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Are we in a Thucydides Trap?

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 8/27/2017 Category: Politics
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,123 times Debate No: 103687
Debate Rounds (3)
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Round 1 is to accept. I will be arguing, that we are entering a Thucydides trap, between The US and China. You will be arguing on why we not in a Thucydides trap.


I will accept that challenge & thank nd2400 for presenting a topic of significant geopolitical interest.

Since 1st round is acceptance, I won't make any arguments but I might save Pro some space in round 2 by defining the term, "Thucydides Trap."

The Thucydides Trap is a term coined by American Political Science Professor Graham Tillet Allison, Jr to encapsulate a well-understood dynamic: a dominant power's fear of a rival power's ascension can escalate into war. Allison is alluding to a line in Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War: "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta." [1] Allison makes frequent use of the term to describe US-China foreign relations in his book, "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides"s Trap?" [2]

Pro will argue that the US and China are "in" a Thucydides Trap- that is, armed conflict between the US & China is unavoidable in the near-term because of American fear of China.

I will argue that Allison's theory oversimplifies a complex dynamic & that a Sino-American War in the near-term, while possible, is not probable & certainly not inevitable. If such a trap exists, it is a trap of our own devising & we can choose a less belligerent path. The past is prologue, not computer program.

I would suggest that near-term be defined as less than 12 years - 3 US presidential terms. I don't think it can be said that we are " in" a geopolitical trap with more room for maneuver & political shift than that.

I look forward to Pro's argument in the second round.

Debate Round No. 1


Ok 1st let me thank you, for actually having a real debate with me. The 1st two, accepted the debate, then left me without giving any reason. So again thanks. The reason i really wanted a debate on this topic is because i think people should know about history, and should know things is not fine in today world.
Mankind been at war with each other since we existence. Over the last 500 years been very challenging for humans. Some experts think major wars runs in cycles, like in American history. The American Revolution, the Civil War, WW1 and WW2. A theory is a major war happens every 70 to 80 years. Base on this, we are right about there. According to " Graham Tillett Allison, is an American political scientist and professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard", we are entering Thucydides trap. China is a rising superpower, as for the US they been a superpower already for over the last 200 hundreds years. In a Thucydides trap a rising power will challenge the dominance power, over trade, territorial areas, military, and economy.
China would be the US greatest threat or already is. Why because they are the second biggest economy in the world and the third largest military in the world. We already seeing major issues spearing up with both countries. Such as, the South China Sea with the island China made. Then President Trump trying to lay blame to China, for the North Korea crisis. Plus trump almost ready to lay down a trade war with China.

"U.S. goods and services trade with China totaled an estimated $648.2 billion in 2016. Exports were $169.3 billion; imports were $478.9 billion. The U.S. goods and services trade deficit with China was $309.6 billion in 2016. China is currently our largest goods trading partner with $578.6 billion in total (two way) goods trade during 2016". Just seeing this trade comparisons we are talking alot of money it's no wonder why The trade between the two countries is very important. Exports with "China was the United States' 3rd largest goods export market in 2016". Imports with "China was the United States' largest supplier of goods imports in 2016". So when Trump threatening a trade war with China, that doesn't sound good in terms of relations or the economy. August 14, 2017 "President Trump signed an executive memorandum Monday afternoon that will likely trigger an investigation into China"s alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property, a measure that could eventually result in a wide range of penalties as the administration seeks a new way to deal with what it calls Chinese violations of the rules of international trade. The theft of intellectual property by foreign countries costs our nation millions of jobs and billions and billions of dollars each and every year," Trump said, as he signed the memo surrounded by trade advisers and company executives. "For too long, this wealth has been drained from our country while Washington has done nothing... But Washington will turn a blind eye no longer." Once the US find evidence of alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property, Trump then will slap tariff on Chinese goods. China will then also slap tariff on the US goods. Yet that coercion might unleash a trade war between the two biggest economies they would effect everything from soy-beans to smartphones. China id the US largest partner with $510.6 billions in the two way trade from last year. According to the office of trade representative. This will for sure have negatives affect on relations.
"China is using its island-building project to give teeth to its claim over almost the entire South China Sea and its islands and reefs". These island China have made is already having military on a possible conflicts. "Beijing intends to turn these artificial outposts into military footholds that will provide it with power projection capability right across the South China Sea.Each island has hangers for 24 fighter jets, as well as bombers and surveillance aircraft. Each island has bombers and surveillance aircraft. Anti-aircraft and antimissile systems can be seen on one of the artificial islands. In a crisis, these facilities would significantly complicate US war plans and access to the South China Sea at acceptable levels of cost and risk. There"s also a more important day-to-day implication: these new military outposts allow China to dramatically extend its strategic reach from its southern shores down to Indonesian waters, creating a new strategic status quo and a Chinese sphere of influence. Beijing, in other words, is seeking to become the dominant military power in this part of the world with a capacity to prevent, deny or veto other countries from accessing these waters." China is already trying to challenge the US in the pacific.
"It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable." They been 16 cases of this happening in the last 500 years. 12 of them when to war. US and China can still avoid this, but the way Trump is pushing though the China trade, and the way China is making sure they can controlled the South China Sea and the way the the landscape is the way they are we are in a Thucydides trap.


