Graham Allison’s new book, Destined for War, addresses the question: “Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Given the state of tension between the two powers, its publication is timely.
Allison’s “Thucydides trap” comes from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in which the Athenian historian records how a rising Athens inevitably came to blows with the incumbent regional power, Sparta.
Allison is the founding dean of Harvard Kennedy School and an adviser to the US government on matters relating to defense and national security. He and his students looked at the past 500 years and identified 16 cases of a rising power facing a reigning power. Twelve of those cases ended in disastrous wars.
The book is a tour de force in its identification of all the different ways powers can collide in these circumstances, even despite conscious efforts to avoid war. Sometimes the process begins with a trivial misunderstanding that becomes magnified until open conflict becomes unavoidable.
Allison devotes a chapter to conjecture about how a war between China and the US might develop. Various scenarios begin with a minor provocation being misunderstood by the other side, leading to a response that is in turn misunderstood. And so an escalating game of thrust and parry leads the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust.
The author did not intend his book as a prophecy of doom but rather as a cautionary tale that might alarm leaders in Beijing and Washington sufficiently to help them avoid the trap.
As he demonstrates, war between a rising power and reigning power is not a foregone conclusion. Allison suggests China and the US face four “mega threats” that will require their working together rather than in opposition.
The first of these is the threat of mutually assured destruction from a nuclear Armageddon. Both sides must be deterred from an all-out nuclear war in which there can be no winners. This is the same deterrent that kept the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union from getting hot.
Along the same lines, both powers have the same interest in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of too many other nations and out of the hands of terrorists. He calls this scenario “nuclear anarchy.” Joint efforts would naturally be more effective in preventing nuclear anarchy than working separately.
Both countries also face a terrorist threat based on biological weapons derived from genetic engineering. “Extensive cooperation, through bilateral intelligence sharing, multilateral organizations and the establishment of global standards will be essential,” said Allison at a recent tour event at Stanford.
The fourth common mega threat identified by Allison is combating greenhouse gas emissions to stop global warming. The President of the US has said “This is not going to happen.” Oh well, three out of four should be enough for the leaders of Beijing and Washington to focus on collaboration rather than competition.
At Stanford, Allison and his moderator and former Harvard colleague, Niall Ferguson, joked that Chinese leaders follow western ideas and thinking closely and would have already read this book even before it was published, suggesting another case of piracy (ha-ha). Both lamented that the Trump White House is unlikely to have read the book and probably never will.
I asked whether a model of “one hand clapping” might still incur Thucydides’s trap. I had hoped they might discuss America’s role as provocateur in face of a relatively passive reaction from China. Allison understood my question but said simply that China’s island-building activity in the South China Sea could create lead to the two hands clapping on which the trap theory is predicated.
China does not send battleships to the Caribbean nor surveillance planes to the coast of California. China’s presence in the Middle East has been to help restore and rebuild infrastructure. The soldiers China dispatches overseas wear the blue UN helmet and serve as peacekeepers
Allison admits that his expertise is in national security and not China. I believe seeing China through a western lens is a significant flaw of his book. While he acknowledges a China as a 5,000-year Confucian based civilization, he seems to attribute the country with the same zero-sum mentality of a western nation.
All 16 cases of Thucydides’s trap involved western nations. Japan was the rising power in two of those cases, but I would argue that Japan became a rising power after deciding to vigorously adopt all manner of western values and thus should be counted as a westernized nation.
As Michael Wood, the award-winning documentary producer, demonstrated in his series on major world civilizations, only western civilizations have gone around killing each other and slaughtering others to extinction.
China does not send battleships to the Caribbean nor surveillance planes to the coast of California. China’s presence in the Middle East has been to help restore and rebuild infrastructure. The soldiers China dispatches overseas wear the blue UN helmet and serve as peacekeepers.
