It seems that Thucydides (the ancient Athenian author, considered the first true western historian- with Herodotus being more of a storyteller) is having “a moment”.
The term “the Thucydides Trap” has suddenly become “le mot just” to describe the fear that the current global hegemon, the United States, will need to confront a rising power, the PRC, which is challenging it for supremacy, and thus inevitably become engaged in a war that will not end well.
Of course, it is never as simple as that.
For a start, the Athenians and Spartans, and their assorted allies, did not have the capacity to destroy Humanity, only each other; which is not the case with the 2 nuclear powers. When does a “conventional” war between Great Powers go “nuclear”?
Secondly, war does not have to be inevitable. Thucydides was somewhat biased, because he admired the Athenian statesman, Pericles, who as an individual leader had a major role in provoking what ensued. Political leaders make decisions based upon a range of calculations and influences, which can precipitate confrontation and war, or avoid it.
Thirdly, and paradoxically, trying to accommodate a rival, in the hope of avoiding war can be counter-productive, because the rival gains more confidence that emboldens it to undertake ever more provocative steps. Consider World War II. The focus is often on “Munich” and 1938; but if the Third Reich’s re-militarization of the Rhineland in 1936 had been resisted, it is certainly arguable that the resulting humiliation of the Nazi government would have stopped, or at least significantly postponed what happened subsequently in 1939. This makes the strategic calculations in the western Pacific and South China Sea all the more important, as the PRC incrementally tries to “see what it can get away with”.
Fourthly, historians have a habit of personalizing international relations. While there is no doubt that individuals can and do have a major influence, the trap that many fall into is that they believe that they “understand” their opponent and so make judgements that are visceral and emotional, rather than properly informed, ignoring all the influences that weigh upon even a pre-eminent leader. Of course, when each party possesses nuclear codes, one had better hope that there are at least some institutional constraints!
The point we are trying to make is that, elegant and compelling as such terms as “the Thucydides Trap” are, applying them in a facile and uninformed way can lead to unfortunate outcomes, especially when those in thrall to them are those who control the military chain of command. Sometimes the simplest interpretation is the most appropriate, but in our own complex world often it is not.
The ensuing war with Sparta destroyed the Athenian empire; and, as always, led to the subsequent rise of other powers. A confrontation leading to outright war between the US and the PRC would have far more devastating consequences, and not just for the belligerents, because its “fallout” could literally harm the entire planet.
So, while, as students of history, we at Awbury are somewhat amused to see how much attention is being paid to a millennia-old concept, we become somewhat concerned that it may be used by those who do not understand all its nuances, nor the context in which it arose, potentially to justify actions that could further de-stabilize international relations.
As always, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, while ignorance can have terrible consequences.
The Awbury Team