Thucydides’ Trap: Are the USA and China today’s Athens and Sparta?

Edmund Stewart

Thucydides’ History: A Possession for All Time

Thucydides the Athenian was the author of the most important history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431–404 BC), which is also (after that of Herodotus) the second earliest prose history we possess. By “history”, we mean the Greek term historiā (ἱστορία), which means an analytical inquiry into past events and not merely an account of those events, for which there are many earlier precedents. Thucydides was a combatant in this war, but owing to his exile due to military failures he was also a spectator who was able to utilise sources from both sides.

Thucydides is important not only because he is one of the earliest historians but also because he was the first to identify the utility of studying past events for helping us better manage the present and predict the future. For Thucydides, it was enough for his work to be useful to those wanting “an exact account” (τὸ σαφὲς σκοπεῖν) of the past and “of such things, and those similar to them, that are going to come to pass again through the nature of the human condition” (1.22.4). His work was thus written as “a possession for all time” (κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί).

And how can we summarise Thucydides’ “exact account”? His key insight was his definition of what he calls “the truest reason [for the war], but the one least apparent,” which is “that the Athenians became great and frightened the Lacedaemonians [i.e. the Spartans], which forced on the war” (1.23.6).

Political allicances in and around Greece at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides’ Trap

Time has seemingly proved Thucydides right. The clash of great powers is a constant theme in the history of the last 2,500 years. And experts in International Relations have regularly turned to Thucydides in an effort to understand what precipitated war between Athens and Sparta and how similar calamities can be prevented. In the later years of the Cold War (1947–89), as the great powers strove to avoid conflict between the USSR and NATO, scholars such as Robert Gilpin went back to Thucydides to warn of the possibility of a “hegemonic war” in the nuclear age.[1] For Gilpin, Thucydides had uncovered one possible “general law of the dynamics of international relations”, which is “that the uneven growth of power among states is the driving force of international relations”.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the arrival of the twenty-first century, Thucydides is once again back in vogue. His name has been invoked, most controversially and dramatically, by Graham Allison (a former advisor to the US Defence Department) in his 2017 book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York). A new clash of great powers appears to threaten, as Xi Jinping’s China threatens to destabilise the international order. Despite Allison’s provocative (and somewhat alarming) title, he does not strictly believe that war is inevitable, but that it is a strong possibility. “When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power,” as China arguably threatens to displace the USA, “the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception.” This is what Allison calls Thucydides’ Trap, the avoidance of which will be in all probability one of the major foreign policy challenges over the next generation.

Geopolitical allegiances before the arrival of Covid-19: blue represents the US and allies; red Russia and allies; yellow China and allies (open-source via

Thucydides’ Trap Revised

Allison argues powerfully for the value of comparative history in allowing us to address the world’s problems, just as Thucydides had predicted. This is a project that should require the expertise and labour of many subject specialists, including Classicists and ancient historians. And this is especially because Allison’s theory, while generally persuasive, contains a number of errors and misconceptions regarding the nature of the Peloponnesian War.

First, Gilpin and Allison conceive of “structural stress” as caused by uneven rates in economic growth, control of resources and technological advancement. Such uneven growth has characterised the history of US–Chinese relations. Following the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, from 1979 to 2018 China experienced average growth of 9.5%, an astonishing transformation for a country that had experienced devastating famines in 1958–62. Once a junior (if unwilling and erratic) partner of the Soviet Union, China has now become the main challenger to American dominance both politically and economically. Similarly, following unification in 1871, the fast-expanding German economy threatened Britain’s dominance as the leading industrial power. This development was accompanied by Kaiser Wilhelm’s troubling eagerness to develop the German Hochseeflotte into a battle fleet that would rival the Royal Navy. In both cases, China and Germany, attempts to challenge the economic and military dominance of an established rival are the cause of structural stress that threatens to precipitate a crisis in the existing international system.       

But while this change may indeed be a cause of structural stress, it is of a very different kind to that experienced in fifth-century BC Greece. For one thing, the increase in Athenian power was not the result of sudden economic and technological development. Rather, as James Lee has argued, the Athenians became great because (following the Persian invasion of Greece) they developed a maritime alliance, the Delian League, that would later be transformed into an empire over tribute-paying allies.[2]

A Roman mosaic of Thucydides of the 3rd cent. AD from Jerash, Jordan (now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany).

