Analysis & Opinions - National Post

War Between China and the United States Isn't Inevitable, But It's Likely: An Excerpt From Graham Allison's "Destined for War"

| Mar. 05, 2018

Will Presidents Trump and Xi, or their successors, follow in the tragic footsteps of the leaders of Athens and Sparta or Britain and Germany? In his new Gelber Prize-nominated book, Allison says the omens are not good

Two centuries ago, Napoleon warned, “Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Today China has awakened, and the world is beginning to shake.

Yet many Americans are still in denial about what China’s transformation from agrarian backwater to “the biggest player in the history of the world” means for the United States. What is this book’s Big Idea? In a phrase, Thucydides’s Trap. When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarm bells should sound: danger ahead. China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war — unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it.

As a rapidly ascending China challenges America’s accustomed predominance, these two nations risk falling into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. Writing about a war that devastated the two leading city-states of classical Greece two and a half millennia ago, he explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

That primal insight describes a perilous historical pattern. Reviewing the record of the past five hundred years, the Thucydides’s Trap Project I direct at Harvard has found 16 cases in which a major nation’s rise has disrupted the position of a dominant state. In the most infamous example, an industrial Germany rattled Britain’s established position at the top of the pecking order a century ago. The catastrophic outcome of their competition necessitated a new category of violent conflict: world war. Our research finds that 12 of these rivalries ended in war and four did not — not a comforting ratio for the 21st-century’s most important geopolitical contest.

This is not a book about China. It is about the impact of a rising China on the U.S. and the global order. For seven decades since the Second World War, a rules-based framework led by Washington has defined world order, producing an era without war among great powers. Most people now think of this as normal. Historians call it a rare “Long Peace.” Today, an increasingly powerful China is unraveling this order, throwing into question the peace generations have taken for granted.

In 2015, the Atlantic published “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China headed for War?” In that essay I argued that this historical metaphor provides the best lens available for illuminating relations between China and the U.S. today. Since then, the concept has ignited considerable debate. Rather than face the evidence and reflect on the uncomfortable but necessary adjustments both sides might make, policy wonks and presidents alike have constructed a straw man around Thucydides’s claim about “inevitability.”

They have then put a torch to it — arguing that war between Washington and Beijing is not predetermined. At their 2015 summit, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping discussed the Trap at length. Obama emphasized that despite the structural stress created by China’s rise, “the two countries are capable of managing their disagreements.” At the same time, they acknowledged that, in Xi’s words, “should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

I concur: war between the U.S. and China is not inevitable. Indeed, Thucydides would agree that neither was war between Athens and Sparta. Read in context, it is clear that he meant his claim about inevitability as hyperbole: exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis. The point of Thucydides’s Trap is neither fatalism nor pessimism. Instead, it points us beyond the headlines and regime rhetoric to recognize the tectonic structural stress that Beijing and Washington must master to construct a peaceful relationship.

If Hollywood were making a movie pitting China against the United States on the path to war, central casting could not find two better leading actors than Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Each personifies his country’s deep aspirations of national greatness. Much as Xi’s appointment as leader of China in 2012 accentuated the role of the rising power, America’s election of Donald Trump in a campaign that vilified China promises a more vigorous response from the ruling power. As personalities, Trump and Xi could not be more different. As protagonists in a struggle to be number one, however, they share portentous similarities. Both:

— Are driven by a common ambition: to make their nation great again.
— Identify the nation ruled by the other as the principal obstacle to their dream.
— Take pride in their own unique leadership capabilities.
— See themselves playing a central role in revitalizing their nation.
— Have announced daunting domestic agendas that call for radical changes.
— Have fired up populist nationalist support to “drain the swamp” of corruption at home and confront attempts by each other to thwart their nation’s historic mission.

Will the impending clash between these two great nations lead to war? Will Presidents Trump and Xi, or their successors, follow in the tragic footsteps of the leaders of Athens and Sparta or Britain and Germany? Or will they find a way to avoid war as effectively as Britain and the U.S. did a century ago or the U.S. and the Soviet Union did through four decades of Cold War? Obviously, no one knows. We can be certain, however, that the dynamic Thucydides identified will intensify in the years ahead.

Denying Thucydides’s Trap does not make it less real. Recognizing it does not mean just accepting whatever happens. We owe it to future generations to face one of history’s most brutal tendencies head on and then do everything we can to defy the odds.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“War Between China and the United States Isn't Inevitable, But It's Likely: An Excerpt From Graham Allison's "Destined for War".” National Post, March 5, 2018.