Thucydides And The Tragedy Of Athens: A Parable For America – Review


By John H. Maurer*

(FPRI) — Thucydides is nowadays all the rage. Presidents, members of Congress, admirals and generals, foreign policy and national security professionals, scholars, and news commentators invoke his name and refer reverently to his history as offering ancient wisdom on politics, ethics, strategy, and war. Not bad for a disgraced general who turned to writing history after his fellow Athenians held him responsible for a major military defeat and sent him packing into exile.[1]

That Thucydides is now so much in vogue is due in no small measure to Graham Allison of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In articles appearing in major news outlets and in this newly published book, Allison has hyped Thucydides’s history to the global policymaking community and a wider reading public. The teachings of Thucydides provide the starting point and inspiration for Allison to examine the question of whether China and the United States are “destined for war” – the book’s provocative title.

Graham Allison. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).
Graham Allison. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

In explaining why Athens and Sparta, the two leading states of ancient Greece, came into conflict, Thucydides famously asserted that the “real though unavowed cause” of their rivalry was “the growth of Athenian power, which terrified the Spartans and forced them into war.”[2] Allison highlights that Thucydides’s recipe for the making of a great-power war contains two main ingredients. The first ingredient is a shift in the balance of power, whereby challengers to the status quo, as they grow in strength, become more ambitious and determined to transform the international system in their favor. The second ingredient is the fear that motivates defenders of the existing international order to take a stand against rising threats. Allison labels as the “Thucydides’s trap” these shifts in the balance of power that lead to decisions for war.

Allison warns that Thucydides’s “real cause” thesis is playing out today in China’s rising power. Furthermore, he calculates that the odds for a war between China and the United States are much higher than typically assumed. It is this finding that has generated so much attention, discussion, and criticism. Can Thucydides’s thesis, as interpreted by Allison, be so readily applied to reach such an alarming conclusion about the future course of Sino-American relations? Can such an alarming conclusion become a self-fulfilling prophecy if decision makers come to believe that China and the United States are indeed destined for war? If the likelihood of confrontation is high, then what can be done to avert war? More ominously, if war is in the cards, how will it be fought and what will be the outcome? These questions drive the buzz surrounding Allison’s application of Thucydides to assess the looming dangers of a coming struggle for mastery in Asia.

No less a figure than China’s President Xi, for example, felt compelled to speak up about the validity of the Thucydides analogies during his 2015 visit to the United States. In a major speech on foreign policy, Xi asserted that China and the United States were not destined to fall into some war trap akin to that thought up by Thucydides and Allison. If leaders on both sides of the Pacific exercised simple prudence in their actions, respecting the vital interests of the other side, China’s leader maintains that the trap would never spring. At a subsequent meeting between Xi and President Obama, during their summit, the two presidents, so Allison tells us, engaged in a seminar-like discussion about the Thucydides Trap (p. viii).

How pleased must be the shade of the ancient Athenian general that his history has proved, as he had hoped, “a possession for all time,” being pondered (if not read) almost 2,500 years later by leaders of countries armed with weapons of horrific power and intercontinental reach, arsenals holding hundreds of millions of the world’s population in a deadly thermonuclear embrace.

Commentary in the Chinese government controlled media, not surprisingly, has piled on in support of President Xi. The notion of a Thucydides Trap is portrayed as part of the “China Threat Theory” propagated by those in the United States and Asia who strive to deny the Chinese people their dreams of a national rejuvenation.[3] The official Chinese news agency maintains: “While the 2,500-year-old concept [of Thucydides] is worth studying, applying it to China-U.S. relations, as some commentators have done, is like modern doctors basing their medical practices on the writings of Erasistratus.”[4] The messaging from China is clear: American leaders who seek to apply Thucydides to contain the growth of Chinese power will be guilty of committing a barbaric form of foreign policy malpractice, dispensing ancient nostrums for modern-day problems.

That Thucydides should be invoked to explain the motivations of leaders and countries in the twenty-first century is also questioned in the United States. The warring states of ancient Greece, examined by Thucydides, lived long ago, far removed from modern learning. Anne Marie Slaughter criticizes “The Thucydidean trilogy of ‘fear, self-interest and honor’ as basic human motivations – a take on human nature that is both old-fashioned (at least in the era of neuroscience and cognitive psychology) and very male.”[5] Stephen Pinker, in his bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature, has also gone to great pains to advance the view that international conflict is declining. While Pinker, like Samuel Huntington before him in The Clash of Civilizations, sees the greater Middle East as still mired and convulsed in a violent historic age, the rest of the world is dispensing with war as an instrument of rational policy. Pinker’s bottom line is simple and elegant: “the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”[6] Our enlightened viewpoint enables us to transcend our fears and to understand that peaceful resolutions best serve our interest.

Sober calculations of economic self-interest, for instance, dictate refraining from war: the American and Chinese economies are so intertwined – the enchanted Chimerica – as to act as a brake on conflict.[7] Thucydides’s iron laws of conflict cannot stand against the tempting allure of KFC, BMWs, Gucci, and 401(k)s. The chant of modern-day Davos Man is make money, not war.

