Skip to Content

Summary: Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison

  • “Destined for War” delves into the perilous dynamics between the United States and China, offering a comprehensive analysis of their relationship within the context of Thucydides’s Trap.
  • To gain a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between the United States and China and explore strategies for a peaceful coexistence, continue reading “Destined for War” by Graham Allison.

Destined for War (2017) applies ancient military thinking to a very contemporary conflict: the power struggle between the established power of the US, and the rising power of China. It uncovers how this dynamic has led to conflict in past centuries, and spells out what the US and China must do in the future to avoid all-out war.

Introduction: Ancient wisdom for a contemporary power struggle.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, Napoleon said, “Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Now, in the 2020s, China has well and truly woken up. At the cutting edge of industry and technology, twenty-first-century China has become a key political player on the world stage.

How this will impact the rest of the world and specifically, the United States of America, remains to be fully seen. But while analysts, politicians, and think tanks all try and look to the future to determine how China’s inexorable rise might shape the geopolitical landscape, it might be more illuminating instead to look to the past.

That’s because China and the US are currently enacting a political dynamic first obser ved by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides in the fourth century BCE – essentially, when one power rises and threatens an established power, war is the likely outcome.

So, in the summary, we’ll uncover what ancient Greece can teach us about the coming showdown between China and the US, whether or not it will inevitably end in war, and how we might avoid it.

Summary: Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? by Graham Allison

China’s stratospheric growth makes it a plausible rival to the US

Nearly two and a half thousand years ago, a decades-long war raged across southern Europe and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – the Peloponnesian War. Fought between the rival kingdoms of Sparta, an established power, and Athens, a rising force, the Athenians’ eventual defeat heralded the beginning of the end of the Ancient Greek empire.

Why did the Athenians and the Spartans go to war? Plenty has been written about the diplomatic failings, shifting alliances, and territorial squabbles that lit the spark of the conflict. But contemporaneous Thucydides offers a far more succinct explanation: Athens’s rise to power inspired fear in Sparta. When this dynamic occurs, conflict is all but inevitable.

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, we’ve seen this dynamic playing out again, between two different powers: the US, which established itself as the dominant political and economic global force in the twentieth century, and China, whose swift growth sees it poised to topple American supremacy.

China’s rise as a global power has been swift. In 1971, Henry Kissinger visited China – then largely closed to foreigners – to lay the groundwork for President Richard Nixon’s visit the following year. The statesman recalled a provincial, rustic backwater. Fast-forward a few decades and the picture is quite different.

Now, China has transformed from a largely agricultural society to an industrialized nation, with the infrastructure to match. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd describes the intervening decades in China as a combination of the English Industrial Revolution and the global information revolution playing out at light speed. Rome may not have been built in a day, but by 2005 China was building the square foot equivalent of Ancient Rome every two weeks as part of its drive to modernize. On top of that, between 1949 and 2014 the average life expectancy of Chinese citizens doubled. It’s become the world’s leading producer of, among other things, aluminum, ships, computers, cell phones, clothing, and furniture – essentially, it’s the world’s dominant manufacturer. And it’s on track to becoming the world’s dominant economic power, period.

Between 1980 and 2017, China’s GDP grew from 7 percent of the US’s to 61 percent. To put that into perspective, every 2 years since 2008 the increase in the size of China’s GDP has been equal to that of the entire economy of neighboring India. And while in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, Chinese growth slowed by one-third – global growth slowed by half. Even when it was slowing down, China still came out ahead.

According to the former Singaporean Prime Minister, and astute China-watcher, Lee Kuan Yew, when China comes to full power, it won’t just tip the balance of global power. “The world,” he said, ”must find a new balance”. In his view, China isn’t another big player on the world stage – China is the biggest player. The US is certainly aware that global equilibrium is shifting. After decades of focusing foreign policy on the Middle East, in 2011 then foreign secretary Hilary Clinton announced the government’s policy focus would shift to Asia.

On its side, China is thirsty for power: this is a nation that’s not afraid to enforce sanctions or threaten aggression to force its agenda through on the world stage. It’s a situation that Thucydides might find all too familiar, and a dynamic that historians have seen acted out on the world stage time and again.

In the next section, we’ll go back in time to look at some of these instances and see which other nations have found themselves stuck in a Thucydides Trap.

Thucydides’s ideas shed light on global conflicts throughout history

Thucydides posits that when a rising power threatens to topple an entrenched power, the likeliest outcome is war – an idea that contemporary historians have labeled Thucydides Trap.

But why is conflict so often inevitable in these situations? Well, the redistribution of power causes significant geopolitical stress at a structural level – the tectonic plates that a prevailing political dynamic rests upon begin shifting and therefore become unsteady. This creates a dynamic not only in which extraordinary or aggressive political acts can lead to war but also in which ordinary points of tension – tensions which can usually be rapidly and amicably resolved – can become the flashpoints that set epic conflicts in motion.

A Harvard think tank has analyzed and identified various points in history where two powers have enacted the dynamics of a Thucydides Trap – they found that, of 16 instances of political tension that met Thucydides’s criteria, 12 of these led to war.

For example, Japan at the turn of the twentieth century presents a textbook case of rising power syndrome – in which a rising state adjusts its sense of ambition and entitlement in line with its enhanced powers. Until 1853, Japan had been a closed society. Then, the US naval commodore Matthew Perry navigated a fleet of gunboat ships into Edo Bay in a display of military supremacy and forcefully convinced the Emperor to open Japanese borders for trade. In the subsequent decades, Japan scrambled to catch up to the military and economic power of countries like the US, Britain, and Russia. And it did. Between 1885 and 1899, the nation’s Gross National Product nearly tripled. But Japan wasn’t satisfied with gaining a level footing with key global players. It wanted to establish dominance in the region.

When a rebellion broke out in neighboring Korea, both Japan and China seized on the opportunity to send in troops and soon went to war themselves. Japan won control of Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria – the last being a region in which Russia also held strategic interests. But six days later, after Europe applied pressure at Russia’s behest, Japan pulled out of Manchuria with hopes that in doing so, Russia would recognize Korea as being under Japan’s influence. But Russia declined, suggesting instead a neutral zone in Korea, further adding salt to the wound after Japan had willingly given up Manchuria. After further perceived disrespect in the following years, Japan declared war on Russia – and won. This time, it didn’t hand any of its newly-gotten territories back. After the defeat, Russia’s reputation crumbled, and the First Russian Revolution followed shortly after.

Japan’s rapid growth, the urgency it felt to establish itself on the world stage, and the sense of victimization it felt after Russia and Europe intervened in its conflict with China – are all typical of a rising power. They combine into a potent driver for military aggression.

For another example, let’s look at France and Germany in the nineteenth century. At the time, the Prussian ruler Otto von Bismarck aimed to unify the fragmented collection of German states and kingdoms. To rally public backing for this unification effort, Bismarck strategically engaged in conflict with their mutual adversary, France. France, an established power, regarded neighboring Prussia’s rapid economic and industrial growth with suspicion verging on paranoia and was easily manipulated into engaging in Bismarck’s manufactured conflict. Not only did Bismarck defeat France in the 1970 Franco-Prussian War, but he also succeeded in garnering popular support for his mission of German unification.

There are parallels across these examples, but they don’t follow an exact blueprint. In these two, the rising power happens to win out and topples its hegemonic rival. But sometimes the dominant power consolidates its hold on the world stage. For instance, in 1805, when France was undergoing a revolutionary transformation and posed a significant challenge to Britain’s naval supremacy and Europe’s balance of power, Britain decisively defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet.

No matter who wins and who loses, in the majority of cases, some degree of conflict seems predestined. Is the same true of China and the US?

A vast range of scenarios might lead to war

Analysts who want to gauge the likelihood of global conflict think in a similar way to park rangers during fire season. They know that, while arsonists plan to set fires, plenty of other sparks – a bonfire incorrectly extinguished, a cigarette carelessly tossed into undergrowth – can set off a blaze. They know, too, that as long as the conditions are favorable, most sparks won’t result in catastrophic wildfires. But in the middle of fire season, when the weather is dry and the forest is parched, even the smallest of sparks can build an inferno.

As things stand between the US and China, we are at the peak of fire season. China is ambitious and hungry to expand its influence. The US is keen to shore up its global power and unwilling to give up its interests in the Pacific region.

Here are some of the potential “sparks” that analysts believe could set off large-scale conflict between the two powers.

An accidental collision between naval vessels could set off conflict. China has, controversially, claimed sovereignty over the entirety of the South China Sea. Other countries, like Vietnam and the Philippines, contest this claim. The US also operates naval vessels in the area. In the past, Chinese coast guard vessels have harassed US destroyers when they pass through disputed waters. If the destroyer is unable or unwilling to maneuver to avoid the Chinese vessel, this could lead to a collision and even fatalities. China could protest this incident through diplomatic channels – then again, it might retaliate in a display of military might.

Taiwan could also move toward independence. The island of Taiwan has long been a hot-button issue. China claims Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China. In Taiwan, there’s a popular movement to seek independence. If that movement surges, leading to protests and unrest, China might stage a military intervention. But under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US has committed to defending Taiwan against Chinese invasion.

Also, a third party could instigate a war that draws both powers in. Japan, for example, could spark conflict between the two powers. A pacifist regime was imposed on Japan in the aftermath of World War II, but Japanese politicians are increasingly adopting a pro-military attitude. First in their sights may well be the Senkaku Islands, a contested group of islands near rich oil reserves. Previously under Japanese ownership, aggressively expansionist China has claimed them for its own. Even a hint of Japanese activity on these islands could lead to a skirmish which could escalate to a full-scale confrontation – at which point, the US-Japan mutual defense treaty kicks in.

Or, North Korea could collapse. This notoriously secretive and unstable country is a time bomb in the region, ready to detonate at any moment. If the North Korean government collapsed, South Korea would be compelled to send in troops to the region; the US would send troops in support, a maneuver that would bring the US military right up to the Chinese border, a move the Chinese government would almost certainly be unable to accept. Alternatively, if the North Korean government collapsed China and the US could find themselves going head-to-head in a scramble to secure the regime’s reputedly massive stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Finally, a trade conflict could heat up into a war. For example, the US could determine that China’s trade practices discriminate against the US. The US could impose tough sanctions on China. China might then impose sanctions in response. As the tension escalates, one country might resort to cyber warfare, attacking the stock markets and banks of its rival with malicious software. The other might then feel forced to launch physical attacks on the sites of those cyber-attack cells. In this way, a trade conflict might escalate into a military one.

None of these scenarios need come to pass. But the friction between China’s nascent power and the established power of the US means that the conditions for conflict are already in place.

Conflict between the US and China isn’t inevitable

China is growing rapidly and seeking to assert its might; the US is unwilling to relinquish its dominant global position – there are, potentially, choppy waters ahead. But with diplomacy, strategy, and statecraft, the two nations can navigate to a peaceful outcome.

If China and the US can accommodate each other’s sometimes competing interests, this outcome wouldn’t be without precedent. In the fifteenth century, the upstart kingdom of Spain and the dominant power of Portugal tussled for control over territories in Latin America – after the Pope intervened, the two nations compromised in the Treaty of Tordesillas. In the early twentieth century, the US held the role that China does now – President Teddy Roosevelt peacefully maneuvered the country into pole global position, displacing the ruling power, Britain, in the process. Britain, acknowledging that America’s rapid growth and expanded military would soon outstrip its own, pivoted to diplomacy, signing treaties and formalizing alliances that allowed it to protect its own national interests. During the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, newly developed nuclear weapons added another layer of complexity – the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction was a deterrent to hot war. Ultimately, though, the Soviet Union didn’t demonstrate the sustained economic performance or governmental competence that would have allowed it to clinch its place as the dominant global power.

