In this episode of the MWI Podcast, Capt. Jake Miraldi speaks to Dr. Graham Allison. Earlier this year, Dr. Allison completed his 22-year-long tenure as director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His latest book—Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?—examines the likelihood of war between the United States and China, based on a series of historical case studies in which a dominant power was confronted by a rising power.
That the book’s title takes the form of a question is important, because there are a range of complex and interconnected factors that will determine whether the two countries will fall into the trap that so many countries in similar situations have throughout history. In this fascinating conversation, Dr. Allison examines some of these factors and describes what he believes to be the most likely drivers of any future conflict between America and China.
Image credit: Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle, US Army
Professor Allison’s analysis of the probability of war between China and the USA includes several historical examples and sociological analogies that have nothing to do with the dynamics of Thucydides’ Trap. For example:
1. Teddy Roosevelt’s war with Spain did not arise because Spain and the US were afraid of each other. Spain had long ceased to be a serious world power and the US was not a threat to Europe. The Spanish-American War was started because Teddy had a vision of the US as a colonial power.
2. World War I arose because both Germany and France were eager to go to war. France wanted to cleanse the humiliation it suffered during the Franco-Prussian War and Germany wanted to become a colonial power…but was thwarted by Britain and France. Thus, WW I was not a “war that nobody wanted” but rather a war that all the major powers were itching to fight.
3. The example given about a younger brother growing up and challenging his older brother is a good example of how civil wars get started, but again has nothing to do with a Thucydides’ Trap. Ditto the reference to challenges to the Alpha Wolf…again…this is a civil war setting.
4. The Korean War is also not an example of a Thucydides’ Trap. China was not a threat to the US in 1950. Russia was. Korea had been divided between Russia and the US back in 1945…not between China and the US. The war was started by tiny little North Korea attacking tiny little South Korea in an attempt to reunite the ancient nation of Korea. The fact that the US and China entered that essentially civil war had nothing to do with Thucydides and everything to do with simple ignorance of historical dynamics.
The main problem with Professor Allison’s analysis is that the very nature of war is totally different today than in 400 B.C. Back then wars could be won without the total annihilation of the nations in conflict. That is no longer true. Back then war was “thinkable”. Today it is “unthinkable”, at least between nuclear powers. Back then wars were about territorial conquest and trade. Today they are scary hybrid beasts: financial/economic dominance paired with sectarian/ideological hatreds. I note that both Sparta and Athens spoke the same language, prayed to the same gods, ate the same foods, and were rigidly hierarchical cultures. The same cannot be said about China and the US. War between China is inevitable unless the US Government has an epiphany and realizes that China has the better historical, geographic, and cultural claim to East Asia than does the US.