Professor Seth Jaffe on America, China, and the Thucydides Trap

A scholar of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides as well as of American foreign policy, Dr. Seth N. Jaffe is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University and the author of Thucydides on the Outbreak of War: Character and Contest (Oxford University Press, 2017). His research focuses on Classical Political Philosophy, International Relations, and the History of International Political Thought.

Seth N. Jaffe

Seth N. Jaffe

Recently, Professor Jaffe was interviewed by  Sud e Futuri magazine about the idea that the so-called “Thucydides Trap” provides a key for understanding the odds of a U.S.-China conflict. Coined by Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, the term “Thucydides Trap” describes the phenomenon of a rising power inspiring fear in a ruling one, which can lead to a great power war. According to Allison, America and China are closer to serious conflict than most observers and policymakers recognize.

According to Professor Jaffe, “Drawing from the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides, who wrote about the great Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta (431 – 404 BC), Graham Allison maintains that Thucydides articulated a profound teaching about the origins of a great power war, which is currently applicable to the evolving U.S.-China relationship.”  In the interview, Professor Jaffe explains the Thucydides Trap concept in general and discusses its implications for the contemporary U.S.-China relationship in particular, which he believes are serious. “Hardening attitudes on both sides not only invite conflict but may lead to escalation in the event of it. Stated differently, the more inflexible the positions of American and Chinese leaders, the greater the risk that a minor spark could trigger a major conflagration,” notes Professor Jaffe. He also discusses how Europe fits into the U.S.-China competition, as well as the role that Russia plays.

When asked if there was a single Thucydidean teaching that he thinks is particularly relevant today, Professor Jaffe replies: “In my own view, one of Thucydides’ teaching of perennial importance is his belief that leaders characteristically overestimate the extent to which they have control over events. He thus enjoins his politically-minded readers to avoid those circumstances where events can easily take on a dangerous life of their own. We have less control than we think, and so we must safeguard that flexibility, which allows us to maneuver. I think that is a helpful message for our moment.”

Professor Jaffe is currently teaching PL 209 World Politics, PL 330 American Foreign Policy, and PL 460 Social Science Research Methods.