In June 2019, the National War College (NWC) and National Defense University (NDU) published Thucydides’ Other “Traps”, a case study evaluating the prospect of 21st century conflict between the United States and various foreign powers. Although the United States has remained in constant tension with numerous countries since the early 1900’s, the prospect of war has proven instructive throughout history. Thus, America is not in a Thucydides Trap; it is engaged in conflict necessary to develop and progress global relations.
Conflict between the United States and foreign entities is no rare occasion. Trade tensions and the reclamation of islands in the South China Sea continue to impact global markets and military affairs on a daily basis. Nuclear threats with Russia and North Korea remain the primary focus for the Department of Defense. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers are currently deployed in the Middle East to continue the fight against terrorism. With so many prevalent threats to national security and financials, there is no alternative other than to defend by any means necessary.
Thucydides explained, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable” (Strassler). The conflict between the rising power of Athens and the ruling power of Sparta, however, stems from the Spartans fear to lose power. This is the trap Thucydides speaks of; a battle for control, wealth and regional supremacy. When applied to modern context, such as in the relationship between the United States and China, this metaphor can be misleading.
The United States remains the most powerful country in the world. By comparison, America is essentially a modern day Sparta. China, Russia, or any other rapidly growing country compares to that of Athens. The threats in place, however, are not ones of power or control. Granted, President Trump does engage in egotistical battles with global leaders. But the United States does not maintain the world’s largest and most advanced military purely for the sake of holding onto its title as the world’s leading power. The nation’s military is in place to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and to protect the citizens; concepts lacking from Thucydides’ examination of war as a trap.
The NWC and NDU’s case study highlights the 1954, 1956, and 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis as one of the most constructive conflicts in history. As the United States’ military presence grew in the Western Pacific and proved supreme, diplomacy defuses the crisis. In the years following, trade between the United States and China surged from $63.5 billion in 1996 to $599 billion in 2015, with China becoming the largest U.S. trading partner in 2016 (Misenheimer). Though it is hard to recognize the potential outcomes in a current state of crisis, history has shown that they are nearly always beneficial in some respect.
The United States may be on the brink of war, but not for the sole protection of power as proposed in Thucydides’ Trap. A war will commence should America feel threatened enough that citizens, and their way of life, are in danger. Then, and only then, will America fight to protect people and peace, as opposed to power and status; a major differentiator from Sparta.
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Misenheimer, Alan Greeley. Thucydides’ Other “Traps”: the United States, China, and the Prospect of “Inevitable” War. National Defense University Press, 2019.
Strassler, Robert B., and Victor Davis. Hanson. The Landmark Thucydides: a Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press, 1998.