Forget Russia. Is War with China Inevitable?

Destined for WarWhile Russia gets all the newsprint these days, Graham Allison has his sights set on China, a rising power on track to overtake the U.S. (And, by some measures, already has.) In the last decade alone, China's influence has stretched beyond Asia to investments in African oil fields, exponential growth in trade in South and Latin America, and the ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative designed to expand infrastructure among Eurasian countries.

Graham Allison's new book is Destined for War: America, China, and the Thucydides Trap--a fascinating investigation into the historical clashes between rising and ruling powers and how the U.S. needs to think seriously about its relationship with China.

Allison spoke with us on the phone last month from his office at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, shortly before he traveled again to China.

Amazon Book Review: Can you please explain Thucydides’s Trap?

Graham Allison: Thucydides’s Trap is the severe structural stress that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power. This was the competition in classical Greece between Athens and Sparta, about which Thucydides, the father of history, wrote, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that it instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable.”

China is now the rising power and the U.S. is the established power. But when the U.S. was a young, nation, in what situations was the U.S. the rising power and someone else was the ruling power?

That’s an interesting question. The Thucydides story line is literally as old as history itself. And this pattern has been repeated every century thereafter. In the book I look at the last 500 years, in which there are 16 cases in which a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power. Twelve of them end in war; four of them end in no war. Now, one of the no-war cases is very instructive: It’s the emergence of the U.S. as rival of Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, and ultimately surpassing Britain.

In the book, I have one of the most fun chapters, that some Americans will find a little uncomfortable, in which I ask, What if Xi [Jinping]’s China were just like us? What if Xi’s China today was just like Teddy Roosevelt’s America at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Teddy Roosevelt was confident that we were entering what was going to be an American century? [Roosevelt] arrived in Washington in 1897 with the view that it was crazy--he called it an abomination--that the Spanish were occupying Cuba, right off our shore. It’s a pretty amazing string of events that occurred in the decade after Teddy Roosevelt arrived in Washington. Not all of his doing--but all encouraged by him--in which basically we seized on an event [the explosion of the USS Maine] in Havana that was uncertain, declared war on the Spanish, defeated and liberated Cuba, took Puerto Rico, took Guam…[and] sponsored a coup in Colombia that created a whole new country, Panama, that gave us our canal. We threatened war with Britain and Germany unless they butted out of a territory dispute in Venezuela. And then the one I like the most is we stole more than half of the fat tail of Alaska that cuts Canada off from the sea for five hundred miles.

What do you think is the U.S. government’s biggest blind spot that could lead to conflict with China?

Well, I think there are two or three big blind spots. The first big blind spot is that Americans do not want to recognize that China has already emerged as a major power--a power that’s as big and strong as we are in many dimensions. If you read the newspapers or your newsfeed on your phone, you will hear people continually say on the main [media] outlets that the U.S. is the largest economy in the world. But that’s not true. At the 2014 IMF World Bank meeting in Washington, the big headline from it was China is now the number one economy in the world, measured by what the IMF and also the CIA regard as the best yardstick for comparing national economies. So who knows that China is the number one economy in the world? Only people that take the trouble to look at the IMF or CIA website. Certainly not the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or Buzzfeed. So recognizing that China has burst on the scene in a speed that is just incredible. I quote Vaclav Havel in the chapter on the rising China in which he says, “Things have happened so fast that we haven’t yet had time to be astonished.” I would say, “Behold the rise of China and be astonished.”

That’s the first blind spot. When one is not realistic about what China represents, then there’s no hope.

Secondly, recognize this deep-rooted historical pattern. When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, generally bad things happen. Twelve out of 16 cases: War. Not wars that someone wanted or chose in most instances, but wars that happen because a rising power thinks “I’m bigger, I’m stronger, my interest deserves more weight, I deserve more say, I deserve more sway.” So if I’m China today, I’m looking out at the South China Sea and the East China Sea. China sees China seas. They think this is their territory, and they cannot understand and think it’s anomalous that the U.S. navy is the principle arbiter of events in the South China Sea if there’s a dispute about an island or who owns an island. Again, think back to Teddy Roosevelt and [when] the Spanish said, “We’ve been in Cuba for a long time; we belong there.” He thought, “Absolutely not. We’re going to get you out of there whenever we can.”

