Have the U.S. and China fallen into the Thucydides trap, a power transition dynamic which inevitably results in conflict? Maybe, but perhaps we analysts should wonder if we’ve fallen into our own Thucydides trap.
Thucydides (through no fault of his own) encourages moderns to think in terms of dyads. This no doubt explains, in part, the resurgence of attention to The History of the Peloponnesian War during the Cold War, when the rivalry between democratic, maritime Athens and authoritarian, land-bound Sparta seemed particularly apt.
But as Thucydides himself would no doubt hasten to point out, the Peloponnesian War involved much more than simply Sparta and Athens. Persia played a major role in opposing the Athenian Empire and bankrolling Sparta. Corinth resisted Athens even more resolutely than Sparta.
We can struggle to fit Russia, India, and Japan into the Thucydidean framework — perhaps the arms industries of Russia can stand in for Persia — but the analogy becomes strained as it grows more complex.
Another way of using Thucydides is to take the events he describes — the Sicilian Expedition, the destruction of Melos, the Plague — and use them as archetypes of international politics. Most scholars of international affairs are (strangely enough) as familiar with the conflict on the Greek peninsula between 433 and 403 BC as they are with a given set of regional power dynamics, and so the use of analogies provides a useful shorthand.
This is a considerably less restrictive understanding of Thucydides; if we start by acknowledging that the parts we’re taking are all archetypes, then literal fidelity to the narrative record becomes less important. And from this starting point, we can take a few important lessons; the dangers of power transition, the potentially dire effects of war on a democratic polity, the folly of strategic escalation, and the critical role that the whims of fate and human frailty play in geopolitics.
However, this approach also opens the question of why we should rely on Thucydides, rather than other available narratives. For East Asia, we have ready-made accounts that can provide the same kind of archetypes, mostly coming from ancient Chinese history. The Records of the Grand Historian detail conflicts, betrayals, and power shifts every bit as legendary in their complexity as those Thucydides describes. And perhaps we could productively understand China’s emerging A2/AD system-of-systems in the context of Mohist concepts of defensive “just war.” Such an examination might, at the least, give us a better appreciation of how policymakers themselves approach these complexities.
East Asia can look forward to the emergence of a deeply complex set of political and military relationships over the next decades. The traditional narratives and analogies that we’ve used to describe and understand international politics will help illuminate this transition. However, it might help if we broadened our narrative scope, and had a better appreciation of the stories that policymakers themselves might find relevant.