Destined For War

Title:                      Destined For War

Author:                Graham Allison

Allison, Graham T. (2017). Destined For War: Can America And China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

LCCN:    2017005351

JZ6385 .A45 2017


  • “CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES ARE HEADING TOWARD A WAR NEITHER WANTS. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one. This phenomenon is as old as history itself. About the Peloponnesian War that devastated ancient Greece, the historian Thucydides explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Over the past 500 years, these conditions have occurred sixteen times. War broke out in twelve of them. Today, as an unstoppable China approaches an immovable America and both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump promise to make their countries “great again,” the seventeenth case looks grim. Unless China is willing to scale back its ambitions or Washington can accept becoming number two in the Pacific, a trade conflict, cyberattack, or accident at sea could soon escalate into all-out war. In Destined for War, the eminent Harvard scholar Graham Allison explains why Thucydides’s Trap is the best lens for understanding U.S.-China relations in the twenty-first century. Through uncanny historical parallels and war scenarios, he shows how close we are to the unthinkable. Yet, stressing that war is not inevitable, Allison also reveals how clashing powers have kept the peace in the past — and what painful steps the United States and China must take to avoid disaster today”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • POLITICAL SCIENCE / History & Theory.
  • HISTORY / Military / General.
  • POLITICAL SCIENCE / International Relations / General.
  • HISTORY / Asia / China.

Date Posted:      June 22, 2017

Judith Shapiro[1]

Two books are reviewed in this article: French, Howard W. Everything Under the Heavens[2], and Allison, Graham, Destined for War.

The Chinese superpower has arrived. Could America’s failure to grasp this reality pull the United States and China into war? Here are two books that warn of that serious possibility. Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power does so through a deep historical and cultural study of the meaning of China’s rise from the point of view of the Chinese themselves. Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? makes his arguments through historical case studies that illuminate the pressure toward military confrontation when a rising power challenges a dominant one. Both books urge us to be ready for a radically different world order, one in which China presides over Asia, even as Chinese politicians tell a public story about “peaceful rise.” The books argue persuasively that adjusting to this global power shift will require great skill on both sides if conflagration is to be avoided.

French says in his exhaustively researched and fascinating account of geopolitics, China style, that the Chinese era is upon us. But, he asks, “How will the coming China-driven world look?” To what extent will China support the international order that emerged when it was suffering humiliation at the hands of foreign powers? What are the drivers and motivations for the new ways China projects its power? How best should its neighbors and its rival North American superpower respond?

French, a former reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times, argues that China’s historical and cultural legacy governs its conduct of international relations, a legacy that sits uncomfortably with the Western notions of equality and noninterference among states. China’s relations with its neighbors in Japan and Southeast Asia were for millenniums governed by the concept of tian xia, which held that everything “under the heavens” belonged to the empire. A superior civilization demanded deference and tribute from vassal neighbors and did not hesitate to use military force. China’s testy relationship with Vietnam became fraught whenever a Vietnamese leader dared to demand equal footing with a Chinese emperor; the Japanese claim to divine origins was unacceptable.

When China lost its regional dominance at the hands of colonial powers and invading armies, it saw the situation as temporary. The struggle in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan since 1895, for example, has long been a sore point in Sino-Japanese relations. But the reform-era strongman Deng Xiaoping advised China to “hide our capacities and bide our time” on this and many other issues. Hostility between China and Japan simmers in disputes over hierarchy, wartime apology and historical narrative, with the two “in a situation resembling galaxies locked in each other’s gravitational fields, destined to collide repeatedly only to sail past each other after wreaking their damage.” French shows convincingly that China’s goal is now to displace the American barbarians and correct historic humiliations imposed by those who dethroned China from its rightful position at the center of the world.

China’s recent spectacular land grab in the South China Sea is a fait accompli, given China’s superior power in the area and its assertion that the region is a core national interest. Arbitrators for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea issued a 500-plus-page decision against China and in favor of the Philippines in a dispute over the definitions of islands versus rock formations; they concluded that Chinese arguments had no legal basis. But as French explains in sobering detail, China has unilaterally determined to claim much of the sea as its own. The country rejected the arbitration tribunal, knowing that its growing surface naval power and nuclear submarine capability support a highly uneven contest. Oil rigs have been established in contested waters, while artificial “islands” constructed from coral reefs are serving as military bases just miles from the Southeast Asian coastline. Similarly, China’s projection of economic might through the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt, One Road initiative, which intends to bind a huge swath of Asia to China economically via new land infrastructure and consolidated control of the seas, generates “a kind of fatalism or resignation about the futility of trying to defy it.”

Everything Under the Heavens is splendidly elucidated by a series of maps that show the world from China’s perspective; the South China Sea is compared to a cow’s tongue or “enormous blue banner” that can be drawn as a logical continuation of China’s southeastern coastline. French’s book was written before President Trump’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but clearly the resulting power vacuum is nothing short of a gift to an empire bent on restoring its tributary realm.

Graham Allison’s Destined for War, also helpfully illustrated with maps and charts, reinforces French’s arguments with wide-ranging, erudite case studies that span human history. The book asks why, when a new superpower threatens to displace a ruling power, the clash of hubris and paranoia often (but not always) results in war. Allison’s examples include the Sparta-Athens conflict of the famous “Thucydides trap,” when both sides labored strenuously to avoid war but were seemingly driven to it by forces beyond their control, as well as Germany’s challenge to the dominance of its neighbors at the start of the 20th century, which led to two world wars. Allison’s 16 cases also include four examples of power shifts in which war was avoided, as when Britain adjusted to the rise of the United States in the Great Rapprochement of the turn of the last century, choosing forbearance and eventually reaping great rewards through the countries’ “special relationship.”

Allison, the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, resurrects the Samuel Huntington thesis of a coming clash of civilizations to explain that China thinks in longer time frames and with a greater sense of hierarchy than the United States. In order to avoid the Thucydides trap, he writes, American policy makers must reject the tendency to think that China is like us and that it will respond as we would to identical provocations. Numerous situations could spark military conflict between the United States and China despite efforts on both sides to maintain peace, from accidental collisions at sea to misunderstandings caused by cyberattacks to actions taken by third parties like North Korea or Taiwan. “Will it be more difficult for the Chinese to rationalize a cosmology in which there are two ‘suns,’ or for the U.S. to accept that it must live with another, and possibly superior superpower?” Allison asks in a discussion of the need for both sides to bring their brightest minds to the challenge ahead.

Both of these fine books show that China intends to evict the United States from Asia in order to restore its dominance over what it considers its historic spheres of influence. Unfortunately, Washington is poorly prepared to deal with a China that strategizes in terms of the symbolic undercurrents and sensitivities illuminated so dramatically by both French and Allison. Whether the resurgence of China will mean tragedy in the form of armed conflict will depend on how China, China’s neighbors and the United States understand and manage the deeper motivations and structural forces in play.

[1] Judith Shapiro, “America’s Collision Course With China,” New York Times (June 15, 2017). Judith Shapiro is the author of China’s Environmental Challenges and Mao’s War Against Nature. A version of this review appears in print on June 18, 2017, on Page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “China’s World.”

[2] French, Howard W. (2017). Everything Under The Heavens: How The Past Helps Shape China’s Push For Global Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

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