What would Thucydides make of the tensions between the US and China today? It is more than an academic question. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian general and historian wrote that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”. As the American political scientist Graham Allison first noted in 2012, throughout history when an emerging power has threatened to displace an existing great power this has more often than not led to war, even when neither side sought it. Allison led a research project into “Thucydides’s Trap” at Harvard University that investigated 16 such cases over the previous five centuries, starting with the rise of Spain challenging Portugal in the late-15th century Atlantic. Twelve of these cases led to war.
Speaking to me from Boston over video link, Harvard’s Douglas Dillon Professor of Government gives an ominous answer to the question of current tensions. He says that Thucydides “would not be surprised by any of the behaviours” involved in the US-China relationship today. “Both parties are right on script, almost as if they were competing to show which could better exemplify that classic role of the ruling power and the rising power, and they are accelerating towards what would be the greatest collision of all times. And if you remember in my book, I forecast ‘expect things to get worse, before they get worse’.” The book in question is Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (2017), which grew out of the Harvard project.