Thanks, nd2400

Let's break down Pro's argument:

P1. Historically, dominant global powers fear the ascendency of emerging global rivals, resulting in war. Allison calls this result a Thucydides Trap.

a. War is commonplace in human history.

b. Major wars tend to occur every 70-80 years.

c. In 12 out of 16 cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been war.R32;

P2. The US fears the ascendency of China.

a. China has the 2nd largest economy & enjoys a significant trade surplus vs. the US, signaling a potential trade war.

b. China has the 3rd strongest military & is aggressively projecting its defensive capability in the South China Sea, signaling a potential challenge to US dominance in the Pacific.

C. Therefore, the US & China are trapped in a dynamic that will result in war, we are in a Thucydides Trap.

Let's also note that the operative condition "trapped" suggests an absolute state: either inescapable or necessitating acts of desperation. This absolutism is undermined by two of Pro's points:

1. "US & China can still avoid this." If a trap is avoidable then we are not yet trapped.

2. In 12 of 16 similar cases (defined by Allison), this dynamic resulted in war. This figure suggests that war proved avoidable 25% of the time. None of Pro's arguments indicate that we must be in the 75% of the cases that chose war, so again, we are not yet trapped.

Now, let's examine the strength of Pro's premises.

Thucydides Trap

In spite of the snappy label, I don't think it can be said that Allison's observations are particularly novel. The champion/challenger dynamic is a core determinant in the social hierarchy of many species, including primates. We see this dynamic reinforced in culture by a thousand mythologies: Wild West gunslingers, Darth Vader vs Luke Skywalker, Red Sox vs. Yankees, etc. Entropy alone implies that political dominance is finite & will be tested by emerging powers from time to time, so I don't think political scientists should get much credit for predicting stasis.

Nor does stasis seem likely with geopolitics in an era of rapidly shifting dynamics. Globalism has created a web of interdependencies so complex that no nation can hope to predict economic impacts. Modern fleets & air forces remain heavily dependent on oil in an era when the future availability & price of that commodity is unknowable. Every military can see that drones & robotics will quickly supplant modern tactics. Cyber warfare capabilities are closely held secrets with catastrophic potential. And of course, we have never seen a major war between two nuclear armed powers. Isn't it already likely that the present risks of world war outweigh the potential benefits for any of the current players?

I'm less impressed than Pro by Allison's evidence. Do major wars really occur in 70-80 year cycles? Only 15 years passed between the Seven Years War and the American Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic Wars a decade later. 55 years pass between Waterloo & the Franco-Prussian War, WWI comes 44 years later, & WWII 20 years after that. What evidence supports this cyclical theory?

This "12 of 16" notion is likewise suspect. Allison's list of global powers & conflicts is highly selective & rather inconsistent.

