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Book Review: Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Graham Allison)

Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and sometime government functionary, is clearly a man who thinks a great deal of himself.  On the other hand, most of his pride in himself actually seems justified by his experience and thought, and in these Trumpian days, perhaps immodesty is the Spirit of the Age.  Therefore, if you can get through the scenes in Destined For War where Allison talks down to and instructs David Petraeus like a schoolboy, as the latter sits behind his CIA desk; and the passages where Allison exhaustively and irrelevantly enumerates the great men who have benefited from his role as “special advisor,” this book is actually very informative and thought provoking.

I’m not sure this book is that thought-provoking, though.  You have to be sorely under-educated to not at least already know, and grasp, the outlines of Allison’s argument.  But it’s well-presented and offers clear-headed analysis and recommendations, free of the ignorant ideological cant about foreign policy that characterized both the Bush and Obama administrations.  For me, mostly, this book was just depressing—not because it is inevitable that China and the United States will necessarily fight a war, a conclusion Allison repeatedly and emphatically disclaims.  Rather, because whether we fight with China or not, it reminds us, though that is not its intent, that the United States will lose—and in fact we have already lost.  We may not lose to China, but we can just as well lose our civilizational position to “None of the Above,” by the inevitable process of imperial decline.  And in fact we have, even if we don’t acknowledge it yet.

But first, the book.  It is designed to impress the reader from the start.  The five blurb quotes on the back cover, each explicitly praising the book in glowing terms, are from Henry Kissinger, Joe Biden, David Petraeus, Walter Isaacson, and Niall Ferguson.  Three of these men (the exceptions being Biden and Isaacson, not surprising given that Biden, at least, is not fit to comment on strip mall “Chinese” food, much less China as a country) are extensively and favorably quoted and cited throughout the book, so I’d take their august presences on the cover with a grain of salt.  And I’m not sure what Isaacson is doing there.

Anyway, Allison begins by outlining what he has named Thucydides’s Trap, after the Greek historian of (and participant in) the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century B.C.  This, of course, is one of the most studied wars in history.  At its root it was a conflict between two very different Greek societies, one well-established as dominant, but not expansionist, and relatively unchanging (Sparta), and one rising, expanding and dynamically changing (Athens).  The “Trap” is merely the observation that a rising power and a dominant power necessarily conflict, regardless of their political systems or (mostly self-perceived) benignity, since there is never permanently room enough for two major powers in any given geographic area.  It is not a claim that the dominant power will be driven to attack the rising power.  If there is war, it arises at some point, usually one not carefully considered or determined, from some combination of the factors to which Thucydides famously ascribed the Peloponnesian War:  “fear, honor, and interest.”

The Trap is given its name because Thucydides said, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”  But really, the Trap is mostly a recognition of human nature—that any society that manages to achieve rapid growth and advancement cannot, in the cultural nature of things, countenance without resentment limitation set by those who came before.  And the Trap is closely related to the “clash of civilizations” thesis of Samuel Huntington, trashed by the cognoscenti when first offered twenty years ago but now pretty obviously totally correct, which is doubtless why Allison repeatedly refers to it.

Allison begins by reviewing the extremely rapid growth of China in recent decades, including its recent ascension to being the largest economy in the world, at least if GDP is measured using the “purchasing power parity” method.  The statistics he offers are well known, but they are competently used to make Allison’s point, which is that China is well on its way to being “The Biggest Player in the History of the  World.”  This first chapter is also where Allison introduces one of the men on whom he relies the most for analysis of China, the late Lee Kuan Yew, architect of modern Singapore and the man who called China “the biggest player in the history of the world.”  Allison also introduces one of his main themes, which is how very different Chinese culture and traditions are from ours, in ways that matter and make China inscrutable to the lazy or incautious American.  Unlike many modern authors examining the differences among countries, Allison rather emphasizes than downplays cultural differences, finding them extremely important, if not determinative.

Years ago, in the 2000s, I remember it was very fashionable to treat Chinese statistics as cooked, and therefore extremely unreliable, as well as to predict China’s imminent economic collapse and its growth being revealed as a giant fraud.  Such claims seem to have largely died off, though, and Allison takes Chinese government statistics at face value.  He reviews not only the top-line statistics, but annual rates of growth and, crucially, productivity, which has now risen to 25% of American productivity (measured per worker).  His conclusion is that China shows no real signs of being thrown off its pace to greatly exceed the United States on measures of aggregate economic output.

