The Thucydides Trap Explained

Thucydides Trap

Thucydides Trap is a term formulated by an American political scientist after the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. The idea behind this trap is that war is inevitable, more often than not. This occurs when an emerging power threatens to take the place of another supreme power, usually ending in war.

Taking a look at the history, there have been 16 such cases in the past 500 years where one power attempted to dominate another; 12 of these resulted in war.

In the past, Spain overthrew Portugal in the late 15th century. Then, the United States of America took the place of the United Kingdom as the largest superpower as the 20th century approached.

And, Germany rose in Europe in the 1900s. Eventually, the Cold War was construed as the US and UK broke their alliance, and the Soviet Union began to fall apart.

Currently, China is challenging America’s dominance, but the policymakers of Washington are cautious of 5 key lessons taken from the Cold War.

These are:

  1. A war between nuclear powers is quite literally MAD – the USA and Soviet Union built nuclear weapons so strong that neither would have been able to stand on the top. Nuclear strategists called this MAD or mutual assured destruction. China has learned that any sort of war can be suicidal since they have successfully developed a powerful nuclear arsenal.
  2. A leader must be ready to participate in a war that is not his to win – every 1v1 has a loser and a winner. Participating nations should know that where there is a chance of winning, there is also a likelihood that they will lose. They need to come to terms with this bitter truth. A war means both sides face hundreds and thousands of casualties – a situation no rational leader would agree to. Even a nation does not agree to go to war, the stronger government will impose its power, a different kind of defeat. Leaders, hence, should choose the best course of action, keeping in mind the unavoidable destruction.
  3. Define the new “precarious rules of the status quo” – President John Kennedy formed this phrase when the rivals of the Cold War made their mutual constraints around their competition. Arms-control treaties and sea and air travel rules were part of these precarious rules. If China and USA set such boundaries, it would reduce cyberattacks. Furthermore, working on challenges such as global terrorism together will help both nations and be favorable for worldwide peace.
  4. Domestic performance is also essential – whatever happens inside the borders is just as important as what happens outside. Economists predicted that the Soviet Union would overtake the economy of the USA by the 1980s and gathered a position of hegemony. This did not occur, and free markets and societies won out. Nations must pay attention to economic conditions, policies, and challenges before trying to sweep out another country.
  5. Hope and strategic thinking are more vital than you think – a winning strategy of the Cold War was to contain the Soviet expansion, dissuade the Soviets from acting against critical American interests and reduce the practice of communism. These were all achievable strategies that took the USA far ahead. But unfortunately, strategic thinking is marginalized in this day and age. It does not place a stamp on a win, but it does save one from complete failure.

To conclude, the Thucydides trap provides us with several valuable lessons based on historical happenings.

The key takeaway is that war has a greater probability of occurring than of not happening when two nations clash due to power hunger. It is, thus, best to learn from the records of the Cold War and not make the same mistakes again.
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