Was Sweden really a global power after the 30 years war? Was China a global power at the turn of the 20th century?
Since the UK was dominant in the 19th century & Germany emergent, why wasn't the UK compelled to war with Germany as inevitability as France? The Civil War proved the US at least as much an emerging military as Russia in the Crimean War- why note that France chose war in one case but not note the other? Dutch vs. Sweden? Dutch vs. the Ottomans? If Allison honestly represented every potential rivalry, we'd see peace was preferred to war at least as often.

Allison fails to highlight that the last 3 conflicts on his list did not result in war. He fails to point out that the choice of peace seems to be favored in the context of global economic interdependency & weapons of mass destruction. Isn't it possible if not probable that the definition of global power has changed, that the contexts of Imperialism and colonial occupation are likely irrelevant in the post-WWII era?

China vs. US

Nations may fear rivals but fear of self-destruction is stronger and fear is never the primary consideration. War between the US & China is not likely to ever be just war between the US & China. Korea & Taiwan would be certain flash points. NATO participation would be obliged by treaty. Japan and Australia are strong allies eager to check Chinese aggression.
The Philippines & Vietnam strongly oppose Chinese expansion in the South China Seas. India, Malaysia, & Indonesia conflict regularly with Chinese interest in Southeast Asia. Whatever the circumstances, a belligerent China would be under immediate economic siege: cut off from trade in every direction except perhaps Russia & the Chinese economy is heavily dependent on trade, especially with its most likely combatants. Yes, the US would lose its second largest trading partner & 3% of GDP (which might relocate to other partners), China would lose 40% GDP without trade to the US & her allies. [1] In exchange for economic collapse, what might China stand to gain? Occupation of heavily populated regions which generally enjoy greater freedoms than the Chinese are likely to meet heavy resistance. Chinese combined forces could dominate the South China Sea & bomb Seoul & Tokyo but US Naval power would likely deny Chinese power elsewhere. The US is unlikely to engage the Chinese Army while strangulation is an option. China could not hope to win a missile war with 260 ICBMs launching from China vs. more than 7,000 US ICBMs launching from all over the globe. [2] [3]
Any resort to nuclear weapons would imperil the future of both nations if not humanity.

The US as potential aggressor has less to lose economically than China but far more to lose politically. An unjust attack on China would fracture American alliances and rapidly re-align the post-Cold War systems that preserve US dominance. The fact that 5% of the world's population has been able to assert primacy for 70 years is wondrous enough. If the United Nations and NATO of were to fall apart, if the US were to lay down the instruments of soft power and take up the weapons of hard power, American hegemony would rapidly decline. Senators & Generals understand this even if Mr. Allison does not.

Allison's Thucydides Trap is a shaky theory at best, based on the behavior of nations before rockets and nukes, before globalism and the Internet. However much their sabres rattle, the US & China have little to gain & much to lose in open conflict and both nations no it. We need not be trapped by old ways of thinking about old ways of warfare. We can choose for ourselves a new geopolitical dynamic valuing competition over, conquest, sustainability over economic growth, viability over expansion. The only trap at hand is fashioned of old fears & old beliefs. We can choose instead to place our faith in peace.

