The Thucydides Trap and the importance of context

At this highly unpredictable time in world politics, commentators are increasingly turning to the past to make sense of the present (I’m just as guilty as many far more eminent figures). As part of this trend the so-called ‘Thucydides trap’ has recently come to prominence, thanks to a project run by Harvard University’s Belfer Center and a forthcoming book by its director, Graham Allison. Allison is interested in the Greek historian Thucydides’ statement (at 1.23.6 of the History of the Peloponnesian War) that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BC) was inevitable, because of the fear felt by the Spartans, an established power, of the rising Athenians. For him, this handful of words is a key to more recent historical confrontations, and the project website contains brief analyses of 16 other rivalries between ruling and rising powers between 1500 and today, making the point that 12 of these ended in war; readers can suggest other examples to be considered as part of the second phase of the project. Allison’s main thesis is that what happened with Sparta and Athens is a cautionary tale for today’s US and the threat allegedly posed to it by an ascendant China: it is in fact ‘the best lens for understanding the most critical foreign policy issue of our time’.


Allison’s book will be published only on May 30, although its main ideas were previewed in an article in 2015.  For a leading expert in international relations to engage so directly with the work of an ancient historian is of course welcome, the project’s openness to further suggestions from the public is laudable, and the website’s Methodology page duly acknowledges the difficulties of measuring ‘power’ and perceptions of it. But some writers have already raised questions about the comparison itself and its applicability to some of the examples cited, including the central US/China one. The Seven Straw Men part of the site counters several possible objections – not always in the most courteous of language, even though it admits in passing that Thucydides’ words are more complicated than first apparent (‘even in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides’s use of the word “inevitable” is clearly meant as hyperbole’).

There are, however, further reasons to be uneasy about using one sentence in an ancient Greek text to construct a far-reaching theory of modern history. First of all, as the Washington Post article already cited makes clear, today’s world is very different from Greece in the fifth century BC, with (for example) more regional powers, overlapping alliances and non-state actors in the picture. China and the US do not have a shared history of resisting an external threat, unlike Athens and Sparta, who had fought on the same side in the Persian Wars several decades before their confrontation in 431. As for internal politics, it makes much more sense to pair the US and Athens as democracies and China and Sparta as oligarchies. Athens and the US are both also known for their naval strength (although that is clearly a simplification, and China’s recent activities in the South China Sea perhaps recall Athens’ assertions of hegemony over the smaller island states that initially formed the Delian League against Persia and over the course of the fifth century became the Athenian ’empire’).


However much we want to see the ancient world as mirroring our own, the differences are, as ever, just as telling as the similarities. I am sure that in his book Allison will fully explore the nuances of this – but I hope he will also acknowledge that Thucydides’ text is less a repository of eternal truths and more a complicated narrative by someone immersed in a very specific historical situation. It is true that in the chapter before his discussion of the causes of the Peloponnesian War he asserts that his work is to be a ‘possession for all time’ rather than merely something to impress contemporary audiences, but this is an authorial aspiration rather than a guarantee. When he feels that a particular occurrence has more universal relevance, he is capable of saying so outright – most famously, in his account of the internal strife on the island of Corcyra (Corfu). He includes this description of friends turning on each other, moderate solutions being scorned, and the very meanings of words and values being distorted to show that this was a pattern that recurred – and it not only influenced many other ancient authors but has been echoed in descriptions of civil war to this day.

Conversely, when Thucydides raises the question of Spartan fear triggering the Peloponnesian War, he does not baldly present this as the only way of understanding the conflict. He does present it as the ‘truest reason, least talked about in words’ for the war – and for a historian who is close to obsessed with the distinction between what people say and what they do, this is a loaded phrase. But he gives it as part of an indirect statement (‘I believe that…’) – and in both ancient and modern discourse to say that you believe a fact, rather than simply repeating that fact, can be seen as tacitly admitting that alternative views exist. More concretely, he acknowledges that in 431 many other factors were also in play, and he goes on to give an account of the proximate causes (1.24-88), which mainly concerned Athens’ and Sparta’s allies rather than the two states directly, followed by a summary (1.89-117) of the so-called Pentecontaetia, the (almost) fifty-year period between the retreat of the Persians from Greece in 479 down to 431. Further information about events in 431 follows. Thucydides states he has included an account of the Pentecontaetia in order to explain why the Spartans were afraid of the Athenians, but it makes clear that the relationship between the two sides in this period was complex, to say nothing of sporadically hostile (they fought what is known as the First Peloponnesian War between c. 460 and 445). To imply that Sparta’s fear of Athens was the sudden awareness of a newly ascendant threat would be an over-simplification.



Allison’s book may, of course, take all this into account and I look forward to reading it. But what I have seen so far of the Thucydides Trap project makes me fear that it will spend much more time focusing on the applicability of the fear paradigm to other scenarios than on its narrative context and the ways in which Thucydides complicates and even undermines it (as I mentioned, a central concern in his work is the dichotomy between appearance and reality, and it cannot be excluded that he is at times applying this to his own words).

That is fine, up to a point – it may well be useful to look at contemporary US-China relations from the perspective of fear, within a broader tradition in American political science and military studies of finding direct relevance in Thucydides’ work. As I have tried to show, however, the Thucydides Trap should not be seen as a neat lesson that can be used to interpret other scenarios: not to read it in context, with a knowledge of the historian’s wider preoccupations and the period he was describing, is to risk missing the point. This can, incidentally, be done perfectly well in translation: I don’t want to suggest that only Classicists who know ancient Greek are qualified to understand this text. But at a time when trust in facts – or ‘facts’ – is called into question every day, and purveyors of news and analysis are under scrutiny like never before, it seems close to irresponsible to present one comment about a specific ancient scenario as the source of ‘one of history’s deadliest patterns’, with very immediate implications for the modern world.



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