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Thucydides Trap Project


September 22, 2015


The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?

In a major essay for The Atlantic, Graham Allison argues that the best lens for clarifying the dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship is the Thucydides Trap: the structural stress that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power. In reviewing the record of the past 500 years, Allison and the Belfer Center’s Thucydides Project have identified 16 cases that reflect this pattern of hegemonic challenge. In 12 of the cases, the rivalry between the rising and ruling powers produced war. Yet as Allison points out, the 4 cases that did not end in bloodshed show that war is not inevitable.

Read the essay by Graham Allison about what can be learned from these past successes and failures, and about the extraordinary effort that will be required of both countries to minimize the dangers of the Thucydides Trap.



The file includes all 16 cases identified by the Belfer Center Thucydides Project where a major rising power threatened to displace a major ruling power. Join the debate! Review our cases and contribute feedback to this ongoing effort.


Learn about our case selection methodology, list of potential additional cases, and future phases of the Thucydides Project.



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.


For Academic Citation:

"Thucydides Trap Project." Presentation. September 22, 2015.

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