Off to the Races

The “Trap” of a U.S.-China War

Graham Allison’s book on how ruling powers have dealt with rising ones is a must-read for policymakers.

President Trump walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.
AP Photo/Andy Wong
Jan. 29, 2018, 8 p.m.

It isn’t often that a book comes along that should be mandatory reading for every member of Congress, Cabinet member and, for that matter, any senior governmental official with a connection to foreign policy and national security. But Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? is such a book.

This book, published in May but an outgrowth of a 2015 article in The Atlantic, does not predict that there will be a war between the United States and China. It is not a China-bashing screed, nor is it a dry, academic tome; indeed, it is highly readable and both fascinating and sobering. Allison writes, “When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarm bells should sound: danger ahead. China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war—unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it.”

Sixteen times over the past 500 years, a rising power has threatened to displace the ruling power; in 12 cases the result was war, two of them World Wars. From the late 15th century—when Spain took on the previously dominant Portugal—all the way to today, this pattern has held. The inspiration for Allison’s thesis was the writing of ancient Greek historian Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century B.C. “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,” Thucydides wrote.

Allison writes that “Athens believed its advance to be benign. Over the half century that preceded the conflict, it had emerged as a steeple of civilization. … Its rapid development began to threaten Sparta which had grown accustomed to its position as the dominant power on the Peloponnese. As Athenian confidence and pride grew, so too did its demands for respect and expectations that arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power.” Conversely, Sparta felt Athens had benefited from the security that allowed it to flourish and that Athenians were ungrateful, and it “reacted with insecurity, fear, and a determination to defend the status quo.”

Allison, the founding dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and currently director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is not an ivory-tower academic. He has served as an assistant secretary of Defense and has advised every secretary of Defense from the Reagan through the Obama administrations.

He argues that many Americans are in denial about “China’s transformation from agrarian backwater to the biggest player in the history of the world.” As Allison writes, “The world has never seen anything like the rapid, tectonic shift in the global balance of power created by the rise of China. If the U.S. were a corporation, it would have accounted for 50 percent of the global economic market in the years immediately after World War II. By 1980, that had declined to 22 percent. Three decades of double-digit Chinese growth has reduced the U.S. share to 16 percent today. If current trends continue, the US share of global economic output will decline further over the next three decades to just 11 percent. Over this same period, China’s share of the global economy will have soared from two percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2016, well on its way to 30 percent in 2040.”

It is Allison’s analysis of how nations typically behave that is most unsettling; it isn’t hard to see how the historical precedents could replay themselves in the current day. Inadvertent actions by either side or even third parties can trigger a war when tensions are running so high. Allison walks through a number of hypothetical situations involving the U.S. and China that could easily turn into a shooting war between the two powers.

The book was begun before the 2016 presidential election but completed afterwards. Allison writes, “If Hollywood was making a movie pitting China against the United States on the path to war, central casting could not find two better leading actors than Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Each personifies his country’s deep aspirations of national greatness.” While noting that, as personalities, Xi and Trump could not be more different, there are some real similarities. Allison writes that both men:

  • “Are driven by a common ambition: to make their nation great again.
  • “Identify the nation ruled by the other as the principal obstacle to their dream.
  • “Take pride in their own unique leadership capabilities.
  • “See themselves playing a central role in revitalizing their nation.
  • “Have announced daunting domestic agendas that call for radical changes.
  • “Have fired up populist nationalistic support to ‘drain the swamp’ of corruption at home and confront attempts by each other to thwart their nation’s historic mission.”

This is a book that will make any thinking person look at developments between the U.S. and China in a different light—and take the dangers very seriously.

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