Thucydides, Geopolitics and Escalation Points: A Lesson from the Punic Wars

By Ben Mainardi

Ancient Greek Warriors
Image Credit: VectorStock

It has become almost banal to reference the so-called “Thucydides Trap” when speaking about the geopolitical relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Articles and monographs abound asserting that the U.S. and PRC are destined to be ensnared in the “Thucydides Trap” or that they must escape it by establishing a new kind of “Great Power relationship.”

Of course, to even speak of such a general theory of cross-period geopolitical relationships, one must continue the long and storied tradition of international relations theorists’ favorite methodological approach: recklessly ignoring the unique historical contexts that their case studies existed within. 

For context, Thucydides was an Athenian Greek who lived in the time of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 431-401 BC) between the Greek city-states. Indeed, he had been a general for the Athenian-led alliance.

Following the conflict, in which the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League triumphed, Thucydides penned his account of the conflict. The Peloponnesian War has remained perhaps the most widely-read works of ancient Greek history. Accordingly, Thucydides’ splendid prose and analysis has made his work a favorite of international relations scholars for generations. 

The term “Thucydides Trap” itself, however, is a recent invention. It seemingly originated in a brief 2012 article by political scientist Graham T. Allison, writing on rising PRC ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region.

In essence, Allison claims that the dominant power in an international system is invariably likely to wage war against a rising one for fear of changes to the existing order. The concept draws upon Thucydides’ assertion that the Peloponnesian Wars were the result of Sparta’s concern for Athens’ growing power.

Had it ended here, as simply an example to remind us that a ruling polity is inevitably skeptical of and possibly willing to fight another that seeks to displace it, Allison’s metaphor may have remained a useful concept.

Nonetheless, without litigating whether this is even an accurate reading of Thucydides’ work (as others like Nye or Waldron might argue), the “Thucydides Trap” entered the canon of international relations discourse. Of course, the historical validity of Allison’s case studies has been thoroughly refuted by historians.

Despite its scholarly baggage, engaging with the essential crux of the “Allison trap” – that a status quo power is inherently skeptical of rising powers and is likely to escalate confrontations with them – does indeed have face validity and lessons to be drawn from history. 

The Punic Wars (ca. 264-146 BC) offer a counterpoint to the thesis that great power war is the result of ambitions by the rising state and anxieties from that of the ruling. Rather, this series of three wars fought between the Roman Republic, a rising regional power, and the Republic of Carthage, perhaps the most dominant state of the Western Mediterranean of the time, were triggered by clashing interests in their relationships with minor powers.

Rome needs little introduction for western audiences, but Carthage certainly requires some background. While a great deal is known about Carthage, its destruction at the hands of the Romans has obscured just as much.

Carthage itself was a city founded on the coast of modern-day Tunisia by Phoenician colonists from the Levant. By the time of the Punic Wars, named for the Latin derivation of the word Phoenician, Carthage was a thriving metropolis possessing a maritime empire that stretched along the coasts of North Africa, Spain, and many islands in the Western Mediterranean.

Like its would-be rival of Rome, its political system is believed to have been a kind of oligarchic republic. Prior to the Punic Wars, Carthage and Rome had actually been notable trade partners and parallel but unallied belligerents against Pyrrhus of Epirus in his wars in Italy and Sicily (ca. 280-275 BC).

The First Punic War (ca. 264-241 BC) was, as it comes down to us through the ancient author Polybius, the result of a fascinating episode of converging interests of both states on the island of Sicily. In brief, a group of mercenaries had occupied the city of Messana and appealed to both Carthage and Rome for help in their conflict against Sicily’s strongest city-state, Syracuse.

When both powers decided to intervene in the affairs of the Sicilian city-states, the clashes between their interests on the island rapidly escalated into full-scale war. Rome’s victory and the ensuing peace provisions in this conflict directly set the stage for the next war between it and Carthage.

