Advertisement

Journal of Chinese Political Science

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 129–144 | Cite as

The Perils of Hubris? A Tragic Reading of “Thucydides’ Trap” and China-US Relations

  • Biao ZhangEmail author
Research Article

Abstract

In the last few years, Graham Allison’s “Thucydides’ Trap” has stimulated much discussion within International Relations (IR). Most IR scholars understand Thucydides’ Trap as a shorthand for power transition theory, and view it as highly inadequate for analyzing China-US relations. This article seeks to offer an alternative, tragic, understanding of Thucydides’ Trap that may have more purchase on the analysis of the dynamic of China-US relations. It first argues that while Thucydides’ Trap shares power transition theory’s focus on the shifting balance of power, it is also different from the latter in its emphasis on the emotional implications of changes in the balance of power. This article then explores a tragic understanding of Thucydides’ Trap. Economic success often encourages a rising power to display ambition, confidence and enhanced sense of self (what Allison calls “rising power syndrome”), which leads to loosened restraint, overextension, and strategic blunder; meanwhile, its assertive and ambitious moves spark a ruling power’s fear, insecurity and even paranoia (what Allison calls “ruling power syndrome”), which prompts it to take “preventive” actions in response to the rising power’s assertiveness. This article finally looks at China-US relations through this tragic lens. It suggests that this tragic understanding of Thucydides’ Trap can illuminate the emotional aspect of China-US relations, and also argues that the Thucydides Trap Research Project should henceforth develop an emotional line of inquiry into interaction between the great powers.

Keywords

Thucydides’ trap Tragedy Hubris Fear Power transition China-US relations 

Notes

Acknowledgements

I thank the guest editors and Ben Boulton for their suggestions and help. All faults are of course mine.

Funding

In writing this article, I have been supported by the “Program for Young Innovative Research Team in China University of Political Science and Law” (16CXTD10).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Disclosure Statement

No disclosure.

