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Thucydides Trap Case File

16 major cases of rise vs. rule

Presentation, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

September 23, 2015

Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School


Thucydides Trap is a metaphor that reminds us of the inevitable structural stress that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power. As I argue in an article in The Atlantic, it offers the best lens available for clarifying the dynamics of the relationship between China and the U.S. today.

In the fifth century B.C., when Athens’ rapid rise challenged Sparta’s century-long predominance in the Peloponnese, the outcome was war. The great Greek historian, Thucydides, wrote famously: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

The Thucydides Trap Case File has been assembled by researchers at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center searching for precedents and analogs that may help us better understand the current case of what political scientists call “hegemonic challenge.” This file includes all cases that we have identified so far where a major rising power threatened to displace a major ruling power. In 12 of the 16 cases, this rivalry produced war. In 4 of the cases, by extraordinary efforts or circumstances, the parties avoided war. Lessons from both the failures and successes offer many insights and clues for statesmen attempting to manage current relations between an emerging superpower and the reigning hegemon.

This Case File is a work in progress. We invite your critical feedback and contributions to the ongoing effort. Specifically, by using the comment feature on this site, you can:

  1. Add cases from other areas or eras, such as those in which a less-than-major power was challenged by a rising power, or a state was dominant in a smaller geographic area or specific domain;
  2. Reject one of the cases in our current list, or disagree substantially with our account of the case;
  3. Debate the methodology in this study, and suggest other methodological approaches that can illuminate our central questions;
  4. Identify related efforts to clarify issues of current policy relevance with data sets of instances of this phenomenon in the historical record;
  5. Offer other comments and suggestions.

We look forward to receiving responses, and will post feedback that advances the conversation.


Overview of major historical cases:

Period Ruling Power Rising Power Result
1 First half of 16th century France Hapsburgs War
2 16th - 17th centuries Hapsburgs Ottoman Empire War
3 17th century Hapsburgs Sweden War
4 17th century Dutch Republic England War
5 Late 17th - early 18th centuries France Great Britain
6 Late 18th - early 19th centuries United Kingdom France War
7 Mid-19th century United Kingdom,
Russia War
8 19th century France Germany War
9 Late 19th - early 20th centuries Russia, China Japan War
10 Early 20th century United Kingdom United States No war
11 Early 20th century Russia, United Kingdom, France
Germany War
12 Mid-20th century Soviet Union,
United Kingdom, France
Germany War
13 Mid-20th century United States Japan War
14 1970s-1980s Soviet Union Japan No war
15 1940s-1980s United States Soviet Union No war
16 1990s-present United Kingdom,
Germany No war



Major historical cases in which a ruling power and a rising power fought a war:

16th Century+

France vs. Hapsburgs

Period: First half of 16th century
Ruling power: France
Rising power: Hapsburgs in Holy Roman Empire, Netherlands, and Spain
War(s): Hapsburg-Valois wars (1519-1559), including Italian War (1521-1526)


After dismantling the powerful Duchy of Burgundy in 1477, France became Western Europe’s major continental power. Its growing prosperity led Pope Leo X to declare in 1519 that King Francis I of France “surpassed in wealth and power all other Christian kings.”[1] Francis was a leading contender to succeed German King Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor that year, but lost out to the Hapsburg successor, Charles of Spain.

Charles’ power—and his neighbors’ anxiety—grew as he consolidated his rule over Hapsburg-controlled parts of the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, territories in Franche-Comte and modern-day Italy, and Spain’s empire in the New World. “Whether Charles V aspired to a universal empire or not,” John Lynch observes, “the fact remained that even without counting any of the territories in dispute—Milan and Burgundy—his dominions were already too universal and injured too many interests not to provoke widespread resentment.”[2] Prior to Charles’ coronation as emperor, Spain’s power had already grown tremendously with its acquisition of an empire in the New World.

Hapsburg expansion threatened French control of Burgundy and Milan, and raised the prospect of Hapsburg encirclement. France invaded Hapsburg-controlled northeast Spain and Luxembourg. In response, Charles enlisted English and Papal support against France’s aggression and successfully invaded French lands in Italy. In the end, Francis was captured and forced to renounce French claims in Italy, Burgundy, Spain, Flanders, and Artois in the degrading Treaty of Madrid in 1526.[3] Despite a hiatus as Charles turned his focus to a rising Ottoman Empire, the struggle between France and the Hapsburgs continued intermittently until the late 1550s.

Major Sources

John Lynch, Spain under the Hapsburgs, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).

  • “Feeling the pressure of Hapsburg power on all its land frontiers, France would strike out whenever the opportunity occurred.” (89)

Maria J. Rodriguez-Salgado, “The Hapsburg-Valois Wars,” in The New Cambridge Modern History (2nd ed., Vol. 2), ed. G. R. Elton (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 377–400.

  • “While contemporaries were unanimous that [the Hapsburgs] had become the greatest land power in the world, only a few believed that he could unite these disparate lands and successfully challenge Francis. Nevertheless, Francis was alarmed by the vicinity of such a powerful state; later, with England on the Hapsburg side, he would complain of encirclement by his enemies.” (380-381)

Further Reading

Robert Knecht, Francis I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Robert Knecht, The Valois, Kings of France: 1328-1589 (London: Bloomsbury, 2007).

Richard Mackenney, Sixteenth Century Europe: Expansion and Conflict (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1993).

[1] Maria J. Rodriguez-Salgado, “The Hapsburg-Valois wars,” in The New Cambridge Modern History (2nd ed., vol. 2), ed. G. R. Elton (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 380.

[2] John Lynch, Spain under the Hapsburgs, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 88.

[3] At that point, having exhausted their finances, both sides agreed to shelve their hostilities and concentrate on sectarian unrest at home. Conflict resumed during the early 1600s, as Spanish King Philip IV faced a newly rising France under King Louis XIII. During the reign of the “Sun King” Louis XIV, France became continental Europe’s preeminent power once more.

Hapsburgs vs. Ottoman Empire

Period: 16th and 17th centuries
Ruling power: Hapsburgs in Holy Roman Empire
Rising power: Ottoman Empire
War(s): Ottoman-Hapsburg Wars, including Wars of Suleiman the Magnificent (1526–66), Long War (1593–1606), and Great Turkish War (1683–99)


With its victory over France in the Italian War (see Case #1), Charles V’s Hapsburg empire achieved a dominant position in Europe, controlling Austria, Spain, southern Italy, and present day Netherlands. In desperation, the defeated Francis I reached out to the rising Ottomans whom he saw as “the only power capable of guaranteeing the existence of the European states against Charles V.” [1] With the annexation of the Mamluk Empire (which spread across Egypt, Syria, and Arabia) in 1517, the Ottomans doubled both their territory and tax base. Using these resources, Ottoman forces projected power west to the Strait of Gibraltar and north to the frontier of Hapsburg rule in Eastern Europe. Francis I thus repeatedly reached out to Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, imploring him to attack the Hapsburgs from the east out of fears that the Holy Roman Emperor would otherwise become “ruler of the world.” [2]

In a watershed moment, King Louis of Hungary was slain on the field by Ottoman forces in the decisive Battle of Mohács in 1526. Suleiman seized one-third of Hungary as his own, sending a wave of terror across the continent. The door to Christian Europe had been opened to Muslim expansion. Fearing the Ottomans would exploit the power vacuum resulting from the Hungarian monarch’s death, Ferdinand, Hapsburg Archduke of Austria, declared himself the new King of Hungary and Bohemia. This direct challenge to Suleiman initiated an extended military confrontation.

After twice repelling Ottoman attacks on Vienna but failing to reclaim significant territory in Hungary, Charles V was forced to conclude a humiliating treaty in 1547 with Suleiman in which he relinquished claims to Hungary (except for a small area, secured with an agreement to make annual payments to Constantinople). In the treaty, Charles V was recognized not as “Emperor,” but only as “King of Spain,” allowing Suleiman to proclaim himself the world’s true “Caesar.”[3] Through this victory the Ottoman Empire cemented its position as a significant player in the European political landscape, although its military dominance was short-lived. Over the next two centuries the two powers continued their struggle for hegemony in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Major Sources

Halil İnalcik, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600 (Phoenix Press, 2001).