So I think the rising power very naturally thinks, “I’m bigger and stronger and I deserve more.” The ruling power, as Thucydides taught us, very naturally thinks, “Wait a minute. I created a set of conditions that even facilitated and enabled you to grow up to be bigger and stronger. So you should be grateful for that.” The British had indeed provided the security order that allowed the U.S. to grow up. And the U.S. has in fact provided the security order in Asia that’s allowed the rise of China and all the other Asia miracles. And nobody benefited more than China. But the natural reaction of the party that’s grown up to become bigger and stronger is rarely to be grateful.

So you have this dynamic and then mixed with the failure to recognize that this dynamic is the fundamental stressor  in international politics today. And it’s dangerous not because China will think, “Boy, I think war with the US is a good idea.” No--that almost never happens. Or the U.S. thinks, “My God, these guys are overtaking us; we better attack them while they’re weaker, because they are only getting stronger.” That rarely happens. What does happen is that you get this deep structural stressors. Trust between the parties goes to zero, because each knows the beliefs that the other has ultimately emoted. The ruling power wanting to keep the rising power down. The rising power wants to displace the ruling power. Misunderstandings are magnified, [as are], most dangerously, the impact of external actions--in the current case, Kim Jong-un, who is just going to launch ICBMs if he’s left to his own devices. And that event…could become a trigger to a U.S. attack, which is what Trump has said he’s going to do. And the reaction to that by North Korea is an attack on Seoul, and then the response to that is likely to be the second Korean War. And most Americans won’t remember their history, but they should go back and look at the first Korean War, where China entered the war, beat the U.S. back down to the 38th parallel, and 50,000 Americans perished.

You talk about how the U.S. government needs a strategy for how to interact with China because it currently doesn’t have one. What do you mean by that?

Graham AllisonI realize that can be read like a cheap shot, but I don’t mean it that way at all. This is not about the Trump administration. This book was five years in the making. So this comment is about Trump and Obama and Bush and Clinton, in whose administration I served.

The U.S. had a grand strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union, and that was called our Cold War strategy. The U.S. developed a strategy that was trying to contain the expansion of an evil empire, the Soviet Union. And was trying to undermine that empire, recognizing that it had within it the seeds of its own destruction, and which tried to build up the capabilities and strength of other countries that mattered most to us, including in Europe and Japan. This strategy was developed by people we still revere in the diplomatic and military community as the so-called Wise Men. These were George Kennan and Harry Truman and George Marshall and Vandenberg, the Republican leader of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Acheson. They engaged in a pretty serious debate for four years, out of which Truman put together this strategy that the U.S. followed for the next four decades to victory in the Cold War. So that’s what I mean by a strategy.

At the end of the Cold War, in 1991, rather than standing back and saying, “Okay, we’ve finished that chapter. Now we need to think about the next chapter, including China,” the U.S. instead took a victory lap…. Rather than developing a coherent set of ideas of how we were going to cope with a rising China, we just sort of temporized. And I think that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. So part of the purpose of this book is to say, “Wake up.”

In China, we face a serious competitor. This is going to be extremely dangerous and extremely difficult to deal with. We need to stand back and think far more radically than we have yet. In fact, I argue in the book, that the next generation or two of people need to get into this argument and be seized by it. Including some people like folks that live on the West Coast, who live in a different world most of the time, not thinking about international politics or the way they can contribute to developing better strategies but are just inventing a more amazing Amazon or a more amazing Google. I was last week in Silicon Valley arguing to people that I think this is going to be a case where conventional thinking is not going to be adequate. And many people can stretch their minds and contribute.

Good! I like the challenge there.

I seriously mean it. The Marshall Plan…was an absolutely cockamamie idea. Way so far outside of the box that any reasonable person would have said, “Forget about it. This makes no sense.” So this was in 1947…. Americans are exhausted, we fought a long war against the Nazis in Europe and against Japan. Everyone is bringing all the troops home. We mean to concentrate on America. And George Marshall says, “I have an idea. Why don’t we take 1.5% of GDP from American taxpayers and send it to Europe to help rebuild these broken nations, including Germany and Italy, whose soldiers have just been killing Americans.” You would think, “What?!”… But that’s exactly what Marshall and Truman [proposed], and we did it. And lo and behold, go look at Europe, and you’ll see an amazing story. So I think that this is a case that people who are not in this business [of international relations] ought to be thinking of things way beyond conventional.


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