Conundrum of The Thucydides Trap

American elites at war with themselves

Sections of the American elite greeted Trump’s 2016 US Presidential election victory with consternation. They traded insults with each other including accusations of Trump enjoying a bromance with Vladimir Putin.

These accusations and counter-accusations over issues such as Russia, China and the economy underline the profound disagreements[1] within the US elite. They have split roughly between those on the neoliberal, free trade side and those supporting greater protectionism. The root of this division is over the best way forward in the face of new challenges to U.S. dominance.

Because the U.S. is the world’s dominant economic power that drives its global strategy. But with the rise of Russia and China as competing powers it has become more difficult to sustain.

Spheres of influence

2016 G20 Leaders’ Summit in Hangzhou, China

The global strategy that has been followed by US since it became a super power was summed up by Vice President Joe Biden in a lecture to a US think tank, “We will not recognize any nation as having a sphere of influence…”.[2]

Robert Kagan explains it starkly, if somewhat hypocritically. He acknowledges that ‘spheres of influence‘ are a natural phenomena:

“Competition in international affairs is natural. Great powers by their very nature seek regional dominance and spheres of influence. They do so in the first instance because influence over others is what defines a great power.”

Nations no longer need spheres of influence

He goes on to contend that competing nations no longer have need of spheres of influence because:

“Historically, great power wars often begin as arguments over buffer states where spheres of influence intersect—the Balkans before World War I, for instance, where the ambitions of Russia and Austria-Hungary clashed. But today’s great powers are rising in a very different international environment, largely because of the unique role the United States has played since the end of the Second World War. The United States has been not simply a regional power, but rather a regional power in every strategic region. It has served as the maintainer of regional balances in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The result has been that, in marked contrast to past eras, today’s great powers do not face fundamental threats to their physical security.”

Then in spite of reassuring that, “today’s great powers do not face fundamental threats to their physical security”, he warns:

“Despite all of the loose talk of American decline, it is in the military realm where U.S. advantages remain clearest. Even in other great power’s backyards, the United States retains the capacity, along with its powerful allies, to deter challenges to the security order.”

Defending hegemony

Robert Kagan agrees with Biden that there is no such thing as spheres of influence. But that is simply stating that everywhere is the U.S.’ sphere of influence.

This is because of the U.S.’ position as a globally dominant economic power. For any empire it is life or death to defend its economic hegemony. This means the military defence of trade routes and the infrastructure that trade depends on. That is why economic powers are also military powers. With the U.S.’ economic reach into every corner of the planet its military reach also has to follow. Reflecting this dominance the U.S. has hundreds of bases around the globe deploying nearly 250,000 troops at a cost of $85 billion annually.

United by division


China’s growing economic clout is also seeing the accompanying military growth to protect its interests. There has been the construction of bases in areas of strategic importance such as the Spratly Islands[3], an area of rich resources and important sea lanes, which has led to increased tensions with its neighbours and the US. China has also made it clear that challenges to its One China Policy[4], which states Taiwan will not be treated as an independent state, will be met with force if necessary. China has also started construction of its first overseas base in the African country, Djibouti. This military growth will accelerate with the development of the One belt, One road policy[5] which aims to consolidate a regional sphere of economic dominance.

The protectionist and neoliberal wings of the American elite agree that the rise of China is a threat. But how to deal with the threat? Trump’s approach to China’s One China Policy is a mistake but is driven by China’s challenge as an economic power. China has made it clear that interference with this policy could draw a military response. But would the US be willing to go to war over Taiwan, an island just 140 miles off China’s coast? Almost certainly no. Would China? Almost certainly yes. Trump’s bluster will be spotted for the bargaining bluff it is, a ploy in a trade war.

Donald Trump complains that China isn’t playing fair

Trade war threat

A Global Times piece on this threat of trade war between China and the US commented:

“The issue needs to be considered in the backdrop of a major adjustment of the US policies toward China. At present, there is a glaring contrast between the economic prosperity and political stability in China and the economic downturn and political division in the US, which stings the US policy elites who are steadfast defenders of the US hegemony and its role as the world leader. Those elites tend to believe that the increasingly powerful China has not made the changes approved by the US and is trying to upend the international order shaped by the US.”

The article gets to the nub of the conflict and warns:

“China’s economic power is no longer as it was before, and its defining power over bilateral relations in trade and all the other aspects is stronger than ever. It is impossible for China to sit back and let the US destroy the mutually beneficial situation in trade. Instead, China will firmly push forward the future bilateral ties under the concept of building a new type of major power relationship.”

So while the elites agree on the danger of China they disagree on the best tactical approach on what they view as an existential threat[6].


In the same lecture above, Biden said of Russia’s action in Ukraine that it has “implications for the future of the international order in the years to come”. However, it’s one thing to talk of deterring Russia in Europe, it’s another thing being able to deliver.

The west has engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship in pushing up to Russia’s western flank. In response to the EU‘s and US‘s attempt to absorb Ukraine into the western sphere, Russia split off the Crimea and backed an independance movement in east Ukraine. In October Russia deployed missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave in an effort to nullify NATO’s first strike threat. Trump’s cabinet appointments may lead to further divisions opening up on dealing with Russia’s European sphere of influence.

Assad: Aleppo a victory for Syria, Iran and Russia

In Syria, Russia’s intervention has revealed that Syria is as strategically important to Russia as Israel is to the US. Trump has so far indicated recognising Russia’s Syrian interests, instead preferring to tackle ISIS. This reluctance to turn talk into action on removing Assad is tacit acknowledgement of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Problem of sustainability and viability

The ‘no spheres of influence’ policy is clearly not sustainable or viable in the long term. The interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya degenerated into costly disasters. Iran has been able to challenge the US’ middle east role of a “regional power in every strategic region” as a result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 where the US removed Sadam Hussein, a key foe to Iran.

With the rise of powers such as Russia and China and regional powers such as Iran, the sheer economic cost of responding with greater military resources abroad must eventually become crippling. We could see a paradox where the power of the United States is undermined by the very tools necessary to maintain that power.

The Thucydides Trap

So we can see that the elites are on the horns of a dilemma. One section defends the status quo because it’s the only way to guarantee American hegemony. The other section recognising that the status quo could exact a ruinous cost and still fail.

Both sides are right in what they see as the best methods to protect America’s dominance. But both sides are wrong in that those methods could also cement the path to decline.

This battle between factions of the elites shows that in periods of shifts in the balance of power, a strategy can be both rational and irrational.  Events are the only way this contradiction will be resolved. In this case military conflict or conceding influence. Historians have observed this changing of the guard as ‘The Thucydides Trap[7].

Decline of an empire

The United States will remain a dominant military power for the foreseeable future. Britain remained a major military power for half a century after losing its economic crown. These disputes amongst the American ruling class are the most profound since the existence of the Munro Doctrine and is compelled by the dawning realisation that they are perhaps staring at the beginnings of their empire’s decline.

Gary Hollands – December 28th 2016, edited to improve readability February 2019.

Notes and references

Threat to U.S. hegemony

1. From The Economist, Intelligence Unit expressing dismay at Trump’s election:

“If Mr Trump the president follows the prescriptions of Mr Trump the candidate, however, the US would voluntarily surrender its global hegemony, thereby promoting the multipolar world that the Russian establishment has long desired. A radical interpretation of Mr Trump’s foreign policy agenda could include the withdrawal of US security guarantees and military deployments to Europe, a reduction in US financial and diplomatic support for Ukraine and even the relaxation of sanctions on Russia adopted in response to the annexation of Crimea and the war in the east of Ukraine.”

2. Biden completes the sentence with “…it will remain our view that sovereign states have the right make their own decisions and to choose their own alliances”. History demonstrates that this second part of the sentence is superfluous considering the number of sovereign states the US has intervened in.

3. The author, François-Xavier Bonnet, writes on the importance of the Spratly Islands:

“The secret hydrographic research during the 1930s [GH: Carried out by the Japanese, the British and the US] allowed naval authorities from different countries to understand this vast maritime territory as an archipelago crossed by secret sea-lanes. The Spratly Islands, long perceived as an area to avoid, were reinterpreted as strategic territory from which a maritime power could control the sea-lanes of the South China Sea”

Notes on China

4. The One China Policy arose from the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) by the Communist Party in the 1949 revolution. The KMT fled to Taiwan and set up as a government in exile, claiming to be the legitimate government of all China. From opposing perspectives both the Communist Party and the KMT supported the One China policy. As with any country, China is extremely sensitive about what it sees as its territorial integrity. This is demonstrated with its robust dealings with anyone entertaining the Dali Lama. The election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP), an independence party, Tsai Ing-wen as president signalled a shift from the policy.

5. One Belt, One Road draws a sphere of influence around China covering the bulk of central Asia. Connecting to global trade it consolidates the region as one of the most important trade networks.

Kevin Sneader, a senior partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, described the One Belt, One Road initiative and its potential impact:

“At one level, One Belt, One Road has the potential to be perhaps the world’s largest platform for regional collaboration. What does that actually mean? There are two parts to this, the belt and the road, and it’s a little confusing. The belt is the physical road, which takes one from here all the way through Europe to somewhere up north in Scandinavia. That is the physical road. What they call the road is actually the maritime Silk Road, in other words, shipping lanes, essentially from here to Venice. Therefore it’s very ambitious—potentially ambitious—covering about 65 percent of the world’s population, about one-third of the world’s GDP, and about a quarter of all the goods and services the world moves.”

Notes on the Thucydides Trap

6. Proponents of the Thucydides Trap quite rightly see China, through its economic position, as a greater threat to the US. However, Russia’s involvement in strategically important Syria also makes it a global player. In addition, through sheer geographic size Russia also possesses multiple regional spheres of influence. This explains the heart of the dispute between the different factions of the elites. But material limitations are forcing the American elite into recognising sphere’s of influence and adapt policy for them. This adds further fuel to the fire of the disagreements because it implicitly accepts a multipolar world order.

Thucydides Trap popularised by Graham Allison

7. The Thucydides Trap is named after the Greek historian who observed the conflict between the rising power of Athens who challenged the incumbent Sparta in ancient Greece. The phrase has been popularised by Harvard professor Graham Allison. The Thucydides Trap Project has identified a number of incidents of hegemonic challenge. However it believes that leaders have control over the material conditions that drive conflict between empires. This is illustrated in the concluding paragraph of Graham Allison’s analysis:

“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, week by week, at the highest level in both countries. It will entail a depth of mutual understanding not seen since the Henry Kissinger-Zhou Enlai conversations in the 1970s. Most significantly, it will mean more radical changes in attitudes and actions, by leaders and publics alike, than anyone has yet imagined.”

This is not the case. It is the rise as an economic power that out of necessity develops military power. This is the driving force behind conflicts over control of strategically important resources and trade. In certain circumstances individuals can play a decisive role role in events. Ultimately it is the development of events themselves that allow an individual to play that role.

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