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


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.


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



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


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.


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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

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