From Ancient Greece, Lessons On The Risk Of A Modern, Accidental War Greg Myre – May 3, 20175:13 AM ET


A statue of the Greek writer Thucydides at the Austrian capital in Vienna. More than 2,000 years ago, he noted the friction that led to war between an established power, Sparta, and a rising power, Athens. A new book by Harvard professor Graham Allison makes the comparison between the U.S. and China. vladacanon/Getty Images/iStockphoto

To consider the dangers in America’s future, let’s go back more than 2,000 years, to ancient Greece. Sparta was the established power, but Athens was rising fast. Sparta wanted to preserve its status, while Athens felt it should be dominant.

The result was a disastrous conflict that ravaged both sides in the Peloponnesian War. The 5th century B.C. writer Thucydides, a resident of Athens, summed it up this way: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable.”

Political scientist Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says this insight remains as relevant as ever. It’s only the players that change. Today China is rising, while the U.S. is the reigning superpower.

Allison puts it like this: “When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, stuff happens. Bad stuff. So alarm bells should sound — extreme danger ahead.”

Allison calls this the “Thucydides trap.” He made a splash with this idea a couple years ago, and has a book coming out this month called Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

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