Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides trap’

There is one crucial question about Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ model of power transition and the confrontation of rising and ruling powers* that has not yet, so far as I’m aware, been asked: what sort of trap did Thucydides have in mind? Mouse? Elephant? Bear? Rat? Lobster? Honey? Because clearly this must affect how we imagine the process of being captured and the possibility, if any, of escape – and indeed the likelihood of realising that one is in a trap in the first place, before it’s too late. A basic starting assumption for such an analysis is that the idea must be based on ancient Greek hunting technology, and so, in the absence of any comment on the subject from Thucydides himself – we can safely assume his familiarity, as an Athenian aristocrat, with the basic techniques – we turn to a comparable figure in the next generation, Xenophon, and his treatise Cynegeticus, or Hunting with Dogs. (more…)

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Further evidence of the ‘Thucydidean Moment’ of 2017 – and, yes, I’m aware that J.G.A. Pocock’s ‘Machiavellian Moment’ lasted rather longer than a fortnight – comes in this morning’s Financial Times Alphaville blog, with a post from Matthew C. Klein responding to last week’s Politico article and drawing on his own experiences of reading Thucydides in a class led by Donald Kagan. I rather liked this piece, for its cautions against simplistic readings – and not just because it included links to a couple of my recent posts.

However, it does offer as matters of fact a couple of arguable interpretations. (more…)

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When I first began putting together a research project on the modern reception and influence of Thucydides, and writing funding applications, the big ‘hook’ – the thing that was going to persuade reviewers of the contemporary relevance of the theme – was Thucydides’ infiltration of the G.W. Bush White House. Irving Kristol’s claim that he was the favourite author of the Neocons, the relationship between Donald Kagan and the Project for a New American Century, and – from a less bellicose perspective, Colin Powell’s love of the (fake) Thucydides quote about manifestations of power and restraint, were not intended to be the central focus of the project, but they showed the importance of understanding the context of such readings, the traditions of reception and reinterpretation that made powerful people think, or at least claim, that Thucydides speaks to the present.

Here we are again, with a new article on ‘Why everyone in the White House is reading Thucydides’ suggesting the Obama adminstration’s relative restraint in such matters (occasional references from Martin Dempsey when Chair of the Joint Chiefs) was just a blip.* (more…)

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I’ve written on a number of occasions about Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides Trap’ idea and why I disagree with it – indeed, I imagine that this is why the viewing stats for this blog have risen appreciably in recent weeks – but there’s nothing like reading someone else’s critical but largely wrong-headed review to prompt a bit of reflection. Arthur Waldron’s review in the Straits Times (which I first encountered via SupChina – and is that the worst name for a site ever?) has been widely circulated on the Twitter (at any rate by the normal standards of Thucydides-related references) with a measurable atmosphere of glee and Schadenfreude. It seems that a fair number of people want Allison to be not just wrong but catastrophically wrong – Ian Buruma’s New Yorker review is just as critical of Allison but much more measured, and hasn’t been nearly so widely cited as a result – and Waldron gives them what they want.

Waldron’s opening sentences are brutal – and frankly bizarre: (more…)

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Resistance is useless! The zombies are coming! About eighteen months ago, I suggested that the impact of my research into the modern reception of Thucydides might be measured by how far discussions of world affairs in the British media remained uncontaminated by the ‘Thucydides Trap’ meme that crops up whenever someone in the US talks about China. Well, so much for that. Earlier this month, the phrase turned up at the end of a letter in the London Review of Books – without any explanation, suggesting that not only the author but the Letters Editor were treating it as a sufficiently familiar idea not to need any context – and now Gideon Rachman (who really deserves a lot of the blame for publicising the idea on this side of the Atlantic) has opened a review essay in the Financial Times on US-China relations books with Graham Allison’s new book-length version of his theory, prompting the sub-editor to include it in the headline. Rachman raises some questions about Allison’s argument, in particular the familiar issue of whether nuclear weapons have changed the whole dynamic of such (alleged) great power relationships – but he takes Allison’s reading of Thucydides as read. Sigh. (more…)

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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, (more…)

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There is a world in which the following would be a sure-fire hit… A panel of respected and yet suitably media-friendly academics: ancient historian, International Relations theorist, U.S. Naval War College person, Straussian. John Oliver as host controls the ever-spinning Wheel of Bewildering Succession of Events. It stops randomly on a moment – US Election! Brexit! European Economic Meltdown! Labour Party Crisis! Syria! Swift/Hiddleston! – and the panelists take it in turns* to show how a particular passage of Thucydides illuminates the situation. The key point is that each passage can be played only once, so no repetitive invocation of ‘The strong do what they want, the weak suffer what they must” as if the Melian Dialogue is the only thing Thucydides wrote**; you need to make a strategic choice whether to play one of the familiar passages as early as possible for low points, or hang back and risk someone else grabbing it first.

