Is war between China and the US inevitable? A new book looks to the past for answers
American political analyst Graham Allison’s thought-provoking book Destined for War ponders whether the two superpowers can avoid the precedents of history, and highlights North Korea as a potential flashpoint
In September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Seattle to begin his first official visit to the United States. Before meetings with leaders of major companies such as Microsoft and Boeing, and, later, those in the White House, Xi gave a speech about relations between the two nations.
Among an impressive array of cultural references – from the movie Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and television series House of Cards to Ernest Hemingway – it was easy to miss a passage in which Xi name-checked Thucydides, the Greek historian who pre-dates the author of The Old Man and the Sea by some 2,500 years.
“We should strictly base our judgment on facts, lest we become victims to hearsay, paranoid or self-imposed bias,” Xi said. “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”
Anyone wondering what a “Thucydides Trap” might be should read the new book Destined for War, by American political scientist Graham Allison, a professor at the John F Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University, who not only coined the phrase but has extrapolated from it an entire theory concerning the rivalry between China and the US.
“I think Thucydides would have no problem in saying this looks like a classic Thucydidean dynamic,” Allison says. “In the same way that Germany and Britain were idealised Thucydidean analogues of Athens and Sparta, so too with China and the US.”
What makes a Thucydides Trap so potentially alarming, Allison argues, is that it tends to conclude with conflict. Among hostilities studied by Allison are the two world wars, the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese war a decade later. Published in May, Destined for War’s sobering forecast for current Sino-American relations is that “on the current trajectory, war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but more likely than currently recognised”.
No wonder Xi is paying close attention.
[China] is an amazing country. I have a huge admiration for what is quite clearly the phenomenon of our lifetime, the extent of which exhausts the parade of superlatives. China has gone from nowhere to rivalry [with the US] or supremacy on every domain
Allison has just returned to his Harvard office after a morning lecture delivered to a class of Chinese entrepreneurs.
“Harvard Business School runs various executive programmes for 30-somethings from family-owned businesses in China,” he tells Post Magazine, “which the Communist Party was undoing, but which are now the fastest-growing part of the economy in China’s history.”
Allison is fulsome in his praise for the “50 up and comers” who are “amazed at what’s happening [in China] but full of enthusiasm”, and he did not neglect to include a brief tutorial-cum-trailer for his new book. “In the class, we [learned to pronounce Thucydides] in unison five times so they would be able to go home and tell people,” he says.
The fact that leaders such as Xi are paying heed to Allison is not surprising: in the field of international relations, he is an acknowledged colossus. During a career spanning half a century, he has counselled US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, as well as directors of the CIA. He has advised major oil companies and Wall Street banks, and taken the role of America’s assistant secretary of defence for policy and plans, with a special brief for the then Soviet Union.
He mainly operates, however, in academia. Aside from brief hiatuses at Britain’s Oxford University and Davidson College, in the US state of North Carolina, Allison has spent his entire career at Harvard.
His PhD, which was partly supervised by American diplomat Henry Kissinger, was eventually published as Essence of Decision (1971), the book that established Allison’s international reputation. An exploration of three models to explain the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, it helped determine the direction of Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government, where Allison was dean for more than a decade.
Allison formulated the Thucydides Trap during his tenure as director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Its inspiration was a single sentence in the Greek historian’s account of the Peloponnesian war (431BC-404BC): “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”
The underlying hypothesis is that insecurity sparked between an ambitious, rapidly rising nation and an established power desperate to maintain the status quo vastly increases the chances of war.
Allison tested his concept against 16 cases drawn from the past 500 years, beginning in the 15th century with Spain challenging Portugal. Four of Allison’s 16 Thucydides Traps ended peacefully thanks to intelligent diplomacy, well-judged concessions and good fortune. Twelve resulted in disaster.
While Destined for War devotes time to these historic precedents, its focus is on present and future relations between China and the US, and Allison’s respect for the former is hard to miss. “[China] is an amazing country,” he enthuses. “I have a huge admiration for what is quite clearly the phenomenon of our lifetime, the extent of which exhausts the parade of superlatives. China has gone from nowhere to rivalry [with the US] or supremacy on every domain. The world has never seen anything like this before.”
This admiration has its limits, however. “As someone who admires achievement, I am amazed [by China],” Allison says. “On the other hand, as an American who knows in his bones that US means number one, I am terrified.”
Destined for War, among other things, is Allison’s attempt to understand such feelings.
“I was stumbling around, trying to understand what is clearly the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” he says. “As I tried to understand, I was constantly reminded of Thucydides’ insight and I dug in.”
As befits a Harvard academic of considerable standing, Allison has some impressive authorities to guide his research – he names Kissinger, British historian Niall Ferguson and former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, among many others. Allison’s critics have been quick to point out how white, Western and Harvard-based these advisers are.
