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Who Did Thucydides Trap?

A challenge to Graham Allison's pop-theory that U.S., China headed for 'epic' conflict.

How do you turn a metaphor into an axiom? Try: “Strategist appropriation.” When writing on politics and war, this means lardering your first few graphs with maxims from so-called “masters of war,” preferably Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. Their unassailable wisdom gives your argument the burnish of authority.

Graham Allison, an academic with plenty of his own Harvard authority, goes a step further. He suggests that the great historian (and not so great general), Thucydides, like Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, offers not just quotable truths but also a fundamental law about how wars often happen: The Thucydides Trap.

Allison argues that when rising powers threaten the position of established powers, the inevitable competition can lead to conflict and, eventually, war. Twenty-five hundred years ago, top dog Sparta became fearful and envious of Athens’ rising wealth and arrogant pride. Two towering city-states became trapped in a thirty-year war whose consequences were tragic. Thucydides tells their story.

Allison insists history bears Thucydides out: Head-butting between rising and established powers leads to war 75 percent of the time. Terrible wars happen because powers get ensnared into tragedy. Today, he warns, China and the United States are caught in yet another such historic trap.

But we need to see that Thucydides was not writing history. In fact, he sought to transform the experience of his life into a story of such heroic pathos that it would stand high on the ridgeline, right alongside the Greco-Roman Ur-gospel and ultimate “fall of the city” tragedy—the Iliad. Having failed as an Athenian general, Thucydides, as the Bard himself, wrote an epic that, like the immortal Iliad, would live for the ages:

“In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

He pretty much succeeded. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is incontestably great writing and superb storytellling. But rather than history, it might better be termed, “non-fictive literature.” It sings like grand opera. It is staged as high tragedy. Only a story “bigger than life” could be a “possession for all time,” because it had to speak across time, to all mankind.

If this were Hollywood, the movie would begin with the splash title: “Based on a true      story.”

Allison forces this story of Athens’ pride and Sparta’s envy into his law about how great-power wars happen. Yet this is a sleight-of-hand. Allison presents the Trap as though it were Thucydides’ creation, rather than Allison’s appropriation of Thucydides

Related reading: What If the Chinese Are Just Biding Their Time?

He does this by making a show of vetting the Thucydides Trap through extensive “historical case files.” His objective is to move Thucydides from literary to academic realm, where the Trap can become an axiom of great power relations.

Yet Allison, sotto voce, keeps in play all the melodrama of Thucydides’ tragic magic—his themes of fate (“destined to fight”) and flaw (unable to escape the trap)—while distracting us with dry Harvard weeds of “historical case files.”

This is misdirection worthy of Penn and Teller. Allison transforms a trope of city-state rivalry into universal historical law and then ascribes its creation to Thucydides, thus giving Allison’s offspring a radiant, ancient, authority.

Furthermore, Allison infuses his Thucydides Trap with all the emotional sizzle of Greek tragedy, flogging Thucydides’ penchant for extravagant literary inflation and exaggerated significance. The Athenian general was a stickler for accuracy in historical speeches and events, but he was positively Homeric in pumping up his life experience into an earth-shattering sequel equal to the Iliad.

This could not have been lost on Allison. Indeed, in seeking to make his metaphor a universal law in the book of great power relations, he also has brought attention and approbation to himself. Allison smoothly steals Thucydides’ literary legitimacy to give his own invented “trap” unimpeachable authority and emotional force.

For the Thucydides Trap to work, there must be both “tragedy” and “trap.” Great powers must have a tragic flaw — they cannot resist the trap; and the trap must be the agency of destiny or fate that consummates tragedy.

Yet actual history, ironically, does not agree. Allison’s entire “case file” for the “Thucydides’ Trap Project” shows very little “tragedy” and nearly zero “trap.” Ditto the Peloponnesian War.

War is full of tragedies. But does literary tragedy equate to real, historical tragedy? The Peloponnesian War was flat out tragedy for Thucydides, but for real people, not so much.

Ancient Greeks were insanely competitive. If men could not pick up shield and spear and enter battle, then they would go full tilt in mock battles we call the Olympiad. War was not just normal: It was the path to transcendence, to a man’s ideal of “peak life.” Greeks lived to fight, and the Iliad was their true life’s gospel—a gospel of war.

Where is the trap that snares helpless Greeks and pushes them against their will into the arms of Mars? How were Athens and Sparta “trapped” into war if they love to fight?

Thucydides paints a picture of Athens ruined at war’s end—like Troy’s “fall of the city.” Yet, if there was so much ruin, how is it that Athens rebounded in just a decade? Its long walls and its fleet were magically rebuilt, and just a few years later, its empire too. Athens remained a leading city in Greece until sacked by the Heruli in 267CE. Sparta, however, entered irreversible decline. Its power was overthrown by Thebes in 371 BCE. Proud Sparta withered into just another rocky village.

