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

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating, and especially topical book by Graham Allison of the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School of Government. Dr. Allison has created an academic infrastructure around the book, which can be found at http://www.belfercenter.org/thucydide…

The book makes the proposition that history teaches us that a newly rising power may create fear and a sense of instability within an existing hegemon that drives both towards war, even when both may desire to avoid military conflict. (The Thucydides’s trap) The historical reference is to the History of Peloponnesian War, written byThucydides, which shows that despite a strong desire, and major effort, to avoid war, Athens and Sparta eventually plunged into a mutually destructive conflict.

“When he turned the spotlight on “the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta,” he identified a primary driver at the root of some of history’s most catastrophic and puzzling wars. Intentions aside, when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception. It happened between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BCE, between Germany and Britain a century ago, and almost led to war between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.”


Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Dr. Allison has brought forward 16 case studies that he believes bring historical perspective to the rise of China, and how the United States reacts to that rise. Contrary to the title Dr. Allison takes pains to point out that war is not inevitable, but that adjustments in thought and process on both sides need to occur to ensure a peaceful future.

The book gives us a good look at the economic power that has been unleashed by China.

“What a monster it may become. In the three and a half decades since Ronald Reagan became president, by the best measurement of economic performance, China has soared from 10 percent the size of the US to 60 percent in 2007, 100 percent in 2014, and 115 percent today. If the current trend continues, China’s economy will be a full 50 percent larger than that of the US by 2023. By 2040 it could be nearly three times as large. That would mean a China with triple America’s resources to use in influencing outcomes in international relations.”

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (p. 216). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Not only is the Chinese economy growing by enormous amounts but some of the feats of construction are simply startling.

“When Americans complain about how long it takes to build a building or repair a road, authorities often reply that “Rome was not built in a day.” Someone clearly forgot to tell the Chinese. By 2005, the country was building the square-foot equivalent of today’s Rome every two weeks. Between 2011 and 2013, China both produced and used more cement than the US did in the entire twentieth century. In 2011, a Chinese firm built a 30-story skyscraper in just 15 days. Three years later, another construction firm built a 57-story skyscraper in 19 days. Indeed, China built the equivalent of Europe’s entire housing stock in just 15 years. When he first saw the “massive, beautifully appointed” Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center, which hosted the 2010 World Economic Forum’s summer conference, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman confessed to having gasped. It was built in just 8 months. Friedman noted the feat with amazement, but also dismay. It took almost as long for a Washington Metro crew to repair “two tiny escalators of 21 steps each at a red line station” near his home in Maryland. Friedman devotes an entire chapter of his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded to a fantasy about the far-reaching reforms the United States could enact if only it were “China for a day.” Today China is doing in hours what it takes years to accomplish in the US. I have been reminded of this daily when I see the bridge over the Charles River between my office at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. It has been under reconstruction, snarling traffic, for 4 years. In November 2015, Beijing replaced the substantially larger, 1,300-ton Sanyuan Bridge in just 43 hours.”

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (pp. 13-14). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

With this power comes a growing assertiveness, and a willingness to challenge the established order, especially in Asia. The established order is the United States. Dr. Allison looks at some of the flash points that exist, and yes North Korea is one of them. The analysis is relatively brief, but, in my view, very insightful.
Not everyone shares the same view of what is important in a book. There is a lot to think about in this work, but for me one of the critical points is how both sides think about, and act, in dealing with the world. The Chinese are “long view” oriented, with a willingness to be patient, and accept incremental gain. 


