Greek history and Thucydides’s Peloponnesian Wars in the 4th century BCE still have relevance in the 21st century. Graham Allison, Harvard political scientist and professor, coined the term The Thucydides Trap, to the Thucydides metaphor: It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.
He contends that in the last 500 years in 12 of 16 cases when a rising power rivalled a ruling power such clashes have ended in a war and badly for both parties. Thus he lays the groundwork for his thesis that the US, the ruling power, and China, the rival, could be headed for war. He goes on to say that the dominant power has always taken the initiative with a pre-emptive attack on the challenger.
However, when one looks at his chart showing the 16 cases, the last three, and most recent of them, have not resulted in a war having been settled by diplomacy.
This is not to say his argument in the present conflict between China and the US is not is not valid but Graham focuses on single Rising Powers, and it would seem that it is not so much a case of a single rising power but rather any power that has the potential to challenge the ruling power. And presently that could include a significant power such as Russia. The US would then, theoretically, be faced with the necessity of dealing with multiple threats, and that has happened in the 19th and 20th centuries. Those wars, however, did not involve nuclear-armed foes and pre-emptive nuclear strikes would not preclude retaliation. Historically, as one can see on the chart, preemptive attacks have worked sometimes but not in all cases. Disturbing is the war-like rhetoric emanating from the ruling power, the United States, its neo conservative lobby and the Pentagon.
Let us hope the present conflict can be another of the exceptions and be resolved without a catastrophic war.
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