Did Thucydides Believe in Thucydides’ Trap? The History of the Peloponnesian War and Its Relevance to U.S.-China Relations

Citation: Lee, James. 2019a. “Did Thucydides Believe in Thucydides’ Trap? The History of the Peloponnesian War and Its Relevance to U.S.-China Relations.” Journal of Chinese Political Science, DOI:

Abstract         The Peloponnesian War, a conflict between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta and their respective allies, is held to be a classic example of war between a hegemon and a rising power. Graham Allison has recently coined the term “Thucydides’ Trap” to emphasize how structural forces are leading to instability in U.S.-China relations. This interpretation of history is inaccurate and reflects the influence of misleading translations. Drawing on the original Greek text of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I argue that the concept of Thucydides’ Trap does not find support even in the case that has given it its name. Thucydides’ famous attribution of the war to “the growth of the power of Athens” actually refers to the expansion of the Athenian Empire rather than a shift in the distribution of capabilities. Structural arguments do offer valuable insights about potential sources of conflict in U.S.-China relations, but the causal mechanism has little to do with the analogy of Athens and Sparta. As exemplified by the flashpoint in the Strait of Taiwan, structural change has aggravated long-standing differences between the United States and the PRC. Beijing’s growing economic and military power has resulted in a growing threat to Taipei, which has led the United States to affirm its commitment to Taiwan’s security in ways that are inconsistent with the One-China policy. If this trend continues, it will raise the potential for a military confrontation between the great powers in East Asia.

US grand strategy and the origins of the developmental state

Citation: Lee, James. 2019b. “US grand strategy and the origins of the developmental state.” Journal of Strategic Studies, DOI: 10.1080/01402390.2019.1579713.

Abstract         Scholars have credited a model of state-led capitalism called the ‘developmental state’ with producing the economic miracles of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. This article examines how the developmental state was shaped by the Cold War. US grand strategy focused on accelerating economic development among allies that were under the greatest threat from Communist China and North Korea. American aid agencies became involved in the process of state-building in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and supported economic planning. I verify this claim by contrasting US policies on Taiwan with US policies in the Philippines, which faced a weaker Communist threat.

Working Papers

Economic Aid and U.S. Strategic Interests in the Cold War

Abstract         There is a prevalent view in the literature on aid policy that geopolitical goals are distinct from developmental goals. However, some of the most successful aid programs in history, such as the Marshall Plan, were fundamentally political in nature. This paper argues that strategic goals can reinforce developmental goals depending on the nature of the international system and the geopolitical alignment of the aid recipient. Under bipolarity, clients (allies and security partners) are subject to security threats from a great power donor’s geopolitical adversary, leading the donor to have a strategic interest in using aid to support their development. In contrast, the donor uses aid to purchase the political support of non-allies whose geopolitical alignment is uncertain. During the Cold War, the United States adopted this latter strategy toward the uncommitted (neutral and Non-Aligned) countries of the developing world. As a result, uncommitted countries received aid with fewer strings attached compared to clients. I verify this claim using an original dataset that employs a disaggregated measure of aid as well a novel measure of geopolitical alignment. These data are based on extensive analysis of American diplomatic papers that reveal the decision-making process behind the provision of foreign aid. I find that compared to American allies and security partners, neutral and Non-Aligned countries received a higher proportion of aid in the form of general budget support that had no strings attached. This type of aid was designed to be effective at purchasing political support but not at promoting economic development. This finding sheds light on the relationship between economic development and geopolitical motives in aid policy, and more generally on the role of economic development in grand strategy.

American Diplomacy and Export-Oriented Industrialization on Taiwan

Abstract         Scholars have pointed to the late 1950s as the beginning of Taiwan’s transition to export-oriented industrialization. Although the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had traditionally supported state socialism, the KMT oversaw economic reforms beginning in the late 1950s that set Taiwan on the course of export-led growth under a capitalist model. Using archival materials from both the United States and Taiwan, I argue that the reforms should be understood in the context of U.S. influence on how the KMT understood the role of economic development in its grand strategy. In the early years after they retreated to Taiwan, many KMT officials believed that investing resources in the long-term development of Taiwan would come at the expense of the KMT’s paramount political objective of defending the claim that it was the sole legitimate government of all of China. U.S. officials claimed that economic reform would enable the party to pursue its political objectives by showcasing Taiwan’s prosperity in an ideological competition with the Chinese Communists and by reducing the KMT’s dependence on the United States. U.S. arguments succeeded in creating political support at the highest levels of the Nationalist leadership for a reform-oriented faction in the economic bureaucracy, which eventually led to the implementation of reform measures by the late 1950s.