What can be done from a US perspective to manage another peaceful resolution to the Thucydidean relationship it finds itself in with China?

To begin with, US policymakers need to ask some hard questions: is a China that is bigger and more powerful than the US such a threat to US interests that it must be prevented at all costs? Or could the US continue to prosper in a world where China calls the shots?

There are also certain strategic options the US could explore. It could work to accommodate China’s core interests without relinquishing its own. As an example: the US might agree to withdraw its troops from South Korea if China denuclearizes North Korea.

Or, the US could undermine China’s stability – it could, for example, question the legitimacy of its communist rule. It could leverage the country’s draconian censorship and internet policies – reputedly unpopular with the Chinese people – to foment dissatisfaction.

Finally, the US could redefine its relationship with China, by emphasizing shared interests between the two powers. Third-party threats, such as global terrorism or climate change, are equally troubling to both countries. United against these issues, the two countries might reframe their antagonistic relationship into a partnership.

Conclusion

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides said that when an established power is threatened by a rising one, war is the likely outcome. At the moment, China is a rising power threatening US dominance. But while the two powers appear poised on the brink of conflict, strategic action may enable a peaceful outcome.

About the Author

Graham Allison

Genres

History, Economics, Politics

Review

“Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” by Graham Allison is a thought-provoking exploration of the complex and potentially perilous relationship between the United States and China. Drawing upon historical case studies and applying the Thucydides Trap concept, Allison provides a comprehensive analysis of the growing power dynamics between the two global giants. In this book summary and review, we will delve into the key themes and insights from the book.

Graham Allison’s book is a deep dive into the dynamics that underlie the rivalry between the United States and China, which he frames through the lens of Thucydides’s Trap—a concept that highlights the inherent dangers when a rising power challenges an established one. Allison delves into historical case studies, most notably the outbreak of World War I, to illustrate how power shifts can lead to conflicts that are difficult to avoid. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the dangers of such power transitions and suggests ways for both nations to navigate this treacherous terrain.

Allison’s book introduces readers to the key players and their perspectives, making it clear that missteps in diplomacy and miscalculations in the balance of power can have dire consequences. He provides insights into how historical conflicts can offer crucial lessons for contemporary leaders, urging them to avoid the inevitability of conflict and to consider cooperative strategies for mutual benefit.

“Destined for War” is an indispensable book for anyone seeking a nuanced understanding of the complex relationship between the United States and China. Graham Allison’s expertise in international relations and his compelling writing style make this book accessible and engaging, even for readers with limited prior knowledge of the subject. His use of historical analogies offers a valuable perspective on the challenges the two nations face in navigating their interactions in the 21st century.

Allison’s analysis is not limited to identifying the potential pitfalls but also offers a path forward. He suggests that both the U.S. and China should prioritize cooperation and communication to avoid the Thucydides Trap. While acknowledging the difficulties involved in doing so, he provides practical recommendations for building trust and mitigating the risk of conflict.

In conclusion, “Destined for War” is a must-read for anyone interested in international relations, geopolitics, and the future of U.S.-China relations. It offers a comprehensive, well-researched, and balanced assessment of the challenges and opportunities in the evolving dynamic between these two global superpowers.

Summary: Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

    Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

    Your Support Matters...

    We run an independent site that is committed to delivering valuable content, but it comes with its challenges. Many of our readers use ad blockers, causing our advertising revenue to decline. Unlike some websites, we have not implemented paywalls to restrict access. Your support can make a significant difference. If you find this website useful and choose to support us, it would greatly secure our future. We appreciate your help. If you are currently using an ad blocker, please consider disabling it for our site. Thank you for your understanding and support.