While Destined for War (2017), a study of Sino-America rivalry through the lens of Athenian-Spartan competition by Graham Allison, professor at Harvard Kennedy School, is particularly about how to manage a relationship between reigning world powers and their emerging rivals, the lessons in it are relevant not just for foreign policy experts; anyone interested in the art of balancing powers and maintaining relationships across complicated histories and competing interests will have something to learn. A marriage, family, and child therapist might find the book as useful as an ambassador or secretary of state.

If you know nothing about China, the United States or world history, Destined for War will shore up your education. The book includes: an account of how the two behemoths see the world and each other, a brief history of major conflicts in world history, and, of course, a good study of Thucydides and the devastating Peloponnesian War.

Professor Larry Radway of Dartmouth first acquainted me with the greatness of Thucydides, particularly his account of the Athenian ambassadors’ cynical abrogation of the right of self-determination for Melos, a Greek island in the Aegean that had remained neutral between Sparta and Athens until that point. One might think that pure national self-interest, the dog-like attention to defending your own turf, might work well in a dog-eat-dog world. Yet, despite the claims of so-called “realists,” such a strategy works neither in a family nor international relations, or at least not for very long.  So Christian Realism advises.  

According to Thucydides, the Greek father of history, Athens and Sparta went to war after decades of rivalry punctuated by occasional cooperation. Sparta, the traditional land power and stronger of the two, feared being outflanked and outspent by the rising naval power, Athens.  Each had built up a network of allies designed to strengthen and protect them from one another, but the network ended up embroiling the whole of the Greek peninsula in a war that was disastrous for all concerned, rather like mountain climbers linked up for protection who occasionally go over the brink together.  

Not long after this Greek civil war, Phillip of Macedon invaded and took over the whole Greek peninsula by 336 BC.  This marked the end of what’s typically thought of as Classical Greece, often described as having begun after the Greco-Persian Wars at the dawn of the 5th century BC. Did famed historian and author of The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman read Thucydides?  I’m sure she did.  

The conflict most on Professor Allison’s mind back in 2017 was the one between the US and China.  Of course, China was a great economic and military power long before the United States ratified our Constitution.  Their relationship began only some 250 years ago when an American privateer, retrofitted and renamed The Empress of China, arrived in Canton in 1784.  It returned to New York with a cargo of porcelain, from which George Washington purchased several fine pieces.  Although diplomatic relations were not formalized with an exchange of ambassadors until 1935, the United States sent official representatives beginning in 1844.  China has undergone a very difficult period from about the time of the arrival of that ship, and thousands of ships like her, until fairly recently.  While the US was at the beginning of its rapid rise, China simultaneously continued a steep decline.  

Aside from the Korean War, during which American and Chinese troops were de facto at war, relations between the two countries have been peaceful and mostly amicable, with the US being a defender of Chinese independence both during late 19th Century European colonialism and during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.  It was this support of China that caused America to impose an oil and steel embargo on Japan when its government refused to withdraw from China. When the Japanese realized it would be impossible to sustain their empire without securing natural resources from across East Asia, they attacked Pearl Harbor, hoping to cripple the US Navy long enough to seize and fortify a vast swathe of the Western Pacific.  After World War II and the triumph of Mao’s Communist Party in China’s Civil War, the wheel of fortune turned remarkably quickly.  No one on earth in 1950 expected China to become a superpower within such a short period of time, if ever.

Thus, these two powers have already traded places, come into armed conflict once, and are now in a position of relative parity.  One would think that their chances of avoiding the Thucydidean Trap are pretty good.  Both countries are at the top of the world’s economic heap and very risk-averse.  Both have much to gain from their relationship and much to lose if it breaks down, as does the rest of the world.

A major shooting war between the two countries would be a disaster for both and for the world at large, an even greater disaster now than it would have been a few years ago because of the major shooting war in Ukraine.  China (rather quietly) backs the Russian invasion.  The US and most of Europe are sending military aid to Ukraine.  The conflict is leading to a major upset of the world economy.  China can certainly weather this storm, but it cannot be happy about the effect on the world economy and is apparently in no mood to bail out Russia with substantial aid.  This brutal and clumsy invasion will certainly not make China’s intended digestion of Taiwan any easier.  The chance of the Taiwanese voting to become part of China now looks more remote than ever. 

Professor Allison details how conflict between smaller allies tripped off the Peloponnesian War, so two small countries, one ally of the US, one ally of China, seem the likeliest places for this conflict to get out of control.

Taiwan is an island of only 23 million people, whose GDP amounts to a rather minor drop in the bucket of the Chinese or American GDP.  There is no material reason to go to war over this island.  Yet the Beijing government considers Taiwan an integral part of China.  The island is likewise important to China’s neighbors, many of whom are aligned with the US because they do not wish to be dominated by China.  Some, like Vietnam, have a long and bitter history with China.  China has never controlled Japan, but it is not for lack of trying; though, given Japan’s history of exploiting China in the 20th century, the Chinese may suffer from recency bias.   

In this situation, what is a realist, Christian or otherwise, to do?  What does Professor Allison (certainly a realist) recommend?  Drawing especially on his study of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev reached an accommodation, Professor Allison’s many ideas and recommendations come down to four:

1.  Clarify your vital interests.  Keep the list short.  You cannot have 100 vital interests.  Three or four will do.

2.  Understand what your counterpart is trying to do.  What are your adversary’s vital interests?  Do your best to work around them.

3.  Have a strategy.  Rank order your favored procedures.  Keep this list short also.  

4.  Keep your own house in order.  

Especially in light of the past five years since this book came out, this last recommendation seems the most important for both the US and China.  Neither country is in a full-blown domestic crisis at this point, but both countries, as most countries at this point, are highly stressed by the after-shocks of Covid, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East. Hopefully, somewhere in Washington or Beijing, some Chinese and American diplomats are meeting informally, over drinks perhaps, to ask each other what they can do to end the war in Ukraine; what they can do to rein in the leader of North Korea; how to manage the Taiwan Strait; what they can do to keep the world economy going.  A worldwide recession leading to further domestic unrest is not in either country’s interest.