  • “The addition of Arab lands [in 1517] to the Ottoman Empire marks the beginning of a new era… the Ottomans now controlled the world’s richest centers of the transit trade. Ottoman state income doubled, the reserve treasury in the Palace was overflowing, and with these resources Suleiman I was able to support his plans for world-wide conquests.” (34)

Andrew Hess, “The Ottoman Conquest of Egypt (1517) and the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century World War,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 4.1 (January 1973): 55–76.

  • “The Hapsburg empire quickly became the most powerful opponent of the Muslim world. But before the Christian emperor could assemble his imperial forces on Sicilian and Libyan fronts, Ottoman armies conquered Egypt (1517) and forced Charles V to deal with an expanding Turko-Muslim empire.” (61)
  • “On the whole the doubling of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 not only began the sixteenth-century world war but it also tilted the balance of power in the Afro-Eurasian area toward Istanbul and not the Atlantic Ocean.” (75)

Caroline Finkel, Osman's Dream: the story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923 (New York: Basic Books, 2007).

  • Ottoman victory at Mohacs in 1526 was “momentous in its consequences” and “initiated a 150-year struggle between Ottomans and Hapsburgs in central Europe… The future lines of Ottoman conflict with the Austrian Hapsburgs became apparent when… Archduke Ferdinand was elected King of Hungary by a faction favoring Charles V; fear of the Ottomans eased his path to the throne – to many of the Hungarian nobles, the Hapsburgs seemed the dynasty most able to resist the threat. Louis’s death at Mohacs had changed everything for the Ottomans, who found themselves confronting a dynasty as ambitious as their own instead of an independent Hungary… Ferdinand was now cast as the Ottoman foe in central Europe.” (122-124)

Further Reading

Colin Imber, The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Richard Mackenney, Sixteenth Century Europe: Expansion and Conflict. (London: Macmillan, 1993).

Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[1] Halil İnalcik, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600 (Phoenix Press, 2001), p. 35.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Colin Imber, The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 54.

17th Century+

Hapsburgs vs. Sweden

Period: 17th century
Ruling power: Hapsburgs in Holy Roman Empire
Rising power: Sweden
War(s): Part of Thirty Years' War (Swedish involvement from 1630–48)


Ferdinand II consolidated control over the Holy Roman Empire after his election as Emperor in 1619, pushing north to gain German resources and manpower. This expansion coincided with a period of Swedish rise under King Gustavus Adolphus. Through a combination of economic and military innovation and territorial expansion, Gustavus had transformed Sweden from a poor, backward Baltic state into one of Europe’s most powerful empires. Sweden’s decisive victories over Russia in 1617 and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1625 allowed it to consolidate control of the Baltics. After it captured a slice of Poland in 1629, it controlled “every port of consequence on the southern shore of the Baltic.”[1]

As Michael Roberts explains, Gustavus viewed Hapsburg regional dominance warily and perceived “an imperialist occupation of [northern Germany]” as posing a “direct danger to Sweden.” Proximity to the Hapsburgs convinced Gustavus that Hapsburg hegemony had to be challenged: “Thus the Protestant cause became Sweden’s cause too; and the north German coastland became a Swedish interest.”[2] Declaring itself champion of the Protestants, Sweden inserted itself directly into the Thirty Years’ War by invading Germany and directly engaging Hapsburg forces. Gustavus’ ambition grew along with his power: he became “obsessed with the dream of total victory.”[3]

Swedish armies defeated Hapsburg armies (most notably at the Battle of Wittstock near Berlin in 1636) and occupied half of Germany. This made Sweden the most powerful country in northern Europe and the third-largest country on the continent (behind Russia and Spain). What historians call Sweden’s “Age of Greatness” lasted into the early 18th century.

Major Sources

Michael Roberts, Gustavus Adolphus (London: Longman, 1992).

  • “[Gustavus] became obsessed with the dream of total victory. He would ‘clip the wings of the Imperialists so that they should not fly again’; he would accept no peace which did not secure him, not only against the Austrian but also the Spanish Hapsburgs… the only peace that could be acceptable was a peace ‘with our foot on their neck and a knife at their throat.’” (160)

Michael Roberts, “Sweden and the Baltic 1611–54,” in The New Cambridge Modern History (2nd ed., Vol. 4), ed. M. Roberts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970): 385–410.

  • “The victories of Gustavus transformed Sweden within the space of two years from the leading power in the Baltic into one of the two or three leading powers in Europe.” (398)

Jan Glete, War and the State in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2002).

  • Gustavus “wished to control territories and ports in northern Germany as a forward defense for Sweden, most immediately against Hapsburg naval ambitions.” (187)

Further Reading

Robert Frost, The Northern Wars. War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe 1558–1721 (New York: Longman, 2000).

Peter Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[1] Michael Roberts, “Sweden and the Baltic 1611–54,” in The New Cambridge Modern History (2nd ed., Vol. 4), ed. J.P. Cooper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 392-3.

[2] Ibid, p. 392.

[3] Michael Roberts, Gustavus Adolphus (London: Longman, 1992), p. 160.

Dutch Republic vs. England

Period: 17th century
Ruling power: Dutch Republic
Rising power: England
War(s): Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–74)


The Dutch Republic gained official independence from Spain in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and rapidly emerged as Europe’s preeminent naval and trading power. By 1651, the ratio of Dutch to English merchant ships in the Baltic was 50:1.[1] Despite political and economic instability at home, England sought to expand its share of international trade, challenging the commercial prowess of the Dutch. As Jack Levy describes, this economic competition transitioned into a full strategic rivalry due to “the rise of English prosperity in both absolute and relative terms, and an increased assertiveness in English foreign policy”[2] characterized by aggressive mercantilism and a dramatic naval build-up.

The English fleet grew from 39 major ships in 1649 to 80 by 1651, while England’s military manpower (which had remained at roughly 20,000-30,000 men from 1470-1600) more than doubled to 70,000 by the 1650s. The English Civil War, which ended in 1651, also resulted in the creation of a modern, professional Parliamentary army.[3]

The “growth of English naval power and the shift to parity in the dyadic balance”[4] paved the way for three naval wars between 1652 and 1674. The conflicts were stoked by political and military challenges to Dutch rule in the high seas, including the 1660 Navigation Act and recurring English actions challenging Dutch shipping interests. “Each people was instinctively conscious that its destiny was upon the water, and that mastery of the seas was a necessity of national existence,” writes George Edmundson in Anglo-Dutch Rivalry During the First Half of the Seventeenth Century. “Hence a rivalry which was unavoidable, inexorable, a rivalry which could eventually have only one of two issues, either the voluntary submission of one of the rivals to the other, or a trial of strength by ordeal of battle.”[5] The rivalry ultimately ended with Britain’s Glorious Revolution in 1688-9, when the Dutch ruler, Protestant William of Orange, was encouraged by some English magnates to invade England and depose the Catholic King James II. Thus united, the two nations went on to make common cause against William’s archenemy, France’s Louis XIV.

Major Sources

George Edmundson, Anglo-Dutch Rivalry during the First Half of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911).

  • “These wars of 1652-4, 1665-7, 1672-4 were the inevitable outcome of a long-continued clashing of interests, which were of fundamental importance and indeed vital to the welfare of both nations.” (4)

Jack Levy, “The Rise and Decline of the Anglo-Dutch Rivalry, 1609–1689,” in Great Power Rivalries, ed. William R. Thompson (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999): 172–200.

  • “Although the basic issue driving the commercial rivalry was that England wanted ‘more of the trade the Dutch now have’…and although some interpret the first two Anglo-Dutch naval wars as ‘purely commercial,’ a purely economic explanation is misleading. The escalatory potential of the economic conflict in fact owed much to the close connections between economic and strategic issues.” (189)

J.R. Jones, The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century (New York: Routledge, 1996).

  • “It is clear that the Dutch were fighting to protect and conserve the trade on which Holland and Zeeland entirely depended. From the Dutch perspective these wars were entirely defensive: survival was the aim, there was no way in which they could hope to gain from them, to ‘win.’” (11)

Further Reading

Paul Sonnino, Louis XIV and the Origins of the Dutch War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, Vol. II (London: Penguin, 2005).

[1] N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, Vol. II (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 7.

