Avoiding the Drift to War: What Thucydides Can Teach Us About US-China Relations in the 21st Century

Seth Jaffe ’00

It may have occurred some two-and-half millennia ago, but there is a lot that the Peloponnesian War can teach twenty-first century policymakers when it comes to managing US-China relations, said Seth Jaffe ’00.

Jaffe, who teaches at John Cabot University in Rome, is well-versed in Greek political thought, contemporary international relations theory, and American foreign policy. For him, the man to look to is the Athenian general and historian Thucydides, who wrote extensively about the war he fought in, a twenty-seven-year conflict between the city-states of Athens and Sparta.

For centuries Thucydides has been studied by military scholars and political scientists seeking insight into why nations go to war. In recent years, his writings have been cited in the context of current Sino-American relations.

Thucydides Trap
Jaffe recently returned to Bowdoin to give the talk, “Peloponnesian Warnings? Thucydides and American Foreign Policy,sponsored by the departments of classics and government and legal studies, with support from the John C. Donovan Lecture Fund. Jaffe explored the theory known as the “Thucydides Trap,” which was coined in 2012 by the noted political scientist and security expert Graham Allison, who until July 2017 was director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“Allison introduced this notion of the Thucydides Trap, inspired by a famous quote from early in the Peloponnesian War, when Thucydides claimed that the growth in Athenian power instilled fear in Sparta, thereby making war inevitable, necessary, or compulsory.

“So all these years later,” said Jaffe, “Allison is saying ‘look, these may be the words of an ancient thinker but it’s an idea still very much in play today.’ He’s referring to China’s projected rise to superpower status in the twenty-first century, and the challenge this poses to the US, currently the world’s only superpower.”

Allison’s suggestion, Jaffe said, is that war between the US and China is much more likely than policymakers realize on the current trend. “Allison, for his part, maintains that political leaders need to be aware of this if they are to avoid an unintended war between the two sides.”

Bust of the ancient Greek general and historian Thucydides (395-460 BC) from the Royal Ontario Museum.

The Necessity of War
Jaffe’s recent book, Thucydides on the Outbreak of War: Character and Contest (Oxford University Press, 2017), dives deep into the causes of the Peloponnesian War—what Allison calls the original version of the Thucydides Trap—and offers a comprehensive exploration of what the term “necessity” means for Thucydides.

“Allison roots his argument in the claim that war was inevitable, or necessary. This is his interpretation of the Greek word ananke, and I offer a new take on what that word means in this particular context. I think it means something more subtle than that ‘war is inevitable and will happen no matter what.'”

For Jaffe, the “necessity” that the actors in the Peloponessian War experienced was partly dictated by their own characters and their own perceptions of their strategic situations, and this is an important consideration.

“If you say you had no choice but to do something,” he said, “in a human sense it means you had no better or more rational choice than the course of action you chose; it does not mean you could not have done something else. In outline, that’s what Thucydides appears to mean by necessity.”

In such a way, he explained. Athens and Sparta got into a strategic circumstance where neither was willing to back down, and so the great war broke out, lasting nearly three decades at costing many lives.

The Nuclear Factor
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and the question arises: Does the presence of nuclear weapons alter the dynamic of the Thucydides Trap? That’s an important question, said Jaffe, and often asked.

“Both sides in the Peloponnesian War thought they could prevail. Sparta believed she could win a war within two or three years due to her powerful army. Athens thought she could resist Spartan attacks successfully because the city was a natural fortress and she had a strong navy to keep her supplied, and defended, from the sea.”

In today’s context however, with both the US and China being advanced nuclear powers, neither side is going to seek an all-out war, said Jaffe, “but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t still have a limited conflict.”

For example, he said he could foresee a slide to war in the Korean peninsula where fighting between the North and the American-back South prompts Chinese involvement and a limited naval conflict between the US and China.

“China doesn’t necessarily like the behavior of the North Korean government, but at the same time, Beijing is committed to the regime because she doesn’t want the entire peninsula to be under the control of the US, or an ally of the US. A collapsed or failed North Korea is also clearly not in China’s strategic interest.”

Advice from Thucydides
This does not have to happen though, said Jaffe, and the ways to avoid such a conflict is all there in the writings of Thucydides. “Rather than saying that war between competing powers caught in this ‘trap’ is inevitable,” said Jaffe, “Thucydides is in fact advising future political leaders to exercise some self-knowledge, and by extension, restraint.

“Thucydides is trying to persuade us, his readers, to be capable of uncharacteristic action if the circumstances require it. If you have a tendency towards anger, find a way to control it because people generally don’t think clearly when angry.

“As a world leader, you will pursue your state’s own interests of course, but also cultivate a certain kind of flexibility and be capable of backing down if that’s the correct decision.” As an example he cites President Donald Trump’s Twitter outbursts. “Who knows, maybe Trump is justified in having a go at the North Korean leader on social media? But my concern is that he needs to be capable of backing down if that’s the prudent thing to do—if he is to heed the warnings of Thucydides.”

Jaffe said if he had any advice for world leaders it would be this: “I would invite them—and this is informed by my sense of the Thucydidean project—to reflect on the extent to which their own personality traits may be a kind of prison.” The real trap they have to look out for, said Jaffe, may be their own characters.

Read more from Seth Jaffe ’00 on Thucydides.

 

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