The Thucydides Claptrap

Prevailing theory argues that U.S. conflicts with rising powers are inevitable. It’s also flat-out wrong.

For some years now, “power transition theory” has become the dominant lens used by American scholars and policymakers to understand and predict the consequences of China’s rising power.

Most readers have probably never heard of this theory, but its central assumption – that tensions between a rising and dominant power must inevitably lead to war – has deeply penetrated the national security community. In the academy and inside the Beltway, concern about the rise of China is voiced almost daily along with the expectation that its leaders will resort to force at some point in an attempt to impose their diktat on their neighbors.

Such concern cuts across the political spectrum. Neoconservative former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz insists that “In the case of China . . . the obvious and disturbing analogy is the position of Germany, a country that felt it had been denied its ‘place in the sun,’ that believed it had been mistreated by other powers, and that was determined to regain its rightful place by nationalistic assertiveness.” The liberal former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Shirk asserts, as if it were fact, that “History teaches us that rising powers are likely to provoke war.” Graham Allison, former Dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School, calls this inevitability of conflict the “Thucydides Trap,” after the Greek historian who chronicled the Peloponnesian War. Writing for the Atlantic, Allison cites Thucydides in likening modern U.S.-China tensions to that between ancient Sparta and Athens: “[T]he rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”

Fear of China and the prospect of war are routinely offered by military leaders, defense contractors, right-wing think tanks and elected officials to justify America’s extraordinary military spending. America’s defense spending has risen considerably since the end of the Cold War and is now equivalent to that of the next nine biggest military spenders in the world, including China, combined.

Power transition theory asserts that war is all but inevitable between “rising” and “dominant” powers. It’s also wrong.

Power transition theory arose to prominence in the 1980s. It asserts that war is all but inevitable between “rising” and “dominant” powers. Either the rising power attacks the dominant power to reshape the international system to its advantage; or the dominant power attacks the rising power while it still has a military advantage. At stake is control of natural resources, markets, trade, and the institutions that regulate them. That power transition theory has shaped the security discourse to this extent is nothing short of remarkable, since its claims lack historical evidence, as we show below. Transitions occur because of wars: they are not the cause of them.

In his recent book, Why Nations Fight (Cambridge, 2010) Ned Lebow developed a comprehensive dataset encompassing all 94 modern wars in which at least one great or rising power fought on opposing sides. The data set begins in 1648 – the conventional starting date for the modern state system – and runs to the present. In terms of power, states were coded as “dominant,” “great,” “declining great,” “rising,” and “other.” Power transition theory expects war between “dominant” and “rising” powers, although its theorists disagree about who starts them.

The data reveal no wars of power transition. Historians attribute every war that involved all, or a majority, of great and rising powers to other causes. The most important of these was the quest by a dominant or great power for hegemony. Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon of France, and Imperial and Nazi Germany all sought to conquer, or at least dominate, the European continent, and all by means of war. In each instance the balance of power prevented hegemony. In effect, a state that already benefitted at least as much as any other from existing economic arrangements embraced a high-risk strategy of conquest, largely in pursuit of glory or status.

Equally important, rising and dominant powers hardly ever fight each other. On the rare occasions when they do, it is as part of a coalition in wars fought for other reasons. Rising and dominant powers are the most violent types of states, but they also tend to make war against declining great powers and weaker third parties. Such wars are perceived as a low-cost means of demonstrating military prowess, or of augmenting a state’s strategic position or material capabilities through annexation or informal control. In the seventeenth century, France attacked Spain, a declining great power. In the eighteenth century, Peter the Great and Catherine of Russia attacked the declining Ottoman Empire. In the nineteenth century, the United States became a great power by attacking Spain, by then a great power in name only.

The nine modern wars involving most or all of the great powers are most often the result of miscalculated escalation. Leaders attacked another country in the erroneous expectation that other great powers would stand aside. Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia with Germany’s backing in 1914 is a case in point. Vienna and Berlin expected Russia to stand aside, and for France to remain neutral, if Russia intervened. If France supported Russia, it was convinced that Britain would not intervene, and never even considered the possibility that the United States would enter the war.

Dominant and great powers have invariably sought to integrate rising powers into regional or international society, not to isolate or attack them. Rising powers in turn were loathe to attack dominant powers, and not only for military reasons: Lebow’s analysis in Why Nations Fight reveals that as rising powers, Sweden, Prussia, Russia, Japan, and the United States were keen to gain admission to the great-power club and obtain the status and privileges it confers. Their leaders were not about to throw rocks through the window of the club president’s home.