[2] Jack Levy, “The Rise and Decline of the Anglo-Dutch Rivalry, 1609–1689,” in Great Power Rivalries, ed. William R. Thompson (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), pp.188-189.

[3] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 63, p. 56.

[4] Levy, p. 191.

[5] George Edmundson, Anglo-Dutch Rivalry during the First Half of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), p. 5.

France vs. Great Britain

Period: Late 17th and early 18th centuries
Ruling power: France
Rising power: England / Great Britain
War(s): Nine Years' War (1688–97), War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), Seven Years’ War (1754-63)


In the decade before the outbreak of the Nine Years’ War in 1688, Louis XIV’s France emerged as the preeminent power on the continent of Europe. Although technically at peace with his neighbors, over the next ten years Louis relentlessly strengthened his position by seizing territories beyond his borders, expanding into Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and Casale. These gains were accompanied by a military buildup: fortresses were reinforced, 36 battalions of infantry prepared for service, and 140,000 men put on notice so that their units could be raised quickly.[1] Louis’ ambitions alarmed the continental powers, and William of Orange formed the League of Augsburg, a coalition of powers created with the intention of checking further French expansion. After William became King of England in 1689, Britain assumed its place as one of the League’s central partners.

In 1688, when Louis crossed the Rhine, the League of Augsburg mobilized against him, marking the start of the Nine Years’ War. Sir George Clark writes, “Leopold I and William III both regarded the war as an opportunity to reduce the power of France to a level which could be tolerable to the rest of Europe.”[2] Although the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) was ultimately successful in blunting Louis’ territorial designs, war resumed in 1701 when William and the Hapsburgs joined forces to prevent a Bourbon from inheriting the Spanish throne. The alliance was unable to prevent Louis’ grandson from assuming the throne, but it succeeded in forcing Louis to cede significant territory in the New World to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht.

The rapid growth of Britain’s colonial empire in North America led to increasing conflict with the French over rights to trade and territory. Thus, the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) spilled over onto the American continent, while colonial disputes continued during the Seven Years’ War in the next decade. Britain’s decisive defeat of France at the conclusion of that conflict in 1763, however, led to a wholesale rearrangement in the balance of power in North America and Europe. Britain had overtaken France as Europe’s greatest imperial power, a position it would maintain into the Napoleonic era.

Major Sources

Sir George Clark, “The Nine Years War, 1688–1697,” in The New Cambridge Modern History (2nd ed., Vol. 6), ed. J. S. Bromley (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 223–53.

  • On the Nine Years’ War: “The one great change in the distribution of European military and naval resources was that Great Britain, compelled to make greater efforts than ever before, and to strike in new directions, developed her strength for war.” (228-229)

Derek McKay and H.M. Scott, The Rise of the Great Powers 1648-1815 (New York: Longman, 1983).

  • On the War of the Spanish Succession: “Within a year of Philip V’s accession Louis had made general war inevitable. The windfall of Charles II’s will seemed to have put France on the road to hegemony and universal monarchy.” (57)

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

  • “…Louis XIV’s evident desire to round off France’s northern borders, his claim to be ‘the arbiter of Europe,’ and the alarming fact that he was maintaining an army of 200,000 troops in peacetime disquieted Germans, Dutchmen, Spaniards, and Englishmen alike…By September 1688, a now-nervous French king decided to invade Germany, finally turning this European ‘cold’ war into a hot one.” (102)

Further Reading

John A. Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV: 1667-1714 (Harlow, UK: Longman, 1999).

John B. Wolf, The Emergence of the Great Powers: 1685-1715 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951).

[1] Sir George Clark, “The Nine Years War, 1688–1697,” in The New Cambridge Modern History (2nd ed., Vol. 6), ed. J. S. Bromley (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 223.

[2] Ibid, p. 230.

18th Century+

United Kingdom vs. France

Period: Late 18th and early 19th centuries
Ruling power: Great Britain/United Kingdom
Rising power: France
War(s): French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) and Napoleonic
Wars (1803–15)


At the opening of the French Revolutionary Wars, Great Britain was Europe’s preeminent economic and naval power. Its booming colonial trade and domestic industrialization were protected by 113 ships-of-the-line, dwarfing the 76 equivalent ships of France—its nearest competitor and Europe’s leading land power.[1]

After Napoleon took control of France in 1799, he led a campaign to dominate the continent through wars with Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, the Ottoman Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire. His attempt to redraw the map of Europe threatened the long-standing British conviction that its security required prevention of a hegemonic power on the European continent. The British response had dual objectives. It was determined, as Michael Leggiere notes, “to restore the balance of power in Europe by forcing France to surrender conquests such as the Low Countries. Yet London wanted a balance of power that left Great Britain master of the seas and with a clear monopoly on global trade.”[2]

To achieve its goal, Britain supported France’s enemies in Europe while the Royal Navy hunted French ships around the world. The sinking of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 destroyed Napoleon’s hopes of invading the UK. Thereafter, while Napoleon continued waging economic war against the UK and expanding on the continent, Britain’s economic and diplomatic advantages were undeniable. As Paul Kennedy explains, “The government of Paris could never be certain that the other continental powers would permanently accept the French imperium so long as Britain—offering subsidies, munitions, and possibly even troops—remained independent.”[3] Ultimately, Napoleon’s defeat came at the hands of a British-led army at Waterloo in 1815.

Major Sources

David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

  • “The majority of the Directors were also aware that their emergency powers would not survive one day of a general peace, and therefore welcomed the continuation of hostilities [against Great Britain]. Years later, Napoleon described the prevalent situation: ‘The Directory was dominated by its own weakness; in order to exist it needed a perpetual state of war just as other governments need peace.’” (208)

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

  • “Here, then, was the fundamental strategic dilemma which faced both France and Britain for the next two decades of war. Like the whale and the elephant, each was by far the largest creature in its own domain. But British control of the sea routes could not by itself destroy the French hegemony in Europe, nor could Napoleon's military mastery reduce the islands to surrender.” (124)

Further Reading

Michael Leggiere, The Fall of Napoleon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Jeremy Black, “Enduring Rivalries: Britain and France,” in Great Power Rivalries, ed. William R. Thompson (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999): 254-268.

[1] David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: Macmillan, 1966), p. 208.

[2] Michael Leggiere, The Fall of Napoleon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 2.

[3] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 124.

19th Century+

United Kingdom and France vs. Russia

Period: Mid-19th century
Ruling power: French Empire (land) / United Kingdom (seas)
Rising power: Russia
War(s): Crimean War (1853-56)


From its defeat of Napoleon until the 1850s, Russia’s vast army awed the rest of Europe, expanding successfully into the Caucuses and Turkistan and suppressing the Hungarian rebellion of 1848. Russia’s competitors Britain and France feared an emerging giant.[1] Not until it was tested in the crucible of war did either Russia or its competitors recognize that it was a “colossus with feet of clay.”[2]

In the run-up to the Crimean War, Tsar Nicholas I attempted to exploit the weakness of the declining Ottoman Empire (the “sick man of Europe”) by taking control of Constantinople and the Bosphorus and Dardanelle Straits. In 1853, the Tsar demanded that the Sultan recognize a Russian protectorate over Orthodox subjects in Constantinople and the Holy Land. When the Ottomans rejected this demand, Russia sent troops to occupy the Danubian Principalities (modern-day Moldova and Romania) and sunk the Ottoman fleet at Sinope. For Britain, Russian capture of Constantinople would pose an intolerable threat to its position in the Mediterranean. Fear of Russian expansion united Britain and France in a joint undertaking that included sending a fleet into the Black Sea and issuing an ultimatum demanding Russian withdrawal from the Principalities. When Russia refused, France and Britain declared war on Russia.

In battle, Russia’s technical and organizational backwardness became evident. The decisive defeat at Sevastopol, the capital of Crimea, shattered the illusion of Russian military superiority. France’s success in particular boosted its prestige and confidence. As Adam Lambert concludes, “Britain, France and Russia fought on a global scale for mastery of Europe—a prize that went, temporarily, to the French—and mastery of the world, which the British retained for another two generations.”[3]

Major Sources

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

  • “The sheer size of the Russian army and the steadiness of its mass conscripts appeared more impressive to outside observers . . . What was more, the Russian army was active and often successful in its frequent campaigns of expansion into the Caucasus and across Turkestan—thrusts which were already beginning to worry the British in India, and make Anglo-Russian relations in the nineteenth century much more strained than they had been in the eighteenth.” (172)

Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010).

