From one trap to another, until the final desolation

Image of what once was a large lake in the state of Utah and that is repeated in other corners of the planet

We need to replace the Trap of Thucydides by another broader and more apt to gauge the current geopolitical situation.

Trying to understand the growing rivalry between the United States and China, Harvard political scientist Graham T. Allison turned to the Greek historian Thucydides and his famous narrative about the Peloponnesian Wars, in particular the rivalry between Sparta and Athens[1].  According to that reading of such exemplary text, the ancient war that left both cities exhausted (Athens defeated and humiliated and Sparta without any cultural or political legacy equivalent to that of its rival) was inevitable because the growing Athenian empire was perceived by Sparta (already an established military power) as an “existential threat” (to use Vladimir Putin’s repeated expression in reference to the extension of NATO on its periphery). For several critics, Allison’s reading of Thucydides is somewhat biased, because Sparta’s paranoia was not well founded and Thucydides himself argued that the perception of existential threat was exaggerated and that there were alternatives to a war at all costs with dire consequences for all[2]

However, the so-called “Thucydides Trap” spread like wildfire in the academic environment and reached the general public through Western journalism and in reference to the “Chinese threat.” Today it has become commonplace among Washington strategists.  I must point out in this regard that this perception is shared in the United States by both parties with just differences in style (clumsy and strident in the case of Trump and his Republicans, and something more serene but equally obsessed in the team of Biden and his Democrats).

To paragon the United States with Sparta, when in its own image it wants to resemble Athens as a democratic and liberal republic, seems preposterous.  The contradiction, however, is purely superficial, for several reasons.  With respect to Latin America, and by extension the entire global South, U.S. foreign policy has historically been contemptuous and often brutal and warlike.  The military-industrial complex of which General Eisenhower spoke eloquently never hesitated to use the heavy hand of Sparta in countries such as Vietnam, Chile, or Iraq.  On the other hand, to compare the emerging Chinese power with the rise of Athens in its expansion period would also seem preposterous, until it occurs to us to reread Plato’s La República, and see that the proposal of the philosopher is an advance outline of the organization chart of the Chinese Communist Party.

As Thucydides himself would say, the thesis of an inevitable war between the United States and China is tendentious, exaggerated, and dangerous. Can we replace the “Thucydides trap” with an expression more in accordance with the tension between the United States and China, and other tensions in today’s world? I doubt it, because the expression has solidified and has gone from being a hypothetical metaphor to an axiom of ordinary discourse. However, I will try.

In my search for alternatives, I found a good reference in the opinion of a former Singaporean diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani, who compares the two powers (USA/China) to “two tribes of great apes that persist in fighting over the occupation of territory while the jungle that surrounds them is burning[3].” The foreseeable result is desolation.   Nor does the “Thucydides trap” serve to understand the new imperial ambition of a Russia under Vladimir Putin, nor Turkey’s blackmail with the EU under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, nor the nationalist ambition of India under the Hindu Narendra. Modi.  We have gone back to an age of empires. 

Thus, I go back to classical antiquity and find the following description of the Roman Empire by the Caledonian chief Calgacus, later quoted by the historian Tacitus in his writings.  Referring to the imperial domination against which he warns his own, the British rebel chief says: “They are the plunderers of the world; now that they have devastated all the lands, they look to the sea: if the enemy is rich, they are greedy; if it is poor, ambitious, because neither their conquests to the East nor to the West have satiated them.  They are the only ones who desire rich and poor lands alike: To plunder, murder and steal they call it, with false words, empire; and the desolation they have provoked is called peace.[4]” Today, those could be the words of a Ukrainian against Russia, of an Afghan against the US, of a Syrian against the tyrant Bashar Hafez al-Assad, of a Kurd against Turkey, of a Uighur against Xi Jinping, and so on, of any victim of current geopolitics against the powerful of the earth.  With the difference that today instead of spears and swords, these powerful have nuclear warheads, and environmental devastation covers the entire planet.

Following Mahbubani and Tacitus, we could call this fatal risk of the geopolitics of our times the Calgaco Trap.  The advantage of this expression is that it can be applied to both the China-US rivalry and the new cold war between the United States and Russia, and to so many disputes that plague the world everywhere. What is at stake is nothing less than World War III.  It is not just  the danger of some nuclear exchange with devastating effects, but also a foolish distraction from the urgency of a burning environment.  In short: the irresponsible ambition of the leadership leads directly to desolation.

The examples of irresponsibility in the leadership are many and dazzling.  Here, I will list a few.

  • The small and authoritarian Croatia, which was cheerfully incorporated into NATO in its provocative territorial extension (do not confuse that extension, no doubt irresponsible, with an “existential threat” in the paranoia of the Putin’s team), today wants to modify its fundamental law to allow its own evolution into an autocracy.  As this claim is not in line with the values of the European Union, which rejects it, Croatia threatens to veto the application for NATO membership by Sweden and Finland.
  • Turkey, a member of NATO but not of the EU, also lends itself to blackmail and wants to prevent such incorporation because of the good treatment that both Sweden and Finland have given to the Kurdish diaspora.
  • The United States want to convince Latin American countries to remain in its backyard and submit to its will.  It does so in the name of democratic values. It invokes them to exclude from the summit of the Americas countries whose regimes are opposed to it, and to trumpet future economic aid, which represents a much smaller proportion of Chinese investments.  It can no longer follow the imperialist advice of Theodore Roosevelt “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Today, it speaks loudly but shows a tiny stick.  The one that speaks softly and shows a big stick is China.  On the other hand, American democratic evangelism is capable of making an exception in the case of Venezuela, in exchange for oil.
  • The Russian Federation is trying to disguise its military failure in Ukraine with a different blackmail: lift some sanctions and let them transport grain to starving African countries.
  • The Chinese Communist Party insists that its systematic destruction of Uighur culture and forced indoctrination of such population are a good thing for all, something like the wise administration of drugs to livestock.

I do not want to multiply examples, but rather to show that the current leaders of both large powers and smaller countries lie and disguise their lack of rational will and reasonable strategies and only seek to increase and consolidate their power. They avoid addressing together the health, equality, and environmental challenges that confront them all.  In front of them, they only know how to utter grandiloquent phrases when they meet at the summits, but not act. Meanwhile, the desolation of the planet is increasing.  As the popular Italian expression says “tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare” (“Between saying and doing there is a sea in between”)[5].

[1] .

[2] The entire text can be read at

[3] Quoted in Peter Beinart’s article, “A Biden Team’s Costly Harmony,” The New York Times, 06.06.2022, p. A16.

[4] Publius Cornelius Tacitus De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (AD 98).

[5] The planet is capable of surviving a Third World War, nut we are not.  If it happened, it would be a final trap, anticipated by the great physicist Enrico Fermi (the Fermi’s trap or cosmic paradox, which claimed that advanced civilizations end up self-destructing).

If you like this text, by filling up the form that appears in this page you can subscribe to receive once a month a brief summary of Opinion Sur English edition.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *