Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Article excerpt

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

By Graham Allison

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

384 pp. $28.00

ISBN: 978-0544935273

Harvard sage Graham Allison has chosen to focus his considerable foreign policy expertise on the preeminent question of our age: how can we avoid a future war between its two most powerful nations? This book is a historically driven analysis of a topic he previously discussed in a prominent 2015 Atlantic article on the "Thucydides Trap." In the classic work on the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described the case of a disastrous conflict between a rising Athens and an established Sparta that brought Greek preeminence to a close. As a new U.S. administration grapples with a similar relationship, Allison provides key insights on the nature of the current problem while offering clues on how it can be successfully managed. He asserts a U.S.-China war is not inevitable, but conflict will continue to intensify as rising Chinese strength causes great concern for the United States and its allies.

Destined for War begins with a summary of the present operational environment in which China has surpassed the United States economically, as measured by several key indicators. "Grand Master" Lee Kuan Yew, former leader of Singapore, provides critical comments on China's "true nature" and its potential as the "biggest player in the history of the world." The second part of the book provides a perspective of U.S.-China relations using a 500-year survey of superpower relationships. Of the 16 cases (16th-century Spain-Portugal to the current German rise), no less than 12 of them ended in war. Allison ominously offers the case of the rivalry between pre-World War I Germany and Great Britain as the closest analogue to our current global situation. Finally, he assesses that the United States must make radical changes in its attitudes and actions if it is not to follow the same path. His prescription involves a better understanding of the clash of civilizations that his colleague Samuel Huntington earlier outlined in his own seminal work. Importantly, Allison calls for deeper reflection before we "sleepwalk" into another 1914-like catastrophe.

It is hard, but necessary, to critically evaluate Allison's argument in spite of his stellar reputation since John F. Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis. His impressive listing of colleagues can also create another type of trap for readers easily awed by Western academic credentials. Could this book be weakened by some intellectual arrogance as the author assembled evidence from elite circles? He does not acknowledge any major knowledge gaps that should be focused on during a U.S. "pause for reflection." Xi Jinping and the current Chinese Communist Party leadership are significant players, but so are Jack Ma of corporate giant Alibaba and other groups outside of Beijing. In the last century, the United States focused on Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and missed other underlying currents. Academic modesty may be in order as we struggle to better understand China and Eastern thinking. Richard E. Nisbett's Geography of Thought (Free Press, 2003) could help military strategists with key cultural insights on the differences between Western Aristotelian and Eastern Confucian-based thought patterns. …

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