Author: Prawin Subash K

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History is Philosophy Teaching with Examples -Thucydides

Thucydides Trap

Political science pupils and people who relish international politics may be familiar with the name Thucydides, one of the founding fathers of Realism, and belongs to the classical realist tradition of International Politics. Thucydides is a military general and a historian who breathed in the 5th century BC in Athens[1].No accurate data about his early days are available, but the largest of the knowledge about him is from his work, The History of the Peloponnesian war[2]. The foremost distinction between other historians like Herodotus and others is, Thucydides did not merely write the past but attempts to describe the basics of history and politics while aspiring to understand war.

The Peloponnesian wars happened between Athens and Spartans in Ancient Greece. Athens commanded the Delian League, and Sparta led the Peloponnesian League. Thucydides records the battle in his work, and he states the growth of the power of Athens in Greece terrified Sparta interrupted the balance of power, and drove to war. Sparta led Peloponnesian League, tasted triumph, which headed to the downfall of the mighty Athens.

In the end, Athens lost its influence and power, and Sparta dominated. Thus, the bipolar system got converted into a unipolar. But the original conclusion is both nations got weak, and a third-party Macedonian invader from the north took over.

Graham Allison[3], an American political scientist in 2012, neologized the word Thucydides trap for an article to Financial Times[4]. He used this title to describe what Thucydides has stated in his The History of Peloponnesian War. When a power arises(Athens), it challenges the balance of power and the rank of the dominant power(Sparta), which makes war imminent.

Graham Allison defines the Thucydides Trap “as the natural, inevitable discombobulating that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power [and] when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception.”[5]

If a country is building its power, the other dominant nation reacts to the alteration in the balance of power by enhancing its strength. But when they do, it is deemed aggressive, and they too increase their strength, which may end in war. This fear causes nations to presume the intentions of others and suspect deception, and ultimately, they increase their power for self-defense. This fear is known to be a trap to start a war, and being called the Thucydides Trap, as he wrote the first trap induced by the balance of power. Thucydides Trap is being used to foretell wars and fights, and at the same time, it gives alternative resolutions to prevent war.

Examples of Thucydides traps

An insight through the case studies[6]

UK and France: This conflict arose in the early 19th century, where the predominant power was Britain, and the growing power was France. The expansion of military strength by France developed trouble for the Balance of power in Europe.[7] It touched its peak when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power.[8] The consequences of the trap are the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815)

UK, France, and Russia: In the 19th century, the swift growth of Russia added fear in Europe, particularly France and the United Kingdom, and drove to Crimean War (1853-56).[9] Here the principal powers were the United Kingdom and France, and the growing power was Russia.

Russia, China, and Japan: In the 20th century, China and Russia dominated the Asian continent, but the growth of Japan shook both the two dominant powers. Japan was advancing witnessing a drastic improvement in economy and military capabilities.[10] It terrified the dominant Asian countries, and the results were First Sino- Japanese war and the Russo- Japanese war.

World war I, UK, France Russia, and Germany: In the early 20th century, Germany rose as an economic power[11], colonial power, and military power in Europe, which threatened the domination of British and France and Russia through the Balkan conflict[12]. Germany moved the balance of power in the European continent, and it emerged as the First World War (1914-1919)

World War II, the UK, France, the Soviet Union, and Germany: Germany got defeated in the First World War, and the Treaty of Versailles seriously affected Germany. But the United Kingdom and France were improving both economically and militarily. Under the authority of Adolf Hitler wanted to buildGermany’s economic dominance and military abilities[13] once again.[14] He succeeded and it pointed to a shift in the balance of power. It brought all the allies once again into play ending in World War II.

Global power, US, and the Soviet Union: After the end of World wars, the United States evolved as a global power dominating the world economy and had a heightened military system, the Atom Bomb. But this was stimulated by the Soviet Union, which grew economically active[15] and built their atom bomb in 1949. The Soviet industries expanded very fast, and Sputnik shattered the dominance of the US in science and technology. But the Cold war survived the Thucydides trap without a War.

The US-China Tensions: In the late 20th and 21st centuries, China had advanced economically and had been strengthening its military capability. Some say China is a growing power and possesses some expansionist intentions.

Graham Allison wrote a book, Destined for War: Can America and China Avoid Thucydides Trap?[16]

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He states the conflict between America and China will mark today's international politics and relations. Some political scientists and international relations specialists debate about the prospect of a US-China cold war. But the conflict amid them is real, both economically and politically, and it is viewed as a Thucydides Trap by Graham Allison.

We could foretell the probabilities of a conflict or war based on the patterns of the past but not conclude anything because, in the end, diplomacy decides international relations and politics.


[1]History.com Editors, Thucydides, (Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM), https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/thucydides [2]William Smith, Translation of History of Peloponnesian War, (Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 PM) https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/History_of_the_Peloponnesian_War/cfALAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=history+of+peloponnesian+war&printsec=frontcover [3]Graham Allison, Profile, (Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM), https://www.hks.harvard.edu/faculty/graham-allison Graham Allison [4]Rachman, Gideon, Year in a word- Thucydides Trap, Financial Times,Nov. 19,2020,10:00 AM), https://www.ft.com/content/0e4ddcf4-fc78-11e8-aebf-99e208d3e521 [5]Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? United Kingdom: Scribe Publications Pty Limited, 2017,(Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM), https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/Destined_for_War/AfYnDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1 [6] Thucydides Trap, BelferCentre,HARVARD Kennedy School, (Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM) https://www.belfercenter.org/thucydides-trap/case-file [7]William Doyle, the Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 197, (Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM),https://books.google.co.in/books?id=2DerOCz4HRIC&lpg=PP1&pg=PT2#v=onepage&q&f=false [8]Napoleon enlarged the French army to more than triple its 1789 levels by 1815. Kennedy, the Rise and fall of the Great Powers, 99., (Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM),https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_the_Great_Powers/DcEuDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Kennedy,+the+Rise+and+fall+of+the+Great+Powers&printsec=frontcover [9]Orlando Figes, the Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 40. [10]Mitchell, International Historical Statistics, 1025. [11]Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 202. [12]MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace, 523,, (Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM), https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/The_War_that_Ended_Peace/Sc_iAAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover [13]Zara Steiner, The Triumph of the Dark: European International History, 1933– 1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 83,(Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM),https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/The_Triumph_of_the_Dark/nKOhFJFPI54C?hl=en&gbpv=0 [14]Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 70, (Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM),https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/The_Third_Reich_in_Power_1933_1939/EBD6KEMrY5sC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Evans,+The+Third+Reich+in+Power&printsec=frontcover [15]Wilfried Loth, “The Cold War and the Social and Economic History of the Twentieth Century,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, vol. 2 [16]Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? United Kingdom: Scribe Publications Pty Limited, 2017,(Nov. 19,2020, 10:00 AM), https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/Destined_for_War/AfYnDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

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