Seven Straw Men

In academic debate, scholars frequently prefer to attack straw men rather than contest a stated thesis. The pattern is simple enough: construct a straw man, torch it, and then claim to have refuted the thesis. In response to the September 2015 Atlantic essay that previewed the argument in Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), critics have repeatedly incinerated the same seven straw men.

1. Inevitability: Thucydides’s Trap claims that war between a rising and a ruling power is inevitable.

  • As stated in the Atlantic  article and in Destined for War, Thucydides’s Trap does not claim that war is inevitable. In fact, four of the sixteen cases in the Case File did not result in war. Moreover, as noted in Chapter Two of Destined for War, even in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides’s use of the word “inevitable” is clearly meant as hyperbole.

2. Tipping points, tripwires, or turning points: A specific tipping point during the power transition was passed without war — so Thucydides is wrong.

  • The Thucydides’s Trap hypothesis makes no claim about a moment when war will most likely occur. The Thucydidean dynamic is present during the rise, at the point of parity, and after one power has overtaken another.

3. Selection bias: Thucydides’s Trap is guilty of cherry-picking cases to fit its conclusion. It only selected cases that led to war.

  • The Case File includes all the instances we have been able to find in the past 500 years in which a major rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. Because this includes the entire universe of the cases (as opposed to a representative sample), the Case File is immune to charges of selection bias. Click here for a detailed overview of the Thucydides’s Trap methodology.

4. Missing cases: The Thucydides’s Trap Case File is incomplete.

  • The Thucydides’s Trap Case File is open. Since publishing the Case File along with the 2015 Atlantic article, this website has invited readers to suggest additional cases from other areas of the world; from other, less than major powers; or from other eras. For the purposes of this inquiry, the more cases the better, since additional cases can provide additional insights into the fundamental dynamics of rising vs. ruling powers.

5. Small data set: The Thucydides’s Trap Case File offers too small a data set to support claims about laws or regularities, or for use by social scientists seeking to do so.

  • Agreed. The purpose of this inquiry is to explore a phenomenon — not to propose iron laws or create a data set for statisticians.

6. But what about . . . : The events and issues in the Case File are “more complicated than that.”

  • Of course: they always are.

7. Originality: The concept of Thucydides’s Trap is not original.

  • The fact that it is called Thucydides’s Trap should suggest we agree. As noted in our methodology, over the centuries since Thucydides completed his work other scholars have also contributed to our understanding of hegemonic challenges.