The Thucydides Trap - As It Applies to Europe

The Thucydides Trap - As It Applies to Europe


“There is no week, nor day, nor hour when tyranny may not

enter our country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance.”

                                                                                                            Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The Greek Historian Thucydides (460BC-395BC) wrote that the growth of Athens and the fear that caused in Sparta would lead inevitably to war. It did, the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404BC), which were ultimately won by Sparta. Graham Allison, Harvard professor of political science coined the term “Thucydides Trap,” otherwise known as the “security dilemma,” to describe the rise of a new power and the fear it instills in an established, dominant power – China and the United States. A clash, he argues, almost always ensues. Such phenomena are not limited to geo-politics. In physics, it would be an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. And, all of us were once recalcitrant teen-agers, pushing back against resolute parents.

In his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, Professor Allison looks to history to provide lessons for managing “great power” rivalries that were resolved without full-blown war: the Spanish-Portuguese match-up in the 15th Century, the rise of the U.S. in the 19th Century against the British Empire, the more recent peaceful resolution of the Cold War, among others.

While a nuclear conflagration between great powers represents the world’s biggest risk, the desire for self-rule, for security is not limited to great powers.  Its consequences can be seen in the rise of nationalism, and the desire for sovereignty and respect, throughout many parts of the world – Scotland, Catalonia and Ukraine in Europe; the Kurds in the Middle East, and secessionists in the West African nations of Cameroon and Nigeria. It is in those areas where the unwary might be ensnared.

Each part of the world is unique, as is each group’s desire for independence. Regardless of the merits of each bid for independence, it is the causes that must be addressed. We can treat symptoms, and we can play the “blame” game, but cures require an understanding of causation.

In Africa, causes relate to centuries of colonization, along with the tribal nature of their indigenous people. Two countries on that continent are now experiencing separatist movements – Cameroon and Nigeria, both which became independent in the early 1960s. Cameroon, one of the oldest continuously populated parts of the world, had been occupied from the 15th through the 19th Centuries by Portuguese and Germans. After World War I, the French and English divided the country. It is the English-speaking regions that today want to split off. Nigeria, the largest country in Africa, in terms of population (and the 7th largest in the world), was once part of the British Empire. The natives of Biafra, in the southeast of the country, want independence. Like most African nations, their borders were drawn by Europeans who cared more about mineral extraction and commodities produced, than the tribes that comprise their populations. (There are, for example, over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria.) A civil war in that region fifty years ago left a million dead. Nigerian forces have again been deployed to put down this new rebellion.

In the Middle East, the Kurds seek independence from four countries – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria – where they comprise significant minorities. Apart from Turkey, which is what remains of the Ottoman Empire, these countries, as in Africa, had their borders drawn by European colonial powers after the First World War, with little regard for the people who had lived there for centuries.

But it is Europe that is the focus of this essay. Most secessionists rebel against out-of-touch elitists. Does Madrid stand aloof from Catalonians? Does Brussels respect the Flemish?  Is London concerned about the welfare of the Scots? Does Paris have the interest of the Corsicans? Most worrisome, has been a rising, entitled administrative state in Brussels that threatens the sovereignty of countries that have existed, in some cases, for over a thousand years. What, for example, does the EU Parliament know about Welch coal miners, Manchester cab drivers and London bankers? Why should laws that govern these businesses and the regulations by which they must abide be created in Brussels? Is not this taxation without representation?

Europe deserves our respect. It was the birthplace of the Enlightenment, which gave to the world civilization, democracy and free-market capitalism. It was in Europe where Christianity took hold. It was Europe, with a big assist from the United States, that stood up to Fascism and Nazism. But, it was also Europe that first appeased and then fell victim to the persuasion of Mussolini and Hitler. It was Europe, through colonization, that exploited much of what we now call the developing world. Europe’s industrialization depended on cheap raw materials from overseas. Luxuries, like tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco – grown in fields worked by slaves – came from those colonies. Armies were deployed to put down insurrections. With colonization came sanctimony and arrogance, traits that infect Europe’s leaders today. There is hypocrisy in the assumed moral and intellectual superiority expressed by Brussel’s bureaucrats toward any who challenge them. With globalists, the administrative state replaces local governments.

Governing is not easy. It is akin to herding cats. But, without it, anarchy reigns; with too much, autocracy rules. Good government permits freedom of speech, assembly and movement. It offers a basic education and the right to own property. It provides the rule of law. It allows individuals with disparate political leanings to live in harmony. The nation state is worth preserving, as Lincoln did in 1861. But not all nations are born equal. In the post-War period, many were subjected to Communist rule. Germany was divided. Those who were consigned to the East in 1945 fared poorly, as do Koreans today who live north of the 38th Parallel. On the other hand, most of the fifteen or so countries that were given independence upon the collapse of the Soviet Union have fared well. Does anyone believe that the average Ukrainian would be better off governed from Moscow? Every separatist bid should be considered on its own merits. There is no “one-size-fits-all” in the realm of geopolitics.

Most Europeans want what all people want – freedom, peace and prosperity. The question: how can it best be achieved? Is a Europe united in government, defense, laws and currency required? Or is respect for one another’s sovereignty – governments, borders, laws, culture, human rights – a better answer? A forum for the free exchange of ideas should be available; trade should be fair and open. Nations’ tax systems and laws should not impede the flow of capital, nor should borders stem the tide of honorable, hard-working people.

The trap that bears Thucydides name is not limited to great powers. The world and its inhabitants are in constant flux. Nations rise and fall. Since 1990, there have been, according to one source, thirty-four new countries formed – in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific. Since my birth, in January 1941, 157 of the 195 sovereign states have been born or had new forms of governments. Every new state poses risk for those that were there before.  But the “trap” also applies to smug administrators who, due to their claimed superior intelligence and morality, feel entitled to rule, like those in multi-national organizations, or in Brussels. What is the cause for revolts against authority. Bureaucrats should look in the mirror.


This article was first published on Thought of the Day.

Sydney Williams

Sydney Williams
More about this author

© Values4Europe