The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China headed for war?

In 12 of 16 past cases in which a rising power confronted a ruling power, the result has been bloodshed - but this is not inevitable

The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape the Thucydides Trap.

The Greek historian's metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power - as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago. Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations, a team of mine at the Harvard Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs has concluded after analysing the historical record. In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.

Based on the current trajectory, war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognised at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not. Moreover, current underestimations and misapprehensions of the hazards inherent in the US-China relationship contribute greatly to those hazards.

A risk associated with the Thucydides Trap is that business as usual - not just an unexpected, extraordinary event - can trigger large-scale conflict. When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen.


War, however, is not inevitable. Four of the 16 cases in our review did not end in bloodshed. Those successes, as well as the failures, offer pertinent lessons for today's world leaders.

The rise of a 5,000-year-old civilisation with 1.3 billion people is not a problem to be fixed. It is a condition - a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation... Managing this relationship without war will demand sustained attention, week by week, at the highest level in both countries. Most significantly, it will mean more radical changes in attitudes and actions, by leaders and publics alike, than anyone has yet imagined.

Escaping the Trap requires tremendous effort. As Mr Xi Jinping himself said during a visit to the US last month: "There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves."

More than 2,400 years ago, Thucydides offered a powerful insight: "It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable." Others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War. But Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Note that Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power's growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.

In the case about which he wrote in the fifth century BC, Athens had emerged over a half century as a steeple of civilisation, yielding advances in philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy, and naval prowess. This shocked Sparta, which for a century had been the leading land power on the Peloponnese peninsula. As Thucydides saw it, Athens' position was understandable. As its clout grew, so too did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices, its sensitivity to instances of disrespect, and its insistence that previous arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power. It was also natural, Thucydides explained, that Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system it had established - and within which Athens had flourished.

Thucydides chronicled objective changes in relative power, but he also focused on perceptions of change among the leaders of Athens and Sparta - and how this led each to strengthen alliances with other states in the hopes of counterbalancing the other. But entanglement runs both ways. (It was for this reason that George Washington famously cautioned America to beware of "entangling alliances"). When conflict broke out between the second-tier city states of Corinth and Corcyra (now Corfu), Sparta felt it necessary to go to Corinth's defence, which left Athens little choice but to back its ally. The Peloponnesian War followed. When it ended 30 years later, Sparta was the nominal victor. But both states lay in ruin, leaving Greece vulnerable to the Persians.


Managing the US-China relationship without war will demand more than just new slogans or more frequent summits of presidents. (Above) China's President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama holding a joint news conference at the White House last month. PHOTO: REUTERS

Eight years before the outbreak of the world war in Europe, Britain's King Edward VII asked his prime minister why the British government was becoming so unfriendly to his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany, rather than keeping its eye on America, which he saw as the greater challenge. The prime minister instructed the Foreign Office's chief Germany watcher Eyre Crowe to write a memo answering the king's question. Crowe delivered his memorandum on New Year's Day, 1907. The document is a gem in the annals of diplomacy.

The logic of Crowe's analysis echoed Thucydides' insight. And his central question, as paraphrased by Dr Henry Kissinger in On China, was the following: Did increasing hostility between Britain and Germany stem more from German capabilities or German conduct? Crowe put it a bit differently: Did Germany's pursuit of "political hegemony and maritime ascendancy" pose an existential threat to "the independence of her neighbours and ultimately the existence of England"?

Crowe's answer was unambiguous: Capability was key. As Germany's economy surpassed Britain's, Germany would not only develop the strongest army on the continent, but it would soon also "build as powerful a navy as she can afford". In other words, Dr Kissinger writes that Crowe's assessment was that "once Germany achieved naval supremacy... this in itself - regardless of German intentions - would be an objective threat to Britain, and incompatible with the existence of the British Empire".

