America and China Destined for War?
For more than 70 years, the United States has stood as the preeminent global actor. Since the turn of the twentieth century, America’s economic superiority has underwritten U.S. leadership of the international order. Yet, as Graham Allison puts forward in "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), a resurgent China may signal an end to Washington’s preeminent position. As China’s economy gains on its American counterpart, Allison reminds his readers of history’s lesson that periods of transition are often messy and rarely peaceful. For an American public accustomed to its place atop the international order, "Destined for War" is a timely, cautionary tale – the Sino-American relationship is about to be redefined. Washington and Beijing could stumble into conflict as easily as past nations.
In exploring Thucydides’s ageless admonition that it was “the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,” Allison offers readers an accessible explanation of the notion of a revisionist power – a country dissatisfied with the regional or global status quo. Revisionist states fit poorly into the American narrative, which prizes U.S. leadership in building a liberal international order that is stronger than its predecessors. Such self-praise is not unwarranted; globally, this order has ushered in a decline in war and unprecedented economic growth. Yet it also has led many Americans to take for granted the system's stability.
Allison has a warning for the American people: an ascendant China poses a challenge unlike those with which America has grappled in the past. Chinese GDP has surpassed that of the United States in terms of purchasing power parity. China also has begun flexing its economic muscle through the "One Belt, One Road" initiative and the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Washington's military and diplomatic edge in global affairs also is shrinking. The essence of “Thucydides’s Trap” is this: the closing gap between America and China will incite sufficient fear that the competitor-nations might stumble into conflict.
Allison’s 16 case studies appeal to historical wisdom in order to widen the lens of U.S. policymakers as they confront this threat. Though the Sino-American relationship will become more competitive, the details of that competition are not yet known. To avert catastrophe, the United States must look beyond the wartime struggle against Nazi Germany or the prolonged rivalry with the Soviet Union to better appreciate the distinct nature of an economic and security competitor with which the United States already is deeply integrated.
Despite its discerning analysis of past and present, "Destined for War" refrains from offering ideas on potential ways ahead. While Allison bemoans “what passes for strategy in Washington these days,” he advances four “strategic options” – or, frameworks for considering a response to the China challenge – that are largely familiar. Beginning with “accommodation,” which the author wisely distinguishes from appeasement, Allison puts forward the possibility of “adjusting relations with a serious competitor” to salvage the most out of “unfavorable trends.” Yet, while perhaps not popular among policymakers, the familiar works of Lyle Goldstein or Hugh White have explored this approach.
Next, Allison considers a policy of undermining China, which adopts a significantly more confrontational stance that seeks to weaken the country through regime change and subversion. Again, such a posture is not uncharted territory and resonates with the work of Michael Pillsbury, particularly his 2015 book "The Hundred-year Marathon." Similarly, the third framework, negotiating a long peace in which each side “imposes considerable constraints in some areas of their competition,” partially parallels the concept of “responsible competition” that Thomas Wright posits in his new book "All Measures Short of War."
Finally, Allison puts forward the possibility of redefining the U.S.-China relationship around shared transnational challenges such as climate change, terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Yet such an approach arguably describes the policy pursued by the Obama administration. While Allison correctly notes that President Obama rejected Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2012 overtures of a “new model of great power relations,” his administration did choose to focus on “positive” Chinese behavior on global issues, such as U.N. peacekeeping or the response to Ebola, over revisionist actions in East Asia, most prominently seen in island building in the South China Sea.
A lack of genuinely new options is, of course, understandable. It speaks to the intractable nature of the challenge confronting U.S. policymakers. Nor should it detract from the principal value of the book's rich analysis that makes plain to readers the tensions inherent in great power relations.
Perhaps some solace can be found in again turning to history. Though much lauded today, the containment strategy of the Cold War was far from fully formed at inception. Rather, this approach evolved brick by brick over decades of debate and day-to-day policy guided by a strategic lodestar. If such a policy provides any clues for coming competition with China, then "Destined for War" adds an important brick in the future of American strategic thought.