“I am sure I haven’t really penetrated the Chinese mindset,” Allison admits. “I am not a China scholar. I don’t read or speak Mandarin. [China] was never my topic. But for the past 10 years it has been the subject of very serious study.”
No one did more to shape Allison’s thinking about China than Singapore’s political architect and first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew. Allison argues that Lee was perfectly positioned to translate China for an American audience.
“Lee knew that Singapore only survived with the forbearance of China,” says Allison. “He studied carefully how they could survive in the shadow of China.”
According to Allison, this meant seeking counterweights to Chinese power in Asia, whether they be India or the US.
“Lee was very concerned that the US remains a powerful player in Asia to keep some balance,” he says. “He feared, I think rightly, that China left to its own devices is a pretty cruel master.”
Lee and Allison’s long personal association dated back to 1969. Lee was on “sabbatical when he was building Singapore and came to Harvard”, says Allison, who was then a graduate student and Lee’s guide throughout his four-month stay at the university’s Institute of Politics. “I became interested in the man and the family, and watched Singapore from a distance.”
A book of Allison’s conversations with Lee, titled Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World , was published in 2013. Destined for War begins with a light-hearted reference to those dialogues. Allison presented a transcript of his talks with Lee to David Petraeus, then the new director of the CIA.
“I pretended to have a report of a deep ‘sleeper’ agent who had studied China for 25 years and was now giving us some answers about what was happening,” says Allison.
This agent, he claimed, was so effective that he had even spent considerable time in conversation with the Chinese leadership. “Petraeus was fascinated. Who in the world could it be?”
The answer, as Allison gleefully revealed, was Lee, whose success in transforming Singapore economically while maintaining authoritarian political control fascinated China’s elites.
“He penetrated the Chinese mind and trajectories,” says Allison. “He had become a leader of such status that all the Chinese leaders called him ‘Mentor’. He didn’t have any fear about what he was prepared to say. He was always very blunt and straight-spoken.”
Allison offers an example straight out of the Thucydides Trap.
“When the question is: are China’s leaders really serious about displacing the US as the predominant power in Asia in the foreseeable future? Most Chinese experts say, ‘Oh, it’s complicated.’ Lee Kuan Yew’s answer was, ‘Of course! Why not?’”
The notion that China is going to accept its place in the American-defined international order [in] the way Japan and Germany, as Lee said, did is a fiction. China wants to be accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West
Lee convinced Allison that China is not interested in power on anyone’s terms other than its own.
“The notion that China is going to accept its place in the American-defined international order [in] the way Japan and Germany, as Lee said, did is a fiction. China wants to be accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West,” he says.
In this context, China challenges the traditional Thucydides Trap in one important regard: can it be seen as the rising power? Indeed, Destined for War cites statistics that suggest the country has already surpassed the US in several key areas, including production of ships, steel, aluminium, cellphones and computers, and the purchasing of cars.
“China is not just a normal rising power,” says Allison. “China conceives itself as being the dominant power in the world forever: ‘There was this small diversion – the centuries of humiliation – but that was then. We have re-emerged and if you [the US] will simply butt out, we will go back to history as usual, as we conceive it.’”
Nevertheless, as Xi pointed out in Seattle, the perception of facts is often as important as the facts themselves. Allison argues that while the economic gap separating China from the US may be closing fast, the latter is still broadly regarded as the dominant superpower, even in Asia.
“The US – and I subscribe to most of this – has been a benevolent hegemon and created an international order, and nowhere more clearly than in Asia,” says Allison. “It has been of enormous benefit to everybody. You have never seen such economic prosperity as occurred in the economic and security order that the US created after World War Two and which has been maintained in the decades since. In the American view – that this has been fantastic for everybody, and China should be thankful and actually should be prepared to be supportive of this order, of which it has been the beneficiary – this makes complete sense.”
He adds: “Thucydides would say this is always how ruling powers see things.”
If the potential for rivalry is hard to refute, what about the potential for actual conflict? Allison’s introductory observations give reasons to be cheerful.
“I don’t think there’s a single person in Washington that thinks war with China is a good idea,” the writer says. “I have never met such a person. And I don’t believe there is a single person in the Chinese military or defence establishment who believes this would be a good idea.”
One primary danger inherent in a Thucydides Trap is how it undermines a shared determination against war, and that conflict can begin in the most unlikely of places. Allison points to the first world war, whose flashpoint was the Balkans.
“Right now, the most dangerous hot spot in the world is Korea,” says Allison, “and it is a very plausible path to Americans and Chinese in a war that would be insane and that neither would want, and afterwards both would repent.”
Korea, unlike the Balkans in 1913, stages a direct competition between the two Thucydidean powers.
“As a Chinese high-level official told me two weeks ago in Beijing,” says Allison, “‘there would not be a problem on the Korean peninsula if [the US] weren’t there. This is a country on our border. What are you doing there?’”
Allison’s response aligns with American foreign policy.
