DESTINED FOR WAR: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

AuthorSmith, Anthony
PositionBook review

DESTINED FOR WAR: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Author: Graham Allison

Published by: Scribe, Melbourne, 2017, 364 pp, $35.

Harvard University's Professor Graham Allison used the expression 'the Thucydides Trap' in a much-cited Atlantic article in 2015--although it is a parallel that many commentators have used over time--and this article has been expanded into book length treatment. It is both highly accessible and full of astute observations about the state of US--China relations. Allison believes that war is not inevitable --contrary to some superficial readings of his hypothesis --but that the world has entered into an incredibly dangerous period of rivalry where avoiding armed conflict 'will require nothing less than bending the arc of history'.

A few explanations of the terms of reference are necessary for anyone not versed in classical history. The Thucydides Trap here refers to the competition that occurs between a status quo power and a challenger, which has, more often than not, resulted in a war ruinous to both sides. Thucydides, the father of realism, was the chronicler of the Peloponnesian Wars--fought between alliances centred on Athens and Sparta in three rounds over much of the 5th century BC. It ended with the defeat of Athens, but also chaos and economic devastation across much of Greece. In the famous line from Thucydides: 'What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.' Will this be the fate of the United States and China too?

Allison has undertaken a historical study of sixteen cases of substantive shifting fortunes between a ruling power and a rising power. In twelve cases the result was war. Not a great record! But it still leaves cases where the power shift occurred in a more-or-less peaceful fashion. Allison starts by warning that the United States and China are arguably on a collision course, but equally he mines those rarer cases of a peaceful outcome to see what lessons will assist in avoiding conflict.

The author carefully works through relevant diplomatic episodes and domestic history for both the United States and China to establish where the world's most important relationship has come from to get to the present day. He repeats many of the well-worn observations about the two largest economies; such as the idea that Beijing makes longterm strategic considerations as opposed to Washington's shorter attention span (although he does allow for...

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