The Thucydides Trap and COVID-19: Is a New World Order Emerging?

The Ancient Greeks were arguably the establishers of Western civilisation, the prologue of a historical oscillation between progress and decline for all of society; including philosophy, mathematics, politics, economics, and the arts. The Greeks’ own ideas were not immune to being corrupted however, with certain figures such as the Roman physician and philosopher Galen anachronistically believing that women were a separate and inferior species to men; despite being strongly influenced by Greek philosophy. But even today, with the mass of information most individuals can access through a single computer or phone, an attempt to match the sagacity the Greeks had uniquely possessed seems ceaseless and in vain.

When great events occur, it is often the case that historical parallels will be made. The devastating and unknown effects that entail the COVID-19 epidemic is no exception to this, with its comparison to the Plague of Athens of 430 BC being already made, an event that arguably ended the prestige of the Athenian city-state. Analogies are often dangerous in that they can misguide individuals to treat issues with a priori knowledge as a user manual, merely serving as ‘a dummies guide to x’ for very serious situations. As argued previously, most events are unprecedented and so using a go-to guide with extinguished theories is at least a obstacle to responding to new and unique circumstances brought by such events.

However, there are times when analogies are often justified when they can reveal new possibilities as to what future events may occur. Instead of restricting one’s considerations, it can instead open new ones if done with some foresight. Comparing COVID-19 with an epidemic that happened nearly 2,500 years ago becomes appropriate when bringing power politics into the equation, especially when a key correspondent of the latter’s events, Thucydides, was one of the founders of international political theory.

Thucydides, an Athenian general, talked in some detail about the Plague of Athens in his revered magnum opus, the History of the Peloponnesian War, himself being infected by the epidemic. The outbreak occurred during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) that was fought between Athens and Sparta in their struggle for dominance over Greece. Athens, which was winning the war in its first year, was greatly setbacked by the plague’s outbreak, killing approximately 75,000 to 100,000 of its inhabitants.

Thucydides’ account of Athens’s pestilence, along with his description of the war, is considered one of the greatest contributions in history, his ‘scientific history’ elucidating the causes and effects events can establish. As he describes the consequences of the plague, Thucydides notes the systematic changes it incurred:

“In other respects too the plague was the beginning of increased lawlessness in the city. People were less inhibited in the indulgence of pleasures previously concealed when they saw the rapid changes of fortune – the prosperous suddenly dead, and the once indigent now possessing their fortune.”

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, p. 99.

The traditional respect for authority had declined, especially once Athens’s charismatic leader Pericles succumbed to the plague (who ironically is a figure admired by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself falling ill to COVID-19). Thucydides also notes how the disease reportedly originated from Ethiopia, much like how COVID-19 had originated from China and later infected the rest of the world.

These separate events are hauntingly similar, but this is not the main concern for making such a parallel. Instead, its greatest significance is the great change it could have for the global distribution of power. The importance of the Peloponnesian War was that it removed Athens’s hegemonic status and gave Sparta its victory, albeit a pyrrhic one. As the international relations theorist Robert Gilpin (p. 595) explained in his analysis of Thucydides’ work, the latter identified three key parts in the transition of Greece’s political order:

  • The ‘thesis’ – “the hegemonic state, in this case, Sparta, which organizes the international system in terms of its political, economic, and strategic interests.”
  • The ‘antithesis’ – the “contradiction in the system” that “is the growing power of the challenging state” and “whose expansion and efforts to transform the international system bring it into conflict with the hegemonic state.”
  • The ‘synthesis’ – “the new international system that results from the inevitable clash between the dominant state and the rising challenger.”

These three basic factors are ingredients to a recipe that forms a ‘Thucydides Trap’, which has occurred several times throughout history. According to Graham Allison (2015), 12 of the 16 cases of Thucydides Traps occurring in the past 500 years have had the result of war. The aftermath has often been a synthesis, the Congress of Vienna leading to an equilibrium of power within Europe after Napoleon’s defeat with British mediation, and the end of World War II allowing the US’s hegemony in world affairs to emerge with its reluctant supporters; a couple of many examples.

Despite World War II having ended nearly 80 years ago with relative peace existing since then, at least three Thucydides Traps have occurred thereafter, all ending without direct conflict. Allison believes now we are in the midst of another, that being between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. It has now been five years since he proposed this hypothesis, yet it is now one that is ever more relevant due to the exacerbating effects COVID-19 has had on Sino-American relations, with The Economist claiming that they are at “their darkest point since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989” (Anonymous 2020). Such relations were already far from being amicable due to President Trump’s trade tariffs against China and accusations of Huawei conducting espionage on the behalf of the Chinese state.

COVID-19 is in some ways far worse than the Plague of Athens, mainly because of the accusations being made against China by several powers and the intricate network of world affairs that complicates matters further. This is very much the case for Britain, with the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announcing on the 17th April that it will not be “business as usual” with China once the virus subsides (McGuinness 2020). This was hardly ameliorated by China’s announcement the same day, stating that coronavirus cases in Wuhan had increased by 50% after previously stating they had eradicated it from spreading further (Qin 2020). This had led to accusations of a cover-up by the Chinese state, which has previously been elaborated on, to preserve its status as the leading trader of the world economy. But the unique pressures COVID-19 has put on China and the rest of the world could lead to a re-evaluation of whether it is truly fit to lead the current world order America has largely shaped.

The virus has no doubt greatly weakened the US and its partners which, to a certain extent, may serve China’s distribution of cheap goods amongst consumers who require cheap substitutes due to their depressed wages. But it appears many nations have had enough and that business will not remain as usual like Raab claims. In 2013, China was responsible for 67% of all US-bound Asian-sourced manufactured goods, only for its share to collapse by 56% in the second quarter of 2019 (Rapoza 2020). The effect of this has already been realised, with China’s economy now shrinking, “ending a nearly half-century of growth” (Bradsher 2020). Tensions have already been entering a new high within Brazil, with the country’s Education Minister Abraham Weintraub accusing China of using the virus to “dominate the world” (Simões 2020). Fears of China attempting to achieve hegemony, whether rational or not, seem to be more abundant than ever through the new methods of retaliation being made against the Asian powerhouse.

Whether Sino-American relations will enter a war like most Thucydides Traps is far too early to tell and would be a bold claim to make. However, like the Plague of Athens was for the Peloponnesian War, the consequences of COVID-19 is no doubt a strong contribution to the situation’s growing schism. Only with hindsight in the future will current world affairs become more comprehensive. For now, people can only “accommodate memories to their current experiences” as had Thucydides (p. 100) said for the people of Athens. Looking at the Athenians’ own experiences can we get some form of grasp of our own predicament, albeit one far from perfect, and what it can mean for the future of world affairs. Nevertheless, a revision on how the globalised world conducts itself is certain to happen, one that will hopefully release itself from the Thucydides Trap that Ancient Athens failed to escape from.

Featured image credit: “Pericles” by PabloEscudero is marked with CC PDM 1.0