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Destined for War, Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?: A Review

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

© CIA, Public domain

This 2017 book by Harvard Professor Graham Allison has launched a debate on the topic its title announces. Professor Allison is a renowned political scientist and author, who has contributed to the U.S. government as an analyst in matters of national security and defense policy, with a specialty in nuclear weapons and terrorism. Former US senator Sam Nunn has commented: ‘’If any book can stop a world war, it is this one.’’

Professor Allison has studied 16 historical cases of disputes between states, or alliances of states, and has found that, in 12 cases, war was the outcome, and in only four cases did diplomacy succeed in maintaining peace. Allison explains the 12 cases of diplomatic failure with the help of the ‘’Thucydides trap’’ phenomenon, so-named after the fifth century BCE ancient Greek historian who first understood and published it. Thucydides had studied the roots of the military conflict that opposed the century-old established Greek city-state power Sparta to the rapidly rising power of the Athens city-state.

Today, the United States has been an established dominant power since 1945, while China has been a rising economic power since 1980. The Greek trap phenomenon arises from the structural stress that develops between the established and the rising powers. Three primary drivers fuel a dynamic that can lead to war, namely interests, fear, and honor. National interests have often been of a territorial nature; fear has often been caused by an imbalance in military strength; and honor is interpreted by Allison as ‘’a state’s sense of itself, its convictions about the recognition and respect it is due, and its pride.’’

When applied to the Athens-Sparta competition, Allison’s three drivers led him to write: ‘’Ultimately, the leaders of Athens and Sparta were overwhelmed by their own domestic politics. ……  As the stakes rose, Athenian assertiveness swelled into hubris; Spartan insecurity festered into paranoia. …… And the war came.’’

World War I is another case where war was the outcome of the Greek trap. Among the fighting countries, Britain was a well-established power which controlled maritime routes thanks to its Royal Navy, second to none. Germany was a continent-based power which had been rising since 1870, and had built warships in an attempt to match the Royal Navy. This disparity between Germany and Britain, combined with other factors, helped create a context allowing the Thucydidies trap dynamic to take place.

In October 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis suddenly emerged. The confrontation between John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was complex and involved the implicit threat of the use of nuclear weapons. Allison quotes John Kennedy as later confiding to his brother Robert about the crisis that the chances that nuclear war could have broken out had been ‘’between one-in-three and even’’.  In support of Kennedy’s assertion Allison noted that ‘’historians have identified more than a dozen close calls outside Kennedy’s span of control that could have sparked a war.’’  On page xiv, Allison concludes : ‘’More important than the sparks that lead to war, Thucydides teaches us, are the structural factors that lay its foundations : conditions in which otherwise manageable events can escalate with unforeseeable severity and produce unimaginable consequences.’’

Further on (p. xvii), author Allison gives a probabilistic answer to the subtitle of his book. To avoid war, the United States and China must (quoting Allison, italics are his) ‘’internalize two difficult truths. First, on the current trajectory, war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized. ….. Second, war is not inevitable.‘’

The last third of the book is devoted to means of avoiding war. Allison suggests twelve clues, the most definitive and daring one being the title of the eighth clue (bold letters are his): ‘’Hot war between nuclear superpowers is thus no longer a justifiable option’’. The author asserts that conversations are needed ‘’to help leaders on both sides to internalize the unnatural truth that war is no longer an acceptable option.’’ Allison has used the verb ‘’to internalize’’ several times. The American Heritage Dictionary gives this definition: ‘’To take in (cultural values, for example) and make an integral part of one’s attitudes or beliefs’’.  If we take war away, the principal activity of humanity becomes cooperation.

Under clue 9, Graham Allison seems to take one step backwards from clue 8. Clue 9’s title is: ‘’Leaders of nuclear superpowers must nonetheless be prepared to risk a war they cannot win.’’ Allison talks about the ‘’nuclear umbrella’’, a concept constantly evoked in NATO circles. I believe that precision is mandatory when talking about lives and deaths of people. An umbrella protects a person from rain. A nuclear bomb kills people, and a nuclear bomb exchange can mean planet-wide suicide. There is no nuclear umbrella effect.

Under clue 10, Allison expresses his belief that ‘’thickening economic entanglement ‘’ between China and the United States is the way to go. In chapter 10, Allison thinks that dealing with the new China ‘’will require a multiyear, multiminded effort. ….  In short, it will demand something far beyond anything we have seen since the opening to China. This book hopes to provoke a similar debate today.’’ Allison has mentioned several times cooperation in the international context. Here is an important example.

In April 2018 President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Program of Action with Iran). This decision was widely criticized both inside and outside the US.  Allison was opposed to the US leaving the JCPOA. On page 228 he proposes that the three largest nuclear powers, ie the US, Russia and China, cooperate closely to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the context of further nuclear weapons proliferation, Allison adds the following shocking consequence: ‘’ ….. we should expect to see a nuclear bomb explode in a city like Mumbai, Jakarta, Los Angeles, or Shanghai, at some point in our lifetimes.’’

The fight to prevent such an outcome, as well as to preserve the climate and the environment, to quench pandemics and improve medical care, to bridge the poverty gap and to stop cyber attacks will all need a high level of international cooperation. There is no other way.


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