Certainly, the fate of Melos and others was real tragedy. But the war was always within the norms of Hellenic battle. In other words, there is no Thucydides Trap in Thucydides.

The Trap is hard to find in the “Trap Project” case file too. As in Greco-Roman antiquity, early modern Europe also really liked to fight. For example, Imperial Spain was continuously at war from 1480-1660. Spain fought for as long as it aspired to primacy. It was often fighting five or six other powers at once. Spain fought the Emirate of Granada, Navarre, the Ottoman Empire, Tunis, the Aztec Empire, Chiapas, the Sultanate of Sulu, the Dutch, the English, the Anglo-Irish, Sweden, Denmark, France, Cambodia, Brunei, Chichimeca, Portugal, Florence, Milan, the Inca Empire, the Kingdom of Ndongo, at least 40 German states and scores of indigenous nations, and more to boot, including their own: Marranos, Conversos, Moriscos, and Jews.

Philip IV was acclaimed as El Rey Planeta, for obvious (and not so obvious) reasons. But during “peak Spain,” not only did Spanish love to fight: They excelled in battle. For as long as the tercios viejos won their battles, Spain was great. War was never a trap. War was their answer.

Britain and France also loved the smell of battle, and their “case file” at Harvard bulges with restless free will for war. In this era, the war of monarchs became so stylized that it formed a majestic ceremonial of kings, their very beacon of authority and right to rule. Louis XIV’s serial wars in Belgium were hyped as stately, royal masques, in which cities were besieged with extravagant display, before full court and courtiers. The entire, resplendent experience looked like nothing less than a rolling Renaissance festival — on acid. Tragedy? Trap?

War only became the tragedy of nations in 1914. Yet even there, in the first summer, peoples exuberantly, even rapturously, gave over their life energies to war. The Great War was mass tragedy, slayer of empires, breaker of civilization (almost!)—but it was no trap.

Here is Allison’s most disturbing misdirection. By confining war’s genesis and outcome to a universal formula (“rising” power vs. established power), he distracts us from a fundamental truth—namely, that wars happen because people (society and state) want to fight. Tragedy comes when war’s outcome becomes epic failure.

The flip side is also true: Wars almost never happen when people do not want to fight. It is quite difficult even to get a war going when only one side wants to fight.

A telling example—in Allison’s case file—surrounds the runup to World War II. Neville Chamberlain is eternally disemboweled in collective memory—like Prometheus—for “appeasing” Hitler. Yet he was wise enough to know that Britons desperately feared war in 1938. So at Bad Godesberg and Munich he outmaneuvered and denied Hitler the war he craved. In doing so, Chamberlain gave his people a precious year to make their peace with impending war. Britain made that transition successfully. A riven France and Stalin’s Soviets, in contrast, never completed this passage—with fateful consequences.

We cannot evaluate Allison’s entire case file here. Yet one historical case is noteworthy for its omission. Britain and the United States were on the knife-edge of war in January 1862, at the height of the American Civil War. This faceoff was a dead-ringer for the conflict brewing between the United States and China today, except that the United States was the rising power, Britain the established one.

Moreover, emotions on both sides demanded war. By helping the Confederate raiders to eviscerate American shipping, the British maliciously devastated the U.S. merchant marine, largest in the world and the jewel of the Union. The U.K. also shepherded Confederate blockade runners through the U.S. Navy ring around the South. Northern emotions seethed against Britain’s violations of neutrality, which Northerners saw as an assault on American sovereignty itself.

But the United States and Britain did not go to war. Had America gone to war, the Confederacy would be an independent nation. Had Britain gone to war, it would have lost its merchant marine—and all of Canada. There was no war.

In Allison’s magical channeling of Thucydides, the US and China may seem “destined for war.” Yet also, they each know that war would destroy them both, and maybe even the whole world.

Likewise, dominant political constituencies in 1862 were dead-set against any move that might lead to war. This is not to say there were no political factions that desired a showdown. But they were not in charge. Note that the United States was the rising power in 1862. Within just seven or eight years, American GDP would eclipse Britain’s forever. Yet there was no way Britain or the United States would risk everything, literally, for nothing.

The Thucydides Trap insinuates that China and the United States are tracked onto the path of war. But what if it is all more stable than Greek Tragedy allows? What if there is no Thucydides Trap? Americans and the Chinese are not hoplite-citizens of Greek city-states, singing their Song of Wrath. They are not even like young men in old Europe, their hearts filled to bursting at the news of war in August 1914.

Allison may feel that his “warning” will help us avoid such a war. But by framing its shadow as anguished classical tragedy—“destined” to be—he gives the prospect of a U.S.-China war an aura of inevitability. Thus does Thucydides help Allison make that war more likely—what happens when literature guides strategy.

Michael Vlahos is a professor of strategy and war at Johns Hopkins University and formerly of the Naval War College. His ideas are developed further in his book, Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change.