Debate Round No. 2


Thanks you for your opinion. you pointed out some very interested things. such as Allison only bring up 16 cases, which 12 resulted in war in his 500 years layout. You also pointed out China would lose more in a trade war, than the US. Which is true, but the US, and the world would still struggle in any outcome of a trade war between the two top economy. (I will talk more about this later). You also said their is other way of a flashpoint than the US and China, yes it is true, we have the north korea, japan, taiwan and india, playing important roles in the out come. But still they are just pawns to the real players such as the US and China. Sure in the last 500 years we had more than just 12 cases which ended in war , But what Allison wanted to pointed out the major wars he pointed out had summarily such as a rising power will challenge the dominance power, over trade, territorial areas, military, and economy. Allison wanted to point out in his book, their is four situation in his case that didn't go to war, because they had diplomacy, comprises with each other, and mutually assured destruction. Allison wanted to show just because we are in a trap, doesn't mean it will lead to war every time.
"A trade war between US and China will hurt not only Chinese manufacturers, but also upstream suppliers and downstream distributors such as US retailers. Per China's Ministry of Commerce, the final US retail price of imported Chinese goods can be several times of their imports prices. "For example, a regular down jacket selling for $200 in US retailers usually costs only $40 to import from China. Retaliatory measures from Beijing will also hurt China-based US businesses, which made $517 billion in revenue and $36 billion in profit in 2015." If China retaliates, the price of American goods will go up, and markets that were once open to us may start to close." Some say a US and China trade war, would hurt China more, but only in the short term. "but in the long run, China"s economic resiliences and high potential for growth and development, the US will suffer the worst outcome". In fact, there is some evidence to support this point of view. Thanks to the US blockade on chip exports to China, "China has independently developed a chip industry using its own intellectual property, thus lowering China"s dependence on imports, causing the market share for the US chip industry to shrink". Economy will alaways play a big part between having wars or not having wars. Trump is intent on having a trade war with China, which in one of Allison points, would lead to a trap.
Now with north korea, china is playing the korea card, meaning they do have a lot of influence over there. With China having at least 90% trade with the north. China know the north would give trump headache, with the missile lanuches, and with there rhetoric. "The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty is a treaty signed on July 11, 1961 between North Korea and the People's Republic of China." This is a treaty with the north korea and china. Do you know why it's important? It because china would protect them if there were attack first. That's why china help them in the first korea war. With the US helping the south. So history have alot of importance, we need to understand it, so in the future we don't do the same mistakes. The Chinese government has issues hundreds of warning to the US, not to attack the North. Why would they be so concern, if they wasn't going to do anything. "China won"t come to North Korea"s aid if it launches missiles threatening U.S. soil and there is retaliation, a state-owned newspaper warned Friday " but it would intervene if Washington strikes first". This north korea crisis we are living in right now, can pull in the US against China. Unlike the first korea war, this war would be bigger and more dangerous. And like you said if a war break out it it won't be just the US and China, it would bring the world in it as well. But only If the US decide to strike North Korea first. Taiwan is also a point of interst which can cause war between the two superpowers. Only if Trump decide to not follow though on "the One China Policy".

"The Philippines & Vietnam strongly oppose Chinese expansion in the South China Seas. India, Malaysia, & Indonesia conflict regularly with Chinese interest in Southeast Asia". Which is true, but most of those country the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan, really can't do anything against China, because they don't have the military, nor the economy power to fight the Chinese. The South China sea is another point of concern for the world, not just the US. It could effect trade routes, military strategy, and peace in the regional. Territorial areas, such as the South China Sea, is another point Allison made why we in a trap. China has a goal, which is differnt than the US, China only want to dominance their area which is Asia, not the world. In China point of view the US should'nt have a say in Asia, And the US opinion is the whole world need the Us policing them. So that is a issue between the two superpower, which can also lean to a trap, of mistrust, miscalculation on both partys. Allison is trying to point out in his book, what danger we are in, if the leadership don't realizes it. Just because we are in a trap, doesn't mean it to late, It mean we should be caution. The world is still having issue after WW2, meaning the "Ties between China and Japan have been strained by a territorial row over a group of islands, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China", Russia issues with nato expansion, the North Korea and the South, the middle east having territorial, religion issues.
1." Peak oil, or the depletion cycle/end-game of the global economy's complete dependence on inexpensive, readily available petroleum/fossil fuels".
2. "The cycle of credit expansion and contraction (approximately 60-70 years), which is now beginning the transition from unsustainable credit expansion (bubble) to renunciation of debt (credit collapse) and global depression.
3. The generational cycle (4 generations or approximately 80 years) of American history which leads to nation-changing social, political and economic upheaval. (The American Revolution: 1781 +80 years = Civil War, 1861 +80 years = 1941, World War II + 80 years = 2021)"
4. "The 100+ year cycle of price inflation and stagnation of wages' purchasing-power which began around 1901 is now reaching the final stage of widespread turmoil, shortages, famine, war, conflict and crisis".
"While industrial society, the Central State and global neoliberal capitalism could probably suppress or adjust to any one of these cyclical climaxes, it seems unlikely the Status Quo will be successful in suppressing/adjusting to all four at once".
Allison didn't came up with the 70 to 80 years cycle, he reseach it. Then reseach more, to found a pattern. Just wondering with all the peace we had for the last 70 years, you don't think we are caming closer toward something happening just as a war. Yes one of the biggest argument is the technology we have with nukes, no one would use them. With more countiers having them 10 nuclear armed country with north korea included, no leader will use them. The cold war, no one used them, but the people that were living in that era, they still remember what happen the first time the atomic bomb was used. Now most of those people that lived in that era not alive anymore. That's why some expert's are seeing a human trend, a major war happen in every generation life span, like every 80 years. Another argument is war is just to expensive, and to many lives would be lost. That is true but it was true back then to, with other major wars. Yes the weapons of today would almost kill us all, so you can't use the past as an exemple, but all it take is one miscalculation, one mistake, and a couple of buttons pushs, and we have nukes flying. Although Allison book not perfect, it does have some real meaning and truths in it, which we should be careful about the future, and try to look back at history so we don't do the same mistake. But are we leaning them? It not as hard to found ourselfs in a trap which we would be un-able to come out of.
P.S. off the record, sorry for the comments, was just a little inpatient. Again thanks for this debate. Pretty good arguments.