  • “For the British and the French, this was a crusade for the defense of liberty and European civilization against the barbaric and despotic menace of Russia, whose aggressive expansionism represented a real threat.” (xxii)

Adam Lambert, The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy Against Russia, 1853-56 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990).

  • “The object of the war, even in Palmerston’s grandest permutations, was never more than to place some barrier in the path of Russian expansion.” (349)

Further Reading

AJP Taylor, Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955).

David Goldfrank, Origins of the Crimean War (London: Routledge, 1994).

Ian Fletcher, The Crimean War: A Clash of Empires (London: Spellmount, 2004).

David Wetzel, Crimean War: A Diplomatic History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

[1] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 172.

[2] Alexander Polunov. Thomas Owen and Larissa Zakharova, eds., Marshall Shatz, trans., Russia in the Nineteenth Century: Autocracy, Reform, and Social Change, 1814-1914 (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2005), p. 69.

[3] Adam Lambert, The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy against Russia, 1853-56 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 27.

France vs. Germany

Period: 19th century
Ruling power: France
Rising power: Germany
War(s): Franco-Prussian War (1870–71)


After defeating Denmark in 1864 and Austria in 1866, Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia put France “in that most dangerous of all moods; that of a great power which sees itself declining to the second rank.”[1] Bismarck saw war with France as an effective instrument for mobilizing elite and popular support for the unification of his Prussian-dominated North German Confederation with the southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria, and Hesse.[2] As Bismarck acknowledged, “I did not doubt that a Franco-German war must take place before the construction of a United Germany could be realized.”[3]

Bismarck stimulated French fears of encirclement by threatening to place a German prince from the House of Hohenzollern on the Spanish throne. In Jonathan Steinberg’s summary, “The new French Foreign Secretary, the Duc de Gramont, accounted to the French Chamber of Deputies that the Hohenzollern candidacy for the Spanish throne constituted a serious attempt to change the European Balance of Power to the detriment of the French Empire. The honor and interests of France had been severely injured. He hinted that France would regard it as grounds for war.”[4]

Indeed, the Hohenzollern candidacy and Bismarck’s deliberate provocation of French public opinion through the “Ems Telegram” prompted Napoleon III to declare war on Prussia. Because the southern German states saw France as the aggressor, they joined the North German Confederation, just as Bismarck had anticipated. “There can be no doubt,” Michael Howard contends, “that France was the immediate aggressor, and none that the immediate provocation to her aggression was contrived by Bismarck.”[5] After a decisive victory, a unified Germany emerged with the strongest army on the continent. French resentment and revanchism smoldered over the next four decades, ultimately contributing to dynamics that led to catastrophe in 1914.

Major Sources

Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871 (New York: Routledge, 2013).

  • “In the summer of 1870 the kingdom of Prussia and her German allies totally destroyed the military power of Imperial France. For nearly eighty years the defeated nation had given the law in military matters to Europe, whereas the victor, ten years earlier, had been the least of the continent’s major military powers. Within a month Prussia established a military pre-eminence and a political hegemony which made the unification of Germany under her leadership a matter of course. There was little precedent in the history of Europe for so dramatic a reversal.” (1)

Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994): 103-136.

  • “The unification of Germany was now just one crisis away . . . France was now obliged to tend to the collapse of its historic European preeminence.” (117-18)

Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • “[Bismarck] knew he needed a crisis with France and possibility even a war to overcome the resistance of the southern German states to a final unification under Prussian leadership.” (281-82)

Further Readings

Robert Howard Lord, The Origins of the War of 1870 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924).

Geoffrey Wawro, The Franco-Prussian War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[1] Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War (New York: Methuen, 1961), p. 40

[2] Geoffrey Wawro. The Franco-Prussian War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 24; Jonathan Steinberg. Bismarck: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 281-82.

[3] Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman, Being the Reflections and Reminiscences of Otto, Prince von Bismarck, Written and Dictated by Himself after His Retirement from Office – trans. A.J. Butler (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1898), p. 57.

[4] Jonathan Steinberg. Bismarck: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 284.

[5] Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871 (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 40.

Russia and China vs. Japan

Period: Late 19th and early 20th centuries
Ruling power: Russia and China
Rising power: Japan
War(s): First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and Russo-Japanese War


Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan emerged from two centuries of isolation to challenge, and ultimately unseat, the Chinese and Russian guardians of the East Asian status quo.[1] Resentful of a subordinate relationship with the West and fearful of encroachment, Japan felt a heightened “sense of urgency that [it] must act more energetically” to protect and extend its growing power.[2]

As Japan modernized, it promoted reforms to strengthen Korea, consolidate Japan’s influence there, and draw the country away from China’s sphere of influence. As Peter Duus writes, Korea’s importance “was not merely its proximity to Japan but its inability to defend itself against outsiders…if Korea remained ‘backward’ or ‘uncivilized,’ it would remain weak, and if it remained weak, it would be inviting prey for foreign predators.”[3] China’s resistance to Japan’s efforts stimulated the Japanese preparation for potential military conflict. In 1880, military expenditures accounted for 19 percent of the Japanese budget; by 1886 this figure had risen to 25 percent, and by 1890, 31 percent.[4]

In 1894, a succession of events on the Korean Peninsula brought China and Japan to war. An armed rebellion, the Tonghak Uprising, compelled the Korean king to call upon Chinese troops for help in quelling the violence. Unwilling to see its influence eroded, Japan sent its own troops, bringing them into direct conflict with the Chinese. The war lasted less than a year and ended with a decisive Japanese victory.

After this triumph, Russia replaced China as Japan’s most powerful rival in the region. According to Charles Holcombe, “Russia’s primary interests lay in Manchuria, while Japan’s lay in Korea, but neither power was willing to renounce its wider ambitions in order to reach an accommodation.”[5] The result was the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, a conflict in which the Japanese were again victorious. Together, the two wars curtailed Chinese and Russian influence in the region, and consolidated Japan’s position as the dominant Northeast Asian power.

Major Sources

Akira Iriye, “Japan’s drive to great-power status,” in The Emergence of Meiji Japan, ed. Marius B. Jansen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

  • On the Sino-Japanese War: “Japan’s objective in Korea was no longer the maintenance of a balance between Japan and China, but the ejection of Chinese influence from the peninsula.” (311)

Peter Duus, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).

  • “During the 1880s, as the ‘new imperialism’ intruded ever more ominously into East Asia and even China became a possible object of Western territorial ambitions, the discourse over the Korean problem refocused on the issues of Korean reform and Japanese national security. The two were linked.” (49)

Ian Nish, The Origins of the Russo-Japanese War (New York: Longman, 1985).

  • On the Russo-Japanese War: “Among its many-sided origins, there was a strong strategic factor. On the military side there were too many Russian troops in Manchuria in 1904 for Japan’s conception of her own security and she did not succeed in negotiating for their withdrawal.” (2)

Further Reading

J.N. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05: A New Look at the Russo-Japanese War (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986).

Stewart Lone, Japan’s First Modern War: Army and Society in the Conflict with China: 1894-95 (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

S.C.M. Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[1] While both the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War could constitute two separate Thucydides cases if considered separately, similarities between the two dynamics are salient enough to be considered as a single case.

[2] Akira Iriye, “Japan’s drive to great-power status,” in The Emergence of Meiji Japan, ed. Marius B. Jansen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 307-308.

[3] Peter Duus, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), p. 49.

[4] Ibid, p. 62.

[5] Charles Holcombe, A History of East Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 244.