References

  1. 1.
    Alexandroff, A. and Stein, A. 2017. The trap in “the Thucydides Trap”: Framing US-China relations. https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/30/05/2017/trap-‘-thucydides-trap’-framing-us-china-relations Accessed 20 August 2018.
  2. 2.
    Allison, G. 2013. Obama and Xi must think broadly to avoid a classical trap. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/opinion/obama-and-xi-must-think-broadly-to-avoid-a-classic-trap.html Accessed 27 December 2018.
  3. 3.
    Allison, G. 2015. The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China headed for war? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/ Accessed 01 July 2018.
  4. 4.
    Allison, G. 2017. Destined for war: can America and China escape Thucydides’ trap? London: Scribe.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    BBC. 2018. Zhongmei maoyizhan yinfa reyi: Zhongguo zhende “lihaile” ma? [China-US trade war sparked heated debate: is China really “Amazing”?] https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/chinese-news-45240548
  6. 6.
    Bedford, D., and T. Workman. 2001. The Tragic reading of the Thucydidean tragedy. Review of International Studies 27 (1): 51–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Business Insider. 2018. FBI director calls China “the broadest, most significant” threat to the US. https://www.businessinsider.com/fbi-director-says-china-is-the-broadest-most-significant-threat-to-the-us-2018-7 Accessed 11 December 2018.
  8. 8.
    Butterfield, H. 1951. History and human relations. London: Collins.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Mastro, O.S. 2014. Why Chinese assertiveness is here to stay. The Washington Quarterly 37 (4): 151–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    CCTV. 2018. Zhongguo yicheng jingji chaojidaguo: ganggang gongbu de zhege zhibiao jiushi zhengming. [China has become an economic superpower. This indicator just announced is proof.] http://www.ce.cn/xwzx/gnsz/gdxw/201801/15/t20180115_27727168.shtml 15 December 2015.
  11. 11.
    Chan, S. 2008. China, the US, and the power-transition theory. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    China Daily. 2018. Sino-US trade frictions cannot hinder Chinese economy: Official. http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201804/17/WS5ad595fca3105cdcf6518cfb.html Accessed 23 August.
  13. 13.
    China News. 2014. Zhongguo chaoyue meiguo cheng quanqiu zuida maoyiguo yinfa qianglie guanzhu [China’s surpassing the United States as the world’s largest trading nation has attracted wide attention]. http://www.chinanews.com/cj/2014/01-11/5724587.shtml. Accessed 13 August 2018.
  14. 14.
    China News. 2016. Li Keqiang: zhongguo jingji shi shijie jingji de “wendingmao” [Li Keqiang: China is the “Anchor of Stability” for world economy]. http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2016/07-22/7948998.shtml Accessed 16 August 2018.
  15. 15.
    Christensen, T.J. 2006. fostering stability or creating a monster? the rise of China and US policy toward East Asia. International Security 31 (1): 81–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Cornford, F.M. 1907. Thucydides mythistoricus. London: E. Arnold.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Defense Department (US). 2018. Summary of the national defense strategy. https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf Accessed 29 December 2018.
  18. 18.
    DiCicco, J.M. 2017. Power transition theory and the essence of revisionism. Oxford Research Encyclopedia.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    DiCicco, J.M., and J.S. Levy. 1999. Power shifts and problem shifts. Journal of Conflict Resolution 43 (6): 675–704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Erskine, T., and R.N. Lebow. 2012. Understanding tragedy and understanding International relations. In Tragedy and international relations, ed. T. Erskine and R.N. Lebow. Basingstoke: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Ferdinand, P. 2016. Westward Ho – The China dream and One Belt. One Road. International Affairs 92 (4): 941–957.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Friedberg, A. 2014. The sources of Chinese conduct: explaining Beijing’s assertiveness. The Washington Quarterly 37 (4): 133–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Friedberg, A. 2018. The signs were there. Foreign Affairs, online first.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Fettweiss, C.J. 2013. The Pathologies of power: fear, honor, glory, and hubris in US foreign policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Finley, J.H. 1967. Three essays on Thucydides. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Forde, S. 2012. Thucydides and “Realism” among the classics of International Relations. In Thucydides and the modern world, ed. K. Harloe and N. Morley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Foot, R. 2017. Book review roundtable: Is war with China coming? https://tnsr.org/roundtable/war-with-china-contrasting-visions/ Accessed 30 July 2018.
  28. 28.
    Greer, T. 2018. One Belt, One Road, one big mistake. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/12/06/bri-china-belt-road-initiative-blunder/# Accessed 30 December 2018.
  29. 29.
    Gilpin, R. 1981. War and change in world politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Global Times. 2018. Trump’s moves towards trade war will backfire on US economy without hurting China. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1093603.shtml Accessed 17 July 2018.
  31. 31.
