Greek History Used To Study US, China Rivalry

Interest is growing in a cutting-edge analysis of US-China tensions by a veteran American analyst, which uses the 5th century BC conflict between Athens and Sparta to warn about the 21st-century rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

Ancient Greek general and historian Thucydides

French daily Le Monde this week profiled 77-year-old Graham Allison, the former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs from 1995 until July last year.

Allison’s 2017 US bestseller — Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? — drew on Athenian general and historian Thucydides’ analysis of the devastating Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC between the growing maritime power of Athens and the militarized state of Sparta.

Destined for War… talks about Thucydides’ Trap, claiming: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

It is a theme Allison — described this week by former New Democracy MEP Niki Tzavela as a “great mind” — drew upon in research carried out by his Belfer Center which looked at 16 cases of conflict over 500 years and found that war had broken out in 12 of these.

In the case of ancient Greece, the three decades of devastating fighting between an Athenian state on the rise and a paranoid Sparta, has regained contemporary relevance with Allison’s work.

Despite the drama of using the Thucydides’ Trap as a lens through which to study Sino-US rivalries, Allison has not argued that war is inevitable.

Indeed, one prominent investor in the US and China writing in Forbes magazine last week said the early 21st-century was a much less “zero-sum” world in which “winners tend to be the ones that take a collaborative and partnership vs. adversarial approach”.

For Thucycides himself, however, ancient Greece was not a place of collaboration, claiming instead: “Peace is an armistice in a war that is continuously going on.”


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