Three years after reading that memo, Edward VII died. Attendees at his funeral included two "chief mourners" - Edward's successor, George V, and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm - along with Theodore Roosevelt representing the United States. At one point, Roosevelt (an avid student of naval power and leading champion of the buildup of the US Navy) asked Wilhelm whether he would consider a moratorium in the German-British naval arms race. The kaiser replied that Germany was unalterably committed to having a powerful navy. But as he went on to explain, war between Germany and Britain was simply unthinkable, because "I was brought up in England, very largely; I feel myself partly an Englishman". "Next to Germany I care more for England than for any other country." And then with emphasis: "I ADORE ENGLAND!"

However unimaginable conflict seems, however catastrophic the potential consequences for all actors, however deep the cultural empathy among leaders, even blood relatives, and however economically interdependent states may be - none of these factors is sufficient to prevent war, in 1914 or today.

When a rising, revolutionary France challenged Britain's dominance of the oceans and the balance of power on the European continent, Britain destroyed Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet in 1805 and later sent troops to the continent to defeat his armies in Spain and at Waterloo. As Otto von Bismarck sought to unify a quarrelsome assortment of rising German states, war with their common adversary, France, proved an effective instrument to mobilise popular support for his mission. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a rapidly modernising Japanese economy and military establishment challenged Chinese and Russian dominance of East Asia, resulting in wars with both from which Japan emerged as the leading power in the region.

Each case is, of course, unique.


The pre-eminent geostrategic challenge of this era is not violent Islamic extremists or a resurgent Russia. It is the impact that China's ascendance will have on the US-led international order, which has provided unprecedented great-power peace and prosperity for the past 70 years. As Singapore's late leader Lee Kuan Yew observed: "The size of China's displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world."

Everyone knows about the rise of China. Few of us realise its magnitude. Never before in history has a nation risen so far, so fast, on so many dimensions of power. To paraphrase former Czech president Vaclav Havel, all this has happened so rapidly that we have not yet had time to be astonished.

In 1980, China had 10 per cent of America's gross domestic product as measured by purchasing power parity; 7 per cent of its GDP at current US-dollar exchange rates; and 6 per cent of its exports. The foreign currency held by China, meanwhile, was just one-sixth the size of America's reserves. The answers for the second column: By last year, those figures were 101 per cent of GDP; 60 per cent at US-dollar exchange rates; and 106 per cent of exports. China's reserves today are 28 times larger than America's.

In a single generation, a nation that did not appear on any of the international league tables has vaulted into the top ranks. In 1980, China's economy was smaller than that of the Netherlands. Last year, the increment of growth in China's GDP was roughly equal to the entire Dutch economy.

Will China be able to sustain economic growth rates several times those of the United States for another decade and beyond? If and as it does, are its current leaders serious about displacing the US as the predominant power in Asia? Will China follow the path of Japan and Germany, and take its place as a responsible stakeholder in the international order that America has built over the past seven decades? The answer to these questions is obviously that no one knows.

But if anyone's forecasts are worth heeding, it's those of Mr Lee, the world's premier China watcher and a mentor to Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping. Before his death in March, the founder of Singapore put the odds of China continuing to grow at several times US rates for the next decade and beyond as "four chances in five". On whether China's leaders are serious about displacing the United States as the top power in Asia in the foreseeable future, Mr Lee answered directly: "Of course. Why not... How could they not aspire to be No. 1 in Asia and in time the world?" And about accepting its place in an international order designed and led by America, he said absolutely not: "China wants to be China and accepted as such - not as an honorary member of the West."

Americans have a tendency to lecture others about why they should be "more like us". In urging China to follow the lead of the United States, should we Americans be careful what we wish for?

As the United States emerged as the dominant power in the Western hemisphere in the 1890s, how did it behave? Future president Theodore Roosevelt personified a nation supremely confident that the 100 years ahead would be an American century. Over a decade that began in 1895 with the US secretary of state declaring the United States "sovereign on this continent", America liberated Cuba; threatened Britain and Germany with war to force them to accept American positions on disputes in Venezuela and Canada; backed an insurrection that split Colombia to create a new state of Panama (which immediately gave the US concessions to build the Panama Canal); and attempted to overthrow the government of Mexico, which was supported by the United Kingdom and financed by London bankers. In the half century that followed, US military forces intervened in "our hemisphere" on more than 30 separate occasions to settle economic or territorial disputes in terms favourable to Americans, or oust leaders they judged unacceptable.

