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Will the United States and China fall into the trap of Thucydides?

By Regie Jimena

One of the most widely discussed topics nowadays is the rivalry between China and the United States. What happens when an ascending power confronts the leading power? Will the United States and China fall into the trap of Thucydides?


One of the topics discussed nowadays is the rivalry between China and the United States. Both powers have engaged in a trade war whose consequences have been felt in the global economy  (Nicolaci da Costa, 2019). Based on the history of mankind, how could we predict the outcome between these two world powers? What happens when one great power threatens to displace another?

History has proved that most of the time there is no happy ending. The conflict that occurs with the confrontation of a rising power against a hegemonic power is commonly referred to as “the trap of Thucydides” (BBC Mundo, 2017). In most of the cases, the tensions generated by these powers create the necessary conditions for the outbreak of war.

“It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable”  (Thucydides, 5th century B.C.). The historical narration of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War focuses on the war that faces -for twenty-seven years- Athens and Sparta, the two most powerful cities in the Ancient Greek (Rodríguez, 1998). Athens was in its moment of imperial expansionist and military thrive, and this aroused fear in Sparta since there was a possibility that the Athenians would become more powerful than them.

Thucydides states from the beginning of his work that war was inevitable  (clio.rediris.es, s.f.). Athens was expanding very rapidly, with most of the Greek territory under its control. It also influenced Spartan pride in the outbreak of war, that is, the Spartans did not want to lose their predominance in the Hellenic world, launching what was called a preventive war against Athens, concluded with the victory of Sparta and the surrender of Athens.




Throughout history, we can find cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In the last 500 years, Harvard Thucydides’s Trap Project identified sixteen cases whither a surging power tried to replace the existing hegemonic power, which twelve ended up at war. For instance, the case of France and Hapsburgs for territorial control in Europe in the middle of the 16th century, the Allied Powers and the German Empire for imperial control in World War I (1914-1918) or the United States and Japan for supremacy on Asia and the Pacific in the Pacific War (1937-1945).


Notwithstanding, there are cases like the United States and the Soviet Union -capitalism against communism- that did not culminate in the outbreak of war.

Focusing on the current conflict between China and the United States, are these two powers destined for war? Two books warn of that serious possibility. Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heaven: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power and Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? The books claim persuasively that adjusting to this global power shift will involve great skill on both sides if conflagration is to be eluded.

French argues that China’s historical legacy governs its stance on international relations. French clarify convincingly that China’s ambition is now to expel the American barbarians and correct historic humiliations promulgated by those who dethroned China from its deserved position at the center of the world.

Allison maintains and reinforces French’s arguments with wide-ranging, erudite case studies with Harvard Thucydides’s Trap Project. To escape the trap of Thucydides, he writes, Washington policymakers must renounce the inclination to think that China is like the United States and that it will react as they would to identical provocations. Numerous conditions could spark military conflict despite efforts on both sides to maintain peace, from accidental collisions at sea to misunderstandings caused by cyberattacks (Shapiro, 2017).

Along these lines, we can spot the importance of diplomacy in order to preserve peace. Despite situations when a violent clash seemed certain, an arise of politic strategy helped both sides acquire ways to fight without a catastrophic conflict as can be the case of the United States and the Soviet Union as mentioned before (Allison, 2017). Thus, the only way to escape the trap of Thucydides is to bring both sides their brightest minds to the challenge ahead.



Allison, G. (2017). The Thucydides Trap. Foreign Policy.

BBC Mundo. (20 de Agosto de 2017). BBC Noticias. Obtenido de Qué es "la trampa de Tucídides" por la que se teme que estalle una guerra entre EE.UU. y China: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-40974871

clio.rediris.es. (s.f.). Historia de la guerra del Peloponeso. Obtenido de http://clio.rediris.es/fichas/peloponeso.htm

Nicolaci da Costa, A. (2 de Mayo de 2019). Por qué la rivalidad entre EE.UU. y China no terminará con un eventual acuerdo comercial. BBC Mundo.

Rodríguez, J. C. (1998). La historia de la Guerra del Peloponeso de Tucídides: La sinrazón de la polis. 

Shapiro, J. (2017). America's Collision Course With China. The New York Times.

Thucydides. (5th century B.C.). History of the Peloponnesian War. (M. I. Finley, Ed.)