This does need a suitable name… I’m currently inclined to go with the meme and call it The Thucydides Trap – but only if there can be an actual Trap, depositing players in a tank full of mutated sea bass or sending them into exile for ten years for doing something egregious like misattributing quotations, e.g. the ‘Justice will not come to Athens…’ thing, or invading Iraq.

I think this would work. In the meantime, I’m getting ready for a panel discussion on ‘Die Aktualität von Thukydides’ as part of the FU Berlin’s International Week (see https://www.topoi.org/event/35076/), and having now redrafted my notes at least seven times in last two days in the light of changing events, the idea of just being presented with a topic to talk about holds some appeal…

*Quickest to the buzzer would be unfair on the Straussians, most of whom seem to be somewhat elderly.

**For obvious reasons, Realists and Neorealists don’t win this game very often…

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A further thought on the Thucydides Trap idea, that’s just a bit too long to develop properly on Twitter… Insofar as Thucydides actually holds such a conception, it’s firmly rooted in the specific historical situation of the confrontation and competing interests of Athens and Sparta, including the distinctive characters of those two states. That is, it’s the restless, energetic, ambitious nature of the Athenians (as set out by the Corinthians in the debate at Sparta in Book 1) that both explains why they have risen to a position of power and makes the current situation volatile; it’s the slow, cautious, conservative and risk-averse nature of the Spartans that has allowed the Athenian rise. The “truest cause” of the war can’t be reduced to the bare dynamics of the confrontation – established power versus rising power – alone; but of course that’s precisely what the ‘Thucydides Trap’ does, setting up historical analogies and making predictions on the basis solely of abstract structural similarities.

If we bring ‘national character’ back in, as a way of talking about general tendencies in foreign policy and how different states will behave in a given situation – and keeping in mind the Thucydidean point that it’s never absolutely uniform or fixed – then the great potential US-China confrontation looks somewhat different. It’s difficult to imagine a ‘rising power’ that looks less Athenian than China: slow, steady, cautious, risk-averse. Meanwhile, the US certainly has its cautious, risk-averse phases, especially when it comes to dealing with other major powers – but it also has a track record of reckless military aggression that couldn’t be less Spartan. Arguably this makes the situation more volatile, depending on the regime in power, but it certainly directs attention towards the ‘established’ power as the likely source of trouble, whereas a lot of the articles discussing the South China Sea as the crucible of WWIII seem to accept US hegemony as legitimate because already existing, and every Chinese action as gratuitously aggressive because they’re the rising power – they must be the pushy ambitious ones, as they’re playing the Athenians…

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The ‘Thucydides Trap’, having infiltrated both Australasia and China from its incubation in the USA, now appears to have turned up in the UK, with a piece in the Independent (not sure if it’s just on the webpage, or… Actually, is there anything else?) entitled ‘The Next World War Will Be In The South China Sea. Ask Thucydides’. It’s our old friend, Graham Allison’s analysis of the confrontation of the hegemonic power and the rising power, with added apocalyptic noises about the imminence of nuclear war (whereas the role of the nuclear deterrent in reducing the impact of the supposed dynamic of Great Power rivalry is something many critics have put forward as an objection to Allison’s transhistorical claims) and some especially amusing asides. “And as has happened in international summitry since the time of Pericles, sweet talk, fraternal visitations and hearty dinners proceeded in tandem with steely military build-ups  on both sides.” Yes, Thucydides is full of that sort of thing.

I live in hope that someone will ask me, or someone else from the classical side, to write a piece on why this is a dubious reading of Thucydides; I do have a draft that I’ve been meaning to finish at some point… In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to post links to the various things I’ve written on this in the last couple of years, in one easy-to-access post…

The Thucydides Trap (October 2012)

The Tao of Thucydides (April 2014)

The Real Thucydides Trap (May 2014)

Who Laid the Thucydides Trap? (August 2015)

Stuck in the Middle (September 2015)

Absence of Evidence (October 2015)


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Apologies for the lack of posts recently; partly, the usual effects of the beginning of term crossed with a series of cold/flu bugs, and partly because I’ve spent the last week as guest tweeter for the @WeTheHumanities account, attempting to demonstrate the continuing vitality of the humanities. I’m not sure what it may mean that the comments which got the greatest level of response were those focused on artisan foodstuffs, followed by complaints about the difficulty of combining domestic chores and the academic life, while carefully crafted provocations about the possible limitations of the sorts of knowledge our disciplines can produce, compared with the apparently solid and practical findings of the sciences and social sciences, apparently fell on deaf ears – or, people just didn’t want to go there.

Still, I benefitted from thinking through some of these issues, and I’m delighted to announce that I’ve developed a completely new approach to the ‘impact’ of my Thucydides research. This is an area that has often made me feel rather uneasy (more…)

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