Washington gasped in alarm when China finally established its first offshore military base outside of China. China justified its base in Djibouti on the horn of Africa as necessary to support its naval ships on patrol as part of multinational efforts to combat piracy. In Djibouti itself, it has laid a freshwater pipeline connect the coastal port with a railroad to Addis Ababa, the capital of landlocked Ethiopia. This is an example of China’s strategy to “dominate” the world by helping other countries build their infrastructure under the Belt and Road Initiative.
The author is rightly concerned about global and American national security. However I respectfully submit that the hand doing the clapping, namely the United States, is the reigning power. It is therefore its responsibility to cease and desist aggressive actions and thus avert Thucydides’s infamous trap.
I’ll have to add, in unbiased historical context, China had history of mass conquest and murder too, if you go back far enough and thorough enough(which civilization doesnt?). What’s different is China reached a stage of hegemony and stability,then proceed to developed a bureaucratic, bening (relatively), passive, inward looking civilizational culture tradition that lasted thousands of years, which deeply shaped Chinese to this day. In a sense, you can say this is a similar experience to recent US hegemony. Except Anglo Saxons US only had decades of this hegemony under their belt to shape them, never reached the depth Chinese have with thousands of years of being shaped by it, and thousands years history of failures and successes to reflect on it. No other civilization currently existing on earth can boast this kind of continued historical heritage, as far as I know.
That said, I would not want to give China a free pat on the shoulder yet. Although China’s long, deep historical roots mentioned above is a plus, today’s China still have yet to fully recover and adapt it properly for the modern world. Colonial history, Invasions, civil wars, Communism detours, hyper-aggresive adaptation of industrial-capital-consumerist social economies, technology driven social life changes all left many issues and problems. While China can draw upon the cultural and historical heritage and recently economic success as strength, China should never underestimate the task she still have in front of herself if shes to truely reach her potential.
China does not send battleships to the Caribbean nor surveillance planes to the coast of California.
Yes, but China sends hundred of thousand spies to the U.S. They also aggressively wage cyber thefts of American technologies. NUKE CHINA FIRST
I think the South China Sea issue is unsolvable because both America and China cannot afford to withdraw.
If a nuclear Armageddon should come, it would probably had to come from a rise of another crazy neoFascist populist who has only rhetoric but no serious money to enjoy pussying beautiful women plusing enjoying other good things in life and, hence will not be the current rich plutocrat sitting in the White House who only tweets neoFascist viewspoints but is really only interested in making money from his many deals.
Only China cannot and will not withdraw.
The author writes "As Michael Wood, the award-winning documentary producer, demonstrated in his series on major world civilizations, only western civilizations have gone around killing each other and slaughtering others to extinction."
This is patently false and insults the intelligence of any historically literate reader.
Haav Bline nuke you too, idiot, a paid troll
I’m confused. The writer of this article says there is a flaw in the book because it only considers western values.
So what of it? What evidence can the author of this article build upon further? I feel he just blurted out a statement without really explaining it, which in my view, makes his case moot.
The chance of war between the two is very low.
The US is sane and moral enough to not send Taiwan and Japan into the inferno of war.
China is also sane and can achieve enough by greater and greater threat without execution.
China is simply winning enough without starting a war. The US will not start a war and will accept the inevitable.
With very passing decade, Taiwan will be obviously more vulnerable and helpless, and Japan will be dwarfed by China.
Yeah, I think this author forgot about Gengis Khan. lol
Andrew Kelly Genghis Khan is not even Chinese. He (or is it Kublai Khan) in fact conquered China and went on to try to conquer Japan.
"’The fourth common mega threat identified by Allison is combating greenhouse gas emissions to stop global warming." That tells you all you need to know about Allison’s views. His other positions will all be subsumed to this one true faith.
You’re not so bad at stereotyping either, Joe. Your characterisation of Americans sounds like it was lifted from Noam Chomsky, c. 1970
KS Chin: Genghis Khan would have conquered Japan, if it were not sea storm when the Mongol fleet was damaged! Just imagine if hadn’t been!
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