Thucydides Trap

One of most characteristic features in international relations, especially regarding great powers and their mutual relations is the question of security, which manifests in practice in the mutual trust/mistrust, fear/faith, confidence/ lack of confidence.

Graham Allison found, when analyzing the relations of the present unipole, the US, and the rising challenger power, China, that those two nations should avoid the “Thucydides Trap”.

The analogy to Thucydides is a reminder of the dangers that can emerge when the rising power challenges a ruling power as Athens did Sparta in Ancient Greece and as Germany did Britain a century ago (the Growe memorandum).

Most of these dangerous challenges have ended in catastrophic way, often for both sides, the result being a war. The world history is full of these examples and in such cases where the parties escaped war, painful adjustments were required in the attitudes and actions of both parties.

In the History of Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote:”What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”.

Thus Thucydides identified the core problem: the inevitable structural stress caused by rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Thucydides adduced two key drivers that create this structural dynamic:

  • the understandable pride and egoism of the rising power, sense of entitlement and demand for greater say
  • the fear, doubt and insecurity felt by the established power

To sum up, the Thucydides Trap refers to the inescapable anxiety that accompanies a sharp shift in the relative power of potential competitors. Under such circumstances, unexpected actions by third parties can provide a spark that leads to results neither competitor would have chosen.

Thucydides noted also that this may lead to strengthen alliances referring to old principle of international politics where “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. When looking at the structural dynamics creating the Thucydides Trap from the view point of the modern theory of realism, the big picture and composition are in conformity.

Based on the historical experience and the comprehension of the present international relations of great powers, the following statement seems to be valid:

“When rising assertiveness becomes hubristic and fear turns to paranoia, mutual exaggeration can feed misperceptions and miscalculations. This in turn can spur unintended consequences.”