Analysis & Opinions - London Evening Standard

Can America and China avoid going to war in the future?

| July 13, 2017

Global politics is following a familiar pattern, as a ruling power feels the heat from a rising one

In my new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, I argue that on the current trajectory, war between the US and China in the decades ahead is much more likely than is currently recognised. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap: a deadly pattern of structural stress that occurs when a rising power challenges a ruling one. This phenomenon was first described by the Greek historian Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War, which devastated Ancient Greece. As he explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” 

The Applied History Project I direct at Harvard has found 16 cases in which a major nation’s rise has disrupted the position of a dominant state over the past 500 years. Twelve ended in war. 

For a vivid example, consider what was happening 100 years ago. How could the assassination of an archduke ignite a conflagration so catastrophic that it required historians to create an entirely new category: world war? The answer is that the chronic tension caused by a rising power’s rivalry with a ruling power produces a deadly dynamic in which otherwise manageable events can trigger a cascade of actions and reactions that lead to results no one intended.

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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Can America and China avoid going to war in the future?.” London Evening Standard, July 13, 2017.