Graham Allison’s trap

Michael Vlahos writes: How do you turn a metaphor into an axiom? Try: “Strategist appropriation.” When writing on politics and war, this means lardering your first few graphs with maxims from so-called “masters of war,” preferably Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. Their unassailable wisdom gives your argument the burnish of authority.

Graham Allison, an academic with plenty of his own Harvard authority, goes a step further. He suggests that the great historian (and not so great general), Thucydides, like Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, offers not just quotable truths but also a fundamental law about how wars often happen: The Thucydides Trap.

Allison argues that when rising powers threaten the position of established powers, the inevitable competition can lead to conflict and, eventually, war. Twenty-five hundred years ago, top dog Sparta became fearful and envious of Athens’ rising wealth and arrogant pride. Two towering city-states became trapped in a thirty-year war whose consequences were tragic. Thucydides tells their story.

Allison insists history bears Thucydides out: Head-butting between rising and established powers leads to war 75 percent of the time. Terrible wars happen because powers get ensnared into tragedy. Today, he warns, China and the United States are caught in yet another such historic trap.

But we need to see that Thucydides was not writing history. In fact, he sought to transform the experience of his life into a story of such heroic pathos that it would stand high on the ridgeline, right alongside the Greco-Roman Ur-gospel and ultimate “fall of the city” tragedy—the Iliad. Having failed as an Athenian general, Thucydides, as the Bard himself, wrote an epic that, like the immortal Iliad, would live for the ages:

“In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

He pretty much succeeded. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is incontestably great writing and superb storytellling. But rather than history, it might better be termed, “non-fictive literature.” It sings like grand opera. It is staged as high tragedy. Only a story “bigger than life” could be a “possession for all time,” because it had to speak across time, to all mankind.

If this were Hollywood, the movie would begin with the splash title: “Based on a true story.”

Allison forces this story of Athens’ pride and Sparta’s envy into his law about how great-power wars happen. Yet this is a sleight-of-hand. Allison presents the Trap as though it were Thucydides’ creation, rather than Allison’s appropriation of Thucydides. [Continue reading…]

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