Unravelling the Thucydides’ Trap: Inadvertent Escalation or War of Choice?
Athanassios Platias, Vasilis Trigkas
The Chinese Journal of International Politics, poaa023, https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/poaa023
Published: 29 March 2021
No other text in the intellectual history of International Relations has become as frequent a victim of confirmation bias and selective presentism as has Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Most recently, misinterpretations of the classical treatise have engendered the popular catchphrase, “the Thucydides’ Trap”, and thinkers and politicians’ resultant drawing of erroneous parallels between the Peloponnesian War and current Sino-US relations. This article seeks to deconstruct the Thucydides’ Trap core thematic of inadvertent escalation, and to outline the logic of hegemonic transition as it is actually expounded by Thucydides. Although Thucydides is the first thinker in the West clearly to identify the significance of structure in interstate affairs, his hegemonic transition theory is complex rather than purely systemic. Thucydides thus dedicates most of his work to assessing the strategic decisions made in fervid political debates, evidencing his perception of polity and politics as key elements that dynamically interact with structural conditions to effectuate strategic choice. Consequently, the Peloponnesian War was not an outcome of inadvertent escalation, but of premeditated strategic choices made by adversaries with clashing policy objectives. Therefore, within the structural constraints, it is on leadership and strategy that Thucydides puts a premium, and hence prioritizes prudence (Sophrosyne/Σωφροσύνη) as the most consequential virtue of statesmanship. Building on the Thucydidean logic of hegemonic transition, we conclude by presenting six strategic corollaries of contemporary Sino-US relations, remaining attentively cognizant at all times of the limitations of historical analogies, and abiding by ex antiquis et novissimis optima.