“Ever more sensitive to the demands of the news cycle and popular opinion, US politicians seek alliterative and enumerated bullet-point policy plans that promise quick resolution. Chinese are strategically patient: as long as trends are moving in their favor, they are comfortable waiting out a problem.”
“Attending to every dimension in the broader relationship with the adversary, the Chinese strategist resists rushing prematurely toward victory, instead aiming to build incremental advantage. “In the Western tradition, there is a heavy emphasis on the use of force; the art of war is largely limited to the battlefields; and the way to fight is force on force,” Lai explains. By contrast, “The philosophy behind go is to compete for relative gain rather than seeking complete annihilation of the opponent forces.” In a wise reminder, Lai warns that “It is dangerous to play go with the chess mindset. One can become overly aggressive so that he will stretch his force thin and expose his vulnerable parts in the battlefields.”

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (pp. 149-150). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

A willingness, and the discipline, to play the long game, is something that gives the Chinese, in my view, a decided edge in the diplomatic struggle that is already underway. The great driver of Chinese modernization, Deng Xiaoping, said:

“Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

The Chinese have followed this thought, but with their extraordinary growth may be ready to claim the mantle of leadership in world affairs. This leadership does not necessarily imply military dominance, but rather the projection of economic power, with a willingness to use the Chinese governmental structure to “pool resources” and make investments in areas that allow it to reap dividends, and dominate other regional powers through the sheer weight of the Chinese economy.

“Domestic reforms are matched by similarly dramatic changes to China’s role in the global economy. In 2013, Xi announced a multi-decade, multitrillion-dollar infrastructure project called One Belt, One Road (OBOR). Its goal is a transportation and technology network spanning Eurasia and nearly all countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The plan will effectively export some of China’s excess industrial capacity and provide a cushion for the construction, steel, and cement industries, which have struggled in recent years as the country completed many of its highest-priority infrastructure projects. The planned projects abroad are massive. From an 1,800-mile, $ 46 billion corridor of roads, railways, and pipelines running through Pakistan, to hydroelectric dams and tin mines in Myanmar, to a new naval installation in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, China is moving at a pace never seen in these countries. But OBOR is about much more than simply rechanneling excess industrial capacity. Just as the original Silk Road not only spurred trade but also stimulated geopolitical competition (including the nineteenth-century “Great Game” that pitted Britain against Russia for control of Central Asia), OBOR will allow China to project power across several continents. OBOR’s promise to integrate the countries of Eurasia reflects a vision in which the balance of geostrategic power shifts to Asia. “

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (p. 125). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Dr. Allison’s look at some of the historical analogies laid out is instructive, and does not always show that the intersection of rising and existing powers needs to lead to war. Again you can take the lessons in different ways, but I took what I consider to be some critically important points on how decisions get made when these tensions rise. A good look at British thinking in advance of World War I, and the fear they had of German continental ascendancy coupled with an increasing German spending program on naval armaments, shows how that fear, and misunderstanding of the other, can lead to war. The German resentment of the British attempt to keep them down, coupled with the British fear of a rising Germany, brought us both WWI and WWII. The miscalculations on all sides in advance of 1914 brought a war that some did not expect, or want. The British were clear eyed about the threat they perceived from Germany.

“In the end, Crowe concluded that Germany’s intentions were irrelevant; its capabilities were what mattered. A vague policy of growth could at any time shift into a grand design for political and naval dominance. Even if Germany accrued power gradually without a premeditated plan for domination, its resulting position would be just as formidable and menacing. Moreover, whether or not Germany had such a plan, it “would clearly be wise to build as powerful a navy as she can afford.” Germany’s growing wealth and power fueled its naval expansion, and German naval supremacy was “incompatible with the existence of the British Empire.” Thus, whether Germany consciously sought to supplant it or not, Britain had no prudent alternative but to stand up to perceived German encroachments and outbuild Germany’s naval expansion.”

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (pp. 59-60). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

This is a fascinating read, and one that comes at exactly the right time. There will need to be a sober assessment of goals and objectives in both countries as they interact at a time of global upheaval. The idea that one country can impose, or dictate results, to the other, is long gone. The diplomatic struggle could bring war, but clear eyed and realistic actions by leaders in both countries, with a healthy respect for “core interests” of the other, will help us to avoid such a fate.

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