No Thucydides Trap

Last week, I wrote a Firstthings.com column summarizing the argument of Graham Allison’s Destined for War, a study of Sino-American relations organized around the concept of the “Thucydides Trap.” Allison says that the ancient Greek historian claimed that Athens and Sparta went to war because Sparta was fearful of the rise of Athens. He worries that China and America are headed for a similar clash.

A reader pointed me to Arthur Waldron’s scathing review of Allison’s book. Waldron’s critique is twofold: There is no Thucydides Trap; and, Allison doesn’t know a thing about China.

On the first point, Waldron writes that Donald Kagan and Ernst Badian “long ago proved that no such thing exists as the ‘Thucydides Trap,’ certainly not in the actual Greek text of the great History of the Peloponnesian War, perhaps the greatest single work of history ever.” Spartans would have found the notion of launching a pre-emptive attack on Athens “incomprehensible.” And they didn’t do it; Athens started the war, Sparta fought back and won.

On the second point, Waldron charges that Allison is so bowled over by China’s economic growth that he misses Chinas’s “tremendous economic vulnerabilities”: “China imports a huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. . . . China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water, too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent.” A helpful measure of Chinas’s weakness is the fact that “Chinese are leaving China in unprecedented numbers,” many of them settling in the United States.

Waldron doesn’t entirely blame Allison for his ignorance: “The problem is the pervasive lack of knowledge of China — a country which is, after all, run by the Communist Party, the police, and the army, and thus difficult to get to know.”

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