Updated: Mar 2
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“One of the most insightful and thought-provoking books I have ever read on the most important relationship in the world: the US and China” – Gen. (Retd.) David Petraeus
“Destined for War” by professor Graham Allison is, without doubt, one of the best works of structural realism for a scholar of international relations and political science. Taking a detailed study of historical case studies and comparing them with each other, Graham Allison draws a pattern and formulates it in what he calls the “Thucydides’ Trap”. This trap, he identifies, was first recorded in the writings of Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian war which started in 431 BCE. Using history, case studies, and an analysis of the current scenario of the global political stage, he explains why there is an emerging Thucydides trap, which makes war between great powers highly probable, albeit not inevitable.
“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable” – Thucydides
This trap, in essence holds the principle that a rising power will increase in ambition and this rise will incite fear in the status quo power. This assertiveness from the rising power and the subsequent fear in the established great power usually provokes war. The mistrust the established power has and the sense of ambition and “rightful place in history” the rising power has, triggers events which make war highly likely. These were the same patterns throughout the major conflicts in history. One of the earliest recorded cases of this trap was during the Peloponnesian war when a rising Athens became prosperous and ambitious, a rise which invoked fear of being displaced in the established power, Sparta. This war shook the ancient civilized world and left thousand dead. It left both Sparta and Athens shattered militarily and socially.
It is the uncertainty and fear in the established power, that allows for assertiveness to be misunderstood and misinterpreted as provocative and insubordination, while the increasingly stern responses from the established power lets the rising power feel that it Is being forcefully suppressed from achieving what is its “rightful” place in the world. This environment of hostility and antagonism, allows small conflicts or misunderstandings to spiral out of control, sparking war through an escalation. It is this hegemonic inertia that established powers have, that requires force (war) to move it.
Professor Allison gives detailed case studies in his book about 16 cases of major conflicts over the past 500 years, all of which had the same Thucydidean dynamics and made war seem inevitable. It was only in four of these sixteen cases, where peace was possible. This peace was possible through extensive diplomacy, compromises, and adjustments by both sides involved.
After providing this theoretical framework of how the Thucydidean dynamics work and how to identify it, Professor Allison identifies the growing Thucydides trap that exists as a problem for statesmen and diplomats to confront today: the Thucydides’ trap between the USA and China.
USA and China – A Thucydidean relationship:
The meteoric rise of China in the global economy, coupled with its increasing militarization were factors enough to cause unease in the West. It only further adds to the mix that China is not only increasingly nationalistic but that history justifies in the minds of its people that their rightful place in the world was robbed of them by the Japanese and the western powers through the centuries. China under Xi Jinping is not only nationalistic, but also has a new sense of self. After reforming the military, China aggressively is spreading its Belt and Road projects, debt/credit diplomacy and increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea through making claims over the famous “nine-dash line”. This assertiveness, if allowed by the status quo power, the USA, will see it take second place in the world economy, and also take a back seat militarily, which will leave the Eastern hemisphere and the eastern oceans largely out of western influence. For an established power, the SUA, which depends on maritime trade and military power for both its prosperity and its security, this is unacceptable.
This was seen firsthand by the former president of the USA, Donald Trump’s attitude and rhetoric towards China, which he mentioned as “raping” the USA. Any event that takes place in the Taiwan Straits, South China Sea is analyzed by Western statesmen and analysts as a challenge for war. Regardless of how true these forecasts are, it demonstrates perfectly, how the Thucydidean dynamics leads to a sense of fear and mistrust – an extremely dangerous position for an established power to be in.
China, on the other hand, having gone through their “century of humiliation”, primarily because of having a weak navy and weak political unity, now see these factors as indispensable to both survive and assert themselves. This explains the nationalistic attitudes and increasing naval capabilities.
Professor Allison does an excellent job of going in detail to explain about China’s history, cultural and political philosophies and how these have shaped the political identity of China when it comes to dealing with the outside world. He, in the following chapters also explains and analyzes the way the USA came to pre-eminence in the Western hemisphere and then on the global stage. He goes through the history and diplomatic and military decisions the USA had to make to be where it is today. He identifies a pattern of behavior of the USA itself, that would incite fear in Americans today if the Chinese were to behave the same way. By doing this, he excellently shows the inevitability of this pattern.
Although seemingly pessimistic on the surface, he makes it very clear that the Thucydides’ trap is a “trap” only if certain steps are not taken to avert crisis. This, he explains is through communication, diplomacy and compromise and adjustment. He makes it clear that while the Thucydidean dynamic is largely unavoidable, war is not. War, in the case of Great Powers, are not mere skirmishes but devastating, creating power vacuums and tectonic shifts.
He then goes on to provide a few imaginary scenarios, simulating conflicts and the subsequent escalations which could trigger wider conflicts and a number of responses that each side would naturally take to catalyze the conflict. He also gives a few measures that can be taken to avert crisis by drawing from the cases of Thucydidean dynamics in history that did not result in war. He draws from them, a few steps that the USA and China could adopt today to arrive at compromises and avert catastrophic war in this nuclear age. He explains how diplomacy, trade, communication and compromises from each side can diffuse situation, which, if allowed to progress, will lead to situations which will cost each other more than they can wish to salvage from a planned victory.
From providing a theoretical framework to work, to a study of the American and Chinese political identities and a detailed study of Thucydidean dynamics through history, to outlining steps that each player must take to avert what otherwise seems as an inevitable collision course, Graham Allison’s book provides a remarkable model to understand great power politics. It is not only a must-read for scholars and academicians, but for statesmen and anyone interested in politics and history.
It provides the reader with signs and factors or behavior patterns to watch out for while observing politics, increasing not only their analytical skills, but also to be able to relatively predict certain situations by identifying underlying dynamics and how it correlates to similar situations throughout history. It is work of not only renown, but quality scholarly study and lucid thinking and lack of logical errors and contradictions.
(Joseph Moses is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in International Relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Moscow, Russia. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Madras Christian College (MCC), Chennai, India. His areas of interest include International theories, Diplomacy, and Foreign Policy. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)