March 23, 2023

China, the US and the Thucydides Trap

"A war doesn't fall out of the clear sky. Like every other human undertaking, it requires preparation; to make it a possibility and then a reality, the care and cooperation of many are needed. It is desired, prepared for, and proposed by those men and powers who stand to gain by it. Either it brings them direct cash profit, as in the case of the armaments industry (and as soon as war breaks out, how many previously harmless industries become war industries, and how automatically money flows their way!), or it brings them advantage in the form of prestige, respect, and power, as in the case of unemployed generals and colonels." - Hermann Hesse. (Source: Hesse, Hermann. Reflections. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. Print. Pg. 3-4.)



Graham Tillett Allison Jr. (born March 23, 1940) is an American political scientist and the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is renowned for his contribution in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the bureaucratic analysis of decision making, especially during times of crisis. His book Remaking Foreign Policy: The Organizational Connection, co-written with Peter Szanton, was published in 1976 and had some influence on the foreign policy of the administration of President Jimmy Carter who took office in early 1977. Since the 1970s, Allison has also been a leading analyst of U.S. national security and defense policy, with a special interest in nuclear weapons and terrorism.

In the 2017 book Destined for War, Allison coined the phrase the Thucydides Trap which, according to him, refers to the theory that "when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result". Allison's term follows the ancient text History of the Peloponnesian War, in which Thucydides wrote, "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta." The term appeared in a paid opinion advertisement in The New York Times on April 6, 2017, on the occasion of U.S. President Donald Trump's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which stated, "Both major players in the region share a moral obligation to steer away from Thucydides's Trap." Allison asserts that circumstances at the start of World War I (involving British fears about Germany), the War of the Spanish Succession, and the Thirty Years' War (involving French insecurity about the Habsburg empires of Spain and Austria) exhibit the trap. Both Allison's conception of the Thucydides Trap and its applicability to U.S.-Chinese relations have encountered heavy scholarly criticism. In March 2019, the Journal of Chinese Political Science dedicated a special issue to the topic, suggesting power transition narratives do appear to matter with regard to domestic perception.


Thucydides Trap, or Thucydides' Trap, is a term popularized by American political scientist Graham T. Allison to describe an apparent tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as a regional or international hegemon. It was coined and is primarily used to describe a potential conflict between the United States and the People's Republic of China.

The term is based on a quotation of ancient Athenian historian and military general Thucydides, in which he posited that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta had been inevitable because of Spartan fears of the growth of Athenian power.

Supporting the thesis, Graham Allison led a study at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs which found that among 16 historical instances of an emerging power rivaling a ruling power, 12 ended in war. That study, however, has come under considerable criticism, and scholarly opinion on the veracity of the Thucydides Trap—particularly as it relates to a potential U.S.–China military conflict—is divided.

An excerpt from, "What Thucydides's Trap Gets Wrong about the United States and China" By Albert Wolf, Modern War Institute, July 25, 2017:

In his recent tome, Graham Allison warns that the United States and China are trapped in what he terms “Thucydides’s Trap,” otherwise known as the security dilemma. Reviewing cases from the Peloponnesian War to the Anglo-German rivalry, Allison mines history for lessons on managing great power rivalry and preventing the outbreak of conflict. The end product is a book rich in scope and even magisterial in its execution. Unfortunately, Allison’s fundamental argument is also problematic: in its total emphasis on the security dilemma, it fails to recognize the important role status is playing in shaping Sino-American relations that Allison understates.

An excerpt from, "The Problem with the Thucydides Trap" By Alek Chance, The Institute For China-America Studies, May 19, 2015:

Since Graham Allison coined the phrase a few years ago, few American discussions of the US-China relationship go by without somebody bringing up the idea of the “Thucydides Trap.”  Even President Xi has adopted the phrase, urging the US and China to work together in avoiding it. What is suggested by this “trap” is the notion that conflict is exceedingly likely when a rising power approaches parity with an established power.  In other words, the trap is shorthand for what Western political scientists call power transition theory. Modern expressions of this theory are found most notably in the work of A.F.K. Organski and Jacek Kugler and, separately, Robert Gilpin, who based his argument on a study of Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war.  That this notion is so often used to frame US-China relations raises concerns not only about how we derive and apply lessons from history, but also about the manner in which political science concepts are employed by analysts, commentators, and policymakers.

In testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Allison reported that according to his findings, “In 12 of 16 cases in the past 500 years when a rising power challenged a ruling power, the outcome was war.”  He then goes on to cite Thucydides’ assessment that the rise of Athens instilled fear in the dominant Spartans, which pushed them to war.  But this account is in fact one of two distinct (though not mutually exclusive) explanations for why power transitions result in conflict.  The other, promoted by Organski and Kugler, is more oriented around the rising power’s dissatisfaction with the status-quo and its inability to enjoy the fruits of a system built around the established power.  The fact that both of these patterns might be suggested by the Thucydides trap idea gives cause for both the rising power and the established power to fear the other.  As Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment recently said, “bad historical analogies” and “faulty theories” on this front have led some parties in both China and the US to promote more aggressive stances towards the other.

Video Title: China, the US and the Thucydides Trap. Source: CGTN. Date Published: July 7, 2017. Description:

As the G20 summit approaches, the dynamics of the relations between China and the US has once again dominated news headlines. The latest debate is whether the two sides are going to fall into the "Thucydides Trap", which takes its name from the war between Sparta and Athens during the rise of the Athenian power. It refers to an emerging power stoking fear in an established power that could eventually escalate to war between the two. This is certainly not what China wants to see for its future with the US. But what about the other side? Can we learn from history? With a popular New York Times commentary and a new book "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's trap?", Graham Allison has caught the world's attention as a great reference on it. CGTN’s Tian Wei had a riveting discussion with him during the Davos Economic Forum.