Kevin M. Wilson Blog | China Will Collapse From Economic Wasting Disease Long Before We Are Caught In “Thucydides’s Trap” | Talkmarkets
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Kevin was the CEO and founder of Blue Water Capital Advisors, which he retired from in late 2017. He is now semi-retired, working part-time for Great Waters Financial, LLC (which is part of the AdvisorNet RIA) as a consultant.  He has been in the financial advisory business since 1992. ... more

China Will Collapse From Economic Wasting Disease Long Before We Are Caught In “Thucydides’s Trap”

Date: Monday, September 11, 2017 3:03 AM EDT

Hoplites Fighting in Ancient Greece


The rise of China as an economic and military power has been seen by some as a direct threat to the hegemony of the US as the sole superpower in the Pacific and around the world.  In recent years there has been a great deal of discussion, speculation, and worry about this, and about the potential for an eventual war between China and the US due to the existence of a phenomenon called “Thucidides’s Trap.” This is a term coined by Harvard historian Graham Allison (2017) to describe recurring conflicts down through history that were apparently caused by similar confrontations between a rising power and a declining hegemon.  Allison has for some years now pushed this idea in various articles and a trending book (2017; Destined for War: Can America and China Avoid Thucidides’s Trap?; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 364p); he bases his argument on the standard military and political problems that tend to be faced by rising and declining powers, respectively, when they confront each other.  He uses the Peloponnesian War, between the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta, as a metaphor for what has happened over the last 500 years when great power struggles have occurred.  He has examined 16 historical examples of such confrontations and concluded that 12 of them led to tragic wars (is there any other kind?), while the remaining 4 were resolved peacefully.  Two of the generals (i.e., Mattis, McMaster) on the current White House team are well-versed on the notion of a Thucidides Trap and in fact Allison has made at least one presentation to the National Security Council on this subject (Albert Wolf, 2017)

Thucidides described the putative causes and horrible consequences of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), fought between rising power Athens and established power Sparta.  War became almost inevitable, according to Allison (and before him, Thucidides), due to the arrogance of Athens as it built its own empire, and the fear of Sparta as it saw its hegemony in decline.  The war devastated both city-states over its nearly 30-year course, opening the way for an eventual bloody invasion by the Persians.  Other examples of such destructive confrontations studied by Allison include the Napoleonic War (1793-1815; primarily France vs. Britain); the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871; Germany vs. France); the World War I conflict (1914-1918), primarily between Germany, France, and Britain; and the Pacific Theatre portion of World War II (1941-1945), involving the conflict between Japan and the US (Graham Allison, 2015).  The best of Allison’s examples of confrontations that were more or less peacefully resolved would be the Cold War between the US and its allies on one side, and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other (1947-1991). 

However, there have been some cogent criticisms of Allison’s thesis.  For example, Albert Wolf (2017) has referred to Thucidides’s Trap as the well-known “security dilemma,” in which the increase in one state’s security causes a decrease in the security of another state.  However, states can break out of the security dilemma by altering the offense-defense balance, at least for a while.  And it is not clear that states seek only security; indeed, history suggests that they also appear to seek status and hegemony.  For example, Kaiser Wilhelm spoke about Germany deserving “a place in the sun” right before World War I.  Some analysts suggest that modern China “believes it has a right to be a great power” (Richard Bitzinger, quoted by Bloomberg, 2014), and indeed it was one for many centuries, until about 200 years ago.  Yale historian Donald Kagan (2003; The Peloponnesian War, Penguin Books, New York, 511p) has concluded from his studies of Thucidides’s writings that people go to war “out of honor, fear, and interest,” not just fear alone, as Allison would suggest.  In effect, Kagan would spread the blame for any war amongst the participants in the power struggle, based on these various human motivations.  In contrast, Allison would appear to put the blame for any war (arising out of a power struggle) mainly on the established power’s fear, rather than at least equally on the rising power’s over-reach.  In Allison’s application of this metaphor to China’s competition with the US, his thesis seems to reflect academia’s love affair with all things China, rather than any kind of objective historical analysis (Lambert Strether, 2017)

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