While President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping were getting to know each other last weekend, a native North Carolinian was warning that the United States and China are on the brink of war.
Graham Allison grew up in Charlotte where he was a football star for Myers Park High School and later played at Davidson College before transferring to Harvard. There he spent most of his academic life, most recently as director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Based on a careful study of historical situations in which a rising power like China confronts a ruling or dominant power like the U.S., Allison says much more often than not, war between the two powers is the result.
War can happen, he says, even when both the ruling and the rising powers are committed to avoid armed conflict.
Allison calls this conundrum “the Thucydides’s trap,” based upon the Greek historian’s analysis of the causes of the Peloponnesian wars between Sparta, the ruling or dominant power in the Greek peninsula, and Athens, a rising power challenging Sparta’s dominance. Neither power wanted war, but both were determined not to let the other interfere with its legitimate aspirations of greatness.
“It was the rise of Athens,” Thucydides wrote, “and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”
Allison and his colleagues have studied 16 situations over the past 500 years in which a rising power threatened to displace the ruling power. War was the result in 12 of these times.
In recent articles, including the April 16 issue of Time, and other recent issues of the Huffington Post, The Atlantic, and in his forthcoming book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Allison argues that the U.S. and China are on a collision course. That is because (1) China is quickly overtaking us as the world’s dominant economic power and (2) China’s firm aspirations will put it in direct confrontation with the U.S. For instance, China expects, over time, to reassert its historic dominance over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and territories claimed by Japan, The Philippines, and other allies to which we have specific treaty responsibilities for defense.
Allison notes that the current emerging crisis on the Korean peninsula could lead to a spark of armed conflict between the U.S. and China.
Trump strategist Steve Bannon says “We are going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, there is no doubt about it.”
Allison disagrees, but he warns, “Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not. Moreover, current underestimations and misapprehensions of the hazards inherent in the U.S.-China relationship contribute greatly to those hazards. A risk associated with Thucydides’s Trap is that business as usual—not just an unexpected, extraordinary event—can trigger large-scale conflict. When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen.”
As he writes in Time, “Thucydides’s trap does put the odds against us.”
But, he adds, a great power can escape the trap with subtle statecraft.
Subtle statecraft. That is something all of us should be praying for every day.