Thanks, nd2400.

I've tried to introduce some framework in the first two rounds for which Pro has offered neither acknowledgement or objection. Given those absences, I'll continue along those parameters.

Specifically, I offered that Allison's Thucydides Trap suggests that a Sino-American war is inevitable in the near term (near term defined by me without objection as within 12 years). If readers of this debate conclude that war between the US & China is possible but not inescapable within the next 12 years, then Con wins this argument. I'm not convinced that even Pro really buys that war is inescapable, since he continues to offer mitigating statements. "Just because we are in a trap, doesn't mean it to late, It mean we should be caution." But what good is caution once a trap is sprung? Caution implies that a trap exists but we are not yet "in" that trap. Ultimately, Allison's argument, extended by Pro merely illustrates a potential threat without any strong evidence to support inevitable crisis. Pro concludes: "Although Allison book not perfect, it does have some real meaning and truths in it, which we should be careful about the future, and try to look back at history so we don't do the same mistake." Essentially a re-iteration of my thesis & a roadmap for avoiding the Thucydides Trap.

Let's return to Pro's syllogism.

P1. Historically, dominant global powers fear the ascendency of emerging global rivals, resulting in war. Allison calls this result a Thucydides Trap.

X: Too basic. Nations go to war for many reasons besides fear and never out of fear alone. Self-interest, survival, advantage trump fear as motivations. Many wars are fought beyond the context of global rivalries.

a. War is commonplace in human history.

X: Undeniable, but outside of a few years during the 20th Century, the majority of humanity has been at peace more often than war. Peace is the default, not the exception.

b. Major wars tend to occur every 70-80 years.

X:: I asked for supporting evidence, citing modern France's martial history, which was not cyclical & in no case demonstrated a 70-80 year interregnum.

Pro responded by citing a number of potential cycles, none of which make the argument more compelling.

b1. Peak oil- While it is true that oil scarcity is a potential source of conflict, the same factor makes large-scale war deeply uncertain. Every nation's military remains heavily dependent on oil to function at present. A world war would quickly disrupt oil availability & price, making long-term scenarios unpredictable & aggressive gamesmanship less likely.

b2. Credit cycles- I see no evidence to suggest that credit cycles iterate every 60-70 years. We've seen credit bubbles burst in 1987, 2001 (13 year cycle), & 2008 (7 year cycle). 1947-1957 was a time of tremendous growth for the US & globally. Where does 60-70 years come from?

b3. Generational cycles- refers to Strauss-Howe's "Fourth Turning" Theory, redefining generations down to 20 year spans from the usual 30 & supposing that each fourth generation is a re-incarnation of 4 generations past. [1] That's fun as pop culture speculation but entire too deterministic & unfalsifiable to be presented as evidence here.

b4. 100 year inflation/wage stagnation cycle - I might be willing to buy that wages have been stagnant since 1970, but not since 1901. The avg. US household income in 1900 was $446 or $12,283 in 2017 dollars. In 2014, the avg household income was $73,298. A 100 year cycle beginning in 1901 should have ended around 2001. .

c. In 12 out of 16 cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been war.

