The rise of China is not the only distinguishing structural factor for the strategic environment in which the United States finds itself. Many scholars will discuss the role of terrorism, increased globalization, and non-state actors in the current strategic environment. These are all important, but from a classical view of the structure of the international system, what the U.S. today is facing is not just a rising power, or even a bloc of powers: it is also facing a declining power—Russia.
One cannot go far wrong by employing Thucydides as a foundation for any model, as General George Marshall reminded us. But Marshall surely did not mean for policymakers to end their studies with the Peloponnesian War. Rather, Thucydides is but a starting point for a much wider historical study aimed at revealing the true nature of strategic rivalries and the character of their ensuing conflicts.
Must the rise of power in China and the fear it causes in America lead to war? Kori Schake’s new work, Safe Passage: The Transition From British To American Hegemony, probes this question, albeit obliquely, via an inquest into why the passage of power from Great Britain to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth century was pacific and whether such passage is repeatable. What emerges from this eminently readable, incisively argued, and keenly erudite history is how precarious such passage was: a contingently calm transition, only tranquil because universal ideals mollified the augured storm.
The ‘Thucydides Trap' is a term coined by Harvard professor Graham Allison to ostensibly describe the tensions and conflict that occur when an existing great power is confronted with a rising state. According to Allison, as the new power rises, the two are more likely to engage in violent conflict as the new power displaces the old. He cites sixteen cases of power transition since the late 15th Century, of which twelve resulted in war between the two powers. Allison also cites Thucydides, and in particular the ancient Athenian author’s conclusion that the war between Athens and Sparta, chronicled in his History of the Peloponnesian War, began "because they [the Spartans] were afraid of the further growth of Athenian power.”
In many ways the Peloponnesian War was a maritime struggle—the Athenians built their empire through their navy, the culminating point of the war was the failed Syracuse expedition where Athens lost 200 ships, and the war finally ended when Athens surrendered a decade later after the remainder of its fleet was destroyed by Sparta at Aegospotami. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Athenian exile Thucydides details how his native city-state’s empire and power expanded throughout the Hellenic World, often at the relative expense of status quo power Sparta.