U.S & China: Setting the Record Straight
In April of 2017, as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were preparing to meet, a group of academics, policy wonks and former diplomats took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. The wonks warned the U.S. against falling into the “Thucydides Trap.”
The ad explained the Thucydides Trap as arising when a dominant power fears the rise of a new power and war results. The specific sentence in Thucydides was this one: “What made war [that is, the Peloponnesian War] inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”
But notice that Thucydides didn’t say anything about Sparta being a dominant power (similar to the U.S.) that was threatened by Athens, a rising power (similar to China). In fact, if the signatories to the Times ad had actually studied the history of ancient Greece they would have known that the power relationship between Sparta and Athens was exactly the opposite.
At the time of the Peloponnesian War, Athens was by far the dominant power in Greece—indeed, in the entire known world (as we’ll see in a minute). And the war wasn’t caused by Sparta’s insecurities, it was instigated by a cocky, imperious and expansionist Athens (i.e., similar to China).
The signatories to the Times ad, like virtually all modern historians, were sympathetic to Athens. This isn’t hard to understand, since Athens was a democracy while Sparta was an oligarchy.
But let’s cut through the bias and acknowledge that, though an oligarchy, Sparta was well-ruled. Athens, meanwhile, though a democracy, was poorly ruled, at least after the death of Pericles (who died, incidentally, in the very plague I mentioned in my series on Lucretius). Post-Pericles, Athens was not so much “democratic” as “mob-ruled.”
Consider the predicament of Thucydides himself. Long before he became a famous historian, Thucydides was an Athenian general. In the opening battles of the war, Thucydides and his fleet arrived in Amphipolis too late to save the town, which was besieged by the Spartan general, Brasidas. As a result, Thucydides was recalled to Athens, tried and convicted by the Assembly, and exiled.
Similarly, later in the war, after Athens had won a naval victory, the Assembly decided that the victory hadn’t been as complete as it should have been. Six naval commanders were summoned to Athens, tried, convicted and executed. This bizarre act destroyed the morale of the famous Athenian navy, left the fleet bereft of leadership, and powerfully contributed to Athens’ final defeat in the war.
Or consider the more famous fate of Socrates – who, by the way, also participated in the doomed battle for Amphipolis as a young conscript. Athens also charged, convicted and executed Socrates, one of the wisest men who ever lived. Democracy leaves a lot to be desired when it descends into ochlocracy (mob rule).
Long before hostilities broke out between Sparta and Athens, it was Athens that was the overwhelmingly dominant city-state in Greece. Athens had defeated the Persian army in 480 BCE and then led a large coalition of Greek city-states in further attacks on Persia and its allies, assembling the Athenian Empire in the process.
By 470 BCE Athens controlled all of Greece except for Sparta and few of its allies. It was vastly wealthier than Sparta, boasted many more allied city-states and controlled the most powerful navy in the world.
Thus, far from being a dominant power threatened by the rise of a weaker-but-growing power, Sparta was the weaker power threatened by the most dominant power in the known world, a power that was growing more dominant by the day.
Moreover, it wasn’t Sparta who launched the war; Athens instigated the conflict by engaging in continuous provocations against Sparta. The Spartan king, Archidamus, opposed the war in spite of Athens’ bellicose behavior, and Pericles did his best to fend off the war party in Athens. But when Pericles died, he was succeeded by the warmonger, Cleon, and passions on both sides spun out of control.
Cleon convinced the Athenians that they couldn’t lose against Sparta – hadn’t Athens just destroyed the entire Persian Empire? Wasn’t Athens the strongest power in the world? He whetted the Athenians’ war lust by describing the riches it would acquire once Sparta had been beaten.
Taking advantage of a brief war between two Sparta allies, Megara and Corinth, Athens convinced Megara to defect from its alliance with Sparta. This gave Athens a crucial presence on the Isthmus of Corinth, directly threatening Sparta. That made war inevitable.
We might also note that, at least in modern times, it’s not usually the dominant power that launches the war, it’s the audacious rising power (China in this case). This makes sense, since the dominant power, having had to defend its position over and over again, knows exactly how strong it is – and what the limits of its powers are.
But a rising power has none of this experience. All it knows is that, relative to what it used to be, it is now much stronger. It exaggerates its power without knowing it is doing so, believing that no other state can possibly stand up to it. Consider Japan in the nineteenth century, Japan in the mid-twentieth century, Germany in the early twentieth century, Germany in the mid-twentieth century.
Finally, let’s also note that, when a self-aggrandizing, rising power instigates a war against an existing dominant power, it’s almost always the rising power that is crushed. Consider Japan, Japan, Germany and Germany, above.
Thus, what the sponsors of the New York Times ad should have done, if they had read their Thucydides, was to have placed their full-page ad not in the New York Times but in, say, the Reference News, China’s largest newspaper.
Next week we’ll begin to consider what Cold War II might look like, militarily, economically, and diplomatically.
Next up: Cold War II, Part 6