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The Thucydides Trap: Five Lessons Should Washington Learn From The Cold War To Deal With China’s Rise

Author: Graham Allison

Affiliation: Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: June 9, 2017, U.S.

Type of literature: Article

Word Count: 1004


Keywords: Thucydides Trap, US Hegemony, China’s Rise, War, Misperception Dilemma



The author attempts to have the United States avoid mistakes committed by dominant powers in history, which caused bloody wars that brought them to collapse. The misperception occurs when a rising power instills fear in a dominant one. Such situation is the most prominent mistake. It usually occurs because of miscalculation of one power towards the other’s actions and intentions. History has frequently shown that a rising power usually brings concerns and fear to the dominant power because of its threatening nature, which might inevitably lead to war. This is what the author called “The Thucydides Trap”, according to Greek historian Thucydides, who described such a case in his book “Peloponhas Wars” (5th century BC). Thucydides wrote about the fear that rising Athens had instilled in dominant Sparta in ancient Greece, causing the famous Peloponnesian wars. He argued that the past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these cases ended in war. However, the author argues that there is a useful lesson in the way both Washington and Moscow managed the Cold War, which spared both countries disastrous catastrophes. Washington could then benefit from the lessons of that period in its increasing rivalry with China. This would enable it to escape the Thucydides’ trap and subsequently potential conflicts or even a war. The prominent lessons are that a nuclear war has proven impossible due to the ability of both sides to wage second strikes. So it is an irrational and a destructive option for everyone. But, the United States must show its willingness to wage a major war (even without the possibility of winning) at any time, to keep its credibility whenever it wants to push China to cave in or yield on vital issues. Allison also calls on Washington to build bridges of communication with Beijing and search for common grounds in order to weave bilateral agreements on their common global interests and challenges. These bridges would keep them away for the misperception dilemma, escalation, and even war. 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate




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