The Trump White House isn’t known as a hot spot for Ivy League intellectuals. But last month, a Harvard academic slipped into the White House complex for an unusual meeting. Graham Allison, an avuncular foreign policy thinker who served under Reagan and Clinton, was paying a visit to the Trump National Security Council, where he briefed a group of staffers on one of history’s most studied conflicts—a brutal war waged nearly 2,500 years ago, one whose lessons still resonate, even in the administration of a president who doesn’t like to read.
The subject was America’s rivalry with China, cast through the lens of ancient Greece. The 77-year-old Allison is the author of a recent book based on the writings of Thucydides, the ancient historian famous for his epic chronicle of the Peloponnesian War between the Greek states of Athens and Sparta. Allison cites the Greek scholar’s summation of why the two powers fought: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” He warns that the same dynamic could drive this century’s rising empire, China, and the United States into a war neither wants. Allison calls this the “Thucydides Trap,” and it’s a question haunting some very important people in the Trump administration, particularly as Chinese officials arrive Wednesday for “diplomatic and security dialogue” talks between Washington and Beijing designed, in large part, to avoid conflict between the world’s two strongest nations.
It might seem curious that an ancient Greek would cast a shadow over a meeting between a group of diplomats and generals from America and Asia. Most Americans probably don’t know Thucydides from Mephistopheles. But the Greek writer is a kind of demigod to international relations theorists and military historians, revered for his elegant chronicle of one of history’s most consequential wars, and his timeless insights into the nature of politics and warfare. The Yale University historian Donald Kagan calls Thucydides’s account “a source of wisdom about the behavior of human beings under the enormous pressures imposed by war, plague, and civil strife.”
Thucydides is especially beloved by the two most influential figures on Trump’s foreign policy team. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has called Thucydides’s work an “essential” military text, taught it to students and quoted from it in speeches and op-eds. Mattis is also fluent in Thucydides’s work: “If you say to him, ‘OK, how about the Melian Dialogue?’ he could tell you exactly what it is,” Allison says—referring to one particularly famous passage. When former Defense Secretary William Cohen introduced him at his confirmation hearing, Cohen said Mattis was likely the only person present “who can hear the words ‘Thucydides Trap’ and not have to go to Wikipedia to find out what it means.”
That’s not true in the Trump White House, where another Peloponnesian War aficionado can be found in the office of chief strategist Steve Bannon. A history buff fascinated with grand conflict, Bannon once even used “Sparta”—one of the most militarized societies history has known—as a computer password. (“He talked a lot about Sparta,” his former Hollywood writing partner, Julia Jones, told The Daily Beast. An unnamed former colleague recalled for the New Yorker Bannon’s “long diatribes” about the Peloponnesian War.)
In an August 2016 article for his former employer, Breitbart News, Bannon likened the conservative media rivalry between Breitbart and Fox News to the Peloponnesian War, casting Breitbart as the disciplined warrior state of Sparta challenging a decadently Athenian Fox. There’s also NSC spokesman Michael Anton, a student of the classics who owns two copies of Thucydides’s fabled work. (“The acid test for me is: Do you read the Hobbes translation?” he says. “If you’ve read that translation, you’ve got my respect.”)
That’s a lot of Greek history for any administration, never mind one led by our current tweeter-in-chief. “Most people in Washington have almost no historical memory or grounding,” Allison says. “Mattis reads a lot of books. McMaster can quote more central lines from more books than anybody I know. And Bannon reads a huge amount of history. So I think this is an unusual configuration.” Allison also left a copy of his new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap for Anton, in whose West Wing office it now resides. Another copy went to Matthew Pottinger, the NSC’s Asia director, who invited Allison to address his colleagues last month.
As for President Donald Trump himself, there’s no evidence he’s taken any interest in an Athenian historian born almost 500 years before Jesus Christ. (Not that Trump has anything against Greece: “I love the Greeks. Oh, do I love them,” Trump said at a Greek Independence Day event in March. “Don’t forget, I come from New York—that’s all I see is Greeks, they are all over the place.”)
