The newest Thucydides trap: China vs. USA

A remote Greek thesis applied to the new world order

Author: Sandra Arévalo Domingo. International Relations and Journalism student.


The definition of ‘trap’ is usually depicted as an infringement of the rules implemented by someone who intends to make a profit for himself. Considering this meaning, it is taken for granted that at least two players have a role in this game. Before the trap is set, both rivals get into the ring putting aside their past similarities and focusing on their different future ambitions, always keeping in mind that just one of them will achieve victory. It is indeed in this scenario where the two great powers of the moment are located: People’s Republic of China and the United States of America.

Chinatown, Philadelphia neighborhood (Pennsylvania). By: Paolo Braiuca

It would be appropriate to make a general overview in order to comprehend why a trap is the basis of this analysis and where it is given. On the one hand, United States has been since the end of the Second World War the stakeholder who attempted to maintain the balance of the international order by premises such as the Marshall Plan, the American intervention in order to avoid the Asian Domino Effect or the leadership of the Western Bloc during the Cold War. Postulates like these ones have been used by the American Administration along decades to justify the global leading role they have been holding in recent times.

While on the other hand, People’s Republic of China -who has competed for Asian leadership over Japan throughout the last centuries- has arisen rapidly surprising the international commerce with figures such as 2216,5 billion U.S. dollars in exports in 2017 (Source: WITS). It is undeniable the fact that China has twisted the established stock market indices and, as an evidence, there are figures studied by Graham Allison, political analyst and author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). Allison, foreign policy expert and Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, certifies that the turnover of the Chinese economy in relation to the global market has been multiplied by 9 times, from 2 % of the global economy in 1980 to 18 % in 2016.

It is right at this point when Thucydides comes into play. The Greek philosopher, after having witnessed the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, concluded a key premise that he kept written down for coming generations to read, and it is summed up in just a word: fear. This feeling is the reason why two state powers are suspicious of each other over a period of time in which mistrust and tension grow so much that eventually they end up going to war. Although this idea was raised by Thucydides in the Greek era, it has now been used by Allison in order to explain the current international dynamic.

The reins of the matter are taken by these two States’ current governors, a couple of renowned yet influential leaders: Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. From crowded meetings to military exhibitions, the political behaviour of both presidents does not leave anyone indifferent. Proof of that are not only the references to them in many of the major speeches from all kind of organizational or political contexts but also their continuous appearances in mass media worldwide. Some of their decision-making on trade policy has enormously increased the tension between China and USA. A recent example about it might be The New Silk Road Project as part of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that has had a consequent response: the uncertainty about how USA will react to this project.

Extending a hand does not have to imply taking the arm of the adversary, but it might be the beginning of a path which leads to a more open dialogue, less severe conditions and an even balance for the economy of both powers without the need to reach the war like Athens and Spartan did.

Since the one who warns is not a traitor, Thucydides may have a clear conscience for having left Humanity the best of his advice: hegemony is a risk factor that serves both to crown a State and to dethrone it. The solution to the Greek hypothesis depends on the participants of the game themselves: the United States of America and People’s Republic of China. 


Greek philosophy, international relations, global market, leadership, new world order.


Filosofía griega, relaciones internacionales, mercado mundial, liderazgo, nuevo orden mundial.

19 de febrero de 2020

ISSN 2340 – 2482


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