20th Century+

Triple Entente vs. Germany

Period: Early-20th century
Ruling power: Triple Entente (United Kingdom, supported by France and Russia)
Rising power: German Reich
War(s): World War I (1914–18)


After unification and consolidation under Bismarck, Germany became the dominant economic and military power on the continent, and projected growing influence as a trading and colonial power. While the United Kingdom continued to rule the seas, Germany’s search for an empire of its own provided sufficient rationale force. Its major naval build-up in the late 1890s sparked an intense naval arms race—and helped persuade the UK to accommodate America’s own rise (See Case #10). First Lord of the Admiralty the Earl of Selborne underlined this concern in 1902: “I am convinced that the great new German navy is being carefully built up from the point of view of war with us…In deciding on a naval policy we cannot safely ignore the malignant hatred of the German people or the manifest design of the German Navy.”[1]

According to Paul Kennedy, “So far as the British and German governments were concerned, the 1914-18 conflict was essentially entered into because the former power wished to preserve the existing status quo, whereas the latter, for a mixture of offensive and defensive motives, was taking steps to alter it. In that sense, the wartime struggle between London and Berlin was but a continuation of what had been going on for at least fifteen or twenty years before the July [1914] crisis itself.”[2]

As the German imperial and naval rivalry with the UK intensified, Berlin also found itself confronting with a second Thucydidean dynamic: Russia’s growing strength to Germany’s east. By 1910, Russia had twice as many men under arms as Germany and its aggressive railroad construction plan would allow rapid troop movements to Germany’s eastern front—raising the specter of a two-front war against Russia and France. In response to these developments, all sides began strengthening ties with allies, creating what Henry Kissinger called “a political doomsday machine” that made war “structurally unavoidable.”[3]

Major Sources

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

  • “By the eve of the First World War, [Germany’s] national power was not only three or four times Italy’s and Japan’s, it was well ahead of either France or Russia and had probably overtaken Britain as well…It was the most powerful state in Europe.” (210)

Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace (New York: Random House, 2013).

  • “The naval race is the key factor in understanding the growing hostility between Britain and Germany. Trade rivalry, competition for colonies, nationalist public opinion, all played their part but those factors also existed in whole or in part in the relationship between Britain and each of France, Russia and the United States. Yet in none of these cases did they lead to the deepening suspicions and fears that came to mark the relations between Britain and Germany in the years before 1914.” (140)

Further Reading

Paul Kennedy, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980).

Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).

[1] Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation Of Peace (New York: Doubleday, 1995), p. 144.

[2] Paul Kennedy, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980), p. 470.

[3] Jeremy Bender, “Kissinger: World War I Was 'Structurally Unavoidable,’” Business Insider, 1 July 2014.

Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France vs. Germany

Period: Mid–20th century
Ruling power: Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France
Rising power: German Reich
War(s): World War II (1939–45)


Following the Treaty of Versailles, the guardians of the post-war order slowly regained their prominence and military strength while Germany remained economically and militarily subordinate. Many Germans blamed this weakness on the draconian terms of the peace, which laid blame for the war squarely on Germany, imposed massive reparations, and placed severe constraints on the country’s military capabilities. Capitalizing on the resulting resentment, Hitler’s Nazi Party rose to power by promising the resurrection of German power.

Seeking to restore Germany as the dominant power in Europe, Hitler led a simultaneous recovery of economic power, military strength, and, most importantly, national pride. “War had been the objective of the Third Reich and its leaders from the moment they came to power in 1933,” writes Richard Evans. “From that point up to the actual outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, they had focused relentlessly on preparing the nation for a conflict that would bring European, and eventually world, domination for Germany.”[1] The German army expanded from 39 divisions in 1936 to 103 divisions in 1939 to a total of 2.76 million men.[2]

Recognizing that there was no will to fight among the post-war ruling powers—as Henry Kissinger succinctly notes, “France dared not act alone, and Great Britain refused to act in concert”[3]—Hitler proceeded to violate the terms of the peace step-by-step: first by remilitarizing the Rhineland, then annexing Austria, and after the 1938 “appeasement” at Munich that granted him the Sudetenland, invading the rest of Czechoslovakia. Germany subsequently attacked Poland, provoking the UK and France to declare war. German forces quickly subdued most of Europe, installed a puppet government in France, assaulted the United Kingdom, marched eastward toward Moscow, and, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, declared war on the United States.

Had Hitler achieved his ambitions, Europeans, and perhaps even Americans, would not only be speaking German, but living in an unrecognizably different world today. Defeating Hitler destroyed much of the European continent, and left its eastern half under Soviet domination for the next forty years.

Major Sources

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

  • “With a political culture bent upon war and conquest and a political economy distorted to the extent that by 1938 52 percent of government expenditure and a massive 17 percent of gross national product was being poured into armaments, Germany had entered a different league from any of the other western European states. In the year of Munich, indeed, Germany was spending more upon weapons than Britain, France and the United States combined. Insofar as the state apparatus could concentrate them, all German national energies were being mobilized for a renewed struggle.” (304-305)

Gerhard Weinberg, A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

  • “War had been an intended and even a preferred part of National Socialist policy from the beginning, not so much out of a preference for fighting for its own sake, but from the entirely accurate conviction that the aim of German expansion could be secured only by war. Germany was to seize the agricultural land needed to feed its population, a population that would grow further as it obtained such land, and which would accordingly expand its needs and its lands into the indefinite future.” (20-21)

Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 1933–1939 (New York: Penguin, 2005).

  • “The Third Reich was not a static or monolithic dictatorship; it was dynamic and fast-moving, consumed from the outset by visceral hatreds and ambitions. Dominating everything was the drive to war, a war that Hitler and the Nazis saw as leading to the German racial reordering of Central and Eastern Europe and the re-emergence of Germany as the dominant power of the European Continent and beyond that, the world.” (xv-xvi)

Further Reading

Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York, Penguin, 2008).

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959).

[1] Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 1933–1939 (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 705.

[2] Zara Steiner, The Triumph of the Dark (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 835.

[3] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 294.

United States vs. Japan

Period: Mid–20th century
Ruling power: United States
Rising power: Japan
War(s): World War II (1941–45) [Pearl Harbor to Japan’s surrender]


Imperial Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands,” delivered to China following WWI, fundamentally challenged the regional status quo established by America’s “Open Door” policy of 1899. Considered by Secretary of State Henry Stimson to be a direct “threat to the Open Door order upon which the American way of life was dependent,”[1] Japanese revisionism in Asia was incompatible with American dominance. These clashing visions for the future of East Asia were exemplified by a rapidly expanding and industrializing Japan’s stated intention to establish a “New Order in East Asia.” This led to military campaigns of territorial conquest in Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937.

America reacted with increasingly severe economic sanctions against Japan. Since the island nation depended almost totally on overseas imports of critical resources and raw materials such as oil, rubber, and scrap iron, this economic containment was viewed as a mortal threat by Japan’s leadership. Tokyo considered territorial expansion that secured vital resources critical to Japan’s future as a great power. As Japanese special envoy Saburo Kurusu told Washington in 1941, “the Japanese people believe that economic measures are a much more effective weapon of war than military measures… that they are being placed under severe pressure by the United States to yield to the American position; and that it is preferable to fight rather than to yield to pressure.”[2]

Negotiations repeatedly failed to produce any settlement. As the sanctions tightened, American ambassador to Tokyo Joseph Grew insightfully noted in his diary that “The vicious circle of reprisals and counter reprisals is on…The obvious conclusion is eventual war.”[3]

FDR’s July 1941 oil embargo of Japan proved to be the final straw. In desperation, Japanese leaders approved a plan to deliver a preemptive ‘knockout blow’ against the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, clearing the way to seize resource rich territory in South East Asia and the Dutch East Indies. Japan’s strategy reflected its conviction that “if the sun is not ascending, it is descending”[4] and that war with the US was “inevitable,” given America’s “inherently rapacious nature.”[5]

Major Sources

Herbert Feis, The Road to Pearl Harbor: The Coming of the War between the United States and Japan (New York: Atheneum, 1965).

  • Quoting July 31, 1941 Cable from Tokyo to German government by Hiroshi Oshima, ambassador to Nazi Germany, explaining why Japan had to move south instead of attacking Russia: “Commercial and economic relations between Japan and other countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer. Consequently, the Japanese Empire, to save its very life must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas. It must take immediate steps to break asunder this ever-strengthening chain of encirclement which is being woven under the guidance of and with the participation of England and the United States, acting like a cunning dragon seemingly asleep.” (249)

Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).

  • “The principle foreign obstacle to Japan’s attempt to achieve economic security was a United States committed to a world of fewer barriers to international trade and political liberalism.” (19)

Richard Storry, Japan and the Decline of the West in Asia, 1894-1943 (London: Macmillan Press, 1979).

