Did Thucydides Believe in Thucydides’ Trap? The History of the Peloponnesian War and Its Relevance to U.S.-China Relations

Abstract

The Peloponnesian War, a conflict between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta and their respective allies, is held to be a classic example of war between a hegemon and a rising power. Graham Allison has recently coined the term “Thucydides’ Trap” to emphasize how structural forces are leading to instability in U.S.-China relations. This interpretation of history is inaccurate and reflects the influence of misleading translations. Drawing on the original Greek text of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I argue that the concept of Thucydides’ Trap does not find support even in the case that has given it its name. Thucydides’ famous attribution of the war to “the growth of the power of Athens” actually refers to the expansion of the Athenian Empire rather than a shift in the distribution of capabilities. Structural arguments do offer valuable insights about potential sources of conflict in U.S.-China relations, but the causal mechanism has little to do with the analogy of Athens and Sparta. As exemplified by the flashpoint in the Strait of Taiwan, structural change has aggravated long-standing differences between the United States and the PRC. Beijing’s growing economic and military power has resulted in a growing threat to Taipei, which has led the United States to affirm its commitment to Taiwan’s security in ways that are inconsistent with the One-China policy. If this trend continues, it will raise the potential for a military confrontation between the great powers in East Asia.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own, based on the Greek texts in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard) [72] and Oxford Classical Texts series [37]. Since the pagination differs across these texts, I will cite Thucydides using the book number, followed by the chapter number, and ending with the section number. This format also serves to facilitate comparison with previous English translations.

  2. 2.

    On Thucydides’ relationship to international relations theory as a whole, see [3, 22, 46, 47, 58]. On Thucydides and the various schools of thought within realism, see [20, 26].

  3. 3.

    I refer to this sentence as the “thesis” for the sake of convenience, but with due recognition of the contention among classicists that Thucydides’ views on the cause of the war may have changed over time and that the “thesis” may have been added at a later date in the composition of the history (see [2]).

  4. 4.

    See [50]: 82 for a review of the realist literature on preventive war.

  5. 5.

    The difficulty of translating Thucydides, as well as the issues with the Crawley translation, have been discussed succinctly in an article by the classicist Mary Beard entitled, “Which Thucydides Can You Trust?” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/09/30/which-thucydides-can-you-trust/). [5].

  6. 6.

    Gilpin uses the term “law of uneven growth” [27], while Organski and Kugler use the term “power transition model” [64]. Although Gilpin considers the power transition model to be “a modern, more restricted version of the law of uneven growth” ([27]: 94, n.11), these terms are generally equivalent, and I use the term “power transition model” because of its greater prominence in the literature.

  7. 7.

    See [23]: 16–24 for a discussion of how “realist pessimists” would apply this argument to the case of China.

  8. 8.

    In [27], references to Thucydides, Athens, or Sparta appear on 23 pages, while references to Germany appear on 27 pages.

  9. 9.

    Gilpin’s statement about the inherent superiority of naval power is inconsistent with his discussion of the Punic Wars War and Change in World Politics. There, he says that “the superiority of the Romans over the Carthaginians in war ultimately was founded on the Romans’ interest in their land army,” while “the Carthaginians were devoted to the sea” ([27]: 100).

  10. 10.

    See [38, 67] for a succinct review of the historiography on the origins of the Peloponnesian War.

  11. 11.

    Studies that use the Warner translation include [20, 24, 42, 48, 50, 60, 62].

  12. 12.

    Studies that use the Crawley translation, whether revised by Finley or by Strassler, include [1, 26,27,28, 40, 43, 44, 46].

  13. 13.

    Warner translates Thucydides’ thesis as, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta” ([78]: 49). Crawley (revised by Strassler), translates it as, “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable” ([69]: 16). This phrasing harks back to the classic translation by Thomas Hobbes in 1628: “And the truest quarrel, though least in speech, I conceive to be the growth of the Athenian power, which putting the Lacedaemonians into fear necessitated the war” ([30]: 14–15).

  14. 14.

    In earlier studies, historians debated whether or not Thucydides had sought to advance the same argument throughout the composition of the text or if he had later come to a different conclusion and then imposed the thesis on an earlier text (see [2]). In recent years, scholars have generally come to agree that Thucydides sought to advance the same argument throughout the History ([67]: 117–118). Regardless of which side of this debate they subscribe to, historians agree that the thesis refers to the expansion of the Athenian Empire.

  15. 15.

    See also [23]: 16–24. According to Friedberg’s typology, Allison would fall under the category of a realist pessimist.

  16. 16.

    Thucydides recognized the economic basis of military power ([37, 72]: 1.11.1, 1.80.4, 1.83.2, 2.13.2–3) and, in his discussion of the famous wealth of Corinth, seemed to have a concept of economic development ([37, 72], 1.13.5), but he did not attribute Athenian imperialism to developmental factors. See the Hornblower commentary [33] on these sections for a discussion of the economic aspects of the History.

  17. 17.

    Writing about Mycale, the historian Herodotus tells us that “in this battle, the Athenians distinguished themselves among the Greeks” ([18]: 9.105.1); translation based on the Greek text of The Histories at the Perseus Digital Library (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/).