Allison also uses anecdotes to make his point:  In 2014, a “construction firm built a 57-story skyscraper in 19 days.”  He further notes that “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.”  If you can get past the preening (I teach at both the Kennedy School and the Business School!  At Harvard!  Look at meeeee!), this is damning to the US.  And it shows why we have already lost—not because China has eaten our lunch, but because we have crippled ourselves with crushing regulation, government-led corruption, a lack of bold vision, a focus on stupid things, and general enervation.  We built the Empire State Building in less than a year.  We will never return to those days, which still exist, apparently, in China.  But more on our predicament later—for current purposes, there is plenty of hard evidence that China is very much a power on the rise, which is Allison’s basic point.

What is more, China is focused on academic excellence in subjects that matter for purposes of national economic advancement, namely STEM subjects, and he claims that China is surpassing, or has surpassed, the United States on R&D spending.  That latter claim may well be true, though it is less clear that such spending has the impact he implies it does, since I am not aware of any major technological advancement created in China, and none are mentioned.  The country’s reliance on industrial espionage implies that China recognizes that, so far at least, they are followers in technology, not leaders—which seems like a big fly in the ointment.  Allison recognizes this problem, but rather than ascribing it to a Chinese cultural failure (as has undoubtedly been its cause historically), he tries to avoid it by waving his hands and pointing out that China now has more supercomputers than us, has claimed to launch a “quantum communications satellite” (but without any evidence of that accomplishment), and has built the world’s largest radio telescope (though making something made by the West fifty years ago bigger is not advancement).  The problem still remains—China has long hobbled itself culturally such that dynamic individual achievement is limited, as shown by numerous examples, which means no leadership in technological advancement.

Allison ends this chapter by noting the massive global Chinese “soft power” and “economic imperialism” efforts, which do not require any form of technological leadership, of course.  These include everything from forming parallel international bodies such as the China Development Bank, in order to avoid participating in organizations dominated by the US, to the “One Belt, One Road” project to link China to Europe by hugely improving transport and communication across Eurasia.  All under Chinese dominance, of course.

Having shown that China is a rising power, and assuming without argument that the United States is currently a dominant power not itself declining, Part Two, “Lessons From History,” documents Allison’s “Thucydides’s Trap Project”: sixteen historical examples that Allison has studied, where a rising power confronted a dominant power.  These range from the 15th Century Spain and Portugal to the Cold War, and they are interesting enough.  (This “Project” is a “Harvard” project, as Allison reminds us repeatedly, just in case we have lost focus on the critical fact that he is associated with Harvard, or rather Harvard is associated with him.)  Twelve of these sixteen examples, which Allison claims are exhaustive over the past five hundred years, resulted in war.  He reviews each, then spends an entire chapter examining the run-up to the First World War, examining Germany as the rising power to the dominant power of Britain.  (Even though Allison repeatedly cites and apparently works directly with Niall Ferguson, he never addresses the argument in the book that made Ferguson’s career, in 1998’s The Pity of War, that Germany was beginning to decline relative to England.)

Part Three, “A Gathering Storm,” (cliché alert!), examines in detail another of Allison’s case studies—conflicts between Britain and the United States around the turn of the 20th Century, which (spoiler alert!) did not result in war.  His point is that just as the rising United States pushed its Monroe Doctrine, in areas ranging from Venezuela to Alaska, it is not surprising that China views its geographical area the same way, even if there is no official “Xi Doctrine.”  Allison implies that, like Britain, we should realize the justice, or at least the good sense, in letting China exercise some power over its surroundings.  This makes sense, even if it’s unpalatable to us, although he also notes that the cultural similarities between America and Britain, and the possible advantages to Britain that resulted, such as confidence that the Atlantic did not require British naval resources, made this approach more beneficial for Britain than a similar approach by the United States would be for us with respect to China.

Next, Allison turns to “What Xi’s China Wants.”  This is, of course, the critical question.  Cleverly, Allison says Xi Jinping wants to “Make China Great Again.”  (One of the pleasing subtexts of this book is that Allison takes Trump seriously; while he doesn’t appear often, he is never mentioned with contempt and he is treated as what he is, which is the wholly legitimate President of the United States.)  For China, this means various forms of Asian predominance and domination, as well as “commanding the respect of other great powers in the councils of the world.”  Allison notes that “At the core of these national goals is a civilizational creed that sees China as the center of the universe.”  (Allison, and the Chinese, like to pretend China is a 5,000-year-old unitary civilization that has always had regional predominance, and ignore the ups-and-downs of Chinese history that imply more change, less unity, and less predominance than they like to admit, including repeated conquest by foreigners, from the Mongols to the Manchu, and centuries of internal chaos, such as the Warring States Period.)  “China’s emergence as the number-one power in Asia—and its aspiration to be number one in the world—reflects not just the imperative of economic growth but also a supremacist world view bound up in Chinese identity.”  What Making China Great Again does not imply, though, is universalism of Chinese values or even adversarial relationships with directly neighboring countries, as long as they get with the basic Chinese program of (reborn) Chinese predominance.

