Holding Up Half the Sky: Feminist IR and the Thucydides Trap

Foreign policy prognoses warning of an inevitable war between the US and China are published constantly across news media, often referring to the ‘Thucydides Trap,’ a theory popularized by Harvard professor Graham Allison, which suggests that as a rising challenger rivals the power of an incumbent, war becomes more likely. While the merits of the Thucydides Trap in contemporary international relations are subject to extensive debate, one argument remains overlooked: the theory’s realist analysis of state-to-state interactions may be representative of the ‘natural state of man,’ but fails to consider the natural state of woman. Consequently, theories rooted in this realist conception of human nature, such as the Thucydides Trap, cannot accurately explain the trajectory of US-China relations, as they only account for half of humanity when making predictions about international relations.

Thucydides, Hobbes, and the Creation of “Mankind”

Although the idea was not expressly stated by Thucydides himself, the Thucydides Trap is one of the most influential legacies of the Greek historian’s famous telling of the Peloponnesian War, which broke out after Athens’ growing power began to threaten that of the regional hegemon, Sparta. At its core, the theory in international relations posits that, as a rising power approaches the level of power of the incumbent power, war becomes inevitable. This modern-day application of Thucydides’s ancient text is based in the realist school of international relations, which theorizes that history can be broken down into a cycle of states dominating one another on the international stage due to a fundamental part of human nature: that man dominates others in pursuit of security, and indulges in selfish acts for one’s own well-being. Applied to states such as the U.S. and China, this logic suggests that neither will never be able to truly cooperate, as both are always incentivized to break away from cooperation if it better serves their interests.

The roots of this logic come from influential Western philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, who argue that, without the confines of government and established rules and norms, individuals are violent, selfish, and self-interested, and that anarchy is ultimately the natural state of mankind. While Hobbes’ theory seems as though it belongs to a distant past, his philosophy influenced modern international relations scholars, such as Hans J. Morhenththau, whose “principles of political realism” now serves as a frame through which generations of political scientists continue to view the international system.

In the context of  US-China relations, we see this school of thought applied frequently. Most prominently, Dr. Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, published a controversial book in 2017 that argued that the US and China are engaged in the Thucydides Trap and therefore destined for war. He points to China’s rise as a threat to the incumbent power, the US, leaving it no choice but to resort to military action.

Arguments against Allison’s theory often note how the power gap between the US and China is still vast, and that China has the willpower to restrain itself from war with the world’s leading military power. What criticism of Allison’s argument should also question, however, is the Thucydides Trap’s underlying judgement about the nature of mankind and its role in state-state interactions. Whether or not the conditions of this trap are sufficiently satisfied, it is necessary to challenge the assumptions about mankind’s tendency towards conflict and domination at  the core of this theory. More specifically, the assumptions about conflict-centered human nature that are essential to realism and the Thucydides Trap so often applied to US-China relations fail to take into account traits that are typically more strongly expressed in women.

A Zero-Sum Power Struggle

A key element of the Thucydides Trap theory, which is common across realist thought processes, is that one state’s loss is the other’s gain – or, in other words, the power relationship between them is zero-sum. In Allison’s account, a loss in power and prestige for the US – for example, the catastrophic pullout of troops in Afghanistan – is a direct gain in power for China, who could use the failure of US forces to depict themselves as a more responsible global power.

A classic example of understanding realism in action is through the stag hunt in game theory. In this problem, a group of hunters can either work cooperatively to track and hunt a stag and equally take part in eating it, or the hunters can separate from the group to kill a rabbit, which has a much smaller pay off but a much higher likelihood of success without cooperation from the other hunter. Due to the supposed selfish nature of mankind, hunters are likely to defect. Applied to states, this model supposedly illustrates the high likelihood of states to defect from cooperation if a perceived better reward is available if they defect.

In international relations, we see this kind of analysis over and over again. In the realm of environmental protection, the whole world benefits if all states, such as the US and China, cooperate with each other to abide by treaties to curb carbon emissions. However, both states have an incentive to defect from these agreements, because they tend to have a negative impact on the economy, but also because realists assume that free-riding, where states enjoy the benefits of a good without actually paying for it, is embedded in human nature. Certainly, descriptions of the fundamental nature of mankind (and, therefore, states) have had long-lasting impacts on international relations theory hundreds of years after Hobbes’s evaluation of man’s natural state. 

But where are the women in Hobbes’s description of a stateless world? While women must have represented half of humanity in these depictions of anarchy and self-interest, stereotypically female traits – such as nurture, communication, and sensitivity – are absent from the realist assessments of the nature of humankind.

“A Feminist Reformulation”

Judith Ann Tickner, professor emerita at the University of Southern California and distinguished scholar at American University, was among the first to highlight the lack of female voice in theories of international relations. In one of Tickner’s most influential pieces, “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation,” she argues for a departure from the preconceived assessment of the moral nature of mankind, stating that the realist perception of mankind may be true, but only for early human men, and that the natural state of humankind would  subsequently be perceived differently if women fulfilled dominant roles in society for all of civilization. 

