Greece in the news: The Thucydides ‘trap’?

The Atlantic has a not-quite-fearmongering think piece this month. It’s about war between “a rising and a ruling power”, and its academic authors have dubbed the situation “The Thucydides trap”. The TLDR version of the article is as follows:

According to Thucydides, Athens was becoming very powerful and Sparta was afraid.  So war was inevitable. We looked at 500 years of history and found 16 other cases in which a rising and a ruling power co-existed. In 12 cases they went to war. (There is a table if you’re interested in the specifics.)

Therefore, according to the article, “war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment.”

As a historian, I find this analysis troubling for two reasons. First, the criteria are relatively vague (which I find typical of political science and not necessarily problematic — their scope is different from mine) and almost exclusively confined to Europe (as the authors admit). But because the number is so small, it’s difficult to take the probabilities seriously. Statisticians admit that small sets can’t set trends. 16 total occurrences is an awfully small set.

Because the absolute numbers are small, the details of the cases actually matter. The author acknowledges — and dismisses — all cultural, historical, and other distinctions on the basis of Thucydides. (*) This decision is impressive, not least because Thucydides could never possibly have imagined the complexities of the geopolitics of the modern world.

In fact, the differences between the 16 cases selected seem pretty telling. if you do look at the table, you’ll see that all four of the cases in which there was no conflict occurred in the 20th century. In fact, the majority of the 20th century potential wars ended in no conflict. It’s therefore just as easy to argue the opposite point: we’re getting better at peaceful resolution when major powers lock horns. (**) History is not predicative.

And that’s my second point. This analysis, from a historical perspective, is pretty weak. In fact, Thucydides’ own analysis, as represented by the authors, is pretty weak: it happened this way, so it was fated to happen this way and couldn’t have happened any other way. Thucydides was among the pioneers of history writing in the West, and he’s been unfairly singled out; I’m not trying to criticize him. I do think that 2500 years later we can do better.

The idea that all political strife can be explained by recourse to surface readings of Thucydides is also quite troubling. Thucydides has debates. He has nuance. He’s attuned to his very specific subject, circumstance, and time. Unlike later authors, he doesn’t discuss the succession of empires. His goal (at least in part) is to make his reader uncomfortable about the fact that things turned out the way they did. Athens loses the war; Sparta loses its morals. This article seems to do the opposite by encouraging a population that is largely unconcerned about war to expect it.

And that’s what I find galling. It’s not the political analysis — I’m not a political scientist, and while I disagree about their interpretation, I fully admit that it’s not my field. But if you’re going to name warmongering after an ancient author, don’t pick Thucydides. Pick Caesar.



* “Nonetheless, acknowledging many differences, Thucydides directs us to a powerful commonality.”

** (Without speculating too much in a field not my own, maybe it’s the nuclear threat…?)



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