Despite Allison’s respect for the teachings of Thucydides, he concedes that economic interdependence lowers the likelihood of war (pp. 210-211). The breakup of Chimerica in either a cold or hot war would disrupt the entire global economy. Why, then, would the leaders of the two most powerful countries in the world want to commit economic suicide? The economic havoc and misery wrought by the great-power wars of the first half of the twentieth century should surely provide an object lesson, convincing even the most hardheaded of foreign policy realists, that it is far better to serve as a true disciple of Norman Angell rather than a follower of Thucydides.[8]

Allison acknowledges, too, the claim that nuclear weapons have finally made war between great powers obsolete. The horrific prospect of societal annihilation makes a mockery of any notion of nuclear-armed great powers fighting for honor (pp. 206-210). No rational leader would want to tempt fate by starting a war that might escalate to include thermonuclear blasts. The Cold War – one of the historical case studies examined by Allison, both in this book and his earlier famous study on the Cuban missile crisis Essence of Decision – offers a compelling example of two superpowers, although arch ideological adversaries striving for leadership of the international system, avoiding a direct clash of arms. The enlightened elites holding sway in Beijing and Washington will understand, just as Soviet and American leaders did during the Cold War, that thermonuclear weapons, targeted at each other’s homeland, make the very notion of a war between great powers unthinkable, with the risks much too dangerous, the costs unacceptable, when weighed against any conceivable tangible rewards. Whereas leaders of the past might have suffered under the great illusion that wars could be won without having to suffer unacceptable losses or run the highest risks, in world capitals today no responsible policymaker can possibly subscribe to such an unenlightened point of view. The human motivations of fear, honor, and interest advanced by Thucydides must be reinterpreted and tempered by the harsh realities imposed by the awesome destructiveness of modern-day terror weaponry.

Part of Allison’s remit, then, is to demonstrate that the writings of Thucydides still apply and to illustrate how China and the United States could end up trapped by war. To make his case, Allison turns to history. He and his research assistants have cataloged sixteen historical examples from 1500 to the present day of rising great powers that challenged existing leaders of the international system. He found that war was the outcome in twelve of those sixteen cases. (Allison provides sketches of these case studies in an appendix, pp. 244-286.)[9] According to this reckoning, the odds of a Sino-American clash might thus be as high as three out of four. Allison maintains that this finding both confirms the explanatory power of Thucydides’s proposition and underscores the dangers surrounding China’s rising strength. Allison asserts: “on the current trajectory, war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized. Indeed, on the historical record, war is more likely than not” (p. xvii – emphasis in the original).

China’s rulers share the view that history holds value for understanding our own times. Niall Ferguson contends “that China’s leaders are perhaps the most history-minded in the world.”[10] The interest of China’s rulers and people in history is evident in the massive study undertaken by Chinese scholars entitled The Rise of the Great Powers, which examined the histories of Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Originally commissioned by the Chinese government and briefed to members of China’s leadership, the study was eventually published in eight beautifully illustrated volumes, as well as appearing in a twelve-part, primetime television series. The study’s findings gave emphasis to the connection between a country’s economic development and the power to bring about change on the international stage. Another theme of the study is that China has learned from the past experience of other countries and intends to chart a peaceful course for itself as a rising great power.[11] Yet, the historical cases studies chosen by Chinese scholars actually confirm Allison’s contention that dramatic changes in the international balance of power are typically accompanied by great violence. All of the historical examples in the Chinese study were marked by war. While China’s rulers crow about how their country’s rise will be peaceful, the history that they commissioned would indicate otherwise.

Of the case studies Allison selected for examination, he gives close attention to Imperial Germany’s challenge to Great Britain before the First World War. He sees striking similarities to today’s contest between China and the United States:[12] “The closest analogue to the current standoff [between China and the United States] – Germany’s challenge to Britain’s ruling global empire before World War I – should give us all pause.” (p. xviii) How did Britain and Germany, their peoples’ wellbeing so closely intertwined by the beginning of the twentieth century, become instead deadly enemies in a modern-day analog to the Peloponnesian War, a protracted struggle handed down from one generation to the next? Even with the advantage of hindsight, Allison finds it difficult to imagine how this clash between Europe’s two leading states could have been avoided. In retrospect, avoiding an Anglo-German great war required that Germany’s rulers behave like responsible stakeholders and not provoke a showdown with Britain. Alas, German foreign policy and strategy proved irresponsible, raising the geopolitical stakes by first provoking war with Britain and then with the United States.

The contest between Britain and Germany involved what Winston Churchill called a “life-and-death struggle” for naval mastery.[13] (By the way, this great British statesman was a close and thoughtful reader of Thucydides.) Germany’s rulers made a conscious bid to contest the lead of Britain’s Royal Navy in the maritime domain.[14] Kaiser Wilhelm II championed this effort to transform the existing world order by building up German naval power. His life’s ambition was to make Germany into a sea power. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack have rightly noted: “Without Kaiser Wilhelm II, there would have been no naval program.”[15] Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, Germany’s chancellor at the war’s outbreak, told a confidante: “[The Kaiser’s] first and basic idea is to break Britain’s world position in favor of Germany; for this, a fleet is required, and to obtain it, a lot of money, which only a rich country can afford; so Germany should become rich; hence the priority given to industry.”[16] Like China today, Germany’s economic development would provide the industrial, technological, and financial wherewithal for a gigantic naval buildup. Wilhelm zealously took the lead in making public appeals for building up a powerful German navy. The eminent historian Friedrich Meinecke paid tribute to Wilhelm as the Flottenkaiser. The Kaiser, Meinecke intoned, “ceaselessly converted the nation and enticed it out onto the water . . . . [and] he has the satisfaction of knowing that his conviction has become the conviction of the nation.”[17] Where the Kaiser led, the German government and people followed.