  • “The Japanese had little understanding of equality as a political and social ideal. Nations were ranked, like human beings, in a hierarchy. So in the rhetoric of Japanese nationalism in the thirties a recurring theme was the plea that each nation should find ‘its proper place’, the implication being that Japan’s proper place was at the apex of the pyramid. The undesired intrusion of the West in the nineteenth century had created feelings of inferiority which were largely overcome by Japan’s emergence as a world power in the twentieth. Largely overcome; but not entirely.” (158)

Further Reading

Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).

Hilary Conroy and Harry Wray, Pearl Harbor Reexamined: Prologue to the Pacific War (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990).

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[1] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 334.

[2] U.S. Department of State Publication (1983): Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 821-26

[3] Herbert Feis, The Road to Pearl Harbor: The Coming of the War between the United States and Japan (New York: Atheneum, 1965), p. 248.

[4] Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 126.

[5] Ibid, p. 5.


Major historical cases in which a ruling power and a rising power did not fight a war:

20th Century+

United Kingdom vs. United States

Period: Early-20th century
Ruling power: United Kingdom
Rising power: United States


Between 1890 and 1914, the US ascended from equality with the UK in energy consumption, iron and steel production, and other measures of potential war power to reach triple the British levels.[1] Increasingly confident, the US became increasingly assertive, declaring previous practice obsolete and insisting that it would be the arbitrator of disputes between European and Latin American states. This expanded regional role led to worries about an impeding great power conflict. For example, in 1895, panic on the New York stock exchange was caused by fear that a territorial dispute between Britain and Venezuela would lead, for example, to war with the US. . In January 1896, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury advised his finance minister that “a war with America, not this year but in the not distant future — has become something more than a possibility: and by the light of it we must examine the estimates of the Admiralty.”[2]

Six years later, Salisbury expressed the regret felt by many in Britain for having failed to challenge the American threat earlier: “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead and nothing can restore the equality between us. If we had interfered in the Confederate Wars it was then possible for us to reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions. But two such chances are not given to a nation in the course of its career.”[3]

Rather than challenge America’s rise through war, the UK adapted, managing a “Great Rapprochement.” Facing a more ominous and proximate threat from a rising Germany and stretching to defend its imperial possessions in Asia, Britain had no choice but to defer to what many British saw as unreasonable American demands over territorial disputes in Canada and Latin America; lucrative fishing rights; and control of territory and the project that became the Panama Canal.

To the consternation of the British War Office and some in the British political class, the Royal Navy simply exempted the US from the “two-power standard” that committed the UK to maintaining a number of battleships equal to those of the next two largest competitors combined. While many Britons resented the lack of American gratitude for a century of ‘free security,’[4] Britain’s willingness to compromise achieved an alignment of interests and values that contributed to American entry into World War I as a British ally—a decisive factor in the defeat of Germany.

Major Sources

Bradford Perkins, The Great Rapprochement; England and the United States, 1895–1914 (New York: Atheneum, 1968).

  • “First in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and then more ominously in the new century, it became evident that Britain’s responsibilities outstripped her resources for defense… [To confront this problem] she sought alliances which would strengthen imperial defense and enable her to speak more confidently in European politics. At the same time, making a virtue of a necessity, she abandoned the Western Hemisphere to the United States. This decision did more than anything else to further the great rapprochement, for it led to a series of Anglo-American settlements which were essential prerequisites to changes in the stance of the American government.” (156-157)

“Anglo-American Rapprochment” (Ch.3) in Charles A. Kupchan, How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

  • “In 1890, the U.S. fleet did not contain a single battleship. By 1905, the United States had twenty-five battleships, making it one of the world’s premier naval powers. Britain’s fleet remained second to none, but the construction of a U.S. battle fleet made it increasingly difficult for the Royal Navy to maintain naval supremacy in the western Atlantic.” (74-75)

Aaron Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

  • “There was no getting around the fact that, as the Admiralty explained, the United States was now a ‘first class Maritime Power’ that was not only a menace to St. Lucia but to ‘all our possessions on that side of the Atlantic.’” (196)

Further Reading

Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

Ernest May, Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power (New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961).

William R. Thompson, “The Evolution of a Great Power Rivalry: The Anglo-American Case” in Great Power Rivalries – ed. William R. Thompson (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999): 201-221.

[1] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 200-201.

[2] Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p.339.

[3] Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 38.

[4] In his description of “free security,” C. Vann Woodward notes that the “costly navy that policed and defended the Atlantic was manned and paid for by British subjects for more than a century, while Americans enjoyed the added security afforded without added costs to themselves.” See C. Vann Woodward, “The Age of Reinterpretation,” The American Historical Review 66.1 (Oct.1960), p. 2.

Soviet Union vs. Japan

Ruling power: Soviet Union (in Northeast Asia)
Rising power: Japan


From 1960-1975, a modernizing Japan averaged annual growth rates of over 8%. Describing this “postwar miracle,” Takatoshi Ito notes that real GDP “expanded four fold” between 1958 and 1973.[1] By 1987, when Japan passed the USSR in total GDP, its per capita GDP was more than double that of its northern neighbor. As Gilbert Rozman observes, “The reality of late Brezhnev era ‘stagnation’ was soon registered in international consciousness… No longer was there anything left about the Soviet Union or its image to impress the Japanese.”[2]

Technically, Japan and the Soviet Union remained at war. In the final chapter of World War II in Asia, the Soviet Union seized four small islands known by Russians as the Kurils and by Japan as the Northern Territories. Over previous centuries, these islands had alternately been under the control of Russia or Japan. This most recent dispute remains unresolved to this day.

Under normal conditions, such a dramatic economic transition would be expected to lead to a more assertive effort by the rising power to recover its lost territory. Indeed, as Rozman notes, a significant group within Japan’s ruling circles have sought “to ‘normalize’ the country’s military” to press the Northern Territories issue.[3] Nonetheless, the continuous role of the US as the guarantor of Japan’s security—namely through the US-Japan defense treaty, the presence of American troops, and a nuclear guarantee—has constrained these impulses.

Major Sources

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The Northern Territories Dispute and Russo-Japanese Relations (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1998).

  • “A Yomiuri Shimbun commentator identified two views prevalent within the Gaimusho [the Japanese foreign office]. The first took the position that the Soviet leadership could no longer ignore Japan’s economic power, particularly when it wanted to launch major economic reforms… The second took the view that Gorbachev had begun to take Japan seriously as a counterweight against the United States in a restructuring of the balance of power.” (235)

Gilbert Rozman, Japan’s Response to the Gorbachev Era, 1985-1991: A Rising Superpower Views a Declining One (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

  • “As the Japanese were reflecting about Soviet decline and the collapse of an era, they were simultaneously beginning to appreciate their own rise as a central agent shaping a new era.” (3)

Further Reading

Hiroshi Kimura, Distant Neighbors: Japanese-Russian Relations Under Brezhnev and Andropov (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2000).

Joseph Ferguson, Japanese-Russian Relations, 1907-2007 (London: Routledge, 2008).

[1] Takatoshi Ito, “Japan and the Asian Economies: A ‘Miracle’ in Transition,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1996), p. 206.

[2] Gilbert Rozman, Japan’s Response to the Gorbachev Era, 1985-1991: A Rising Superpower Views a Declining One (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 94.

[3] Ibid, p. 99.

United States vs. Soviet Union

Period: 1940s-1980s
Ruling power: United States
Rising power:Soviet Union


At the end of World War II, the US emerged as a uniquely unipolar power. It controlled half of global GDP and had a monopoly on what Bernard Brodie astutely named The Absolute Weapon. Its World War II ally the Soviet Union, however, had liberated the nations of Eastern Europe from Nazi rule, and Soviet armies never left. Moreover, Soviet leaders remained deeply committed to an expansionist revolutionary ideology. Nine months after VE Day, George Kennan’s “long telegram” of February 1946 (followed by Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech less than two weeks later) identified Soviet Communism as an existential threat as large or even larger than the Nazi evil that had just been vanquished.