“South Korea for the Americans and for me is a great success story,” he says. “We regard this as a poster child for successful American Asian order. But I can understand how from the Chinese perspective it does look like an American military ally very close to their border.”
Rhetoric and tensions have been heated up by the election of US President Donald Trump, who keeps an uncharacteristically low profile in Allison’s book. This is largely due to timing – Destined for War was all but complete when Trump was elected last November. “This is not a Trump book,” says Allison. But has Trump changed the trajectory of Allison’s newest Thucydides Trap?
“I am not 100 per cent clear,” the writer says. “Here is somebody who in the campaign basically demonised China. He came to office not knowing much about the history or realities or issues of international politics, and almost fell into a deep hole with Taiwan. Then, when he discovered how deep he was in, he reversed course immediately, so he shows great capacity for learning.”
Whether similar capacity is visible in Trump’s dealings with North Korea is less obvious. He seems not to have been aware of the DPRK, much less the threat posed by Kim Jong-un, until Barack Obama told him about it in their handover meeting.
“Trump was shocked,” says Allison. “Two hours later, he said, ‘Not going to happen!’ He has been saying that ever since.”
Trump’s military advisers (the hawkish James Mattis and H.R. McMaster) have consistently argued that they have the capability to prevent Kim attacking South Korea. Allison imagines a scenario.
“We suspect North Korea are going to rain down artillery shells on Seoul, which can kill half a million, a million people, in 24 hours,” he says. “That means a second Korean war. As Mattis testified [in May], this is going to be the bloodiest war anybody will have seen in their lifetime. We would have seen nothing like this since the last Korean war. [Mattis says] we can win that war and eliminate Kim Jong-un, except if China enters the war.”
Could this be the endgame in a Thucydides Trap? Would China intervene?
“That’s a good question. Why is China not going to enter the war? The answer is, ‘That would be crazy.’ That would mean war with the US. Was that crazy in 1950? How did that work out? Not very well.”
If China, fearing a unified Korea, did support the North, while the US supported the South, could such a conflict remain local, or would it escalate – as cyberwar or something considerably more damaging? Should he get an opportunity, Allison has advice for both Xi and Trump. That advice is refreshingly odd. “[The English philosopher] Hobbes taught us there are no superior authorities,” says Allison. “Nobody is superior to Trump and Xi, but imagine there were. Imagine a Martian strategist who parachutes down to Xi and Trump, and says, ‘Guys, I have a few things to point out to you.’”
Having begun by reminding the pair of the historical dangers of the Thucydides Trap, the Martian would argue that the greatest dangers to both leaders exist within their own borders. “‘The fundamental problem that each of you face, and that each of your societies faces, is whether you are going to be able to govern yourself. I am betting against each of you.’”
For Xi, Allison’s Martian argues, this means “trying to run a retro authoritarian system in an era when people have smartphones. As Lee Kuan Yew told you, ‘That is an operating system that is not going to work.’”
Trump, for his part, is “trying to lead a dysfunctional democracy, which in part is how you got elected, but which seems so paralysed and so poisonous in its politics that it is genuinely a question whether you are going to be able to govern yourself successfully. And that’s just for starters. I have 15 more problems for you.”
To avoid the Thucydides Trap, Allison suggests that Xi and Trump take a leaf out of Thucydides’ account, and consider how Athenian politician Pericles proposed a 30-year peace treaty.
“Pericles figured out that Athens and Sparta had enough problems to work on themselves,” says Allison, “and they should take a breather for 30 years and mostly work on their own problems.”
While Allison says he wants Destined for War to inspire debate, several scholars have taken issue with everything from his knowledge of China to his interpretation of Thucydides. According to Arthur Waldron, Lauder professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, Allison’s praise of Pericles does not tell the whole story. “In fact,” Waldron argues, “war began when Athens intentionally violated the 30-year truce in order to teach Sparta a lesson.”
Waldron also criticises what he calls Harvard’s “China fever”, adding, “Allison, like Kissinger, has constructed a China according to his own specifications. Recently in China, a high-level think-tanker said to me, ‘Arthur, what do we do now? Everyone knows the system doesn’t work. But how do you change it without making things worse, setting off a civil war? We are at a dead end.’
“If Allison could have sat down with this fellow, it would have done him a world of good, but he can’t talk to him, or read Chinese, or even meet the guy.”
Where Waldron and Allison might find common ground is in endorsing the study of history as an antidote to potential doom, and Allison cites Spanish philosopher and writer George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”“Somebody once said, the USA is the United States of Amnesia,” Allison says. “In today’s American politics and media, everything is declared to be new and everything is declared to be unprecedented. The historical sensibility that comes from recognising the analogies between the current and the past, and learning from past mistakes, is quite limited. What I hope this book will help to do is stimulate conversation about the historical record and say, ‘Wake up! This is extremely dangerous!’”