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Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

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By Graham Allison
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
384 pages, ISBN: 978-0544935273, Hardcover
Reviewed by John F. Copper

Most readers will likely find Graham Allison’s newest book, Destined for War, interesting and fresh. Many will agree with this reviewer that it is a work that may entitle Allison to join the ranks of Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) and Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations), who offer powerful templates, if not plausible theories, to help explain current international politics.

This book is therefore highly recommended to students of US–China relations, strategic studies, international politics, modern history, and more.

Allison provides an easily understandable formula to unwrap the foremost strategic issue that faces the world right now: the likelihood of a war between the United States and China, and the implications of such an event.

How so? He draws on a classic in international relations as the springboard of his analysis: Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War. The ancient Greek thinker deemed it likely, if not inevitable, that due to the circumstances of a status quo power (Sparta) and a rising power (Athens) in contention, there would be a war or wars between the two. Sparta regarded Athens a threat, while Athens perceived Sparta as wanting to block its rise and keep it down; that was the basis for their conflict.

Bolstering the argument, the Belfer Center at Harvard University, where Allison serves on the faculty, carefully studied subsequent situations wherein the Thucydides “trap” applied to the relations of major world powers and reported that in twelve of sixteen such cases, war was the result. This Allison offers as proof positive the theory works.

There is more. China is not only a rising power, it is also a resentful one, given its humiliation by the West for almost 150 years after the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s. Chinese regularly recalling the sting of imperialism and China’s intense desire to restore its status as a great power, which China held throughout most of its history, contribute powerfully to its urge for change.

Then, there is the reality that China is an extremely fast rising power, while the US exhibits many signs of being a declining power, not just a status quo power. Add to the fact that China is demonstrating its dominance in certain elements of power that are especially predictive of it becoming the global power. Its arguable supremacy in artificial intelligence and quantum computers, which many thinkers see as the critical assets to dominate the coming new world order, has special salience.

Last but not least, as Richard Haass in his recent book, A World in Disarray, observes, the international system is in a state of breakdown. This means that the contest between the world’s status quo power and its rising challenger is more acute and pressing than it would be otherwise.

But there is a major flaw in Allison’s analysis: His theory predicted the Cold War would turn into a hot war. Also, the bipolar system was a zero- sum system and was asymmetric or out of balance throughout its history; that should have made war even more likely. However, mutually assured destruction (MAD) served as a damper on the desire to win harbored by the United States and the Soviet Union. Another factor was they colluded to keep their superpower prerogatives, and that also kept the system stable.

Currently, the leaders of the US and China seem to realize the critical importance of their relationship as they are recreating the bipolar system. MAD is still around. President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping have established working, if not cordial, understandings and may be willing to collude. The term Chinamerica, coined by historian Niall Ferguson, describes this vividly.

Alas, both leaders also seem very cognizant of the reality that the global financial system, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, environmental issues, and more cannot be managed satisfactorily without US–China cooperation. Thus, their relationship is “too big to fail” for everyone.

There are other variables. Fortuitously, the wannabe powers, Europe and Japan, have pretty much resigned themselves to second-class status (though Russia has perhaps not), and India is rising but is too distant in economic and military power to be a contender. Thus, a multipolar system is not in the cards. In addition, Trump and Xi harbor no illusions that international institutions are not capable of serving as the driver of a universal system.

That the US–China-based bipolarity is asymmetric, with China dominating in economic power and the US dominating in military power, seems to be a condition that both their leaders accept. Trump has “signed on” to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative to connect the world and run global commerce, quite in contrast to President Barack Obama, who opposed US involvement. Xi has recognized, and has apparently accepted, at least for now, America’s global military supremacy by not seeking military bases around the world (a big asset for Washington) while he has not bettered the size of Trump’s increased military budget, as he no doubt could.

Meanwhile, Trump’s grandchildren entertained (in Chinese singing and reciting poetry) Xi and his first lady twice when the two leaders met— signaling that Trump respects Chinese culture as no other American leader has while showing that he accepts China’s dream to rise in global stature. Not only that, but the grandchildren’s performances went viral in China and won for Trump the admiration of the Chinese people.

Thus, US–China relations, which during the last years of the Obama administration were at a low point, worse than at any time since before Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China, are now (tentatively, at least) cordial. In fact, one might say that while the challenges America and China present to the other will be frequent and may often appear dangerous, they are being well–managed, and that will likely continue to be so in the future.

Hence, the subtitle to Allison’s book, Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, may be answered in the affirmative. That is no doubt a good thing. ■