What more is there to say about the Thucydides Trap? The issues with this as a reading of Thucydides and as a model for current US-China relations have been quite extensively discussed (see e.g. T. Greer’s excellent contribution to the current zenpundit.com Thucydides roundtable, or Seth Jaffe’s National Interest piece last year, if you’re sick of my frequent comments on this issue). And yet it keeps coming; as I’ve remarked before, any mention of tensions in the South China Seas prompts a flurry of re-tweeting of Graham Allison’s original article in The Atlantic, while this week the concept has been given a big push in another Atlantic article, this time by James Fallows on China’s ‘great leap backwards’ and the threat this poses to the USA, followed up by a blog post by Fallows in response to Trump’s cack-handed and provocative tweeting about the situation: “But if historians and citizens look back on our era as the transition point, at which 40 years of relatively successful management of U.S.-China relations gave way to a reckless focus on grievances and differences,tweets like the one today will be part of their sad record.”
What’s most striking about this latest intervention, which has been enthusiastically retweeted (with or without additional commentary like “Coming US-China war?” or “USA-CHINA – THEY CALL IT Thucydides trap – and the world must dance to the chinese drum with a gun against their heads – manipulation”) is the title: Remember the ‘Thucydides Trap’? The Chinese Do; Trump Clearly Does Not. To be fair to Fallows, this may be nothing at all to do with him, but it is the point that, to judge from the Twitter, many readers have latched onto, with calls for PEOTUS to be forcibly educated in Thucydides (or at least in the Trap) without a moment’s hesitation in order to avert WWIII.
I’m struck by the number of assumptions embedded in that headline, and in most of the subsequent discussion. Firstly, that the ‘Thucydides Trap’ is a real thing, an objective quality of the way the world works, rather than an IR theory (whether offered by Thucydides or Allison). Secondly, that it is a real thing in the present, specifically in relation to US-China relations. Thirdly, that the Chinese understand this (and even, by implication, that this knowledge is shaping their own policy) whereas the US is in danger of forgetting.
Well, the Chinese know about the Thucydides Trap BECAUSE U.S. POLITICIANS AND JOURNALISTS KEEP GOING ON ABOUT IT AND ASKING THEM TO COMMENT; insofar as it plays any part in their strategic thinking, I imagine, it’s on the basis that it’s a core element of American thinking so they’d better take account of it. The focus of their public pronouncements is on insisting that there is nothing inevitable in this situation, whereas the clear risk of the US adopting the model is that it may lead not to an exaggerated concern to reduce the risks of escalating conflict, as intended, but to acceptance that war is inevitable so better prepare for it. Yes, this could all be a Machiavellian deception, and they’re secretly ramping up to war readiness ‘cos Thucydides told them to while doing the Mars Attacks “we come in peace” thing – they’re using our own poorly-analysed classical reception against us! – but I find it hard to believe that this is really based on Thucydides.
It does seem increasingly clear that it would be rational to assume an unhealthy attachment to Thucydides on the part of at least some American commentators. Okay, as Greer remarked to me on the Twitter, with regard to my post about the increasing number of current and former military personnel looking back to antiquity, newspaper and magazine articles do this sort of casual reference to a current soc sci theory as a starting point for their argument all the time; this is just evidence for Allison’s success in turning his theory into a social media meme (which is interesting in itself, and at some point I do need to study its spread in more detail and correlate this with my ‘Thucydides is a virus turning people into zombies’ theory; presumably one can chart infection vectors on social media?).
What strikes me, compared with similar break-out theories – I immediately think of Fukuyama’s End of History or Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations – is the lack of push-back, at least so far. Both those essays were highly influential, but also immediately criticised – you couldn’t escape the fact that these provoked debate, that for every commentator claiming that one or other of them had Explained the Current State of the World there was another roundly denouncing the whole enterprise – whereas debate around the ‘Thucydides Trap’, leaving aside my lonely plodding academic pedantry, seems to focus almost entirely on whether it’s unavoidable or not. As I said above, the existence of the Trap is taken for granted; it’s just a question of the details of its mechanism.
My starting assumption is that this is largely a function of Allison attributing his theory to Thucydides, at the cost of a certain amount of his own glory: the ‘Thucydides Trap’ thus becomes something that has always been true, and has been known for two and a half thousand years, so there’s not much point in arguing about the basic outline, as opposed to a time-bound theory developed to interpret the specific situation of the present which is therefore open to extensive debate (this might indeed be a basis for an interesting comparison of the reception of Fukuyama’s essay, in brief ‘this is where we are now’, and Huntington’s ‘we are where we have always been even if not previously recognised’). Belief in Thucydides as ultimate authority figure? Willingness to give credit for timeless insights to an ancient Greek but not to a living academic?