The Thucydides Trap: Is China – US Military Escalation Inevitable?


An exclusively history-oriented analytical framework with respect to Sino-American tensions yields “predictions” that seem downright worrisome, for example implications of the “Thucydides Trap” paradigm, a term coined by Graham Allison (Harvard professor/historian) and which refers to the idea that when rivalry between an emerging power (in our case China) and the status quo dominant power (in our case the United States) manifest itself, the most probable outcome is war.

Or, to be more precise, up until this point at least, such situations have resulted in military escalation more often than not… but not always, and therein lies the nuance we are trying to address. Graham Allison started with the Peloponnesian war which took place between 431 and 404 BC and revolved around the rising Athenians on the one hand and the Spartans who were worried about the ascension in question on the other. Needless to say, the end result was anything but peaceful.

Time and time again throughout history, such scenarios manifested themselves and as explained in Graham Allison’s “Destined for War” book, war was the ultimate outcome in 12 of 16 conflicts that have been identified and studied. As such, if we are to adopt a tunnel view approach and see things thoroughly through the lens of historical precedents, we would have no choice but to acknowledge that war represents the most probable outcome, with the situation developing that way in 75% of the previously mentioned conflicts.

That perspective is, however, quite a bit shortsighted in our view.


Simply because aside from knowing what happened with the past and having a firm grasp on historical arguments, it is at least equally important to… well, think critically.

This critical thinking correlated with a meaningful understanding of current events will reveal that the closer to the present we venture, the more war-averse society has become. As such, the ascension of the USSR led to the Cold War rather than a hot conflict, with the end result being represented by the implosion of the USSR… economics rather than missiles, in other word. The same way, we have the strong ascension of Germany as a case study and, of course… drum roll, please, that of China.

Why is society less war-tolerant at this point in time?

For a wide range of reasons, for example:

  1. The fact that as fields such as reporting or photography advanced and the average person was on the receiving end of war-related images which were anything but glorious and triumphalist (on the contrary, they made it clear that the “truth” of war is closer to dying of diarrhea than covered in glory), the idea of going to war as a propaganda tool lost its luster quite a bit
  2. The fact that the means have changed dramatically in our nuclear age and as such, a potential nuclear World War III could literally end in minutes… for all parties involved. To put it differently, we are in a Mutually Assured Destruction framework as of the Cold War, with nuclear powers understanding all to well that one cannot exactly “win” a nuclear war, unless we attribute a remarkably cynical connotation to the term “winning”
  3. The fact that never before in human history has the worldwide economy been so interconnected. Therefore, a more than valid case could be made that while nuclear wars would be clearly be in Mutually Assured Destruction territory, wars in general would be in the realm of let us call it Mutually Assured Economic Destruction territory. To put it differently, there would be so much to lose on the economic front, leaving all other dimensions aside, that going to war makes considerably less sense in 2020 and beyond than in the past

As can be seen, these are just three examples of more than pragmatic reasons, with us not even appealing to humanity or using words such as “kindness” or variation thereof. Simply put, there are so many disincentives associated with hot conflicts at this point in time that the equation is anything but appealing from a strategic rather than humanitarian perspective. Add the latter dimension to the mix and even more so… it just doesn’t make sense.

However, we do need to understand that nothing is set in stone and peace should not be taken for granted. For example, reason #3 revolves around globalization and as the post-pandemic situation makes clear, quite a few actors are let’s just say strongly re-considering globalization and instead, are opting for more or less isolationist approaches under the guise of addressing the issue that supply chains are overly complex and that when situations such as medical equipment shortages emerge (as was the case this year), countries that are over-reliant on China and other exporting nations stand to lose.

The same way, if there is anything history has taught us, it’s that the proverbial masses aren’t exactly always textbook examples of level-headed thinking. As such, if confronted with perhaps an economic crisis that is devastating enough, the status quo could conceivably be altered to such a degree that the idea of rallying against a common enemy becomes appealing, whether or not the arguments in question are logically or factually coherent.

Our conclusion is therefore straightforward: in 2020 and beyond, arguments which revolve around the Thucydides Trap and various alternatives make considerably less sense than a few decades ago because the proverbial rules of the game have changed. From Mutually Assured (Military) Destruction to Mutually Assured Economic Destruction, there is more than enough in the way of disincentives for the team to state that we have valid reasons to not necessarily be optimistic but at least not be morbidly pessimistic. As always, however, it is wise to never say never in the oftentimes murky world of geopolitics and as such… we won’t. Instead, our team will monitor geopolitical developments carefully and do its best to keep readers and especially clients meaningfully informed.

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