Furthermore, it is not accurate to describe Athens, as Allison does, as a “rising power” in 431 BC. In fact, Athens was already a rival to Sparta by the sixth century. Both cities were unusually large and had begun using that power to exploit resources and peoples beyond their borders. While Sparta had subjected the neighbouring Messenians to slavery as ‘helots’ by the end of the seventh century, Athens established a colony on the island of Salamis in the early sixth century. The Athenian tyrants expanded their power across the Aegean, notably by acquiring valuable territory in the valley of the River Strymon in Thrace. The Athenian dominance of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delos, the centre of the fifth-century Delian League, in fact dates at least to the time of the tyrant Pisistratus a hundred years earlier. When the Lydian king Croesus was considering an alliance with a Greek state around 546 BC, he discovered (so Herodotus, 1.56.2, tells us) that the two greatest Hellenic powers were Athens and Sparta.

The fear of Sparta in 431 BC was rather that Athens had exploited an opportunity, which Sparta had neglected, to assert hegemony over the Greeks following the combined Hellenic victory against the Persians in 479. What worried the Spartans was not the prospect of their displacement by Athens as the leading power, but rather that a long-term rival had gained sufficient power to bid for absolute dominance. Thus, the comparison between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC, on the one hand, and China and the USA in 2021, or even Germany and Britain in 1914, is not as close as Allison supposes.

Political alliances at the outbreak of WWI (beige states were neutral).

Clash of Cultures, Clash of Constitutions

A further qualification to Allison’s thesis would be to stress the importance of constitutions as determinants of the likelihood of conflict. What may matter as much as the identification of powers as ‘emerging’ or ‘established’ is whether these powers are democracies, oligarchies or tyrannies. One of the few examples in Allison’s case file that did not result in war is the gradual eclipse of the United Kingdom by the USA as a leading power following the First World War (1914–18). In this case, both nations were democracies and (excepting the British monarchy, of course) shared similar institutions and a common language and culture. Perhaps we should be looking not just at relations between states but the nature of states and their models of citizenship.

Allison in fact points to this very problem when he describes a “clash of cultures”, between Western democratic values and the more authoritarian and Confucian emphasis on order and conformity made by the Chinese. The ‘culture’ of states is of concern in two respects: first, some cultures are more bellicose than others and, second, cultural differences make communication harder, where serious misunderstandings can ultimately result in bloodshed. In the case of the Peloponnesian War, this clash of cultures is in fact much in evidence in Thucydides’ narrative and would, if further explored, lend credence to Allison’s overall thesis. Thucydides has a Corinthian ambassador tell the Spartans that there is a fundamental difference in outlook between the Athenians and the Lacedaemonian rivals. The Athenians are “determined by nature (πεφυκέναι) neither to be at peace themselves nor to allow others to be so” (1.70.9). The Athenians are naturally innovative, daring and reckless, while the Spartans are naturally conservative, cautious and fearful. The Corinthian speaker thus stokes Spartan fears while presenting the Athenians as natural aggressors.

What determined the “nature” (Greek φύσις) of Athenians and Spartans is not made clear in this passage. However, the Greeks believed that this was very largely the result of the laws and constitution of a state. Thus, Plato in his Republic would later regard the creation of his ideal and most just state as the necessary prerequisite for the creation of the just man. By contrast, the most unjust of societies, tyranny, has the effect of brutalising both the tyrant and his subjects. In Thucydides’ narrative, constitutional differences, if not clearly the cause of the war, certainly helped to spread the fighting across the Greek world and increase its savagery. The rival proponents of democracy and oligarchy each saw that they had an interest in the victory of either Athens or Sparta respectively, and each strove to gain Athenian or Spartan help to achieve dominance in their own cities.

The horror of this conflict is graphically described by Thucydides. At Corcyra (modern Corfu) in 427 an oligarchic coup was brutally suppressed by the democrats and all those accused of overthrowing the democracy were massacred: “there was death in every shape and form and, as tends to happen in such occasions, there was no enormity nor anything still more extreme that did not occur” (3.81.5).                     

The so-called ‘Leonidas sculpture’, Sparta, 470s BC (Archaeological Museum of Sparta, Greece).

It is sometimes supposed that the most bellicose of constitutions are authoritarian regimes. The example of Sparta, an oligarchy dominated by a double-kingship (the diarchy), shows that by no means all non-democracies are inherently belligerent: at least in Thucydides’ narrative the Spartans have to be coaxed to war in the face of Athenian aggression. What the example of Athens and Sparta may suggest, instead, is that opposing great powers who espouse and promote rival political systems risks friction.

