Last week, according to Bloomberg News, China’s top military leaders were using a North Carolina native’s concept to justify their commitment to increasing China’s military budget.
Bloomberg reported that Xu Qiliang, China’s top military officer, said the country needed to brace for a “Thucydides Trap,” which is an inevitable conflict between a rising power and an established one. China is the rising power and the U.S. is the established one.
Xu explained, “Facing the Thucydides Trap and border disturbances, the military must step up its efforts to improve its capabilities.”
He continued, “The most important thing is internal unity and cohesion and improvement of overall capabilities. If you are strong, you will have long-term stability, as well as invincibility.”
What is the ‘Thucydides Trap’ and what is its connection to North Carolina?
Bloomberg explained, “Thucydides Trap refers to ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ explanation of the Peloponnesian War as an inevitable clash between a rising Athens and the established regional power, Sparta. The term was coined by Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, who argued that China would threaten to displace U.S. influence, possibly resulting in an unhealthy rivalry or armed conflict.”
Allison, the North Carolina connection, grew up in Charlotte, was a star football player at Myers Park High School, and attended Davidson College for two years before transferring to Harvard. Later at Harvard, he became the longtime leader of Harvard’s Kennedy School and more recently has served as director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Allison says his interest in Thucydides was sparked by George Labban, his Greek professor at Davidson. Labban promised his students that if they worked hard on his course, they would be able to read Thucydides in the original Greek. Allison worked hard and read Thucydides’s account of the war, including its origins in the competition between the Athens, the established power, and Sparta, the rising power.
In his 2017 book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?,” Allison argued that the U.S. and China were on a collision course because: (1) China was quickly overtaking us as the world’s dominant economic power, and (2) China’s firm aspirations will put it in direct confrontation with the U.S. Allison pointed out that China expects, over time, to reassert its historic dominance over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and territories claimed by Japan, The Philippines, and other allies to which the U.S. has specific treaty responsibilities for defense.
In his book, Allison carefully explained that war between the U.S. and China was not inevitable. He and his colleagues mapped out 16 other occasions in history when a rising power confronted an established one. In most cases the situation led to war, but in four cases war was averted, including the post-World War II Cold War Soviet challenge to the U.S.
Now that Chinese authorities recognize and cite the Thucydides Trap’s application to the Chinese-U.S. confrontation, does Allison think that war can be avoided?
In a speech last month at Utah Valley University Allison said, “Nature and technology have condemned us to coexist since the only alternative is to co-destruct.”
Allison explained that because the existence of nuclear weapons would bring catastrophic consequences for both countries in the case of war, neither country would logically choose to enter war except in the case of an unintended trigger, or “black swan” event.
Allison also pointed out one compelling reason for the two countries to work together. Both are responsible for significant emission rates of greenhouse gases that could lead to an environment in which neither country could survive. Unless the U.S. and China find ways to work together to constrain emissions, it could be an environmental catastrophe rather than a Thucydides Trap that victimizes them.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” on PBS North Carolina.