Graham Allison: Thucydides's Trap Has Been Sprung in the Pacific





The writer is Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

China’s increasingly aggressive posture towards the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea is less important in itself than as a sign of things to come. For six decades after the second world war, an American "Pax Pacifica" has provided the security and economic framework within which Asian countries have produced the most rapid economic growth in history. However, having emerged as a great power that will overtake the US in the next decade to become the largest economy in the world, it is not surprising that China will demand revisions to the rules established by others.

The defining question about global order in the decades ahead will be: can China and the US escape Thucydides’s trap? The historian’s metaphor reminds us of the dangers two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling power – as Athens did in 5th century BC and Germany did at the end of the 19th century. Most such challenges have ended in war. Peaceful cases required huge adjustments in the attitudes and actions of the governments and the societies of both countries involved.

Classical Athens was the centre of civilisation. Philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy – all beyond anything previously imagined. This dramatic rise shocked Sparta, the established land power on the Peloponnese. Fear compelled its leaders to respond. Threat and counter-threat produced competition, then confrontation and finally conflict. At the end of 30 years of war, both states had been destroyed...



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