From 431 to 404 before Christ Era, Athens and Sparta fought a bloody war, known as the Peloponnesian War. Thucydide, an Athenian thinker and politician, wrote a book in which he tells the story of this conflict.
A brief History of the Peloponnesian War
The fith century before Christ Era is rich in events. Indeed, Greek cities allied in order to overpower the Persians at the beginning of this century. Then, Athens took the control of the League of Delos and thus confirmed its maritime hegemony on the Aegean Sea. At that time, Athens was the imperial power, eager to grow and expand. However, Sparta felt worried about the growing influence and domination of Athens. It wouldn’t be relevant to describe the numerous events that lead to the clash (for more information YoungDiplomats suggests you to read the Wikipedia article on the conflict https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peloponnesian_War). After many battles, Athens lost this war and almost all its army during the Sicilian expedition.
The Thucydide’s Trap
Thucydide ‘s book remains the most reliable source on this conflict. The Thcydide ‘s trap describes a specific but not rare, geopolitical equilibrium. The ascent of Athens would be the deep but actual cause of the war. Thus, Thucydide explains that ” It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable. ” The Foreign Policy Magazine adds that ” The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war. ” (https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/09/the-thucydides-trap/).
Where is the Trap ?
The current opposition between the U.S and China seems to match the theory of Thucydide. At the end of the Cold War, the US came out victorious. It was the unique global power, able to expand everywhere and to play a role in every conflicts. On the other hand, China, following the Xiaoping’s measures, has reached the status of global power around 2010. Albeit recently (2014) the Chinese purchasing power parity has equalized with the U.S one. In other words, China is now a credible competitor to Washington.
Are we heading towards a War ?
As I’ve mentionned above, on the 16 historical Thucydide ‘s traps, 12 ended in war. Decision makers should take a look at the others cases so that they can avoid a massive war. For instance, Portugal and Spain could avoid a war in the fifteenth century. They agreed to sign the Tordesillas Treaty (1494) which has split the world between these two powers. How could they sit around a table and shake hands about global domination ? Both of them believed in the superior authority of the Pope. By the way, the Treaty has been concluded under the auspices of the Pope.
The need of international institutions
So do we need a religious entity to end conflicts or prevent them to appear ? It is doubtful because the whole world is not christian nor muslim. Global politics rather needs trustworthy institutions. Portugal and Spain believed in God and complied with the Pope’ suggestions. Beyond the Pope and the Christian institutionnal system, lies a common faith and religion. It means that despite the institutions, the States must believe in a common set of principles.
An unobtainable ideological meeting ?
Can China and the US agree on numerous principles that can ensure peace ? It is hard to believe. The current international law is based on Human Rights, the Right of Individuals, and the respect of borders and Human being. Nevertheless, it has to be said that China and the U.S are not on the same page. As a reminder, China has opened reeducation camps for muslim Uyghurs… This painful example is one among others. It perfectly illustrates the philosophical gap between the U.S and China. Due to this gap, it will not be easy to thwart the Thucydide ‘s Trap.