Germany’s rulers were well aware of Thucydides’s teachings when they launched their naval challenge against Britain. They feared the British might launch a preventive strike to destroy the German fleet before it became too strong. In a memo for Kaiser Wilhelm, Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow sought to explain German foreign policy by referring to the Athenian experience in taking on Sparta. “Our whole relationship with England,” Bülow wrote, “depends upon our getting through the next few years by being patient and clever, provoking no incidents and not giving the slightest ground for offence. Our position is like that of the Athenians when they had to build the Long Walls at the Piraeus without being prevented from completing their defenses by the overwhelming strength of the Spartans.” Wilhelm’s response showed his agreement with this historical analogy: “How often, my dear Bülow, have I used this example during the past ten years.”[18] Wilhelm and Bülow imagined themselves as playing the role recounted by Thucydides and Plutarch of the cunning Athenian statesman Themistocles, laying the strategic foundations of an expanding empire that would one day push aside the reigning international leader.[19] Having read Thucydides – or so it would appear from the example afforded by Imperial Germany – thus offers no guarantee against committing acts of strategic folly.

The German naval buildup posed a stark strategic challenge that the Liberal Party governing Britain before the First World War would have liked to avoid. British Liberals, who envisioned themselves as enlightened reformers, wanted to focus their attention on social and political problems at home. They did not want to spend escalating amounts of money on armaments. Competing in armaments with Germany seemed to them a tragic waste of resources. David Lloyd George, a leading Liberal champion of reform and Britain’s future prime minister, publicly claimed as his guiding policy principle: “less money for the production of suffering and more money for the reduction of suffering.”[20] Liberals dreamed of a welfare and not a warfare state.

By 1908, however, the German naval threat could not be ignored, even by Liberals. British naval leaders made an alarmed appeal for substantial increases in spending to meet the German threat. A year later, a panicked British public called for a crash naval buildup in response to fears of a secret German plan to forge ahead of Britain in the naval arms race. After the war, Churchill would write: Britain had “been made to feel that hands were being laid upon the very foundation of her existence. Swiftly, surely, methodically, a German Navy was coming into being at our doors which must expose us to dangers only to be warded off by strenuous exertions, and by a vigilance almost as tense as that of actual war.”[21] Churchill’s description of a rising German naval threat rousing British fears certainly fits the model presented by Thucydides.

The naval contest involving Britain, Germany, and the United States formed part of a great-power struggle for mastery in Europe. Germany’s political and military leaders transformed a Balkan crisis into a struggle for European hegemony by executing a massive ground offensive to deliver a knockout blow against France in the war’s opening stages. (Allison’s account gives too little attention to the importance of the German offensive strategy for war on land in the British decision for war.) At first, Britain’s Liberal government could not decide what to do: British leaders argued amongst themselves about how to respond to the unfolding crisis, unable to take decisive diplomatic action that might have averted war. It took the German army’s power drive on Paris, wheeling through Belgium, to steel British Liberals to fight. Fearing the overthrow of French power and a European continent dominated by a German super-state, the British government – urged on by the opposition Conservatives – felt compelled to stand against Germany’s aggression.[22] In 1914, as now with regard to China, deterrence was the name of the game. Britain’s last Liberal government – in its diplomacy, strategy, and armaments policy – failed to deter imperial Germany from launching this offensive into Western Europe. Of course, perhaps Germany’s rulers were of such a determined mindset that they could not be deterred no matter what Britain did.

In embarking on the war, British leaders had little understanding about the nature of the coming struggle, what it would cost, what strategy to pursue, and how long it would last. Nonetheless, the British government and people went united into the war, convinced of its urgent necessity, that they had no real choice. Once in the war, Britain would find the struggle exceedingly costly to win and, during the submarine crisis, came perilously close to losing.[23] Might the same someday be said by some future Thucydides about how the United States went to war with China in the twenty-first century? Let’s hope not!

Another case study that Allison examines at length is Britain’s response to the rise of American power at the turn of the twentieth century. In the chapter entitled “Imagine China Were Just Like Us,” Allison aims to provoke by arguing that China is today showing more restraint in its foreign policy behavior than the United States did under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt (pp. 89-106). Allison views the United States under Roosevelt as demanding recognition of its island chain in the Caribbean and the Pacific, an American version of the nine-dash line. If that is how America acted, why, then, should China behave differently or demand anything less? This argument will be sure to warm the hearts of China’s rulers and their apologists, who have frequently resorted to this analogy to justify claims to hegemony in Asia and establish their own version of the Monroe Doctrine to underpin a sphere of influence in the Western Pacific. China merely wants to follow in the footsteps of America in achieving national greatness.