When the Soviet Union successfully broke the US monopoly by testing its own nuclear weapon in 1949 and its economy began to surge, Americans feared a Soviet Union that could rival and even surpass the US and threaten the American way of life. In 1945, Navy Secretary James Forrestal wrote that Soviet communism “is as incompatible with democracy as was Nazism or Fascism because it rests upon the willingness to apply force to gain the end.”[1] The successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 prompted fears that Soviet technology had already surpassed America’s. Paul Samuelson’s best-selling 1960s textbook, Economics: An Introductory Analysis, projected that Soviet GNP would overtake the US by the mid-1980s.[2] Though Samuelson’s prediction never came to pass, the USSR did overtake the US in key power metrics of military spending and production of iron and steel, both in the early 1970s.[3]

To meet the challenge, the US employed all of the traditional instruments of warfare short of bombs and bullets. This confrontation thus came to be known as the “Cold War.”

Over four decades of Cold War, the two adversaries sought to destroy each other by all means except hot war. Despite a number of close calls (e.g., the Cuban Missile Crisis) and several proxy wars (e.g. in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan), direct conflict between the two militaries was averted. Historians have offered various explanations for why the Cold War never went hot. Most credit the specter of nuclear destruction,[4] while some emphasize the geographic distance between the US and USSR,[5] and others point to their mutual recognition of constraints in the competition that allowed the use of all instruments of war except direct conflict.[6]

In time, the US strategy of containment worked. The contrast between the success of free-market democracies and stagnation of command-and-control authoritarianism became evident for all to see. Together with fundamental contradictions in a Soviet command-and-control society that hollowed out the regime, and its inability to provide both guns and butter, this led to its collapse in 1991.

Major Sources

John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

  • “The incontestable fact that the United States over-reacted more than once during the subsequent history of the Cold War to the perceived threat of Soviet and/or ‘communist’ expansionism has, to an extent, blinded us to the equally demonstrable fact that in the immediate postwar years the behavior of the Russians alarmed not just Americans but a good portion of the rest of the world as well.” (46)

Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).

  • “Expansionist communism had been escalating its challenge with each postwar year. It had gained a foothold in Eastern Europe in 1945 as a byproduct of occupation by the Red Army. It had prevailed in Czechoslovakia by means of a domestic coup in 1948. It had taken over China in a civil war in 1949. If communist armies could now march across internationally recognized boundary lines, the world would have returned to the conditions of the prewar period. The generation which had lived through Munich was bound to react.” (476)

Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).

  • “Truman was a straightforward man who saw things in black and white. What he saw now was the incipient rise of another totalitarian power with an expansionist ideology. He was motivated not by Stalin’s brutality – indeed he rarely talked about it – but by the challenge he saw to America’s way of life. Our foreign policy, he said, ‘is the outward expression of the democratic faith we profess.’” (82)

Further Reading

John Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin, 2005).

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[1] James Forrestal, Letter to Homer Ferguson on May 14, 1945. See Walter Millis, ed., The Forrestal Diaries (New York: Viking Press, 1951), p. 57.

[2] Paul Samuelson, Economics: An Introductory Analysis, Sixth Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), p. 807.

[3] Data from Correlates of War Project.

[4] See Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall, America’s Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap, 2009), p. 357; Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), p. 465; John Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 261.

[5] See John Gaddis, The Long Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 225.

[6] See Graham Allison, “Primitive Rules of Prudence” in Allison, Ury, and Allyn, eds., Windows of Opportunity: From Cold War to Peaceful Competition in US-Soviet Relations (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1989).

Europe (led by United Kingdom and France) vs. Germany

Period: 1990s–present
Ruling power: United Kingdom and France
Rising power: Germany


The division of Germany at the end of World War II constituted for many strategists, especially in Europe, the solution to the “German problem” that had been at the root of two world wars. In the oft-repeated quip, NATO’s triple mission was “to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”[1] When the issue of German reunification arose again after the collapse of communism, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did her best to prevent it. In private conversations with President Bush, she expressed fears that “the Germans will get in peace what Hitler couldn’t get in the war.”[2] To counter this threat, she and French President Mitterrand explored a “closer Entente Cordiale.”[3] As Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice note, “Europeans, particularly the French, believed that any revival of German power had to go hand in hand with European structures that would keep the German state from endangering France.”[4]

Yet as Thatcher expected, Germany has reemerged as the dominant power in Europe. With the establishment of a single European currency and Berlin-led central bank, Germany has become the economic driver of the region and is becoming its strongest political voice as well. As Henry Kissinger recently noted, “The paradox is that seventy years after having defeated German claims to dominating Europe, the victors are now pleading, largely for economic reasons, with Germany to lead Europe.”[5]

How has this occurred without Thucydidean consequences? Because Germany is not a ‘normal’ power, as defined by students of international relations. In fact, militarily it remains a eunuch. Moreover, as long as the US continues as Europe’s security overlord through its leadership of NATO, and provides its nuclear umbrella, structural stresses that would otherwise create risks of military conflict between Germany and its EU allies will likely remain muted. As Hans Kundnani writes in The Paradox of German Power, at present the country “is characterized by a strange mixture of economic assertiveness and military abstinence…in geopolitical terms, Germany is benign.”[6]

Major Sources

Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

  • “A powerful united German state evoked obvious historical anxieties for [France], a country that had been invaded three times by such a state in little over a hundred years. The possibility of German unification would also call into question France’s relative stature within European politics and the European community.” (97)

Martin J. Dedman, The Origins and Development of the European Union, 1945–2008 (New York: Routledge, 2009).

  • “France was no longer the most powerful partner, no longer the guide and condescending helper to the defeated nation, West Germany. Germany’s economic and political weight had turned France into a more supplicant state that needed answers.” (127)

Helga Haftendorn, Coming of Age: German Foreign Policy since 1945 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

  • “Not only in Poland and France, but in Britain and the United States as well, concerns were voiced that the German national character and misled ambitions might lead the country to aspire to a dominant position in Europe. This perception of united Germany as an influential and ambitious but possibly unpredictable power may not have reflected the actual facts, but it became a reality that German politics had to address.” (352)

Further Reading

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005).

Stephen Green, Reluctant Meister (London: Haus Publishing Ltd, 2014).

Hans Kundnani, The Paradox of German Power (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2014).

[1] General Lord Ismay, first NATO Secretary General.

[2] Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 207.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 47.

[5] Jacob Heilbrunn, “The Interview: Henry Kissinger,” The National Interest, 19 August 2015.

[6] Hans Kundnani, The Paradox of German Power (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2014), pp. 102-103, 107.



Project Description:

The goal of the Thucydides Project is to illuminate the challenge both America and China face as China rises to rival U.S. predominance in Asia today, and in time the world. As part of the Applied History Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the Thucydides Project is exploring this challenge by examining historical precedents and analogs. The 16 cases identified in phase one of the project include all instances since 1500 (that we have been able to identify and review) in which a major “ruling power” was challenged by a rapidly “rising” power. In identifying these cases, we have followed the judgment of leading historical accounts—specifically resisting the temptation to offer original or idiosyncratic interpretations of events. Each case is, of course, unique. As our late, great colleague Ernest May taught us, when thinking about historical comparisons, we must examine differences as well as similarities. The cases included in the current file offer sufficient similarities to be relevant for comparison.

Related products from members of the Belfer Center include Kevin Rudd’s “U.S.-China 21: The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping: Toward a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 2015; Robert Blackwill’s and Ashley Tellis’s “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China,” Council on Foreign Relations Special Report, April 2015; Richard Rosecrance’s and Steven Miller’s “The Next Great War? The Roots of World War I and the Risk of U.S.-China Conflict,” The MIT Press, December 2014; and Graham Allison’s, Robert Blackwill’s, and Ali Wyne’s “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.” The MIT Press, 2013.

See our case selection methodology and list of potential additional cases »


Now, share your thoughts...

The Case File is a work in progress, and the Belfer Center Thucydides Project invites your critical feedback to our ongoing effort. By submitting a comment below, you can contribute additions; disagreements; alternative interpretations; and other suggestions regarding the content of the Case File. We look forward to receiving your thoughts—and to sharing an assortment of the responses—as the Thucydides Project advances.

