Harvard University professor Graham Allison worries that the United States and China may be headed toward a destructive conflict. In his most recent work, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Allison posits that the current geopolitical situation may be akin to that of the era which led into the Peloponnesian War two millennia ago. Allison assesses that the United States is similar to ancient Sparta and China is most like ancient Athens.
According to Allison, the United States is like Sparta because we are a status quo power intent on keeping the international order as it is currently structured. China, on the other hand, is similar to ancient Athens because it is an upstart power that desires to remake the world order in its own image.
Allison’s postulation is an interesting one but I believe he may have his metaphor exactly backwards. Yes, the United States is presently a status quo power and, yes, China is an upstart nation. However, that is where the comparison ends. In fact, the United States has far more in common with ancient Athens than it does with Sparta, and China (along with Russia, too, for that matter) has far more in common with warlike Sparta.
Ancient Athens was always a force to be reckoned with in Greece. But, it did not become the dominant power until the Persians began their invasions of Greece. At that point, the Athenians along with the Spartans and several other, smaller city-states banded together to repel the Persians. Ultimately, the Persians would be defeated, the Spartans would return home, and the Athenians would push to expand their power.
Because of its geographic location at the tip of Greece, sitting on a small peninsula that juts out into the Aegean Sea, Athens depended heavily on maritime trade and had constructed a potent navy to protect that trade (and exert its power overseas). In other words, Athens is considered among scholars to have been a “thalassocracy.” The thalassocratic nature of Athens also explains why Athens (like so many maritime powers throughout history) was both a democracy and a very cosmopolitan society. Athenian culture and democracy was ubiquitous throughout the Greek world. Their thinkers and educational system were second-to-none.
Sparta, on the other hand, was a land-based power (otherwise known as a “tellurocracy”). Its army was feared; its culture was highly militaristic; the political system of Sparta was a mixture of autocracy and oligarchy (it had a king but the king also had an advisory committee of 28 members culled from the elite warrior class of Sparta). While strong, Sparta was neither the most advanced nor the most well-educated among the Greek city-states. Yet, it was a feared state because of its martial prowess and, more importantly, its ruthlessness.
The United States today, to pick up on this formulation, is actually more akin to Athens.
Like Athens, America today has a democratic political system, it also enjoys a strong tradition of being a maritime power, American culture (for better or worse), like that of Athens, also has a truly global reach, and its economic prosperity is predicated upon easy access to sea-based trade. Additionally, just as Athens had the Delian League, a collective security alliance of countless Greek city-states, the United States sits atop a network of global alliances, from multilateral institutions, such as NATO, to more informal bilateral ties, like its alliances with Japan and South Korea. And, just as the Athenians exercised hegemony over the Delian League (much to the chagrin of most of Athens’ purported allies), the United States engages in similar behavior with its allies. Further, as the Athenians did through the Delian League, the United States has tethered the global economy to its currency, the dollar. Herein lies the source of America’s power today. But that power is fading.
Unfortunately, the United States has overreached. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has engaged in a series of endless (and ultimately pointless) wars that have drained its treasury, overextended its military, and degraded its standing in the world. The Iraq War of 2003, in particular, alienated the United States not only from the world, but specifically, from its allies. Meanwhile, the financial crisis in 2008 (coupled with long-term economic mismanagement in the form of a $21 trillion debt) created strategic openings that both the Chinese and Russians have gleefully exploited.
Shortly before the Peloponnesian War broke out between Athens and Sparta, the Athenians could have pulled back at several points and reconciled their urge for empire with the need to keep the peace in Greece. Arrogance (and ignorance) led not only to alienation of traditional Athenian allies, but also to an unnecessarily antagonized Sparta, who, following their joint victory with Athens over Persia, had been content to mind their own business until Athens interfered with them.
A similar movement today is afoot. I believe that Graham Allison might be correct in his fears that we are headed toward a modern version of the Peloponnesian War. Yet, I also believe that his assessment that America is like Sparta because it is a status quo power and China is Athens because it is an irredentist power, is faulty. After all, as Mark Twain once said, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” The United States has far more in common with Athens than it does with Sparta (right down to its current, toxic “democratic” political culture).
If I am correct, then we should be doubly more worried than we would have been at Allison’s comparison. If (more likely when, at this point) war between the United States and China does break out, the United States—Athens in this case—would lose. Unless the American people can wrest control of their representative democracy from the hands of radicals, we will simply be too weak, too divided, and too confused to prevent ourselves from blundering into what will likely be the most devastating war of our history.