    Global Times. 2018. Sheping: Zhongguo you chongzu shili dui maoyizhan fengpeidaodi [Editorial: China are strong enough to fight the trade war to the end]. http://opinion.huanqiu.com/editorial/2018-03/11691236.html Accessed 15 July 2018.
  32. 32.
    Global Times. 2018. Sheping: Meiguo duihua maoyizhan shi baquanzhuyi zai quanqiuhua shidai de zhengzha [Editorial: US' trade war with China is the desperate struggle of hegemony in the era of globalization]. http://opinion.huanqiu.com/editorial/2018-08/12683151.html. Accessed 26 August 2018.
  33. 33.
    Guo, S. 2018. Meiguo tiaoqi maoyizhan chixu [The United States has provoked a trade war but find it difficult to sustain.] http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2018/07-05/8557870.shtml Accessed 21 August 2018.
  34. 34.
    Harris, P. 2014. Problems with power-transition theory: Beyond the vanishing disparities thesis. Asian Security 10 (3): 241–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Hu, A. 2015. Embracing China’s new normal: Why the economy is still on track. Foreign Affairs 94 (3): 8–12.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Hu. A. (et al.) 2017. Daguo xingshuai yu zhongguo jiyu: guojia zonghe guoli pinggu [The rise and fall of great powers and China’s opportunities: Comprehensive national power assessment]. Economic Heralding 3: 14–25.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Hu, A. and Cheng, W. 2017. The ship of Chinese economy moves stably. People’s Daily (Overseas edition). 14, October 2017, p.01.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Johnston, A.I. 2013. How new and assertive is China’s New Assertiveness? International Security 37 (4): 7–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Kang, D., and X. Ma. 2018. Power transitions: Thucydides didn’t live in East Asia. The Washington Quarterly 41 (1): 137–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Kauppi, M.V. 1991. Contemporary International Relations theory and the Peloponnesian War. In Hegemonic rivalry: From Thucydides to the nuclear age, ed. R.N. Lebow and B.S. Strauss. Boulder: Westview.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Kauppi, M.V. 1995. Thucydides: character and capabilities. Security Studies 5 (2): 142–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Kirshner, J. 2018. Handle him with care: The importance of getting Thucydides right. Security Studies, online first.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Hoslag, J. 2017. How China’s New Silk Road threatens European trade. International Spectator 52 (1): 46–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Layne, C. 2012. This time it’s real: The end of unipolarity and the Pax Americana. International Studies Quarterly 56 (1): 203–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 45.
    Lebow, R. 1991. Thucydides, power transition and the causes of war. In Hegemonic rivalry: From Thucydides to the nuclear age, ed. R.N. Lebow and B.S. Strauss. Boulder: Westview.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Lebow, R. 2003. The Tragic vision of politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Mearsheimer, J. 2001. The tragedy of great power politics. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Mearsheimer, J. 2015. The gathering storm. Chinese Journal of International Politics 3 (4): 381–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Ministry of Commerce. 2018. Shangwubu xinwen fayanren dui mei baigong 6yue 18ri shengming fabiao jianghua. [Spokesperson speaks on the White House statement on June 18.] http://www.mofcom.gov.cn/article/ae/ag/201806/20180602756563.shtml Accessed 26 August 2018.
  50. 50.
    Mei, X. 2018.Trump’s action demands strong response. China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201803/23/WS5ab4becda3105cdcf6513e84.html Accessed 17 August 2018.
  51. 51.
    Moore, G.J. 2017. Avoiding a Thucydides Trap in Sino-American relations … and 7 reasons why that might be difficult. Asian Security 13 (2): 98–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Morley, N. 2017. Thucydides and Contemporary Politics: A Syllabus. https://eidolon.pub/thucydides-and-contemporary-politics-a-syllabus-b169c8e7c41a Accessed 01 August 2018.
  53. 53.
    Nordin, A.H., and M. Weissmann. 2018. Will Trump make China great again? The belt and road initiative and international order. International Affairs 94 (2): 231–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Novo, A.R. 2016. Where we get Thucydides wrong: the fallacies of history’s first hegemonic war. Diplomacy & Statecraft 27 (1): 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    Organski, A.F.K. 1968. World politics. 2nd ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Paradise, J.F. 2016. The role of “parallel institutions” in china’s growing participation in global economic governance. Journal of Chinese Political Science 21 (2): 149–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. 57.
    Pempel, T.J. 2015. Thucydides (Clap)Trap: US-China relations in a changing Asia-Pacific. https://www.globalasia.org/v10no4/feature/thucydides-claptrap-us-china-relations-in-a-changing-asia-pacific_tj-pempel Accessed 12 July 2017.
  58. 58.
    Pu, X., and C. Wang. 2018. Rethinking China’s rise: Chinese scholars debate strategic overstretch. International Affairs 94 (5): 1019–1035.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. 59.