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Your Comments:

Case File Interpretations+

Impact of Nuclear Weapons

  • "I think you're going to have to confront how nuclear weapons change how nations conduct their strategies (See, e.g., Bracken, Paul. The Second Nuclear Age.) How the US handles Iran, North Korea, and even Russia is going to be at least as relevant as how we handle China.”
  • "For what it's worth, all of the post-nuclear age cases you have are "no war."

Impact of Ideology

  • "Many of the countries mentioned all belonged to or at least shared the same cultural values, the most prominent exceptions being cases where the transfers involved China, Japan and at least one Western nation. There can be no doubt that cultural perceptions about 'the other's trustworthiness exert a strong influence over decisions that lead or inhibit conflict, the most pronounced recent example being Japan (in WW2) and China (today)."

Role of Geography

  • "Only in the case of the USA-Japan did a war erupt between two  countries on different sides of the ocean, and this was because Japan was dependent on resouces from abroad for survival while the US was unwilling to allow Japanese aggression abroad to go unchecked in Japan's hemisphere and had the power to strangle Japan (compare and contrast with the UK-US relationship where the US never cared to strangle the UK or about what the British did outside of the US's hemisphere). The key question is whether the ruling power would be willing to allow the rising power to develop a sphere of influence around itself and what threat the two pose to each other."


  • "The Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry stretched throughout the 16th and 17th century with warfare in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa as well as the Danube during a period in which both powers could be said to be ascendant. It's not always clear which power was "rising" and which "falling" even in 1683 when the Turks besieged Vienna; and the Ottomans were as deeply involved in war with Persia as with the West."

World War I

  • "Some scholars see the outbreak of the First World War as a result of the power transition between Germany and Russia. According to this view, the war was caused by the German leaders’ fear about the rapidly rising power of Russia, which was quickly recovered from the wounds of 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Regarding this interpretation, see The Origins of Major War (Dale Copeland, 2000).


Potential Additional Cases+


  • "I would not consider Japan the established power in the late 16th century, since it had just been recently (and very incompletely) unified, and the goal of Hideyoshi's two invasions of Korea was extremely revolutionary. He wanted to not only conquer Korea, but also move on to taking all of China."
  • "I think that the Great Northern War (1700-1721) between burgeoning Russia and the Swedish Empire may fit well into this example. Sweden, led by King Charles XII represented an overwhelming economic and military power in and around the Baltic Sea. Russia, in the midst of Peter the Great's many modernization efforts, was set on increasing it's role on the European stage and deploying a navy within the Baltic Sea and opening a port closer to Europe than Archangel. Russia joined an alliance with August II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and Frederick VI of Denmark to upset Swedish power. While Denmark and Saxony were quickly defeated, Russia waged twenty years of war that effectively ended the Swedish Empire and opened Baltic trade routes to Russian ships, entirely upending the status quo of the region."
  • "I was wondering if this project will continue go further back in time, especially considering cases like the Mongols and going even further back the Huns (though concerning the fall of Rome it might be better to just give a list of the tribes)."
  • "The Mughal Empire, which replaced the previously powerful Dehli Sultanate, and had many wars with powerful indigenous groups and European colonist/traders."
  • "Perhaps you could include Spain vs. England -- after all, the Spanish Armada was in 1588 (during your period of analysis) and led to Britain's emergence as a naval and colonial power."
  • "I would like to suggest to add the 1592-1598 Japan-Korea war to the case. It involves the Ming China as a "Ruling Power" and Toyotomi's Japan as "Rising Power". It is about the hegemonic warfare in Northeast Asia."
  • "I believe the "Treaty of Tordesillas" is also a good example that two largest powers escaped Thucydides Trap. In the 15th century, Portugal was a major maritime and colonial superpower, a ruling power. However, Castile (Spain) benefited tremendously from lands discovered by Columbus, and it helped Castile become a rising power... In order to avoid a war, Portugal and Castile let Pope Alexander VI serve as a mediator between two countries. In the end, Treaty of Tordesillas was signed on 7 June 1494, and divided the newly discovered lands between two countries."
  • "The current list omits a very important systemic change happened in the mid-17 century in Asia: the rise of Qing dynasty and collapse of Ming dynasty, which triggered a great war in the region. It's a classic case of violent power transition--about 25 million people had been killed or displaced during this period. I recommend you to consult The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in the Seventeenth Century (Frederic Wakeman, 1986).


Additional Sources+


  • China and the United States in the 21st Century (Rapkin and Thompson, 2013).
  • AFK Organski's "power transition" thesis.
  • Balance of Power in World History (Kaufman, Little, and Wohlforth, 2007).


  • "It might be useful to take Deudney's "Violence Interdependence" measure to look at warfare between major powers. After all, strategic bombing and nuclear weaponry only came into their own in WWII and its aftermath. In the last 500 years, you have major innovations in siege warfare (cannon, rockets, etc) that make fortified cities more and less secure at different periods, differing levels of personal war leadership (Phillip the good of Burgundy, Francis I of France, Charles XII of Sweden, and the Kangxi emperor all fought battles in person. You yourselves even mention the death of Louis of Hungary at Mohacs), rising risks of assassination (with concealed pistols), and probably other things more useful to look at than just "war/not war."
  • "If I have read the cases under consideration carefully, the Swedish-Russian rivalry is said not to have led to war, but of course the Great Northern War led to Charles XII's catastrophic military Swedish defeat at the hands of Peter the Great, And as the chart makes clear, the U.S. challenge to Great Britain in the late 19th century, which was a clear case where declining relative power was perceived, was resolved by accommodation. The Anglo-German rivalry before 1914 seemed to some as a competition that was being worked out without war, until the German-Russian face-off dragged Britain into war through alliance complications. Indeed, as Thucydides detailed in the body of history, it is the entanglement of potential rivals with smaller third-party clients that makes a general condition of great-power rivalry into a dangerous situation. The difficulty with "deeper causes" is that they are always present in retrospect."
Other Comments+
  • "An infographic of key geographic resources, and military presence across the most contested areas of the U.S./Chinese interest set could be informative in how we see the particular economic effects of Chinese growth. On one hand, China has grown in economic power, but in many regions does not have a significant military presence. On the other hand, China has a growing economic presence and interest in regions such as Africa, and Brazil where the U.S. shares a development interest of its own."
  • "Historical sources about war are much more abundant than sources about peaceful coexistence. Any rivalry that ended in war will be seen as inevitable by later historians, if war was avoided the conflict will be forgotten."
  • "Absolutely fascinating. But I would like to see more analysis of why three of the four occasions in which a change in power relationships has not led to war have occurred in the last fifty years. Is it because war in today's world is seen as more threatening to the existence or fundamental well-being of the states in question than previously? Before 1914, was war seen more as a normal recourse of foreign policy than now? The two world wars of the early twentieth century, and the power of WMD are sobering reminders of the risks of war, at least to a European (I am British)."
  • "According to your case files, there are more conflict case than non-conflict cases, but the last cases reveal that when the cost for victory is higher than the expectation, people concerned are becoming more cautious. Equally the domestic restraints and personal perspectives are equally the key to the avoidance of mutual conflicts."
  • "Rather than the frankly incendiary claim that the historical record makes war with China in the next 10 years seem likely, the lesson of this data is that a peaceful resolution is very, very possible."
  • "Have you considered that all cases of great power rivalry always included proxy wars? This is especially important in the age of nuclear weapons and economic interdependence. They both limit the opportunities for direct violent confrontation. Yet, if anything can draw two or more great powers into direct military conflict, escaalting proxy war is the most likely candidate."
  • "I agree that there is a Thucydean dilemma and I also agree with Graham that the American confrontation with a "rising" China is fraught with potential perils. But there's not much we can do about a rising power -- even a preemptive victory would only yield a brief respite. And knowing that the Thucydean dilemma exists doesn't tell us whether to yield or be firm on specific issues. Assuming we might agree on the specifics of particular cases -- and I believe that there is room for a great deal of disagreement; they are not open and shut -- would a quantitative determination of how many cases led to war help us out on the next case that comes along? The point, I believe, is that the general dilemma -- which arises out of alliance commitments, as well as rising and falling powers -- mandates caution. On that policy imperative I would hope we'd all agree always."


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Allison, Graham. "Thucydides Trap Case File." Presentation. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, September 23, 2015.

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