When Deng initiated China's fast march to the market in 1978, he announced a policy known as "hide and bide". What China needed most abroad was stability and access to markets. The Chinese would thus "bide our time and hide our capabilities", which Chinese military officers sometimes paraphrased as getting strong before getting even.

With the arrival of China's new paramount leader Xi Jinping, the era of "hide and bide" is over. Nearly three years into his 10-year term, Mr Xi has stunned colleagues at home and China watchers abroad with the speed at which he has moved and the audacity of his ambitions. Domestically, he has bypassed rule by a seven-man standing committee and instead consolidated power in his own hands; ended flirtations with democratisation by reasserting the Communist Party's monopoly on political power; and attempted to transform China's engine of growth from an export-focused economy to one driven by domestic consumption. Overseas, he has pursued a more active Chinese foreign policy that is increasingly assertive in advancing the country's interests.

What Mr Xi calls the "China Dream" expresses the deepest aspirations of hundreds of millions of Chinese, who wish to be not only rich but also powerful. At the core of China's civilisational creed is the belief - or conceit - that China is the centre of the universe. In the often-repeated narrative, a century of Chinese weakness led to exploitation and national humiliation by Western colonialists and Japan.

In Beijing's view, China is now being restored to its rightful place, where its power commands recognition of and respect for the country's core interests.

Last November, in a seminal meeting of the entire Chinese political and foreign policy establishment, including the leadership of the People's Liberation Army, Mr Xi provided a comprehensive overview of his vision of China's role in the world. The display of self-confidence bordered on hubris. Mr Xi began by offering an essentially Hegelian conception of the major historical trends toward multipolarity (that is, not US unipolarity) and the transformation of the international system (that is, not the current US-led system). In his words, a rejuvenated Chinese nation will build a "new type of international relations" through a "protracted" struggle over the nature of the international order. In the end, he assured his audience that "the growing trend towards a multipolar world will not change".

Given objective trends, realists see an irresistible force approaching an immovable object. They ask which is less likely:

China demanding a lesser role in the East and South China seas than the United States did in the Caribbean or Atlantic in the early 20th century, or the US sharing with China the predominance in the Western Pacific that America has enjoyed since World War II?


And yet in four of the 16 cases that the Belfer Centre team analysed, similar rivalries did not end in war. If leaders in the United States and China let structural factors drive these two great nations to war, they will not be able to hide behind a cloak of inevitability. Those who don't learn from past successes and failures to find a better way forward will have no one to blame but themselves.

At this point, the established script for discussion of policy challenges calls for a pivot to a new strategy (or at least slogan), with a short to-do list that promises peaceful and prosperous relations with China. Shoehorning this challenge into that template would demonstrate only one thing: a failure to understand the central point I'm trying to make. What strategists need most at the moment is not a new strategy, but a long pause for reflection. If the tectonic shift caused by China's rise poses a challenge of genuinely Thucydidean proportions, declarations about "rebalancing", or revitalising "engage and hedge", or presidential hopefuls' calls for more "muscular" or "robust" variants of the same, amount to little more than aspirin treating cancer. Future historians will compare such assertions to the reveries of British, German and Russian leaders as they sleepwalked into 1914.

The rise of a 5,000-year-old civilisation with 1.3 billion people is not a problem to be fixed. It is a condition - a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation. Success will require not just a new slogan, more frequent summits of presidents, and additional meetings of departmental working groups. Managing this relationship without war will demand sustained attention, week by week, at the highest level in both countries. It will entail a depth of mutual understanding not seen since the Henry Kissinger-Zhou Enlai conversations in the 1970s. Most significantly, it will mean more radical changes in attitudes and actions, by leaders and publics alike, than anyone has yet imagined.

•A longer version of this article first appeared in The Atlantic Magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China headed for war?'. Print Edition | Subscribe