Beware the Thucydides Trap

A couple of weeks ago I saw an interview on Public Television with Graham Allison, author of the book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” I took note of what Dr. Allison was saying because I have been reading the book to which he is referring, “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Allison’s thesis reflects what Thucydides himself said in his book: when new, emerging powers threaten older established powers, those powers react with violence. Dr. Allison feels we are in a similar time, with the re-surging power of China challenging comparitive newcomer America in ways similar to that which Athen’s and Sparta experienced. Thucydides wrote the record of that 27 year long war, a destructive war that devastated the Greek world. A similar conflict in our own time could devastate Asia, perhaps the entire world.

The character of the two ancient Greek rivals players has been studied for over two thousand years. Athens was a rising, commercially minded, innovative and somewhat democratic economic powerhouse. Sparta was a conservative, non-materialistic “stay at home” military power obsessed with maintaining itself through slaves and a very controlling oligarchy. Similarities to this scenario an be found throughout history including the American South. Athens and Sparta had come to blows before but the conflict that started in 431 B.C. and lasted 27 years was a defining conflict that led to the downfall of Athens as an empire and relegation of Sparta to little more than a curiously archaic tourist destination for wealthy Romans.

Thucydides maintained that the war between Athens and Sparta could have been avoided had the various parties to conflict controlled their emotions. For Athens the semi-democracy, the emotional issue was her desire to advance intellectually, philosophically and materially through economic expansion. For Sparta, the emotional issue of her small ruling elite was protection of personal honor and maintaining control over the nearby peoples they had subjected. Although reluctant to use her elite military beyond her own borders, honor dictated that Sparta go to war against Athens. Honor aside, 27 years of warfare brought nothing of consequence to Sparta or Athens. Greece was in ruins, permanently disunited and unable to resist Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander.

Although in the short run it appeared Sparta had won the war it is Athens that remains to our time. Although Sparta retained it’s independence down to Roman times as sort of an amusing and anachronistic theme park, in our day it is nothing but piles or rocks for tourists to walk over. Athens though no longer a military threat, retained the respect and admiration of the world. Today we view Athens along with Jerusalem and Rome as one leg of a tripod supporting modern civilization; my wife and I have spent time in all three cities within a single week. Spartans serve as source material for Hollywood action movies, Athenians inspire leaders and poets.

Thucydides Trap is as real in the business and religious world as it is in the realm of international politics.  In all types of organizations, established power figures seek to assert themselves over and against the threat posed by younger and more innovative leaders. For Bible reading people we find an especially vivid example of this scenario in the Old Testament account of King Saul who, in a fit of insecurity, threw his spear at David. In terms Jesus introduced us to to, we can see Saul as an old wine skin that could not contain the new wine David was introducing into Israel. It’s something to think about – new wine skins are sometimes necessary; without them the company or organization inevitably fades into insignificance and eventual extinction. Without new wine skins to contain the new wine, the old wine skins will burst and nothing will remain remind the world that such an organization, such a nation once existed in the world.

August 31, 2017

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