Not mentioned by Allison is that Japan’s warlords used the same justification – they were simply following America’s example in setting out to establish a “Japanese Monroe Doctrine” – to excuse their bid to gain hegemony in Asia before the Second World War. Japanese ambitions to be master of Asia included turning China into a satellite state. Writing in 1933, George Blakeslee, the well-known American scholar and policy commentator on Asian affairs, told his readers: “In some respects, to be sure, Japan has a great superiority over China; but in other respects she is inferior, particularly in potentialities. Should China, with her vast territory, her great population, and her able people, develop a stable and reasonably strong government, then the Japanese Monroe Doctrine would at once disappear; for China has the making of a world Power greater than Japan.”[24] Perhaps examining the fierce resistance stirred up against Imperial Japan’s aggression would prove a more apt case study than Theodore Roosevelt’s America. Liu Mingfu’s much publicized The China Dream certainly reads like the nationalist anti-Western tracts propagated by Japanese militarists in the 1930s.[25] Imperial Japan’s ruin should serve as a cautionary tale for ardent Chinese nationalists about the perils of striking out on a quest for hegemony.[26]

To avoid war, Allison turns to the historical example of how Britain sought to accommodate American foreign policy ambitions around the beginning of the twentieth century. Allison praises British leaders for recognizing the realities of Washington’s growing power and conceding gracefully to the bully Roosevelt. Rather than contest American claims in the Alaskan border dispute, the British gave way, much to the chagrin of the Canadians, who still lament the loss of their “Alsace-Lorraine” in the Pacific Northwest. The policy implication offered up by Allison would seem to be that the United States should behave like the British and decline gracefully, even if that meant leaving our allies in Asia in the lurch, much as Britain abandoned Canada to an emerging American superpower. Allison labels this strategy one of “accommodation” because he wants to avoid the negative connotation of using the word “appeasement.” Hugh White and Charles Glaser most prominently have also urged a foreign policy of coming to a grand bargain with China.[27] Allison reports, however, “there are few signs that Americans are preparing to accept Britain’s fate. Watching the trend lines, Thucydides would likely say: buckle up – we ain’t seen nothing yet” (p. 106).

The trend line that Allison wants to impress upon his readers is China’s transformation from being one of the world’s poorest countries to an economic powerhouse. He catalogs Chinese economic gains and technological advances (pp. 3-24). In one metric after another cited by Allison, China has or is in the process of forging ahead of the United States. The CIA’s World Factbook rates China’s economy, when measured in purchasing power parity, as larger than that of the United States. In energy consumption, another measure of economic activity, China also leads the United States.[28] According to the CIA’s bookkeeping, the era of when the United States possessed the world’s largest economy has come to an end. Further, the projections produced by Allison show that China’s economy will continue to grow relative to that of the United States (p. 9). This transformation of the Chinese economy is bringing about a shift in the international balance of power, undermining the strategic position of the United States and the security of China’s neighbors in Asia, ushering in a post-American world.

Allison’s recitation of China’s economic achievements, however, is an oft-told tale of authoritarian ambitions and determination to command the economy in carrying through grand infrastructure projects. The authoritarian state, since it can trample on worker’s rights, environmental concerns, and legal protections, can certainly pour prodigious amounts of concrete. “China now has more high-speed rail tracks than the rest of the world combined,” Allison informs us. In China, the trains not only run on time, they run at high speed.

Allison’s trend lines, projecting that China’s economy will continue to grow in the next generation as it did during the last, is open to question. China confronts a huge demographic problem of providing a social welfare safety net for a rapidly aging population. A shrinking as well as aging population makes this problem much more difficult to surmount. Pouring mounds of concrete is not necessarily a good measure of the efficient use of resources in addressing China’s economic, environmental, and social predicament. Rather than the Chinese economy exhibiting continued robust growth, China could well be headed to an era of lower productivity gains and economic stagnation.[29] Allison’s paean to Chinese economic prowess thus calls for considerable qualification and much more analysis than he gives it.

Still, even an economically stagnant China can cause huge strategic problems. China’s economic achievements have already permitted a remarkable transformation in its standing as a military power. China’s acquisition of long-range strike weapons, nuclear modernization, naval buildup, enhanced aerospace and cyber capabilities, increasing readiness and professionalism of the Chinese armed forces challenges the strategic position of the United States in Asia. The growth in China’s precision-strike capabilities increases the danger to forward-deployed American forces and bases in the Pacific.

China’s naval buildup is an extraordinary manifestation of Beijing’s commitment to challenge American leadership on the maritime commons. While the United States is finding it difficult to build a navy of 350 ships, one plausible estimate forecasts that the China will have a fleet of 500 combatants by 2030. This projection shows the Chinese navy as coming to possess an undersea force of 75 diesel submarines and 12 nuclear attack submarines.[30] New policy guidance from the government states, “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.” The construction of a large carrier force points to an ambition to operate naval forces outside of Chinese home waters. President Xi, channeling his inner Kaiser Wilhelm, called on the Chinese navy to “aim for the top ranks in the world… Building a strong and modern navy is an important mark of a top ranking global military.”[31] A new struggle for naval mastery is underway.

This buildup in Chinese naval warfighting capabilities calls for a determined response if the United States wants to maintain its strategic position in Asia. Yet, those calling for a stronger Navy are sometimes derided as alarmists. Who can forget, after all, President Obama’s condescending, complacent retort in presidential debate, pooh-poohing Mitt Romney’s call for a larger Navy? Now, of course, more than four years later, Romney looks far more prescient in recognizing the adverse shift taking place in the naval balance of power in the Western Pacific and the need for a marked increase in the American shipbuilding program. The magnitude of the Chinese naval buildup presents a challenge at sea that the United States has not faced since the closing days of the Cold War. As a consequence, extraordinary efforts will now be required to make up for the failures of what was left undone by the Obama administration.

