Book review: Destined for War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? should scare you

Graham Allison studied 16 cases in the last 500 years where an aggressive rising nation threatened a dominant power; in 12 there was war. Are the US and China on a collision course or can conflict be avoided?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 2:10pm

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

by Graham Allison

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

3.5 stars

Before settling in for pleasurable summer books, read Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? A warning: it’s going to scare the heck out of you.

It starts with the Athenian historian’s chronicle of the conflict between Sparta and Athens in the fifth century BC as a way to tackle the larger question of whether war can be averted when an aggressive rising nation threatens a dominant power. Allison, a renowned Harvard University scholar and national security expert, studied 16 such cases during the past 500 years; in 12 there was war.

For three-quarters of a century, the US has been the dominant world power. China is now challenging that hegemony economically, politically and militarily. Both countries, with vastly different political systems, histories and values, believe in their own exceptionalism.

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The two nations, Allison argues, are “currently on a collision course for war”, which he says can be averted only if both demonstrate skill and “take difficult and painful actions to avert it”. 

Allison has been sweeping in and out of government, serving five Republican and Democratic administrations from Washington and his perch at Harvard. He’s a first-class academic with the instincts of a first-rate politician. He has an impressive sweep of historical and geopolitical and military knowledge. Unlike some academics, he writes interestingly.

Allison analyses why so many rising powers ended up in wars with established ones, and why some didn’t. The best contemporary examples are the German rise that led to the first world war, contrasted with the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, which was kept from escalating into hot war for more than four decades.

In the early part of the 20th century, the UK was threatened by an emerging Germany – which had been unified decades before – and which was blowing past Britain economically and moving upon its naval dominance. The political leaders in the UK, Allison writes, were beset by anxieties and Germany emboldened by ambition. Mutual mistrust, an arms race and war followed.

After the second world war, facing the menacing challenge from the Soviet Union, the US fashioned the policy of containment, starting with the extraordinary Marshall Plan to rebuild war-ravaged allies and adversaries. With smart diplomats and presidents, from John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis through Ronald Reagan’s engagement with Mikhail Gorbachev, war was averted until the Soviet Union collapsed.

The rise of China offers a classic Thucydides trap. In 1980, China’s economy was only a tenth the size of the US economy. By 2040, Allison reckons it could be three times larger. China considers itself the most important power in Asia, irrespective of US commitments and alliances with allies in the region.

With US President Donald Trump presiding over a White House hostile to international institutions, Chinese President Xi Jinping has at least a claim on the title of premier global leader.

Allison depicts plausible scenarios of how conflicts between these two superpowers could break out: disputes over Taiwan or the South China Sea, or an accidental provocation by a third party – it was the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian terrorist that triggered the first world war – or, less likely, a quarrel related to economic competition.

The most dangerous threat lurks in the Korean peninsula, where North Korea has nuclear warheads and is trying to develop the missile technology to hit San Francisco. What happens if the Pyongyang regime collapses and its strongman, Kim Jong-un, is eliminated? 

In March, Xi explained the nuances of the Korean situation to Trump, whose White House had warned that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will”.

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If that’s a military threat, consider this: an assault on North Korea would be answered by missile attacks against nearby Seoul that could kill as many as a million people. Imagine that followed by an invasion of the north by the US and South Korea to prevent more carnage. Would China sit still for a unified Korean peninsula allied with the US? The answer was no in 1950, to General Douglas MacArthur’s shock, when it was much less powerful, confident and ambitious.

Allison isn’t a pessimist. He argues that with skilful statecraft and political sensitivity these two superpowers can avoid war.

Xi is a ruthless autocrat, but a smart one with a sense of history and China’s customary patience. 

In the US, by contrast, the current commander-in-chief shows little interest in history and is claimed to be irrational, insecure and impulsive.

That’s scary.