But Trump might approve of the ancient Greek scholar’s sway over his senior strategists. Thucydides is considered a father of the “realist” school of international relations, which holds that nations act out of pragmatic self-interest with little regard for ideology, values or morality. “He was the founder of realpolitik,” Allison says. This view is distilled in the famous Melian Dialogue, a set of surrender talks that feature the cold-eyed conclusion that right and wrong means nothing in the face of raw strength. “In the real world, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must,” concludes an Athenian ambassador—a Trumpian statement two and a half millennia before The Donald’s time.
The conservative military historian and Thucydides expert Victor Davis Hanson knows McMaster, Mattis and Bannon to varying degrees, and says they can apply useful lessons about the Peloponnesian War to a fracturing world. “I think their knowledge of Thucydides might remind them that the world works according to perceived self-interest, not necessarily idealism as expressed in the General Assembly of the U.N.,” Hanson says. “That does not mean they are cynical as much as they are not naïve.”
In recent months, both Mattis and McMaster have publicly cited Thucydides’s diagnosis of the three factors that drive nations to conflict. “People fight today for the same reasons Thucydides identified 2,500 years ago: fear, honor and interest,” McMaster wrote in a July 2013 New York Times op-ed that argued for bringing historical perspective to military challenges. Mattis also endorsed the universal power of “fear, honor and interest” during his confirmation hearing (prompting Maine Republican Senator Angus King to announce that he had stored the quote in his phone).
Mattis was answering another senator’s somewhat puzzled question about the meaning of the ‘Thucydides Trap,” raised earlier in the hearing by Cohen. The Marine general wouldn’t endorse the theory that the U.S. and China are on a collision course. But he did say that “we’re going to have to manage that competition between us and China,” and that the U.S. would have to “maintain a very strong military so our diplomats are always engaging from a position of strength when we deal with a rising power.”
Kori Schake, a former George W. Bush State Department official at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who co-wrote a 2016 book with Mattis, has spoken with Mattis about Thucydides, whose history, she says, gives the Pentagon chief “a rich appreciation for the way democratic societies can talk themselves into folly and destruction, as Athens (the rising power) does. It illustrates for him the danger of action without careful analysis of consequences.”
A U.S. military conflict with China would be a global disaster. But while Allison believes it is entirely possible, he does not call it inevitable. His book identifies 16 historical case studies in which an established power like Sparta (or the United States) was confronted with a fast-rising rival like Athens (or China). Twelve of those cases led to war. Four were resolved peacefully. Allison hopes that readers—including officials in the Trump administration—can draw from the latter examples. “I am writing this history to help people not make mistakes,” he says.
Allison’s theory, which he first promoted in 2015, has caught the attention of the Chinese themselves. During a visit to Seattle that September, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the gloomy prospect of a collision course, saying there is “no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world,” while adding that if major nations “time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”
If Trump really is confronted with a historical trap, it remains unclear how he might escape it. Senior Trump officials complain that the U.S. has accommodated China’s rise for decades, hoping that integration into the Western economic system would alter its Communist values. That hasn’t happened. But it’s not clear how Trump might try to reverse the trend. He hasn’t followed through on his provocative campaign pledges to declare China a currency manipulator and impose huge tariffs on its exports, instead forging a chummy relationship with Xi that has so far focused on bringing Chinese pressure to bear on North Korea.
Some China experts say that Allison’s theory has implications that Trump isn’t likely to countenance. “If you’re worried about the Thucydides Trap, then you try to adopt a set of policies that reduce the threat of confrontation, and ultimately seek to reassure China,” says Evan Medeiros, a former NSC Asia director for the Obama White House. “That’s very different from the hard-core realist view of the world, especially with people like Bannon.” (In his 2016 article on the Fox-Breitbart rivalry, Bannon writes that Thucydides “would warn” Fox executives that their failure to take Breitbart’s rise more seriously “will only accelerate Fox’s fall.”)
Trump’s strategy is still a work in progress. On Tuesday, he tweeted that China’s assistance on the North Korea problem “has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” He did not explain what the consequences might be, though they will presumably be a topic of conversation when Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meet senior Chinese diplomatic and military officials in Washington this week.
Thucydides may not be part of that conversation. Allison’s theory is just one application of the Greek historian’s insight. There are others, as Schake notes—including lessons focused more on a nation’s internal threats than on external foes.
“Most of all, Thucydides’s history is a story of the devastation that political disunion brings to a vibrant republic,” she says, “something Secretary Mattis often talks about and every American should worry about.”