The Thucydides Trap…

The “Thucydides trap – the disaster that befell ancient Greece when the incumbent power, Sparta, failed to accommodate the rising one, Athens.” (The Economist, 2017, p.26).

Thucydides (c. 460 BC–400 BC) was a general who was exiled for his failure to defend the Greek city of Amphipolis in Thrace. During his exile, he began compiling histories and accounts of the war from various participants.

In the contemporary world, often associated with China and the US and their ‘inevitable’ future clash (aka war).

Graham Allison (2017) (a US political scientist) informs us that over the past 500 years, such a struggle has occurred between major powers just sixteen times. In twelve cases, it resulted in war. Will China and the US be the seventeenth case, and if so, what will be the outcome?

However, there are those who argue there is no such thing as the Thucydides Trap, one being Arthur Waldron (a notable scholar of Chinese history and military affairs) who makes a compelling case – even if you don’t change your mind.

“Let us start by observing that perhaps the two greatest classicists of the last century, Professor Donald Kagan of Yale and the late Professor Ernst Badian of Harvard, long ago proved that no such thing exists as the “Thucydides Trap,” certainly not in the actual Greek text of the great History of the Peloponnesian War, perhaps the greatest single work of history ever [by Thucydides].” (Waldron, 2017).

Peter Gordon and Juan Morales (2017a) further (and also compelling) argue that:

“Allison’s list of 16 case studies contains only two that involve Asia and omits the one that is arguably the most significant and directly relevant to today’s situation: that of Spain and China in the 16th and 17th centuries. China here was the ruling power and Spain the rising one, both in general and in Asia in particular.”

Their argument is expanded in their new book (Gordon & Morales, 2017b).

Of course, war did eventually occur between the Western powers and China (Columbia University, 2009). Western nations were experiencing an outflow of silver bullion to China as a result of the imbalance of trade in China’s favour, and they brought opium into China as a commodity to trade to reverse the flow of silver. China’s attempt to ban the sale of opium in the port city of Canton led to the Opium War of 1839 in which the Chinese were defeated by superior British arms and resulted in the imposition of the first of many “Unequal Treaties.” These treaties open other cities, “Treaty Ports” — first along the coast and then throughout China — to trade, foreign legal jurisdiction on Chinese territory in these ports, foreign control of tariffs, and Christian missionary presence. By the late 1800s, China is said to be “carved up like a melon” by foreign powers competing for “spheres of influence” on Chinese soil. Among others, the French, Germans, British, Japanese and the US were involved.

If you read the history surrounding China during the 1800s and the current scenario, although there are a number of differences, there are also a significant number of parallels. Gordon and Morales (2017a) argue that the death of Pericles was instrumental in the road to war for the Greek states and, if translated directly to the modern scenario – who is/or will be the modern Pericles?


Allison, G.T. (2017) Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? London: Scribe UK.

Columbia University (2009) China and the West: Imperialism, Opium, and Self-Strengthening (1800-1921). Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 02 July, 2017].

Gordon, P. & Morales, J.J. (2017a) The ‘Silver Way’: An Alternative to ‘Thucydides Trap’. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 02 July, 2017].

Gordon, P. & Morales, J.J. (2017b) The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalization, 1565–1815. Beijing: Penguin.

The Economist. (2017) China and America: Tortoise v Hare. The Economist. 1st April 2017.

Thucydides (Author)., Finley, M.I. (Ed) & Warner, R. (Trans) (1954) History of the Peloponnesian War. Revised Edition. London: Penguin Classics.

Waldron, A. (2017) There is no Thucydides Trap. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 02 July, 2017].

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