  18. 18.

    Historians disagree about whether or not Athens actually signed a peace treaty with Persia to conclude the war ([6]: 586–587), but it is clear that military conflict ended by the middle of the fifth century.

  19. 19.

    The Thirty-Year Peace ended an early conflict that some scholars have called the “First Peloponnesian War” (460–446 BCE). In conventional usage, the “Peloponnesian War” refers to the war of 431–404 BCE. Though de Ste. Croix argues that the war of 460–446 and the war of 431–404 should be considered as part of the same conflict ([19]: 50–51), I follow Thucydides and focus on the outbreak of war in 431.

  20. 20.

    See [45] for another skeptical view of Allison’s interpretation of Thucydides.

  21. 21.

    Chan argues that “the AIIB (and OBOR) serves as part of its soft-economic-balancing strategy to fend off Washington’s ‘containment’ policy ([12]: 581). U.S. officials have been much more skeptical of China’s intentions. See https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2163972/china-hasnt-changed-belt-and-roads-predatory-overseas. Morgan demonstrates that in Africa, public opinion shows a range of viewpoints on China’s presence in the region [59, 17].

  22. 22.

    See [25] for a discussion of the role of globalization in China’s grand strategy.

  23. 23.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for highlighting these sources of tension and suggesting the reference to [52].

  24. 24.

    As Bush notes, the most important elements of the United States’ One-China policy are the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972, the Normalization Communiqué of 1978, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the Arms Sales Communiqué of 1982, opposition to a unilateral change in the status quo by either the PRC or Taiwan, not supporting Taiwan’s independence, the United States’ “Six Assurances” to Taiwan, and “a preference for continuing dialogue and cooperation between Beijing and Taipei, among others” ([11]: 3).

  25. 25.

    For further discussion of the traditional position of the United States, see [70]: 223–224.

  26. 26.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/revisit-the-one-china-policy-1484611627; https://nationalinterest.org/feature/it-time-trump-rethink-the-one-china-policy-26042. [57].

  27. 27.

    Under the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is not bound to intervene in the event of a PRC attack against Taiwan. The United States is only bound to maintain the capacity to intervene; whether or not it chooses to exercise that capacity is left to the discretion of the President ([74]: 193–194; [75]: 121).

  28. 28.

    The phrase “Sacred Texts” appears in [10].

  29. 29.

    On PRC reform and economic growth, see ([61]: 85–110).

  30. 30.

    The difference lies in the fact that the English version of the Communiqué states that “the Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China.” The Chinese version uses the word 承认, which is closer to “recognizes” than “acknowledges” ([10]: 138–146).

  31. 31.

    During the Tsai administration, Taiwan has lost 3 diplomatic allies (the Dominican Republic, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Panama) and been unable to participate at meetings of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Health Assembly, even as an observer. Statements by the Taiwan government indicate that PRC pressure has been responsible for these developments (http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/201805010004.aspx). [79].

  32. 32.

    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-38927891. [4].

  33. 33.

    http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/201803170019.aspx. [53].

  34. 34.

    https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/535. [34].

  35. 35.

    On January 9, 2018, it passed the House after a voice vote; on February 28, it passed the Senate by unanimous consent (see https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/535/actions).

  36. 36.

    Taiwan officials often use the term checkbook diplomacy derisively to refer to Beijing’s tactic for poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, but it is clear that both sides engage in this practice. After Panama severed ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 2017, Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lee denounced Beijing’s checkbook diplomacy while accusing Panama of ignoring Taiwan’s previous assistance (http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2017/09/19/2003678731). Both sides are using economic assistance to compete for diplomatic recognition, but Beijing is clearly winning. [71].

  37. 37.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/revisit-the-one-china-policy-1484611627?ns=prod/accounts-wsj. [7].

  38. 38.

    https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2158721/behind-status-quo-us-transit-tsai-ing-wen-how-donald. [54].

  39. 39.

    In addition to [1], see the response in [45] and a further engagement with the argument in [56].

  40. 40.

    On the importance of history in policymaking, see [8]. On the problematic influence of historical analogies in the United States’ decision to escalate in Vietnam, see [41].

  41. 41.

    See also https://www.cfr.org/report/conflict-south-china-sea. [29]; https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/risk-of-u-s-china-confrontation-in-the-east-china-sea/. [32].

  42. 42.

    In 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal on the South China Sea dispute ruled against China on China’s claim of maritime rights, but not on China’s claim of sovereignty ([35]: 213–214). One of its most striking conclusions was that all land features in the South China Sea were rocks and not islands ([49]: 242–243).

  43. 43.

    https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2172583/top-us-officials-reject-chinese-demand-stop-military-moves. [55].

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Lee, J. Did Thucydides Believe in Thucydides’ Trap? The History of the Peloponnesian War and Its Relevance to U.S.-China Relations. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 24, 67–86 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-019-09607-0

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Keywords

  • Thucydides trap
  • Cross-strait relations
  • U.S.-China relations
  • Taiwan