Thucydides's Trap? Historical Interpretation, Logic of Inquiry, and the Future of Sino-American Relations, Steve Chan

Reviewed by Andrew Scobell


Today's most-hyped idea in international relations and the policy community is probably Thucydides's Trap (hereafter “the Trap”). The concept gained considerable traction in recent years because it is advanced by a prominent academic, Graham Allison, and has been explicitly applied to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges of our time: the rise of China. The Trap, of course, takes its name from the Greek historian who described the dynamics between the powerful ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta, which culminated in war.

According to respected international relations scholar Steve Chan, the Trap boils down to the logic that “if a rising state reaches parity or overtakes a ruling state, war between them becomes more likely” (p. 19). Chan's careful analysis highlights a range of shortcomings in Allison's thesis which finds its most fulsome explication in his 2017 book, Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Chan identifies flaws in Allison's research strategy and case selection. First, Chan criticizes the Trap's “monocausal explanation of war” (p. 19) and observes that the Peloponnesian War was not solely triggered by “changing power relations between Athens and Sparta” (p. 21). According to Chan, the Trap's narrow focus on ruling and rising great power dyads at the systemic level diminishes the role of statesmanship and the influence of third countries. On statesmanship, “overlook[ing] human agency” (p. 17) sidelines the variable of leadership and the roles of emotion and perception in succumbing to or avoiding the Trap. On third countries, Chan observes that other countries often play central roles in whether or not crises escalate into wars. For example, a smaller state—or “lesser polity” (p. 22)—can draw great powers into armed conflict with one another: more than two thousand years ago, Corinth dragged Sparta into war with Athens, while in the early twentieth century, Serbia pulled Russia into war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany in World War I.

Second, Chan raises fundamental questions about Allison's case selection and interpretations. Much has been made of Allison's finding that in only 4 of his 16 power transition cases did great powers manage to avoid the Trap. Yet, the data set is far from a scientific or random sample. Indeed, some cases do not seem to fit the dyadic paradigm of an existing great power dominating the international system and a challenger accumulating hard power and approaching parity with the ruling power. Moreover, with a sample size so small, the outcomes in a few cases can seriously skew the overall results. As Chan notes, Allison could have selected a number of other cases that did not end in military conflict. Chan also punctures the pervasive myth that the extended U.S.-U.K. power transition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was smooth, belying the presumption by Allison (case #12) of “no war” between London and Washington—coming “close to blows” in 1861 and 1895–1896 (p. 67). Moreover, Chan also persuasively demonstrates that the Trap is not a convincing explanation of why either Berlin or Tokyo entered World War Two. In short, Chan contends that the Trap is “more sensational than accurate” (p. 14).

Yet, this book is much more than a critique of Allison's thesis. Chan incisively critiques power transition theory and engages in a wide-ranging discourse about the set of explicit and implicit assumptions made by international relations scholarship about China's rise. He suggests that the international relations literature about the rise of China is permeated by ethnocentrism. Chan notes that the preponderance of this research is produced by U.S.-based scholars whose dominant assumption is of the United States as the status quo power and the foremost champion of a current rules-based international order. A corollary assumption among these same scholars is that China is the revisionist power whose rise threatens the existing world order. Moreover, as Chan observes, power transition theory tends to assume that all rising powers are revisionist, and all ruling powers are status quo. Nevertheless, analysis of U.S. and Chinese behaviors in recent years leads Chan to contend that Washington has been acting like a revisionist power and Beijing has been acting more like a status quo power (pp. 138, 145).

It is impossible for this short review to do full justice to this erudite and encyclopedic discourse on great power competition across time. Thucydides's Trap? is theoretically nuanced and empirically rich. The book deserves to be widely read and discussed by scholars, practitioners, and students.

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