After decades of explosive economic growth, a 5,000-year-old civilization with a culture radically different from the United States is ready to challenge American global leadership and the liberal international order itself. Contrary to popular perception, China’s rise to an equal to the US on the international stage is more fact than prediction. In Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, Graham Allison, director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, argues that a war between the two great powers is a scarily real possibility. War is not inevitable, but avoiding it will require both sides to truly understand the other’s perspective, deploy creative strategies, and agree to painful compromises over the coming decades.
Most Americans would be stunned to hear that, according to the International Monetary Fund, China’s economy went from being half the size of the US in 2005 to surpassing it in 2014, as measured by purchasing power parity. The RAND Corporation’s report on military power in Asia predicted that by 2017 China would have an advantage or would compete well with the United States in six of the nine areas of conventional capabilities. In the tech field, China boasts the world’s fastest supercomputer and the first quantum communications satellite. Though experts widely agree that American forces will remain superior overall for the next decade or two, the United States can no longer assume it has unquestionable superiority in nearly any measure of military power.
To Allison, China’s challenge to the United States is a prime example of what he calls “Thucydides’s Trap.” In the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), a rising Athens and established Sparta clashed in a conflict that devastated ancient Greece even though for years they avoided that outcome. The trap’s premise is simple: “When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, the most likely outcome is war.” Tensions plagued both city-states as their allies fought, and every Athenian move caused Sparta to worry more over their rival’s capabilities. Thucydides (c. 460- c. 400 BC), a historian and father of realism, explained that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
From the past 500 years, Allison identifies 16 occurrences of the trap, with 12 ending in violence. Among these cases, the two most recent have not resulted in war: the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, and Germany’s post-1990 displacement of the United Kingdom and France as the dominant political influence in Europe. Indeed, Allison hopes lessons can be learned and applied to the current challenge of handling China. Worryingly, he finds today’s circumstance is most similar to the rivalry between Great Britain and Germany before World War I.
The cultural gap between the US and China is far wider than the ocean that separates their shores, adding difficulty to every aspect of maintaining peace. Allison is likely right that American strategists have long failed to understand the Chinese; our surprise at the speed of their rise and their oft-voiced dissatisfaction with the present international system is evidence enough. Beijing and Washington are likely to interpret intentional acts and accidents differently, whether they occur in the South China Sea or cyberspace. Increased patience will be fundamental to long-term success.
To understand how China will act as it continues to rise, Allison points us to their past. Classical Chinese foreign policy is founded upon having clear dominance in their region, a recognition of their inherent superiority by neighbors, and a use of power to create harmony and stability in its sphere of influence. In Xi Jinping, the Chinese have an ambitious and authoritative leader with a clear vision for his nation’s return to greatness that is rooted in the nation’s spiritual “civilizational creed.” And with the planned constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits, Xi alone may lead that march for many years to come.
China, much like the US, sees itself as having a special place in the world – its name in the Chinese language, zhong guo, means “Middle Kingdom,” which refers to all that lies between heaven and earth. China saw itself as the standard to which all other cultures were to be compared, sitting at the peak of the world’s political hierarchy. To Chinese, their fall from power and subsequent “century of humiliation” that began in the mid-19th century is an aberration, an episode that must never be repeated.
Destined for War strongly implies that to think that China will accept a role as a power second to the United States or will transform into a liberal democratic state is unrealistic and ignorant of its culture, history, and immense potential. Unless China stops rising or a war ruins them, American leadership will have to grapple with sharing global leadership. Empowered by a dominant economy, China could dictate terms of international trade and finance that buck current norms. As painful as any of this could be, Allison implores all to remember that the costs of war would undoubtedly be higher.
The presence of mutually assured destruction is a major factor that counts against war and may diminish the importance of reviewing cases of Thucydides’s Trap. Allison says that MAD does not end the discussion because “leaders must be willing to choose paths that risk destruction” in order to credibly defend their own interests and deter their adversary at any given level. However, if actors on both sides act rationally knowing hot war is unjustifiable, the US and China are truly “inseparably bound,” and will take extreme measures to avoid rash or accidental high-level escalations. If full-scale war is Allison’s primary concern, the book needs a deeper dive into the role of nuclear deterrence and a fuller case study of the Cold War. Unlike the first 13 cases of the trap identified, neither side would intentionally choose war, and that difference should not be understated.
Allison presents three strategic paths for the United States to consider with care. The first is accommodation, which he emphasizes should not be equated with appeasement. Instead, it’s an adaptation to a new balance of power, recognizing and respecting another powerful state to “make the best of unfavorable trends without resorting to military means.” For example, the US could exchange a lower commitment to Taiwan for China conceding some of their interests in the South China Sea. Or could the US simply recognize a Chinese sphere of influence near its borders? The second option is to undermine China by stirring up dissent and division from within. Chinese leaders have long believed the United States will never view the Chinese Communist Party as fully legitimate, so it may not be so extreme to take actions to that end. Third is an option to negotiate a long peace of 25 years, in a similar vein to the détente arranged with the Soviets in the 1970s. Both countries could focus more on domestic issues if they limited cyberattacks to certain domains, affirmed freedom of navigation, or forbade meddling in each other’s domestic politics.
Destined for War is a much-needed reminder that the long-term handling of relations with China will likely be fundamental to our nation’s foreign policy in the 21st century. The era of American global dominance may be ending, and it is imperative that the United States understands its counterpart and the important relationship they will share for decades, regardless of outcomes. Students, academics, politicians, and bureaucrats alike have much to gain from the depth of Allison’s expertise and the eloquence and accessibility of his writing style. Hopefully, the prospect of war with a proud, illiberal state with the world’s dominant economy and a formidable military will awaken American leaders and revitalize conversation on the balance of power.
Dan Moran is an intern for Providence. He holds a B.A. in Government from The College of William & Mary.
Photo Credit: Parade in Honor of the 70th Anniversary of the Great Victory, 2015. The Kremlin Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons.