An American-Made Greek Tragedy: Coronavirus and the Thucydides Trap
The United States must learn from Athens’ mistakes in order to avoid turning a Greek tragedy into an American reality.
Coronavirus also provides a convenient pretext for illiberal domestic policies. Some observers hold up South Korea’s invasive response to the coronavirus as a model for the United States to copy. Americans shudder at the massive state surveillance apparatus that China also put to use in containing coronavirus. For some reason, many Americans perceive coronavirus surveillance to be a harmless infringement on their civil liberties. Coronavirus is therefore empowering a growing American surveillance state.
Even worse, China has exploited a global crisis of its own making to displace American leadership in the world. The Trump administration handed China a victory when it punished the World Health Organization for its (admittedly egregious) failure to carefully assess China’s response to the coronavirus. As Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon stress, “International organizations like the WHO are not a sideshow to power politics—they are a crucial arena of struggle.” The episode underscores American imperial behavior toward international institutions: conform to American expectations or suffer accordingly.
Travel bans between the United States and Europe portend future economic and political measures that could fragment the American-led alliance. Moreover, China has perversely and yet adroitly used coronavirus as a wedge between the United States and Europe. Fortunately, like the Soviet Union, flaws in the Chinese system revealed themselves as China exported faulty coronavirus tests and medical supplies to Europe. But there is no guarantee China will crumble before the United States does, as was the case of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. If anything, the United States is the one buckling from the competition and coronavirus.
Allison called great power competition with China a “chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation.” Coronavirus has just produced an acute spike in the symptoms. As the United States stumbles for a coronavirus response, some commentators insist that the cure must not be worse than the disease. The same holds true for great power competition with China: the competition must not cost the United States its democracy and “Empire of Liberty.” Thucydides called his history a “possession for all time,” implying that we are to study it and learn from it. But Thucydides was not the only Ancient Greek writer to impart wisdom to posterity. The Greek tragedians also left their works as lessons and warnings for future generations. The United States must learn from Athens’ mistakes in order to avoid turning a Greek tragedy into an American reality.
Jeff Rogg is a postdoctoral fellow in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, Department of the Navy, or U.S. Naval War College.