That said, the Greeks did believe there to be one form of non-democracy that was particularly unstable and prone to rash decisions: tyranny or dictatorship (what the Greeks called τυραννίς). The tyrant is conceived as a ruler with absolute power: a position that the tyrant is frightened to lose because the stakes are simply too high (since a loss of power would mean being tyrannised by another). As such, he is ready to resort to violence and also to take risks generally to maintain this position. These risks may include foreign wars: Plato in the Republic, for example, suggests that the “tyrant is always creating wars, so that the people are in need of a leader” (8.566e).

This assumption is echoed to some extent in Thucydides’ History. While Athens was a democracy, it had paradoxically assumed the position of tyrant over its allied subjects. This is a point which Thucydides stresses on several occasions. Notably, he has Pericles, the foremost statesman in Athens at the outbreak of war, tell the Athenians with reference to their empire: “what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe” (2.63.2). Athens, as the tyrant-like city, Thucydides suggests, was happy to take great risks, including a war that would in the end be disastrous for them, to avoid the inevitable loss of its power over its allies. 

Double-herm of Herodotus (left) and Thucydides (right): cast of 4th-cent BC original, discovered in Hadrian’s Villa at Tibur (Tivoli), Italy (now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

Destined for War?

From a Greek perspective, what should worry the world about China is not simply its status as an ‘emerging’ power but its nature as an authoritarian regime with a fundamentally different culture from those of Western democracies. As Anne Applebaum has recently commented in her Atlantic article “The Bad Guys are Winning”, under the leadership of Russia and China a coalition of states is developing what she terms “Autocracy Inc.”. These regimes are linked not by a common ideology, as was the case for the Communist block in the Cold War, but a common nature and common interests as non-democracies. If there is a genuine threat of conflict, it is once again between states divided on constitutional and ideological lines, between democracies and authoritarian regimes headed by respectively the USA and China.  

Worse, China is not simply a non-democracy, but is fast becoming a personalist dictatorship under Xi Jinping, what the Greeks would have called a tyranny (tyrannis). Since 2007, Xi has concentrated personal power to a high degree, as can be seen in several developments, from the purging of potential rivals under the guise of anti-corruption investigations, to the creation of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ and its incorporation into the constitution. And it may be significant that these developments have been accompanied by worrying trends towards the abuse of human rights in China, especially in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Joe Biden, as Vice-President, toasts Xi Jinping during his state luncheon at the US Department of State, Washington, DC, September 2015.

The present American administration appears to be alive to the threat posed by “Autocracy Inc.”. Next week, on the 9–10 December, President Biden will hold an online Summit for Democracy for world leaders. The US State Department’s website bluntly states the reason for this meeting: “Democracy and human rights are under threat around the world.” There are good grounds for such pessimism. The year 2021, like 2020, has been a bad year for democracy. From Cuba to Belarus to Russia to Burma to Hong Kong pro-democracy movements have lost ground or been suppressed. Measures taken to combat Covid-19 have been utilised to stymie dissent and a range of issues from vaccine passports to cancel culture is stoking fears of authoritarianism even in the heart of American and European democracies. American leadership is necessary to permit and encourage the flourishing of democracy globally, but we must also accept that doing so raises the possibility of conflict with those regimes whose interests are entirely the opposite and lie in the preservation of autocratic power.

There is an urgent need to face the global challenges to democracy with foresight, courage and determination. In doing so, it may be that our ancient texts can be of help. This is why the Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies at the University of Nottingham is organising a workshop at the Palace of Westminster, London, on 9 March 2022, to consider the Spartan constitution and the lessons that ancient history can hold for the modern world. If Allison is right that there is a “Thucydides trap”, we as Classicists and ancient historians have a role in helping our policymakers to read and understand Thucydides.

Edmund Stewart is Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham. His earlier essays for Antigone can be found here, here and here.

Further Reading

For information on a range of issues concerning Thucydides, a good starting point may be Brill’s Companion to Thucydides (Brill, Leiden, 2006), edited by A. Rengakos and A. Tsakmakis, or the collected volume of articles Thucydides (Oxford UP, 2009), edited by Jeffrey S. Rusten. For a general and accessible introduction, try Perez Zagorin’s Thucydides: An Introduction for the Common Reader (Princeton UP, 2009).


1 Robert Gilpin, “The theory of hegemonic warm,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18 (1988) 591–613.
2 James Lee, “Did Thucydides believe in Thucydides’ trap? The history of the Peloponnesian War and its Relevance to US-China Relations,” Journal of Chinese Political Science 24 (1999), 67–86.