In addition to the naval challenge, China’s nuclear arsenal is increasing substantially in strength and capability. China is upgrading its land-based nuclear strike capabilities, and it might also deploy as many as 12 nuclear ballistic missile submarines.[32] China’s nuclear force is not constrained by any formal arms control agreement. Nor does China afford the kind of transparency that it ought with regard to its nuclear buildup. If the Chinese nuclear force approaches that of the United States in launchers and warheads, then American strike capabilities – nuclear, conventional, and cyber – along with strategic defenses, will need to increase in strength and sophistication. This nuclear competition will bring to an end the current arms control regime negotiated during the closing stages and in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The United States must gird itself for an expensive new era of competition, as arms control breaks down on account of the efforts by China and Russia to upgrade their nuclear arsenals. In this emerging arms race, the United States will face not one but two great powers armed with large numbers of nuclear weapons.

As China forges ahead in armaments, the sense of insecurity now felt by leaders throughout Asia and the Pacific will increase. China’s growing military muscle already calls into question the capability of the United States to meet longstanding security commitments to defend coalition partners in the region. If the United States is viewed as unable to underwrite its security guarantees, will coalition partners seek to appease Beijing, jumping on China’s bandwagon, or will they make even greater efforts to defend themselves? Will Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, for example, see nuclear weapons as necessary for self-defense to counter China and its North Korean ally if the American security umbrella is viewed as unreliable in a storm? These questions highlight the fears that loom up as China’s armaments increase.

Of course, a Japanese or Taiwanese nuclear force would, in turn, set off alarm bells in Beijing. If Japan or Taiwan were to develop a nuclear deterrent force, would China’s rulers show as much patience and restraint as the United States and its allies have exhibited in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions? It is hardly farfetched to suspect not. A multilateral nuclear arms race in East Asia is fraught with the gravest of dangers and provides a trigger for war.

Nor is the possibility of a confrontation and fighting at sea leading to a larger war inconceivable. To draw a page from Thucydides, transpose the naval confrontation involving the navies of the ancient Greek states of Corcyra, Corinth, and Athens onto our own strategic landscape in the Western Pacific. Corcyra and Corinth came to blows over a little-known town of Epidamnus on the Balkan coast of the Adriatic, a place of such little intrinsic worth that no one would list it as a vital interest of any major Greek state. And, yet, control over this place led to naval fighting between Corcyra and Corinth. Athens, in coming to Corcyra’s rescue, sent a naval squadron to the contested region that became embroiled in a fight with the naval forces of Corinth and its allies in the Peloponnesian League. This initial fighting at sea provoked furious debate about what to do next both in Athens and Sparta, as well as frantic negotiations to find exit ramps to avoid escalation. Rather than swerve to exit off the highway of death, Athenian and Spartan leaders chose to accelerate and play the game of chicken. The result was a predictable crash, causing a multi-state wreck to include Athens and Sparta. By substituting Senkaku for Epidamnus, Japan for Corcyra, China for the Peloponnesian League, and an American carrier battle group for the Athenian naval squadron, an all too realistic scenario readily emerges of how a Sino-American shooting match could occur. One of the great strengths of Allison’s book is his useful mapping out of plausible scenarios for how China and the United States might come to blows (pp. 154-184).

The war set off by any of these triggers would entail great powers contesting for the highest stakes and running the gravest risks: nothing less than regime survival, populations held hostage to nuclear attack, and global order would hang in the balance on the course and conduct of the fighting. Nor would this war prove easy to end short of some worst-case nightmare scenarios. The last time the United States fought a war with communist China – the Korean War – the result was a three-year costly stalemate, fraught with the danger of nuclear escalation, ending in a hostile truce that remains liable to explode even after more than sixty years of so-called peace. Would the next war with China, now armed with nuclear weapons, fought out across Asia and the Pacific, remain limited? Enlightened people would not like to find the answer to that question.

To understand what would be at stake in a Sino-American war, Allison usefully turns to the work of the late Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations (pp. 133-153). Huntington also looked to Thucydides for guidance to understand coming international struggles for power. “Within Greek civilization,” Huntington wrote, “the increasing power of Athens, as Thucydides argued, led to the Peloponnesian War. Similarly the history of Western civilization is one of ‘hegemonic wars’ between rising and falling powers.” Huntington contended: “China’s history, traditions, size, economic development, and self-image all impel it to assume a hegemonic position in Asia.” This drive by China to exercise leadership in Asia would present American decision makers with a stark policy and strategy choice. The hardline course of action would be for the United States to follow a cold war strategy to contain Chinese ambitions by increasing its defense efforts, strengthening its security links with coalition partners, attempting to control the global economy in ways that hindered China’s military buildup, and isolating Beijing from allies. An alternative course of action, seeking to accommodate (or appease) China’s rise, would require that Washington “learn to live with that hegemony, and reconcile itself to a marked reduction in its ability to shape events on the far side of the Pacific.” Huntington noted that pursuing either course of action carried major risks and costs. He favored accommodation. He feared: “The greatest danger is that the United States will make no clear choice and stumble into a war with China without considering carefully whether that is in the national interest and without being prepared to wage such a war effectively.”[33] Thucydides might well nod his head in agreement with Huntington’s proposition about the folly of leaders who go to war with unclear purpose, flawed strategies, and inadequate strength. After all, Thucydides’s account of the war’s opening is about just such error in policy and strategy judgment.

