AUGUST 5, 2017
THE FRIGHTENING NEW BOOK Destined for War illuminates the shifts in the balance of power on the Pacific Rim that may carry us closer to a new global war, thanks to the inexorable rise of China and its potential — perhaps inevitable — military clash with the United States. A meditation on the perils of war and the challenging possibilities of peace between these two great powers, this book asks uncomfortable questions, provides few comforting answers, and leaves the reader uneasy with dangerous knowledge.
Harvard professor and former Defense Department official Graham Allison lays out a theory to which he has devoted much of his recent scholarship: “Thucydides’s Trap,” which he defines as “the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one,” as happened when a rising Athens challenged the supremacy of Sparta in ancient Greece — a war chronicled by the Greek historian Thucydides. The ruling power seeks to protect the status quo, while the rising power asserts the prerogatives of its newfound wealth and influence.
Allison did not “discover” this phenomenon or its propensity to produce conflict. Thucydides himself concluded that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Allison has gathered an impressive historical record to amplify the trends identified by Thucydides and project them forward into our own time. He has cataloged 16 historical case studies “in which a major nation’s rise has disrupted the position of a dominant state.” Of these 16, 12 resulted in war.
Graham Allison is only the most recent statesman-scholar to turn his pen to China and the seismic changes its rise has already wrought. His companions in this recent effort to telegraph the grand strategic significance of China’s ascendance include Henry Kissinger (On China, 2011), Henry Paulson (Dealing with China, 2015), Thomas Christensen (The China Challenge, 2015), and Kurt Campbell (The Pivot, 2016), among many others. What separates Allison from his impressive peers is his creative use of “applied history” — the art of analyzing historical analogies in search of applicable lessons. Allison devotes substantial time to explicating his central case studies and identifying lessons that we in the present might learn from those who failed (and the few who succeeded) in the past. Reaching back millennia in search of relevant advice can seem antiquarian in a world that expects constant focus on the exigency of the day. But that is all the more reason why Allison’s sweeping historical survey is more timely and important than ever. We can only hope that it will find its way into the hands of those policymakers charged with assessing and managing China’s rise.
Appreciating the finer points of Thucydides or the 2,000 years of history since is not a prerequisite for enjoying or grasping the thrust of Allison’s book. His historical interludes balance thoroughness with concision — sharing fresh anecdotes with the seasoned reader without overwhelming the neophyte. These stories of rise, reaction, and ruin are recounted in broad brushstrokes that lead the reader to draw connections between and among different historical periods. From Germany’s challenge to a British-led world order in the decades before World War I to the Athenian contest with Sparta centuries before, Allison’s book forcefully argues that the structural tensions in the relationship between rising and ruling powers are woven into the fabric of human nature. Millions have died in the wake of such Thucydidean conflicts that arise at history’s inflection points.
Thankfully, not all of Allison’s examples are so dire. In the 19th century, the United Kingdom faced the very real prospect of war with a rising United States. Nonetheless, through what has come to be known as the “Great Rapprochement,” Britain altered its own expectations to accommodate American demands. However, even Allison readily admits that the United States appears unlikely to “accept Britain’s fate” in managing its relationship with China. Beyond these episodes, Allison provides varying degrees of detail on many of the other case studies, and a lengthy appendix covering them all. The stories verge on tedious precisely because the same fears and ambitions are at play again and again. But such repetition is arguably purposeful, as Allison seeks to convey the timeless character of Thucydides’s Trap.
Dividing his work into four sections, Allison outlines sequentially the rise of China in the last 50 years; historical analogies that suggest what consequences may flow from such an ascendance; the aspects of our own past, perceptions, and culture that make conflict with China more likely; and the principles we should consider as we strive to avoid the “inevitable.” In describing China’s economic boom, Allison marshals a variety of statistics that cannot but be deeply troubling to Americans accustomed to presuming our global preeminence. China has already become the world’s largest producer of “ships, steel, aluminum, furniture, clothing, textiles, cell phones, and computers.” In a single two-year period, China produced and used more concrete than the United States did “in the entire twentieth century.” Most ambitiously, China plans to invest $1.4 trillion in infrastructure across Europe, Asia, and North Africa — a project that promises to connect the world continent in a way geostrategist Halford J. Mackinder, framer of the “Heartland Theory,” only dreamed.
