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America in Thucydides’ Trap

Although the United States has posed itself as the world’s greatest superpower ever since the conclusion of World War II, the current global climate would have many believe that America’s position of power is in jeopardy. With the rise of China’s malicious cyber warfare capabilities and naval strategies, the United States, it seems, is already in what is surely a disastrous predicament: Thucydides’ Trap.

Thucydides’ Trap is a concept that was developed by the Athenian historian Thucydides during the fifth century BC, but was coined by John F. Kennedy School of Government Professor Graham T. Allison in his book Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (2017). Thucydides highlights what he believes to be the cause of the war when he states: “The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable” (Thuc. 1.23). Professor Allison took this to mean that war is inevitable when a great power – the United States – fears the growth of another power – China. This is exactly how the Peloponnesian War broke out: as Athens continued to rise in power and assert more dominance over its Aegean allies, Sparta grew increasingly wary of the rising potential threat, until there came a point where Sparta had had enough of Athens’ growth, and sparked the flame of the war.

With China’s flexing of its cyber warfare capabilities, they are becoming an increasingly dangerous threat to the United States and its allies. They are utilizing the cyberspace to accomplish their tasks of: “… deterrence through infiltration of critical infrastructure; military-technological espionage to gain military knowledge; and industrial espionage to gain economic advantage” (Hjortdal 1). In the words of University of Copenhagen’s Professor Magnus Hjortdal, China is successfully utilizing their cyber capabilities to sabotage the infrastructure and to gain knowledge of the military and economy of their adversaries – the United States. This helps them gain an upper hand not only on the battlefield, but also in the market. The United States already has a huge deficit with respect to trading with China, which China is using as leverage to maintain that upper hand in trade. In 2018, this deficit was over four billion dollars, and it only continues to get bigger with the passing time (U.S. Census Bureau). And, to further add onto their economic strategies, the Chinese are using their quickly-developing naval power to maintain their iron grip on the South China Sea, which is proving to be a major issue for taxing trade partners.

 All of these factors – along with many others – combine to build up China as being a major threat to the safety of the United States, as well as the majority of the world. As long as China continues their malicious practices, the probability that an event occurs where the United States comes into violent contact with the Chinese increases drastically. The answer to the question of whether or not the United States and China are in Thucydides’ Trap becomes more and more clear with each passing day: yes. Now, the question to be asking ourselves is the one that Professor Allison has already posed: can we escape?

-Isaac Thompson

-Word Count: 542

Hjortdal, Magnus. “China’s Use of Cyber Warfare: Espionage Meets Strategic Deterrence.”
Journal of Strategic Security 4, no. 2 (2011): : 1-24.

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