The Treaty of Lutatius is a sticking point for many modern observers and the Carthaginians themselves. The agreed upon indemnity and territorial concessions were not so severe, but the unilateral imposition of additional concessions thoroughly embittered the Carthaginian elite. In the following years, Carthage would turn its efforts towards the Iberian Peninsula, rapidly expanding its overseas possessions to compensate for its territorial losses and to extract silver to pay its war indemnity.

The Second Punic War (ca. 218-201 BC) erupted precisely as a result of this expansion. Growing wary of the power Carthage was accumulating in Spain, the Romans negotiated the Ebro Treaty (ca. 226 BC) to delineate a border for their respective zones of influence on the Iberian Peninsula. The Ebro River, for which the Treaty was named, established a firm border zone. In 219 BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal besieged the city of Saguntum which lay well to the South of the Ebro River and was therefore within its sphere of influence.

However, in the intervening years, Rome had become aligned with Saguntum despite it being outside its treaty-sphere. Correspondingly, the siege of Saguntum angered Rome who first demanded Hannibal and his army be turned over for punishment as they had attacked a Roman ally. Unsurprisingly, their demands were rebuffed and nearly twenty years of war ensued. Close reading of the two best ancient authors, Polybius and Livy, indicates that both powers had been interested in renewing open conflict and this episode provided pretext for each side to justify itself.

Rome’s victory in the second conflict, although an arduous and costly one, was more absolute than it had been in the first. Carthage was essentially reduced to Roman vassalage, its foreign policy almost entirely subject to the approval of the Roman legislature, forced to pay 50-year indemnity, and stripped of all overseas possessions.

Finally, the Third Punic War (ca. 149-145 BC) was almost entirely the result of Roman avarice and hatred. Fifty years on, Carthaginian territory in Africa was rapidly being conquered by another Roman partner, the Numidians who took advantage of Carthage’s subservience to Rome. Carthaginian protests and requests for adjudication by Rome continually fell on deaf ears.

When Carthage moved to confront Numidia, Rome duly invaded and besieged their city. Not before, however, they wrung many concessions out of the Carthaginians promising them peace in return, but knowingly deceiving them. Carthage was ultimately destroyed.

In an ever-increasingly globalizing world, the Punic Wars and the cautionary tales they provide modern observers about the dangers of competing for influence over minor powers likely has more relevance to the U.S.-PRC relationship today than does the “Allison Trap.” Of course, the United States is visibly worried by almost everything China does. But the prospect of all-out war that Allison paints as a result purely of this anxiety is dubious. 

American and Chinese interests do indeed overlap and clash at various points across the globe, from the halls of foreign governments to social media posts online. Yet this does not preordain war nor does the “Allison Trap” provide a useful framework for understanding rising tensions or their associated risks. 

Where to go from here? As previously stated, one should not draw too many direct parallels from historical cases to the present day. The qualitative factors that made societies and their political relationships were unique to their times, as are the ones that shape the modern day context.

History’s value for international relations scholars and foreign policy practitioners alike resides in its ability to demonstrate possibilities and outcomes.

The Punic Wars remind that the greatest flashpoints in geopolitical competitions for regional leadership may not come from simple anxiety about one’s competitor and their moves on the international chessboard.

Rather, it could be that the confines of one’s region and the finite number of partners themselves comprise the catalyst for escalation. Like the Carthaginians and Romans of old, the U.S. and PRC operate in a region with many small and middle powers that are increasingly leaning towards one side or the other.

The Indo-Pacific states that have yet to pick sides (of course, one might argue from their point of view that their “unalignment” is actually the deliberate choice for strategic independence) will inevitably be the sites of the U.S.-PRC competition for influence in the years to come.

Indeed, this phenomenon is already observable. And yet, it is precisely in the diplomatic halls of these minor and middle powers that the greatest risks for escalation may lie.

Ben Mainardi holds a Master’s in War Studies from King’s College London. His master’s thesis centered on great power competition and theories of limited war.

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