The Thucydides’ Trap

xi-jinping-seattle-techChinese President Xi Jinping began his seven-day US visit in Seattle on Tuesday. During the welcoming dinner, he said:

There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School has popularized the phrase “Thucydides’ trap” to describe the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a currently dominant one. He explain that in “The History of the Peloponnesian War”, the Athenian historian Thucydides offered a powerful insight: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”

In an essay for The Atlantic this week, Graham Allison argues that the preeminent geostrategic challenge of this era is not violent Islamic extremists or a resurgent Russia. It is the impact of China’s ascendance. Never before in history has a nation risen so far, so fast.

China-USWar between the U.S. and China is more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not. In 12 of 16 cases over the last 500 years in which there was a rapid shift in the relative power of a rising nation that threatened to displace a ruling state, the result was war.

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The rise of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.3 billion people is not a problem to be fixed. It is a condition—a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation. Success will require not just a new slogan, more frequent summits of presidents, and additional meetings of departmental working groups. Managing this relationship without war will demand sustained attention, (…) it will mean more radical changes in attitudes and actions, by leaders and publics alike, than anyone has yet imagined.

For the time being, Mark Zuckerberg has started wearing a suit and tie.

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Featured Image: The US’s tech elite assembled to meet China’s president

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