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides is the historical inspiration for today’s “power transition” theorists. Unfortunately, they misread both Thucydides and history. Image credit: iStock

Power transition theorists and others consistently rely on Thucydides’ phrase, “made war inevitable,” as if it were part of a creed or formula, instantly and indiscriminately applicable to ancient and modern international tensions: just slot in “China” for “Athens,” and the machine is set to go. On deeper analysis, however, this “one-size-fits-all” approach flounders.   First of all, it rests on a dubious 19th century translation of Thucydides, who never said war was “inevitable,” but only that Sparta was “pressured” to fight. The Greek verb anangkasai has a psychological component and points to an active willed choice for war by Spartans who could easily have chosen otherwise. A close reading of Thucydides’ account suggests that Sparta feared not Athenian power, but the threat to its own leadership status and sense of self-worth: Sparta chose war for reasons of identity, not security.

As for the international context, Sparta was far from being the “dominant” power before the Peloponnesian War broke out, and Athens certainly no upstart: for fifty years, since repelling Persia in 479-478 B.C., Athens had been extending its influence over an immense network of islands and coastal towns. The Peloponnesian War involved not dominant and rising powers, but two major ones. Persia, dominant in the region, stood aside until the end.

Power transition theorists and their publicists also have to distort modern history in gross ways to make it “fit” their claims. For example, Allison asserts in his article for The Atlantic asserts that the war between Japan and the United States that began in 1941 was one of power transition. He argues “there was a rapid shift in the relative power of a rising nation that threatened to displace a ruling state.”

A close analysis of every war since 1648 finds that none was the result of a power transition between a rising and dominant power.

This is ludicrous. At the time, Japan had 1/11 the GDP of the United States. It was a great power, yes, but certainly no rising challenger. American leaders evidently did not fear Japan, and, if anything, undervalued its power. Japanese leaders in turn attacked the United States not because of its dominance, but because of the oil and scrap metal embargos the United States had imposed on it and its illusory expectation that Washington would give it a free hand in the Pacific if it could pull off a successful attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japanese leaders also hoped that the Chinese, deprived of American support, would become more pliant in their own conflict with Japan.

Power transition theorists and those in the policy world influenced by them are not only wrong in their account of history (and of Thucydides), they make a series of questionable assumptions. They assume that rising and dominant powers will favor war over some other mutually beneficial arrangement; that foreign policy and the initiation of war are determined solely by calculations of the future balance of power; and that leaders are capable of making accurate predictions about the future balance. Power transition theorists also assume that context is irrelevant, and that states will act as they predict regardless of the consequences and costs of past wars or the expected costs of future ones in a world with nuclear weapons.

A more serious error still is that a dominant power can order the system more or less as it wishes, and that it is capable of structuring the international system to its economic advantage at the expense of others. This in turn gives rising powers the incentive to challenge dominant powers and the orders they have imposed. This picture is sharply at odds with the understanding historians offer of the modern state system. Historians have recognized a few “dominant” powers in the modern state system: Spain in the seventeenth century, France under Louis IX and Napoleon, and the United States since 1918. None of them was ever in a position to impose its preferences on regional or international society. These regional and international orders were negotiated, not imposed. This was true of the peace settlements and resulting orderings that ended the Thirty-Years War, the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, and World Wars I and II. In each case, the great powers, or a dominant power and great powers, negotiated territorial settlements and the rules that would govern subsequent relations among them.

Following World War II, the United States set up an international economic order from which it would benefit, but with the support of other key Western actors. American leaders recognized that everyone gained from economic stability, and that a successful order had to be a negotiated one. For this reason, Germany and Japan, when they became economically powerful again, did not try to change, let alone remake, the economic order but rather became its principal defenders. China has followed suit.

What are the implications of all this for the United States and China?

First, and most important, there is no “Thucydides Trap” to worry about. Second, any generalization in international relations is context dependent. Leaders are never prisoners of historical regularities or structural pressures. Commitments to avoid war can be made just as self-fulfilling as beliefs in wars’ inevitability—superpower success in preventing the Cold War from becoming a hot war offers a compelling example. Third, leaders must be wary of simplistic and reductive formulations, however catchy their titles.

If Thucydides offers lessons about the present, those lessons concern the understanding actors have of themselves and their relationships with other states. The underlying cause of war, as in the case of Athens and Sparta, often has less to do with security than with personal and national self-esteem. Spartan self-definition was closely connected with Sparta’s standing in Greece. Honor, identity, and primacy, not security, underlay the Spartans’ decision to fight.

American and Chinese relations are fraught primarily for this reason. Few substantive interests or security concerns divide these powers. Leaders and publics in both countries need to recognize the emotional sources of tension between them and find sensible ways of addressing it.

Richard Ned Lebow and Daniel P. Tompkins

Richard Ned Lebow is Professor of International Political Theory at King's College London and Bye-Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. Daniel P. Tompkins is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Greek and Roman Classics at Temple University.