Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? – Graham Allison
In Destined for War, Graham Allison present his argument for the pending conflict between the United States and China based on what he dubbed “The Thucydides Trap.” Based on the Peloponnesian war, the Thucydides Trap suggests that a rising power will come to blows with a status quo power unless steps are taken to prevent the clash. It a new spin on Jervis’s security dilemma that focuses on the fear Sparta felt when viewing the rising power of Athens.
Takeaway 1: Because China is a rising power, it is a threat to the existing power of the United States.
While this is Allison’s central argument, the evidence is far from conclusive. Most of the examples he uses are from a world so different it may has well been on another planet. Times have changed and economies have changed. Additionally, Allison’s argument is predicated on the continued rise of China at its historic past levels which are not likely to be sustainable. Some of these same predictions could have been levied against Japan of the 1980s based on their growth at the time, but history has proven otherwise. Even if China clashed with and beat the United States as Sparta did Athens it is worth remembering that Athens rebounded and Sparta declined in the following centuries.
Takeaway 2: In the past 500 years, rising and status quo powers have fought wars in 12 out of 16 cases.
Examples include Japan vs US in mid-1900s, Germany vs France mid-1800s, Japan-Russia vs China late-1800s-early-1900s, England vs Dutch in 1600s, Hapsburg vs France in 1500s, and Britain and Germany in early 1900s. War was avoided by Spain vs Portugal in late-1400s, Germany vs Britain/France 1990s to present, US vs Britain in early-1900s, and US vs USSR 1940-1980 (ignoring proxy conflicts!). History is full of examples of conflicts and outright war where, as the Melians were warned, the “strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”
Takeaway 3: War is not inevitable if the United States and China can change the relationship.
Allison’s final assertion is the reason for the question mark in the title. He uses the cases where war was averted to suggest that destiny is not immutable. The parties can appeal to a higher authority, be constrained by institutions, and distinguish needs from wants. Economic interdependence and nuclear weapons have created a very different world from any previous conflict and could be sufficient deterrent. Allison concludes with his advice that the United States clarify interests and make a more concerted effort to understand China. The United States must focus on creating an actual strategy (which would require the clarification of interests) while focusing on its own domestic progress. The recommendations are a bit one sided on how the US avoids war with China, without much consideration for the other side of the coin. China has nothing to gain from a shooting war with the United States. There will continue to be friction as China expands and the US tries to find its way forward, but the two powers are not “Destined for War.”