X: I pointed out that if Allison had rigorously defined and matched up every global champion/challenger pairing we'd see that peace was preferred to war at least as often & never since WWII.

Pro responded: "Allison wanted to point out in his book, their is four situation in his case that didn't go to war, because they had diplomacy, comprises with each other, and mutually assured destruction. Allison wanted to show just because we are in a trap, doesn't mean it will lead to war every time."

The US & China currently have open lines of diplomacy, mutually assured destruction capabilities, & the capacity to compromise. So, according to Pro, we have the necessary tools to avoid war.

Pro's first premise (Thucydides Trap) is neither false or without merit, but as science it lacks evidence and as strategy it fails to acknowledge the seismic shifts in geopolitics since WWII or the escalating pace of change in the new millennium.

P2. The US fears the ascendency of China.

X: Yes, but the US does make war out of fear alone. The US lived in existential dread of the USSR for 40 years without going to war. Why can't we do the same with China?

a. China has the 2nd largest economy & enjoys a significant trade surplus vs. the US, signaling a potential trade war.

X: If global resource distribution were relatively egalitarian, then China, with the world's largest population, would justly possess the world's largest economy. I don't see how GDP envy would serve as just cause for war for either side. Nor would war be likely improve either nation's economic standing relative to the rest of the world. So long as both nations can continue to improve their prosperity & standard of living, I see no reason for the US to refuse China's claim to economic dominion.

Pro responds that trade wars are likely & China will project increased economic influence in the Pacific.

X: Fine. Trade disputes might force resolution of issues between these states without inflicting significant harm. To the extent that China does not violate the sovereignty of her neighbors, increased influence is within China's purview & US curtailment by force would not be just by international law or likely to be well received in the global community.

b. China has the 3rd strongest military & is aggressively projecting its defensive capability in the South China Sea, signaling a potential challenge to US dominance in the Pacific.

X: Also fine. One important contributor to Chinese economic growth relative to the US is defense spending. The US spends $4 on defense for every $1 China spends. [2] The US wastes incredible amounts of resources policing Chinese neighbors like North Korea, Afghanistan, & Pakistan with little to gain. The US would do well to transfer increased responsibility for these troubled states to China, who currently enjoys stable borders at minimal expense. North Korea, Taiwan, & the South China Seas are problems for the UN to resolve with full US participation. Unilateral enforcement undermines international law & weakens the US's reputation within that framework. That way, if China oversteps its bounds, the US can expect maximum participation in any alliance opposing Chinese aggression. The US can & ought to remain the world leader in promoting conflict resolution by democratic methods. After all, the most effective and devastating blow the PRC could suffer would be a genuinely democratic revolution ultimately that ought to be the US's strategic priority. We ought to share with Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine the philosophy that democratic states don't go to war with other democratic states & promote increased suffrage in China using Hong Kong as a template and a starting point.

Pro's second premise is true but narrow. The US & China have little to gain & much to lose by giving in to jealousy and fear. Both sides have the capacity adjust to China's appropriate emergence as a world power while improving the quality and prosperity of both nations without necessitating the expense of the other.

Allison's Thucydides Trap extracts a overly deterministic absolute from cherry-picked scenarios- ignoring non-confirming scenarios & ignoring the game-changing influence of globalism & modern weaponry.

Pro's resolution stands unproven.
Debate Round No. 3
5 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 5 records.
Posted by Nd2400 2 years ago
Wow, you had some pretty good argument, i wish i had stuck to the 4th round, like in the 1st two.. I had more ammo. But o'while. Good debate...
Posted by Nd2400 2 years ago
You have no come back on the Thucydides?
Posted by Nd2400 2 years ago
So you done debating on this?
Posted by Nd2400 2 years ago
So are you really going to debate this?
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