Any examination seeking to apply Thucydides to Sino-American relations cannot help but see a clash of ideologies as a driver of conflict. Athens and Sparta were ideological as well as geopolitical foes: they represented opposite poles of the political spectrum in ancient Greece. Today, the political systems of China and the United States exacerbate fears of one for the other.[34] The Beijing regime sees economic development and nationalism as providing legitimacy for the continuation of one-party rule. President Xi is intent on reinforcing that authoritarian rule. China’s communist rulers have studied closely the collapse of Soviet power. While the Chinese leadership has followed a new economic policy since the Deng Xiaoping era to transform the economy and increase their country’s strength, losing control over the reins of power is a nightmare that has no part in their China dream. Deng was no Gorbachev: he was willing to unleash considerable violence to crush the forces of liberalism at work within China. His successors have exhibited a similar resolve to beat back challenges to the regime. Xi pointedly reminds party comrades that Gorbachev’s errors, which paved the way for the collapse of Soviet power, “is a profound lesson for us” (pp. 119-121). Instead of globalization breaking down China’s authoritarian great wall, Chinese leaders have so far harnessed it to maintain the regime’s grip on power.

Since the end of the Cold War, Americans have hoped for a peaceful transformation of China’s domestic political scene and civil society to bring about more transparency, rule of law, respect for human rights, and competitive elections, to give the Chinese people more say over the workings of their government. More than twenty years ago, Henry Rowen captured the conventional wisdom (and optimism) that China was but a “short march” away from reaching democracy. He predicted China would become a democracy around the year 2015.[35] Alas, China has so far missed the deadline. The American dream of regime change – albeit by peaceful political evolution – is very much at odds with the communist party’s continued authoritarian rule and shapes the rivalry between China and the United States. China is becoming rich and better armed before it is becoming liberal and democratic. According to the theory of the democratic peace, a genuine reduction in the likelihood of war in Asia would only come when China joins the ranks of the world’s liberal democracies. Until then, the grim prospect of war remains a reality.

Thucydides understood how fears of political upheaval at home could act to drive a regime’s foreign policy and strategic behavior. The paranoia of Sparta’s rulers – their fear of growing Athenian power – was rooted in an immense internal threat from state-owned serfs known as helots, who were held in abject servitude by their Spartan overlords. Thucydides tells us that Sparta’s institutions, politics, and actions stemmed from the necessity of crushing internal dissent. Internal terror directed against the helots kept the Spartan regime in power. What truly terrified Sparta’s leadership was a helot uprising to overthrow the brutal Spartan repression. This Spartan fear of internal upheaval resulted in one of history’s most highly militarized communities. Sparta’s alliance system, too, enhanced internal security by limiting the exposure of the Spartan homeland to outside attack.[36] Sparta found and defended as allies other states that also feared democracy as a form of government. Sparta’s ruling oligarchy judged that, if they failed to check the power of Athens, their allies in the Peloponnesian League would get picked off one by one, falling prey to Athenian aggression.

Today, as was the case with Sparta’s frightened rulers, China’s leaders intend to make the world safe for authoritarian strongmen, not for democracy. The case of North Korea illustrates the problem posed for the United States and the international community by Beijing’s support for authoritarian regimes. As a way to prevent war, Allison would like to see China and the United States work together to reduce threats posed by common dangers. One of those dangers Allison calls nuclear anarchy (p. 228). A Beijing sincerely interested in peaceful development would do more to prevent North Korea’s dangerous arms buildup. Nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles in the hands of the gangster Kim family do not serve China’s security interests except in the most narrow, blinkered way. Ensuring a peaceful unification of Korea under the Seoul regime, rather than perpetuating a nuclear-armed totalitarian ruler in North Korea, would much better serve China’s long-term interests. There is room for creative diplomacy on the part of Beijing, Seoul, and Washington to reduce the danger posed by North Korea. Instead, China is an enabler of a dangerous regime that threatens to undermine the remarkable economic gains made throughout Asia in lifting people out of poverty. China has consigned the people of North Korea to the dustbin of abject poverty by its actions. Beijing’s proposals to avoid conflict are not solutions at all, but shortsighted attempts to improve North Korea’s strategic position. China will not be able to escape the frightful consequences if ever a nuclear-armed missile from North Korea slams into Tokyo or Seattle, or another full-scale war erupts on the Korean peninsula. North Korea provides a test of whether China’s rulers genuinely want peaceful resolutions to dangerous problems, whether they intend to act as responsible stakeholders in the future development of a more prosperous and secure Asia. So far, Beijing is flunking the test.

Whether China and the United States find themselves at war is certainly not predetermined. While Allison has underscored how shifts in the balance of power can drive the onset of war, Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War also provides a rich narrative of the high politics and strategic calculations in ancient Athens and Sparta. The choices made by Athenian and Spartan leaders mattered in determining whether they avoided the trap of war or fell into it. This narrative includes some of the most famous speeches in Thucydides’s history. In these speeches, Thucydides relates the arguments and counterarguments that went into the decisions for war. The speeches of the Athenian statesman Pericles and of Sparta’s King Archidamus still resonate because of their clarity in explaining what was at stake in the contest between the two countries. In reading these speeches, the drama is intense, and nothing seems preordained. The leaders of Athens and Sparta had before them a range of options, upon which they deliberated, and they could well have averted war by choosing alternative courses of action. Allison is correct to believe: “Different choices would have produced different results” (p. 233).

