U.S., China and Thucydides

Robert B. Zoellick
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
July-August 2013
Center for the National Interest
LAST YEAR, during his visit to the United States, Chinese president Xi Jinping introduced the idea of a “new type of great-power relationship.” In March of this year, in apparent response, President Obama's national-security adviser, Tom Donilon, suggested an interest in building “a new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one.” This June, the two presidents met in California to explore whether their strategic outlooks can be reconciled. I suspect that President Xi's concept reflects the senior leadership's study of history. At last year's meeting of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, former president Hu Jintao stated, “We should prove that the traditional belief that big powers are bound to enter into conflict is wrong, and [instead] seek new ways of developing relations between major countries in the era of economic globalization.” In the United States, professors Graham Allison and Joseph Nye at Harvard have referred to this challenge as “the Thucydides trap”: in explaining the cause of the great Peloponnesian War of the fifth century BC, Thucydides pointed to the rise of Athens and the fear it inspired in Sparta. In the centuries since, scholars have pondered how power shifts have led to competitive tensions, which sometimes have been managed and sometimes led to conflict. This essay will pose a question: What might be the substance of a new type of great-power relationship between China and the United States? Kevin Rudd, former prime minister and foreign minister of Australia, has also taken up this topic in a series of thoughtful speeches. His approach points to the need for reinforcing dialogues and cooperative efforts.
International Relations, Economics, Globalization
Political Geography
United States, China