Greatest War

The Greek historian Thucydides defined the form of history as it is still written today. His History of the Peloponnesian War remains a hugely influential work. We spoke with two leading admirers of Thucydides — Harvard professor Graham Allison, author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, and bestselling historian and classicist Tom Holland — who give radically opposed views of what the book can illuminate in today’s strategic landscape.

Thomas Demand. Landing, 2006, (detail). © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York.

Thomas Demand. Landing, 2006, (detail). © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York.

Octavian Report: Can you lay out, in thumbnail, the structure of hegemonic contests Thucydides outlines and why you see it as an apt model for U.S.-China relations?

Graham Allison: What made the Peloponnesian war “inevitable,” Thucydides tells us, “was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta.” In doing so he identified a primary driver at the root of some of history’s most catastrophic and puzzling wars. This is the phenomenon that I have labeled “Thucydides’s Trap”: the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one. In such conditions even routine, ordinary flashpoints of foreign affairs can trigger large-scale conflict, regardless of intentions. The U.S.-China relationship is filled with such stress today, and there is no shortage of possible flashpoints.

OR: What makes the U.S. ripe for hegemonic disruption, and why is China — as opposed to Russia— the disruptor we should be most concerned about?

Allison: Russia presents a challenge to the U.S., but it is not a Thucydidean threat to America’s position as the world’s number-one power, unlike China. For Americans who grew up in a world in which “USA” meant “number one” — and that would be every citizen since roughly 1870 — the idea that China could unseat the U.S. is unthinkable. Yet the speed and scale of China’s rise is unprecedented in human history. Lee Kuan Yew put it best: “The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”

OR: Are the personalities here as important as the structural forces at play, or is a U.S.-China conflict in the cards no matter who leads each state?

Allison: Just think of JFK’s critical leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis: War between the U.S. and China is not inevitable. Indeed, Thucydides would agree that neither was war between Athens and Sparta. Read in context, it is clear that he meant his claim about inevitability as hyperbole: exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis. My book reviews the last 500 years and finds 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In 12, the result was war. In four, not. So the book is not a counsel of fatalism or even pessimism. The message is rather that we need to recognize the severe problems created by an unstoppable force approaching an immovable object. Business as usual will produce history as usual. But if we take advantage of the lessons learned from the four success stories, as well as the mistakes made in the failures, there is no reason why the two societies cannot manage this relationship — even though it will be stressful, bumpy, and always at risk.

That being said, if Hollywood were making a movie pitting China against the United States on the path to war, central casting could not find two better leading actors than Xi Jinping and Donald Trump.

OR: Do you see there being an open military conflict with China in the next five years? The next 10? Or is the timescale longer than that?

Allison: I don’t hold Bannon’s view that “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.” As I said, war is not inevitable. But China is not a problem that can be solved. The return to prominence of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.4 billion people is not a problem to be fixed. It is a condition — a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation.


Octavian Report: Are there any lessons modern leaders should take away from the Peloponnesian War?

Tom Holland: Thucydides famously declared that his History of the Peloponnesian War had not been written to satisfy the tastes of his contemporaries, but to last for all time. His admirers have always been overly tempted, perhaps, to take this statement at face value: to imagine that he had unlocked timeless lessons of statecraft and realpolitik. It could be argued, though, that what he left out was as significant to understanding Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian as what he left in. The dimensions of culture, of religion, of society — all of which his predecessor, Herodotus — had been fascinated by, do not intrude upon Thucydides’ portrait of war. The key thing to bear in mind when studying the Peloponnesian War is to remember just how remote from us, just how alien, the combatants were. They were not mere prototypes for contemporary America or China.

OR: How did Thucydides understand the nature of the hegemonic struggle between Athens and Sparta?

Holland: Thucydides traced the origins of the Peloponnesian War back to the aftermath of the Greek defeat of the Persians, in which Athens and Sparta had fought as allies. Much like the United States and the Soviet Union after the Second World War, though, the two great powers had grown suspicious of one another. Sparta, as the established power, was jealous of the emergent greatness of Athens; Athens, as the aspirant power, was resentful of the status quo, and impatient of anything that stood in her way.

OR: What qualities let the Athenians become so powerful, in his opinion? What qualities powered Spartan success?

Holland: Sparta’s success was founded on the matchless professionalism of its soldiers, which in turn was dependent on a society that in effect operated as a barracks. This commitment to military discipline rendered the Spartans ill-suited to recognize, let alone combat, the qualities that the Athenians most prized. “An Athenian is always innovating, quick to arrive at a resolution, and quick to put it in effect.” So a Corinthian ambassador warned the Spartans. “You, on the other hand, are good at maintaining things as they are: you never innovate.”