Journal of Chinese Political Science

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 11–24 | Cite as

More Than One Trap: Problematic Interpretations and Overlooked Lessons from Thucydides

  • Steve ChanEmail author
Research Article


Popular rendition of the so-called Thucydides’ Trap focuses excessively on only one possible explanation of interstate wars to the exclusion of others. It also commits various acts of commission and omission that threaten the validity of its central proposition. This essay reviews some of the major problems pertaining to the logic of inquiry characteristic to this genre of analysis, its interpretation of historical evidence, and its neglect of alternative explanations of war – even those that Thucydides had written about in his account. There is a danger of self-fulfilling prophecy to the extent that leaders in Beijing and Washington are inclined to believe in an analogy to an ancient war that happened some 2500 years ago. Conventional invocations of Thucydides’ Trap fail to recognize that there are several possible pathways to war. Because they offer only a structural explanation based on interstate power shifts, they give short shrift to the role of human agency and fail to attend sufficiently to what leaders can do to avoid conflict.


Thucydides’ trap Power transition Sino-American relations Logic of inquiry Alternative paths to war 


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Copyright information

© Journal of Chinese Political Science/Association of Chinese Political Studies 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

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