- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Thucydides’s Trap: A Clue from History to Escape War with China?

| Spring 2017

China and America are heading toward a war neither wants. That’s the premise of Graham Allison’s forthcoming book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? 

Thucydides’s Trap refers to one of history’s deadliest patterns: when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, the most likely outcome is war. About the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides explained that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” 

Heads of state, military leaders, and policy experts are increasingly turning to the Thucydides Trap lens to assess U.S.-China relations. During the confirmation hearing for Gen. James Mattis, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen introduced Mattis by declaring that he was the only man in the room who could define Thucydides’s Trap. Mattis himself referred to a related idea from Thucydides: that conflict derives from fear, honor, or interest.

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For Academic Citation:

"Thucydides's Trap: A Clue from History to Escape War with China?" Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. (Spring 2017).