To Escape the Thucydides Trap, Washington Must Prioritize (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Clay Parham, Fall 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

More than 2,000 years ago, Greek historian Thucydides suggested that the “rising power of Athens and the fear it brought in Sparta” made the Peloponnesian War inevitable. Popularized by Graham Allison as “Thucydides’ Trap,” this theory of great power transition suggests that when one power rises, war often occurs. However, contrary to Thucydides’ prescription, great power transition does not make war inevitable. World powers such as the British Empire have avoided war by redefining their national interests. Often, this contraction is only temporary, and the great power returns to preponderance. As we deal with our own great power transition with China, we need to re-examine our own national interests and be comfortable with limiting their scope.

The United States will continue to have major interests in East Asia, including Taiwan, but these interests do not justify war against another nuclear power. By drawing down its own force levels in East Asia to induce burden shifting to regional allies like Japan and South Korea and providing credible reassurances to China of the limits of U.S. support for Taiwan (paired with the sale of defensive weapons to Taiwan), the United States will decrease the chances of conflict. A narrower view of strategic interests in Europe and East Asia could help avert great power war and build the foundation for a potential American return to preponderance.