The real Thucydides’ trap

Thucydides was an Athenian General and historian who chronicled the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens that occurred from 431to 404 BC. Thucydides work is a classic book about the perils of hegemonic transition and great powers war. Thucydides explained the start of the Peloponnesian War by writing “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”[1] Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School has popularized the phrase “Thucydides’ trap,” to explain the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a currently dominant one. Allison points out that “In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred.”[2] The Thucydides’ trap formation has come to be shorthand for a systematic view of the likelihood of conflict between China and the United States. This usage has even spread to Chinese President Xi Jinping who said “We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers … Our aim is to foster a new model of major country relations.”[3] However, those like Graham Allison who talk about a Thucydides trap only capture half the meaning of The Peloponnesian War. The true trap is countries going into, and continuing, war clouded by passions like fear, hubris, and notions of honor.

In Thucydides’ history, human emotion made conflict inevitable, and at several points where peace was possible, emotion propelled it forward. In the beginning, there is a set of speeches in Sparta debating the possibility of going to war with Athens. At that time in Sparta, there were Athenian envoys who gave a speech explaining why Athens had built their empire, saying “the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principle motive, through honor and interest afterwards came in.”[4]  After the Athenian’s speech, Archidamus, the Spartan king, and Sthenelaidas, a Spartan ephor, made contrasting cases about going to war with Athens. Archidamus told the Spartan people not to underestimate the power of Athens and the cost of going to war and urged that Sparta “must not be hurried into deciding in a day’s brief space a question which concerns many lives and fortunes and many cities, and in which honor is deeply involved- but we must decide calmly.”[5] However, Sthenelaidas advocated, “Vote, therefore, Spartans, for war, as the honor of Sparta demands.”[6] The Spartans followed Sthenelaidas, which led to a war of honor and fear against the Athenians.

In the seventh year of the Peloponnesian War, in the battle of Pylos, the Athenians won a major victory over Sparta. After the battle, Athenian forces were able to trap a group of Spartan soldiers on an island. Because of their loss, and realizing that it was impossible to rescue the men on the island, Sparta entered into an armistice with Athens, and sent envoys to Athens offer a peace treaty. The Spartan envoys warned Athens that their misfortune at Pylos was not a result of diminished strength, but an error of judgment, and enjoined the Athenians to “treat their gains as precarious,” and advised that “if great enmities are ever to be really settled, we think it will be, not by the system of revenge and military success… but when the more fortunate combatant waives his privileges and, guided by gentler feelings, conquers his rival in generosity and accords peace on more moderate conditions than expected.”[7] However, the Athenians, led by Cleon, who Thucydides described as the most violent man in Athens, decided to ignore the advice of the Spartan envoys.  Furthermore, Cleon accused the Spartans of not having right intentions, and made further demands on Sparta for a return of territories that Athens had previously ceded to Sparta before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, resulting in an end to the armistice and a continuation of the war.[8]

If the United States and China fight a war, it will occur because of the same fear and honor that led the Spartans to start the Peloponnesian War, or the Athenians to continue despite an opportunity for peace. Neither China nor the United States are immune from the self-pride Athens and Sparta displayed. Prominent Chinese scholar Ye Zicheng expressed this sense of nationalism when he wrote, “If China does not become a world power, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be incomplete. Only when it becomes a world power can we say that the total rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has been achieved.”[9] American exceptionalism, the conviction that the United States holds a unique place and role in human history, provides a counterpart to Chinese nationalism, and is widespread enough to be a central plank of the Republican Party’s platform.[10]

This strong belief of a special place in the world can make a country sensitive to insult, intended or otherwise. One important example occurred in 1999 when NATO aircraft bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during Operation Allied Force in Bosnia, killing three Chinese citizens. The United States claimed that the bombing was an accident, but few Chinese accepted this explanation, and in the aftermath, more than 100,000 Chinese protested across the country, including attacking the American embassy and consulates. Contributing to the anti-American outrage was Chinese state media stating the bombing was not an accident.[11] Anti-Chinese sentiment is not as widespread or as vocal in the United States, but it is common for American politicians and pundits to portray the rise of China as a risk to America’s place in the world. For example, anti-Chinese themes have been part of several political campaign advertisements in the United States[12], and it is common for both popular and scholarly writing and commentary to portray China as the most important threat to the United States.[13]

The best advice that Thucydides’ work offers U.S. policy makers is clear, do not let emotions such as hubris, fear, and honor drag you into a hegemonic war with China, and if war does occur, do not let these same emotions cloud your judgment if there is a chance for peace. At the same time, be wary of these emotions in Chinese leadership and the Chinese populace, and do not provoke them unnecessarily. Do not use anti-Chinese rhetoric that can inflame populist anger for domestic political purposes. None of this is to say that American policy makers should appease China to avoid conflict, but that conflict is less likely if both sides remain levelheaded. These same warnings apply to the conduct of the war, rather than acting like Cleon and letting passion dictate the course of the war, prudent American leaders should reflect on the message of the Spartan envoys after the battle Pylos when they argued for an end to the cycle of revenge and an equitable peace.

[1] Graham Allison, “Avoiding Thucydides’s Trap,” Financial Times, August 22, 2012,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark Valencia, “China needs patience to achieve a peaceful rise,” South China Morning Post, February 8, 2014,

[4] Thucydides, 43.

[5] Ibid, 47.

[6] Ibid, 48.

[7] Ibid, 233.

[8] Ibid, 234-235.

[9] Ye Zicheng, Inside China’s Grand Strategy: The Perspective from the People’s Republic (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011), 74.

[10] Republican Platform, American Exceptionalism (accessed April 25, 2015); available from

[11] Rebecca MacKinnon, “China gives green light to embassy protests, but warns against violence,” CNN, May 9, 1999,

[12] Frank Chi, “In campaign ads, China is fair game; Chinese-Americans are not,” Boston Globe, November 8, 2010,

[13] This is a common example of the China as a threat article: James Jay Carafano, “Wake Up, America: China Is a Real Threat,” The National Interest, February 7, 2015,

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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