Thucydides Trap, have you heard of it? The trap we’re all in together.
20.01.2023 | Yishai Gelb
Thucydides Trap, coined by Graham Allison, makes vivid Thucydides’s insight. Thucydides was THE first historian, and he wrote about the history of Sparta overcoming Athens, the leading power 2500 years ago. His Insight is that there is an apparent tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as a regional or international hegemon.
So what is the trap? The trap is that was is inevitable, even if you don't want it. Over the past 500 years, there were 16 cases in which an emerging power threatened to overcome an existing power. 12 of those cases ended in war.
The reason why such a rivalry usually ends in war is that the leading power never gives up on its position without a fight. Such a war usually breaks out when the two powers are close to equal in strength. That’s because the emerging power won’t go to war without believing victory is achievable. The existing power won't go to war when it still has the upper hand because of the enormous cost involved in such a war, so not going to war is a means of procrastination.
So how do China and the US compare? As illustrated in my report from the previous week, China is an emerging power reaching the total strength of the US. In many aspects, China has already surpassed the US. There are three main pillars that give a county immense strength: Economic power, military power, and diplomatic power.
Over the past 20 years, China’s economy has grown to such an extent that it now leads in many industries, from Artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IoT), Biotechnology, and Green energy production. In other industries, China is closing the gap, such as in Semiconductor manufacturing and Quantum computing.
This power is providing China with the ability to build military strength. Today China’s military is the second largest in the world, and most technologically advanced in the world. Both in supersonic missiles, Cyber capabilities, Submarine warfare, and naval capacities, and not far behind in airpower.
Such military strength is allowing China to forge diplomatic power. As the Chinees economy becomes larger and militarily stronger, its influence in the world is maturing. In December 2022, the Chinese supreme leader visited Saudi Arabia endangering the future of the Petro Dollar. Terminating the Petrodollar means that Saudi Arabia and other oil producers will trade energy in other currencies besides the USD. The ramifications are tremendous on the US’s ability to dictate world trade, sanction power, and eventually, influence the world stage making life in the US a lot more expensive than Americans are used to.
As the US’s power in the world declines, and China’s rises, the two powers seem ever more likely to determine world domination on the battlefield. How can we avoid the trap and eliminate war? By looking at the past.
The last time a rival power threatened the existing power was during the Cold War. In that case, the two powers didn’t go to war, successfully keeping the war cold. That is the blueprint for the current situation. Creating a stable balance of power where each superpower has a sphere of influence over the world creates a bipolar world which is the most stable balance of powers
It will be hard for the US to go back to the Cold War era, however, it might be the only way to prevent another world war, and the tremendous cost associated with it. The policy is not appeasement, but deterrence. A deterrence that recognized that the days of US hegemony are over.