Thinking back to the stag hunt problem, it is true that there may be a better perceived outcome for hunters that defect from the group and pursue their own self-interest. In early society, however, women were not hunters and therefore did not develop as humans over millennia in the exact way as men did. While men were hunters, women were often gatherers and stayed inside settlements, making food, creating clothing, and taking care of children as a group. All of these tasks were entirely dependent on working communally and would be rendered impossible if every woman defected in favor of their own self-interest. Consider raising children a millenia ago. It would have been a community event, where everyone worked together to ensure the whole community was fed and had clothes to wear. 

If a woman in this group decided that they did not want to sacrifice their own time or abilities for someone else’s child and defected from the community, they lose all the benefits of others’ cooperation for their own child. It is impossible to gather food, prepare meals, make clothing and bedding, and raise a child by oneself without the help from the community. This presents a fundamental difference between predominantly male hunters – who could receive some benefit by leaving the group and serving their own self interest – and predominantly female gatherers  – who were never better off by defecting and pursuing a different, selfish goal.

It is evident, therefore, that when male philosophers in the 17th century began to describe the nature of mankind as self-interested, and that cooperation is doomed to fail on that basis, these  priors led them to describe the nature of mankind, but not necessarily humankind. By contrast, feminist theory stresses that the nature of women is different and that not all of humankind is selfish. Furthermore, since men founded the realist school of thought only male tendencies and societal roles were accounted for when developing a theory that would be applied not only to every individual, but also to the interactions between states at the global level. 

This by no means suggests that if women had been the dominant players in politics there would be no war and the risk of US-China conflict would not be on the horizon. Instead, feminist international relations theory argues that because cooperation would be the overwhelming norm, war would be far less likely. While realism sees war and the quest for power as the main binder of the international system (areas dominated by men), feminist IR theory sees other areas, such as education and cultural projects, as key aspects of the international system. As Mary Beard, renowned classics professor writes, “If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women.” In other words, the overarching belief that women do not exemplify the attributes associated with individuals capable of holding seats of power deemphasizes areas of the international system disregarded by male-dominated realist thinking. The areas that women are more likely to play a larger role in – both throughout history and today – are less likely to be seen as crucial to the international system, whereas areas that men are more likely to be involved in, such as war and economics, are seen as crucial. 

A New Outlook on US-China Relations and Renewed Urgency in Gender Equality

Applying this perspective to the Thucydides Trap, the male dominated understanding of international relations questions the validity of the Thucydides Trap because the conflict-centric analysis of humankind is male-centered  and therefore not a reliable metric by which to predict the actions of states like China. The problem with Graham Allison’s argument (and others like it), therefore, is that it readily accepts both that the realist framework  underlying  the Thucydides Trap and, by extension, that the Thucydides Trap is a trustworthy predictor for  war. Had realism considered and been shaped by both men and women, warnings of a war between the US and China would likely not be as prominent and cooperation would likely be conventional. Theories of international relations that emphasize the unavoidable nature of conflict are so ingrained in our minds that they have been taken as facts, but are still only theories. 

The US and China would both reap tangible benefits from greater gender equality beyond increased equality for citizens. While it is impossible to immediately change the male-centered thinking that has guided both countries for centuries, meaningful action to address the gender gap in the workforce is a place to start, so that the next generation of what it means to hold power can be partially defined by women leaders.

As the US and China are global leaders in many realms, there is a need to set an example that achieving greater levels of gender equality is an asset akin to building a more powerful military or developing the economy. Both China and the US fall behind in numbers of female leaders relative to their GDP, with women making up only 6.5% of ministerial positions in China and 17.4% in the US. While the US and China both fare better in female representation in their respective parliaments (24.9% women in China and 23.4% women in the US), both countries rank among the bottom 50% of countries worldwide for female representation in government.

While China’s modern history had much more equal rates of female employment due to Mao’s egalitarian rhetoric, this changed during the period of reform and opening and has only worsened through the present. The wage gap and gender gap in workforce participation is growing in China whereas it’s shrinking in other places, such as in Japan, the US, and EU. Furthermore, since 1978, no Chinese ambassadors to the US have been women. Furthermore, women in the US account for about half of all students across most areas of academia and advanced degrees, but account for a disappointing percentage of leadership positions, especially in foreign policy. Since 1978, no US ambassadors to China have been women. 

Additionally, states with higher levels of gender equality have larger workforces, a more well-educated population, and are less likely to go to war with each other, all of which are variables in the US-China relationship. As American and Chinese leaders vie for global economic influence, the development of larger economies by bringing more women into the workforce and building better childcare and maternal leave policies is as strategically important as increased military funding.

As Elizabeth Lesser, author of Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes, writes “The world would have been different – and better – if women had had an equal say in the development of literature, medicine, chemistry, physics, peace, and economics. Better, not because women are better,” she continues, “but because they are more than half of humanity, representing more than half of what it means to be human.” Understanding not only the inherent male influence in the very theories that shape our views of US-China relations, but also how to make international relations more inclusive of women is essential in the march towards not only gender equality, but also peace between the US and China. It is not enough to simply hire more women in spaces where representation is lacking, but we must also assign greater importance to the areas that are traditionally female dominated, such as health, education, and community development.

The natural state of woman must be taken into account when assigning what is “natural” and what is not, not because women are better leaders or more responsible citizens, but because they feel the effects of existing in a society that was engineered with men in mind. Ignoring this – that more than half of the population is inherently excluded from theory about the natural basis of power – leaves no space for real change to happen to make positions of power more inclusive of women.