From history we learn, when the raising power threatens to displace the dominant power, war is almost always the result.

Former Dean of the Harvard University Kennedy School, Graham Allison, fears the world is moving towards conflict unseen since World War II. He puts his case in a new book, “Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’ Trap?

Allison wrote, more than 2,400 years ago, the Athenian historian Thucydides offered a powerful insight: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”

In the fifth century B.C, Athens had emerged over a half century as the centre of civilization with great advances in philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy, and naval supremacy. This shocked Sparta, which for a century had been the dominant power on the Peloponnese peninsula. As Thucydides saw it, Athens’s position was understandable. As its power grew, so too did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices, its sensitivity to instances of disrespect, and its insistence that previous arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power. It was also natural, Thucydides explained, that Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system it had established—and within which Athens had flourished.

Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the unstoppable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this causes in the dominant power, on the other.

Why couldn’t they just work out their differences? According to the theory it’s this unique situation characterized by overconfidence of the rising power, and loss of confidence/ paranoia of the declining dominant power that causes the powers to fall into the “trap” of war.

Allison went back to 500 years of history and found that 12 of 16 cases of the Thucydides trap, in which there was a rapid shift in the relative power of a rising nation that threatened to displace a dominant nation, the result was war.

Germany – Great Britain

Writing in The Atlantic, Allison also wrote that in 1906, eight years before World War I, Britain’s King Edward VII asked his prime minister why the British government was becoming so unfriendly to his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany. The prime minister instructed the Foreign Office’s chief Germany watcher, Eyre Crowe, to answer the king’s question. Crowe wrote a comprehensive analysis and delivered that to the King on New Year’s Day 1907.

The logic of Crowe’s analysis was the following: Did Germany’s pursuit of “political dominance and maritime supremacy” present an existential threat to “the independence of her neighbours and ultimately the existence of England?” In other words: Did increasing hostility between Britain and Germany stem more from German capabilities or German conduct?

Crowe’s answer was clear: Capability was key. As Germany’s economy surpassed Britain’s, Germany would not only develop the strongest army on the continent. It would soon also “build as powerful a navy as she can afford.” That means, “once Germany achieved naval supremacy … this in itself—regardless of German intentions—would be an objective threat to Britain, and incompatible with the existence of the British Empire.”

In May 1910 King Edward VII died. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and Theodore Roosevelt representing the United States attended the funeral. At one point, Roosevelt asked Wilhelm whether he would consider a moratorium in the German-British naval arms race. The Kaiser replied that Germany was fully committed to having a powerful navy. But he also explained that war between Germany and Britain was simply unthinkable, because “I was brought up in England, I feel myself partly an Englishman. Next to Germany I care more for England than for any other country.” And then with emphasis: “I ADORE ENGLAND!”

As we all know four years after that event, war broke up between England and Germany and WW1 started. However unimaginable conflict seems, however deep the cultural empathy among leaders, even blood relatives, however economically interdependent states may be, and however catastrophic the potential consequences for all actors,—none of these factors is sufficient to prevent war.

2400 years ago, it was Athens-Sparta. A hundred years ago it was Germany-Great Britain and now China-United States. “As far ahead as the eye can see, the most important question about global order is whether China and the US can escape Thucydides’s trap. On the current trajectory, war is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognised. Any clash between the US and China is potentially catastrophic, but as much as we may try to wish it away, right now military strategists in Beijing and Washington are preparing for just an eventuality.

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