A detail from the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great, whose conquests led to the Hellenistic Age. Photo: Public Domain

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.

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