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“Traps” Past and Present

In a post World War II era, the United States has emerged as the world’s dominant superpower. While there are other nations that periodically emerge as challengers to America’s superiority, few can contend with the technological advancements of the United States. This does not mean that other nations do not threaten that power, sometimes leading to war. Similarly to the pressure felt by ancient Sparta when Athens rose to power, this tension can lead to war, a situation known as “Thucydides Trap”. America currently feels this type of infringement from Iran as a series of hostile events have both nations on edge. If Iran continues to threaten the dominant power of the United States, it may come to the point of war, representative of a modern-day “Thucydides Trap”.

The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War was caused by a series of events between the growing power of Athens and the increasingly uneasy people of Sparta. An established nation of fierce and prideful warriors, Sparta was known for its success on the battlefield and influence in Greece as a whole. Although confident in their own power, the nation of Sparta began to feel threatened by the growing aggression of Athens. Through their actions in the Delian League to take over and ramsack other Greek regions, Athens steadily became more radical in their thinking and actions. Not only did they become more powerful throughout Greece, but Athens also began to show aggression against Sparta in a series of proxy conflicts between the states of Corinth, Corcyra, Potidaea, and Megaria. Their sentiment towards the Spartans was alluded to in a funeral arrangement by Thucydides as he stated “Then, too, we differ from our enemies in preparing for war: we leave our city open to all and we have never expelled strangers… and as for education, our enemies train to be men from early youth by rigorous exercise, while we live a more relaxed life and still take on dangers as great as they do” (Thucydides, Funeral Orientation, 39). Because Sparta felt there was no other way to stop this series of actions from continuing, they resorted to war. 

This idea of a “Thucydides Trap” where a powerful nation can feel the pressure of a rise to power by another country and resort to war can be seen today between the United States and Iran. The United States has been a vastly dominant superpower who has faced little true opposition since World War Two. After winning the last world war with the demonstration of weaponized nuclear force, few nations have been able to match or even challenge the superiority of the United States. In recent years, however, Iran have posed a rising threat to the United States’ dominance in world power. Although strongly against the will of the United States, Iran has continued to develop a short-range ballistic missile in the past several years. Having the ability to continue with a nuclear weapons program demonstrates a rise in power from Iran. Characteristically of a Thucydides Trap, the United States has attempted to disrupt this program by placing crippling economic sanctions on Iran in hopes of deterring their nuclear development. In recent months the conflict has evolved to even more aggressive actions from both sides. Iran has shot down American drones as well as place limpet mines on American allied ships in the Persian Gulf. In response to these actions, the United States has tightened its grip on the region and placed more forces in the area capable of striking if necessary. President Trump has also threatened harsh military action if the Iranians continue their attacks. When Athens continued military aggression throughout ancient Greece, Sparta established a set of proclamations on how Athens must stop in order to avoid further involvement.  Similarly to Athens and Sparta, the rising power of Iran has led to America’s feeling of infringement and the potential for more extreme military conflict. 

The United States and Iran can be seen as parallels to ancient Greece and the paradigm of “Thucydides Trap”. The increase in Iran’s power has led to heightened tensions as the United States feels this is an infringement on their position as a global superpower. While on the current trajectory, under the right conditions, Iran and America could come to war like Athens and Sparta. While war may seem like the only solution to this intense power struggle, there may be lessons learned from the Peloponnesian War that could help resolve the conflict without bloodshed. 

Matt Benedettini

Word count: 684

One thought on ““Traps” Past and Present

  1. When explaining Athens’ perspective about the war Matt includes a quote from Pericles Funeral Oration that reads “Then, too, we differ from our enemies in preparing for war: we leave our city open to all and we have never expelled strangers” (Thucydides, Funeral Oration, 39). Athens mentality is similar to that of the United States. The U.S. is an open country to visitors. An Iranian could come into the United States as easily as a Spartan could enter Athens. This presents a security risk for both sides. In the concluding sentence of the blog post, Matt states that “there may be lessons learned from the Peloponnesian War that could help resolve the conflict without bloodshed”. How is this the case? Athens and Sparta resorted to war and there was no way around it. What lessons about reconciliation can be learned from two rising powers that threatened one another that eventually lead to war?


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