The United States was able to shape the economic and political life of Europe for a generation with the Marshall Plan. China’s investment project — “One Belt, One Road” — amounts to 12 Marshall Plans. The deluge of such statistics would be mind-numbing if it were not so alarming to the status quo. Meanwhile, Allison’s evaluation of the military balance — relying heavily on a prominent study conducted by the RAND Corporation — reveals an America that can no longer assume military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, especially inside the vital “first island chain” that encompasses Japan, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and parts of the Philippines. In light of such unprecedented military and economic gains, Allison and many other careful observers have asked how China could not aspire to and achieve immense — if not preeminent — influence over the future of the world. It is this prospect — and the fear it inspires in our own country — that makes war so dangerously plausible.
Such a war is not inevitable. But Allison conveys that our current course, unchanged, skirts the edge of ruin for both great powers. His prime examples — the Peloponnesian War and World War I — bear this truth home. In both cases, “exaggerated self-importance [became] hubris, and unreasonable fear, paranoia,” as rising and ruling powers collided in conflicts that leaders on both sides had hoped to avoid. The golden age of Greece perished and a generation of Europe’s youth was buried in the killing fields of Flanders and France, as all participants believed themselves to be in wars to end all wars. A true conflict between the United States and China would pose a similar threat to the protagonists and the wider world. Allison provides a series of vivid, mini-war games to illustrate how such a conflict might begin, ranging from an accidental collision of ships in the South China Sea to a North Korean collapse. His conclusion is that the Thucydidean dynamic between the United States and China — like those of many past powers — renders “accidental, otherwise inconsequential events” into the kindling for war.
Allison’s most famous book, Essence of Decision (1971), applied different social scientific decisional models to understand the choices that led to and ultimately resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis. More than most, Allison knows how close the world came to destruction in October 1962. His exploration of how we could once again be faced with a nuclear standoff is initially — and perhaps embarrassingly — riveting. But reflection on the consequences of failing to secure peace sobers the mind. Allison repeatedly states that such a war is not an option. Beyond the prospect of nuclear war (and its ensuing winter), even a non-nuclear war could eradicate our way life. One 2016 study found that one year of “severe, non-nuclear war” could erase 10 percent of American GDP and 35 percent of Chinese GDP. Yet, despite the risks, both states persist in policies that make such an outcome more, not less, likely.
Speaking to American readers and policymakers, Allison argues that persisting in our current policies toward China could result in just such a failure. “[T]he dramatic resurgence of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.4 billion people” is not a problem to be solved, he writes, but “a condition, a chronic condition that must be managed over a generation.” It will not be sufficient to answer China’s rise with a rote reiteration of Pax Americana. Allison contends that we will need far more creative, uncomfortable, and intrepid thinking to meet that challenge. It is here that Allison is at his most provocative and where the reader will likely wish he had spent more time. After explaining the fundamental flaws in the post–Cold War “engage but hedge” strategy, Allison proposes four vexatious options ranging from British accommodation to a Reaganesque campaign of sabotage and subversion. Each of his proposals presents troubling questions about American interests and values. Should the United States accept a state of cold war with China? Would we benefit from an agreement to leave the Korean Peninsula on the condition that China denuclearizes and unifies it? Could we adopt a Chinese posture of patience and suspend our conflicts in order to focus on mutual threats? Allison devotes scant attention to these and many other challenging propositions that could have launched the book into new, uncharted territory.
Rather than step fully into the future, Allison lingers in the present. While this book predicts the nail-biting conflict featured in P. W. Singer and August Cole’s 2015 speculative novel Ghost Fleet, it abstains from any satisfying conclusion. We are left with uncertainty, and frankly, the fear that our leadership and institutions may not be up to the task at hand.
In his final chapter, Allison identifies 12 “clues” for achieving peace. The 12th clue spotlights the vital importance of “domestic performance” in influencing the final outcome in Thucydidean power conflicts. From Allison’s perspective, “economic performance creates the substructure of national power; competence in governance allows mobilization of resources for national purposes; and national élan or spirit sustains both.” It is hard to argue that the United States exhibits any of these traits today. Since the Great Recession, the annual growth of US GDP has averaged just 2.1 percent, compared to China’s six to seven percent. Dysfunction, scandal, and legal variants of corruption have consumed both political branches of government. And with a nation bitterly divided along political and cultural lines, any semblance of a unitary national identity seems to be fraying. Confronting these domestic challenges could consume us. Marshaling the intellectual, political, economic, military, and moral capital to meet one of the greatest foreign policy threats of this century — the threat of war with China — will take much more.
While Allison does not necessarily position his book as a clarion call to action, he does provide a roadmap for serious reflection on a problem of grand proportions. Like the excellent (or frustrating?) teacher that he is, Allison never presumes to provide an answer to this test. Rather, he sparks the realization that far more searching is required if we are to avoid the pitfalls of our predecessors.