China, the United States and Thucydides: Is War Inevitable?

  • Colonel Lorri A. Golya

China’s rise and the uncertainty or fear that it inspires in the United States have caused politicians, military leaders, political analysts and even academicians to reference Thucydides who wrote about the Peloponnesian War. According to Thucydides, the rise of Athens and the fear it inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable. Modern historians and political analysts refer to this as the “Thucydides Trap,” the idea that a peaceful transition between a rising power and a ruling power is not possible. This paper will examine great power transitions by considering extant Power Transition Theory, the roles that fear, honor and interest play in the competition for power and finally, provide a cursory overview of China’s strategic culture (identity, political culture, and resiliency) which influences these motives, informs their national interests, and determines their degree of satisfaction with the international system. Armed with this understanding, policymakers in both China and the United States may indeed avoid the Thucydides trap.