The historical record examined by Allison, then, is not destiny, despite the book’s title. War is a choice. Donald Kagan, in his outstanding history of the origins and outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, presents a powerful case for the contingent nature of the conflict’s beginnings.[37] Athens might have sent a stronger naval force to support Corcyra and, hence, deterred Corinth and its allies from fighting. In addition, if Athens had dropped economic sanctions against the Peloponnesian League – the so-called Megarian Decree – Sparta might have negotiated in good faith to avoid conflict. Within Sparta, too, the Spartan leadership might have made a different choice than go to war. King Archidamus made a persuasive case on the dangers of rushing into war. He argued that Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian League did not possess the financial resources and naval capabilities to defeat Athens. The risk of Sparta losing the war was much too high if the Spartans began fighting before they possessed a competitive navy to defeat Athens at sea. Archidamus had the good sense to argue that, if permitted a choice, a country should not choose war unless it has the capabilities and a plausible strategy for winning. His fellow countrymen disagreed and went to war before Sparta had the forces at the ready to win. According to Kagan’s retelling of events, there was nothing inevitable in the Peloponnesian War beginning when it did. By examining in detail the war’s beginnings, Kagan amplifies Thucydides’s account, showing that the leaders of Athens and Sparta did not sleepwalk into war:[38] they entered into conflict with their eyes wide open; they had the freedom to choose and the decisions they made brought on a destructive protracted struggle from which neither side ultimately benefited. We would do well to heed these ancient truths from Thucydides and apply them, as Allison has done, to warn about the looming danger of war between China and the United States. But a policy of graceful American decline, with Washington making concessions at the expense of coalition partners in an attempt to purchase good behavior from Beijing, is not the path to preserve the peace.

In writing the future history of the twenty-first century, the United States has a decisive role to play in preventing war from erupting in Asia. The question, however, remains: are the American people and their leaders capable of writing a strategic script and then acting upon it to avoid the trap of war? That script must entail a coherent defense strategy and patient diplomacy to deter conflict, based on a renewal of American power in Asia.

Unfortunately, Allison contends that the notion of strategic thinking gets too little attention among American decision makers. He observes: “In today’s Washington, strategic thinking is marginalized or even mocked.” And, what passes for official statements of American strategy leave something to be desired and are not taken seriously. Allison laments: “Over the past decade, I have yet to meet a senior member of the US national security team who had so much read the official national security strategies” (p. 237). Allison calls for a serious strategic review about how to meet the China challenge, along the lines of NSC-68 and NSDD-75 during the Cold War (p. 215). This recommendation is right on the mark, and the Trump administration should undertake it as a matter of the highest priority.

Whether the American people and their leaders can reach a consensus on a comprehensive strategy to meet the challenge posed by China, however, is seriously open to doubt. The current climate of game show partisan political shouting matches does not inspire confidence in the ability of American democracy to think and act strategically. Well might we feel that “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.”[39] American foreign policy and strategy execution, to be sure, has always evoked partisan and sometimes shrill debate. In a democracy, the diversity of the people’s views will find a way to be heard and represented in the political arena. Still, as Allison rightly contends, the stakes at risk in the relationship between China and the United States demand nothing less than disciplined thought and solid execution in the conduct of American grand strategy. Feckless politics at home is a recipe for the collapse of American power in the international arena.

The tale of a toxic domestic political environment leading to strategic catastrophe is not new. Staring us in the face is Thucydides’s history of Athens’s fate in the Peloponnesian War. Neither Athens’s great wealth nor the remarkable energy and creativity of the Athenian people could compensate for the self-destructive behavior of its governing elites. The relentless political and legal warfare waged by Athens’s power brokers against each other produced strategic incoherence and military failure. Pericles had a premonition of the fate that would befall Athens when he warned his fellow citizens at the war’s beginning: “I am more afraid of our own mistakes than of our enemies’ designs.”[40] Athenian democracy threw up leaders who, by their political infighting, brought ruin to their country, ending a golden age of prosperity. Thucydides’s tragedy of Athens thus provides a parable for twenty-first century America. If a highly charged politicized atmosphere at home wreaks havoc on the prudent conduct of foreign policy and defense strategy, then the American people will indeed find themselves ensnared in a disastrous trap – not one devised by Thucydides – but one of their own making.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.

About the author:
*Professor John H. Maurer is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on National Security, sits on the Board of Editors for FPRI’s journal, Orbis, and serves as the Alfred Thayer Mahan Professor of Grand Strategy in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

This article was published by FPRI.

[1] On Thucydides and his history, see Donald Kagan, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History (New York: Viking, 2009). On the current interest in Thucydides inside the Beltway, see Michael Crowley, “Why the White House Is Reading Greek History,” Politico, June 21, 2017, accessed at

[2] This famous passage can be found at i. 23. 6. in Thucydides’s history. This translation is that of Oxford classicist B. Jowett, Thucydides (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881), vol. 1, p. 16. See, too, the explanation of this passage offered by Simon Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997 paperback edition), pp. 64-66.

[3] See, for example, Mo Shengkai and Chen Yue, “The U.S.-China ‘Thucydides Trap’: A View from Beijing,” National Interest, 10 July 2016, accessed at

[4] Li Zhihui, “Ten Reasons China, U.S. Can Avoid Thucydides Trap,” Xinhua, accessed at 134664509.htm.

