late September, Xinhua writer Li Zhihui cited 10 reasons why the two major powers can avoid the trap. Excerpts of the piece follow:
The Thucydides’ trap warns of the danger when a rising power comes into conflict with a ruling one–as Athens and Sparta did in the fifth century B.C. The majority of such conflicts have ended in war.
While the 2,500-year-old concept is worth studying, applying it to China-U.S. relations, as some commentators have done, is like modern doctors basing their medical practices on the writings of Erasistratus (304-250 B.C.), a well-known Greek physician.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping said during his visit to the United States, there is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides’ trap in modern times. But should major countries time and again make the mistake of strategically misunderstanding each another, they may very well create such traps for themselves.
The world today is very different from the time of ancient Greece, and mankind has more wisdom at its disposal to avoid history repeating itself. We have reason to believe that China and the United States face an unprecedented opportunity to break the historical cycle.
Century of peace
This is a world where peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become the dominant themes of political discourse in our times. The Cold War mentality and zero-sum-game theory should be abandoned.
Despite the persistence of regional conflict, there is no sign of another world war breaking out. More and more countries are choosing to solve their disputes through negotiation.
With globalization deepening, one country’s loss will definitely not just be its own. “No conflict, no confrontation” will serve as the bottom line for the relationship between the world’s two largest economies in the new era.
It is important to remember the pledge made 70 years ago by the founders of the UN: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.”
Governments and societies of both countries have reflected on the historical lessons on the 100th anniversary of World War I and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (WWII). Hatred and war can bring only disaster and distress, especially when both China and the United States have nuclear weapons … (read more)