Allison then spends an entire chapter endorsing the late Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis and noting how he correctly predicted flashpoints between the West and China.  Huntington listed “five key ways in which Western and Confucian societies tend to differ,” ranging from cultural characteristics such as “the supremacy of state over society” to the Chinese tendency to define identity in strictly racial terms.  Endorsing Huntington is not fashionable, of course, since multicultural dogma holds that all societies are basically identical, other than Western society, which is inferior.  Most writers will do anything to explain Huntington’s accuracy away.  But Allison’s point is that China is not “just like us”—they are different, and those differences matter.  They don’t want democracy—they want a politically legitimate government, which is one that performs, not one that offers people a voice.  They are just fine (as is pretty obvious) with “responsive authoritarianism.”  As Lee Kuan Yew asked, “Where are the students of Tiananmen now?”  Pretty obviously John Kennedy was wrong that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”—that only is true of Western, Christian societies unwilling to kill their own people.

Another key cultural difference is that Chinese culture is patient, “as long as trends are moving in their favor, they are comfortable waiting out a problem. . . . Indeed, Chinese believe that many problems can only be managed, and that each solution inevitably yields more problems.”  This is, ironically, a very Burkean approach to governance, in an age when Burke has gone out of fashion in his own civilization.  Moreover, “Chinese seek victory not in a decisive battle but through incremental moves designed to gradually improve their position. . . . . [Quoting Kissinger] ‘. . . Where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasizing feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage.’”  These differences matter—these “deeply divergent civilizational values” are largely the driver of what China does, so simply because “Xi and his Party mandarins no longer preach Marxist-Leninist doctrine, no one should be deluded into thinking that the regime today is a post-ideological movement concerned solely with its own power.”

Allison treats as a given that China can, if it wishes and is not prevented by the United States, dominate Asia, in the new Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere.  Certainly no other hegemon will prevent such dominance—the European Union?  Ha ha ha.  But Allison ignores the possibility that regional powers, acting collectively, whether formally or informally, will limit China’s reach.  It is no secret (but not mentioned here) that all the surrounding Asian countries, from Vietnam to Japan, hate and fear China, and they have weapons and money.  They have, in many ways, a commanding geographic position that totally dominates Chinese sea lanes within the First Island Chain.  Sure—the Chinese might drive the US from those waters with land-based anti-ship missiles.  And China’s other enemies might drive the Chinese from those waters with their own.  It seems to me that Allison does not seriously consider that there are conflicts other than those between hegemons, and that smaller nations with a collective self-interest can act hegemonically for purposes of foreign policy.

Allison also does not examine in any detail, though he does at least mention, difficult questions that make acute observers wonder if China will fail to reach its economic or social goals.  For example, it is well known that the one-child policy has skewed Chinese demographics such that it will very likely become “old before it gets rich,” a problem both because the elderly need support but even more so because a young society is a dynamic society, and vice versa.  Old people are risk averse and a society of old people is a dying society, literally and psychologically.  Allison dismisses this as a problem for the future, namely starting in 2040 or so, but this is over-glib.

But even aside from demographic imbalance, it is not entirely clear that China is actually on the path to complete development.  Allison notes that “At its current position on the development spectrum, China needs many more years of high growth rates to catch up to the living standards of the world’s most advanced economies.”  China, as so many developing countries, seems to think that the path of getting richer is simple—follow the path of the West, using technology to increase productivity.  But though the technology has been available for 200 years, very few non-European countries have really escaped the Malthusian Trap.  The exceptions, such as Singapore, Korea, and Japan, succeeded by using Western technologies and methods, along with more government input than in the West, so perhaps that is the path for China.  However, those countries were smaller, more unified, and, most importantly, operated under the rule of law, which has always been non-existent in China, as Francis Fukuyama has exhaustively detailed.