[5] Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Power Shifts,” The New York Times, 5 October 2012, accessed at

[6] The quotation is the last sentence of Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin Books, paperback edition, 2012), p. 696. Pinker on violence in the Islamic world, see Better Angels, pp. 362-368. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

[7] N. Ferguson and M. Schularick, “Chimerica and the Global Asset Market Boom,” International Finance, vol. 10, no. 3 (2007), pp. 215-239.

[8] Norman Angell, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to Their Economic and Social Advantage (London: William Heinemann, 1910).

[9] The historical cases selected by Allison and his team of researchers raises questions about methodology. Historians will have a field day questioning the rationale for his case selection. To take one example as an illustration, reducing the Pacific War to a bilateral contest between Japan and the United States understates the importance of China as well as the other great powers (Britain and Soviet Russia) in shaping the history of Asia during the era of the two world wars. The challenge posed by Nationalist China to Japan’s aspirations to be the leading power in Asia was an important driver of conflict and actually provides a close fit for the model proposed by Thucydides. If considered as a separate case study, the “China threat” to Imperial Japan might even have strengthened Allison’s overall argument. The huge war between China and Japan is certainly relevant for today, since the peoples of both countries still live in its bitter memory, which is invoked by Beijing to stir up nationalist passions as well as Japanese fears. Allison’s defense of his methodology in an appendix (pp. 287-288) is too clipped and leaves important questions unanswered.

[10] Teddy Landis, “The Inevitability of a U.S.-China War and How to Avoid It,” Huffington Post, April 17, 2017, accessed at

[11] Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, “China Studies the Rise of Great Powers,” in Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, editors, China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009), pp. 401-425.

[12] On the parallels between the era of the First World War and today, see John H. Maurer, “A Rising Power and the Coming of a Great War,” Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs, vol. 58, no. 4 (Autumn 2014), pp. 500-520.

[13] Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2009), p. 134.

[14] The relationship between economic power and naval strength is well told by Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: Ashfield Press, paperback edition, 1983).

[15] Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing the Statesman Back In,” International Security, vol. 25, no. 4 (Spring 2001), p. 124.

[16] Baroness Hildegard von Spitzemberg Diary, 14 March 1903, in Rudolf Vierhaus, ed., Das Tagebuch der Baronin Spitzemberg (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1960), p. 428.

[17] Thomas A. Kohut, Wilhelm II and the Germans: A Study in Leadership (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 191.

[18] E. L. Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), p. 86.

[19] On Themistocles and Athens’ Long Walls, see Thucydides’ famous account in Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: Free Press, 1996), 1.89-193, pp. 49-51.

[20] “Mr. Lloyd-George at Queen’s Hall,” The Times, July 29, 1908.

[21] Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1914 (London: Butterworth, 1923), p. 41. On Churchill’s views about imperial Germany, see John H. Maurer, “The ‘Ever-Present Danger’: Winston Churchill’s Assessment of the German Naval Challenge before the First World War,” in John H. Maurer, editor, Churchill and Strategic Dilemmas Before the World Wars (New York: Routledge, paperback edition, 2014), pp. 7-50.

[22] On German war planning and strategic options in 1914, see John H. Maurer, The Outbreak of the First World War: Strategic Planning, Crisis Decision Making, and Deterrence Failure (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1995).

[23] John H. Maurer, “Great War at Sea: Remembering the Battle of Jutland,” E-Books, The Philadelphia Papers, May 27, 2016, accessed at,

[24] See, for example, George H. Blakeslee, “The Japanese Monroe Doctrine,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 11, no. 4 (July 1933), pp. 671-681.

[25] Compare, for example, Liu Mingfu, The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era (New York: CN Times Books, 2015), with Tōda Ishimaru,  Japan Must Fight Britain (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1936).

[26] John H. Maurer, “A Rising Naval Challenger in Asia: Lessons from Britain and Japan between the Wars,” Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs , vol. 56, no. 4 (Autumn 2012), pp. 643-661.

[27] Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press edition, 2013); and, Charles Glaser, “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain?” International Security, vol. 39, no. 5 (Spring 2015), pp. 49-90.

[28] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, accessed at

[29] See Howard W. French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power (New York: Knopf, 2017); Michael R. Auslin, The End of the Asian Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017); Derek Scissors, “The Surest Measure of How China’s Economy Is Losing,” November 29, 2016, accessed at; and Dan Blumenthal and Derek M. Scissors, “China’s Great Stagnation,” accessed at

[30] Patrick M. Cronin, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Harry Krejsa, Alex Sullivan, and Rush Doshi, Beyond the San Hai: The Challenge of China’s Blue-Water Navy, CNAS (May 2017), p. 9, accessed at

[31] “China’s Xi Calls for Greater Efforts to Make Navy World Class,” The Asahi Shimbun, May 25, 2017, accessed at

[32] Cronin, Rapp-Hooper, Krejsa, Sullivan, and Doshi, Beyond the San Hai, p. 9.

[33] Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, pp. 209, 229, 232-233.

[34] Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: Norton, 2011), pp. 42-45.

[35] Henry S. Rowen, “The Short March: China’s Road to Democracy: When Will China Become a Democracy? The Answer Is Around the Year 2015.” The National Interest, 45 (Fall 1996), pp. 61-70.

[36] Paul A. Rahe, The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

[37] Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969).

[38] See the bestseller by Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Allen Lane, 2012).

[39] Shakespeare, The Tragedie of King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1, Line 54.

[40] Jowett, Thucydides, vol. 1, p. 144; i, 144.

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