    People’s Daily. 2018. Jinjin Zhuazhu Lishi Jiyuqi. [Grasping the Period of Historical Opportunity]. 2018.01.15 p. 01.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    People’s Daily. 2018. Meiguo yingzai duihua maoyizhan de cuowu daolu shang mitu zhifan [The US should return to the correct path in its wrong way of trade war with China]. 22 July 2018, p. 3.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    People’s Daily. 2018. Shijie Buneng Renyou Meiguo Hulai [The World Cannot Allow the US to Mess Things Up]. 14 July 2018, p. 06.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    People’s Daily. 2018. Jianjue youli, dating meifang. [With resolution and strength, make the US painful]. 06 April 2018, p. 02.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    People’s Daily (Overseas Edition). 2018. Rang Meiguo Zhangdian Jixing. [Let the US Remember]. 12 April 2018, p. 06.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Porter, P. 2014. Thucydides Trap 2.0: superpower suicide? The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/feature/thucydides-trap-20-superpower-suicide-10352 Accessed 31 July 2018.
  65. 65.
    Reuters. 2018. China to keep hitting back at U.S. over trade, to boost government spending – finance minister. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-finmin/exclusive-china-to-keep-hitting-back-at-u-s-over-trade-to-boost-government-spending-finance-minister Accessed 10 December 2018.
  66. 66.
    Reuters. 2018. Wary of China's rise, Pompeo announces U.S. initiatives in emerging Asia. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-trade/wary-of-chinas-rise-pompeo-announces-u-s-initiatives-in-emerging-asia-idUKKBN1KK0TH. 29 August 2018.
  67. 67.
    Richards, D.K. 2014. Thucydides dethroned: Historical differences that weaken the Peloponnesian Analogy. In The next Great War?: The roots of World War I and the risk of U.S.-China conflict, ed. R.N. Rosecrance and D. Miller. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Shambaugh, D. 1996. Containment or engagement of China? Calculating Beijing's responses. International Security 21 (2): 180–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. 69.
    Swaine, M.D. 2010. Perceptions of an assertive China. China Leadership Monitor 32 (2): 1–19.Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    Tunsjø, Ø. 2018. The return of bipolarity in world politics: China, the United States, and Geostructural Realism. New York: Columbia University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. 71.
    The Economist. 2017. Is China challenging the US for global leadership? https://www.economist.com/china/2017/04/01/is-china-challenging-the-united-states-for-global-leadership Accessed 14 August 2018.
  72. 72.
    The Financial Times. 2014. China poised to pass US as world’s leading economic power this year. https://www.ft.com/content/d79ffff8-cfb7-11e3-9b2b-00144feabdc0 Accessed 16 December 2018.
  73. 73.
    The Wallstreet Journals. 2017. China says prepared to lead global economy if necessary. https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-says-prepared-to-lead-global-economy-if-necessary-1485178890 Accessed 20 December 2018.
  74. 74.
    The Washington Post. 2018. In the age of Trump and Brexit, China’s national hubris is on the rise. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/01/31/in-the-age-of-trump-and-brexit-chinas-national-hubris-is-on-the-rise/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c4e781b75bcf Accessed 2 December 2018.
  75. 75.
    The Washington Post. 2018. Trump’s national security strategy marks a hawkish turn on China. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2017/12/18/trumps-national-security-strategy-marks-a-hawkish-turn-on-china/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9a72034dfe34 Accessed 1 December 2018.
  76. 76.
    Wang, Yi. 2017. China Strives to be anchor for world stability. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-03/08/c_136113471.htm Accessed 16 August 2018.
  77. 77.
    Wang, Yi. 2017. One Belt, One Road is the most popular international public product to date. http://world.people.com.cn/n/2015/0323/c157278-26737546.html Accessed 20 August 2018.
  78. 78.
    Wang, Yong. 2016. Offensive for defensive: the belt and road initiative and China's new grand strategy. The Pacific Review 29 (3): 455–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. 79.
    Welch, D.A. 2003. Why International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides. Review of International Studies 29 (3): 301–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. 80.
    Welch, D.A. 2015. Can the United States and China avoid a Thucydides Trap? https://www.e-ir.info/2015/04/06/can-the-united-states-and-china-avoid-a-thucydides-trap/ Accessed 9 July 2018.
  81. 81.
    Xi, J. 2017. Zai shijing jingji luntan 2017nian nianhui kaimushi shang de zhuzhi yanjiang. [Keynote speech at 2017 World Economic Forum]. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2017-01/18/c_1120331545.htm Accessed 15 July 2018.
  82. 82.
    Xi, J. 2017. Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respect. http://www.gov.cn/zhuanti/2017-10/27/content_5234876.htm Accessed 12 December 2018.Google Scholar
  83. 83.
    Xinhua. 2015. Zhongmei buhui xianru xiuxidide xianjing de shida yuanyin [Ten reasons why China and the US will not fall into the Thucydides’ Trap]. http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2015-09/27/c_1116689742.htm Accessed 17 August 2018.
  84. 84.
    Zhao, S. 2013. Foreign policy implications of Chinese nationalism revisited: The strident turn. Journal of Contemporary China 22 (82): 535–553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Journal of Chinese Political Science/Association of Chinese Political Studies 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Political Science and Public AdministrationChina University of Political Science and LawBeijingPeople’s Republic of China

Personalised recommendations