China may not be able to follow a similar path—yes, productivity has increased as Western technology has been adopted, but as Richard Baldwin argues in The Great Convergence, China and many other countries whose economies have rocketed upward in the past two decades have largely done so not by developing in the same manner as Western countries did, but by serving as (admittedly critical) sub-elements of the value chains of the already developed countries.  It is not at all clear that this path can lead to the same ultimate degree of development.  Being the cheap labor portion of the value chain is self-limiting, and when you combine this problem with what appears to be a nearly total inability of the Chinese to make actual advances, as shown by their total dependence on industrial espionage and other forms of copying, China may never get much beyond 25% of American productivity per worker.

For the rest of the book, Allison then examines several scenarios that could, through escalation, lead to war between the US and China, followed by “Twelve Clues For Peace,” exploring how war might be avoided by deriving clues from the Trap case studies.  These clues include “higher authorities can help resolve rivalry without war” (although I am not sure the United Nations is a higher authority in same sense as a 15th Century Pope); “wily statesmen make a virtue of necessity—and distinguish needs and wants” (a second pleasing subtext of this book is a total refusal to use emasculated, clarity- and style-destroying “gender neutral” terms); and “alliances can be a fatal attraction.”  These are all interesting, if somewhat uneven in their real applicability.

He ends with some concrete recommendations, including a clever one he has developed with Niall Ferguson to have “the White House establish a Council of Historical Advisers, analogous to the Council of Economic Advisers.”  This seems like an excellent idea, as long as the right people are chosen, given the utter lack of historical knowledge within our executive branch for at least two decades.  (No, I am not pitching myself for the job.  I don’t want a government job, ever.  Except maybe dictator.)

Ultimately, though, Allison admits that he doesn’t have a great solution—we should consider, among other things, accommodation, as well as more aggressive approaches like undermining the Chinese government.  We shouldn’t rule anything out—but we must be consistent and long-term oriented, which is obviously a bigger hurdle for us than the Chinese, given our political system and our culture.  And we need less “noble-sounding rhetoric about geopolitical norms”—rather, each of the US and China should be “unapologetically pursuing their national interests”—which, of course, China is already doing, with a vengeance.

So that’s the book, and it’s good.  But it has some gaps in vision.  One is that it views the world as merely the sum of great power confrontations.  Above, I point out that’s not true, because smaller countries can collectively act as a great power, for certain relatively narrow purposes.  A second, more important failure of vision is that the book ignores that the best analogue to the United States today, in terms of the arc of power, is not one of the sixteen “case studies” that Allison cites.  Instead, the best analogue is to the British Empire from around 1920 to 1950—an imperial power that has already lost its will, not as a result of confrontation with a rising power, but rather whose ruling class has lost the élan, certainty and dynamism that is absolutely necessary to keep in order to obtain and maintain the status of “dominant power.”

20th Century Britain is not one of Allison’s case studies.  It is not one of the case studies because it just faded away, as its people chose to subordinate themselves to practically every other nation in the world.  It did not have a conflict with a rising power.  Yes, there were a few bubbles as England sank beneath the waves, such as the Falklands.  But those were the last oxygen escaping from lungs filling with water, and now England is no more dominant or, really, relevant in world affairs than, say, Portugal.  And this was not because of Thucydides’s Trap, but because the society rotted from within, from the head down.  Not that England’s decline should be a surprise to anyone.  England just took one path to the same obsolescence of empire that all empires have taken.  The British imperium is over, and on the headland the fire has sunk.

Allison directly claims that we are still the relevant dominant power.  He says that, just like Britain prior to World War One, “the United States jealously guards its primacy on the world stage.”  That’s no more true for us than for the Britain of 1950.  Does anyone think Barack Obama, or any member in good standing of our ruling classes, was or is focused on “jealously guarding our primacy”?  Nope.  What we have is loss of confidence and will, which is, if history is any guide, irrecoverable.  Allison notes that “Chinese officials in 2009 provided an unprecedented $586 billion fiscal stimulus.  As a result, the Chinese can now travel on fast trains between their major cities.  In contrast, they ask, what did the US get for its $983 billion infusion?”  I can answer that—we got lots of studies about how to increase diversity and inclusion in hateful male-dominated industries, and surgery to turn the traitor Bradley Manning into a fake woman at taxpayer expense.  That’s all you need to know, really.  All the rest is just idle talk.  We won’t fight China, because we’re no longer a dominant power, even if we exhibit a good facsimile.  No need to worry about the Trap.

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