Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?

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Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? by Graham Allison. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 364 pp.


         Historians and political scientists often search for clues from the past and the present to enable them to make generalizations or rules of thumb to assist leaders with future decisions.1  For several years, Harvard Professor of Government Graham Allison has conducted research and written in both professional journals and the popular press of the danger of what he refers to as the “Thucydides trap.” For Allison the governing principle of his theory is based on the fifth-century BCE quote from Thucydides, who noted, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”2

          As Allison noted in a New York Times article in 2013, this “trap” is the “dynamic inherent when a rising power becomes more confident, a ruling power fears losing its edge, and entangling alliances on each side drive the parties toward war.”3 Key to his theory is the well-known and often quoted observation that wars are fostered by “fear, honor, and [conflicting] interest” between states.4 Professor Allison focuses his book on examining the chances for war between the existing superpower (the United States) and the rising power (the People’s Republic of China) using these theoretical perspectives.

         The author is explicit in identifying that war between the US and China is not inevitable. Allison does advise that leaders and senior advisors in both nations must carefully examine history in order to fashion a strategy to advance their national interests while avoiding war. In viewing the literature, there are those whom view war between the US and China as inevitable or highly likely and others, equally adamant, whose view is that the chance for war is hyped and conflict can be avoided by wise statesmanship.

         Yet the future is unknowable, and as the strategist Colin Gray noted, “The only empirical evidence we have concerning the future is confined to understanding of the past and the present.”5 Allison would agree with Gray’s assertion that leaders and their strategists would be wise to study history and to understand the importance of strategy vice improvisation and intuition. Other publications echo Allison’s wise counsel that the US and China could blunder into war, as have other nations. For example, RAND published a study entitled Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn, which identified such things as reliance on intuition and experience and overconfidence as additional causes of war.6

               For those interested in China or contemporary international relations or for those holding positions in strategy and policy, Allison’s book is a worthy addition to their reading list. Organized into four major sections, along with an introduction and conclusion, Allison’s book makes a compelling argument that war, while not inevitable, is possible. The first section, the shortest, is about China and outlines a picture of a dynamic and growing China across political, economic, and military spheres. While there is little doubt that China’s rise during the last 20 years has truly been remarkable, I was left wondering if this was too rosy a picture without disclosure of some the problems found in Chinese society and structures.

         Section two, entitled “Lessons from History,” provides a brief introduction into Thucydides and the history of the Peloponnesian War. He illustrates how a war fought more than 2,000 years ago between Athens and Sparta became the origin of his theory. Providing a brief description of 16 cases in which 12 resulted in war, Allison spends the most time covering the background between Britain and Germany that lead to World War I. 

         Section three, “A Gathering Storm,” contains some of the book’s most interesting chapters. Allison provides a description of US actions as it emerged on the world stage as an emerging power at the turn of the twentieth century under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt (TR). He offered us to imagine a “Xi corollary” to TR resulting in an assertive China to “Make China Great Again.” He reminds us of the difference of perception and cultures between the two nations. He postulates that China will most likely avoid a military confrontation by taking a long-term perspective. Furthermore, he notes that the realities of geography, economics, and America’s short attention span will provide the Chinese leverage to accomplish their goals without conflict.

         In section four, “Why War Is Not Inevitable,” Allison dissects those cases that resulted in “no war” for clues as to actions that policy makers and strategists should take. Some clues are easy to understand, such as the need for statesman to distinguish between “needs and wants,” while others are confusing, such as “cultural commonalities can help prevent conflict” (which, while true, seemed odd given the author’s highlighting the cultural differences between the US and China). Perhaps the most confusing clue is “alliances can be a fatal attraction,” where it is unclear exactly what the author proposes other than “policymakers must carefully review what America’s agreements with Asian allies truly entail.”

         The author’s background adds credibility to heed his advice. As a former assistant secretary of defense, special advisor, and member of various advisory and policy boards at the most senior levels across the government, and as the founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Allison is a recognized expert in many areas to include senior decision making. His work has received endorsement by many noted experienced leaders to include former Vice President Joe Biden, Henry Kissinger, and Gen David Petraeus, retired, among many. For those interested in further study, Harvard’s Belfer Center offers a website where readers can identify other cases for study as well as details on methodology.7 A worthy read. 


Col Nicholas R. Marsella, USA, Retired


1. See Ian Bremmer, The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), as an example. Bremmer theorized [simplistically stated] a link between stability and openness in which, for example, an authoritarian state may become unstable as it achieves more openness towards a more open and democratic state.

2. Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, p. xiv.

3. Graham Allison, “Obama and Xi Must Think Broadly to Avoid a Classic Trap,” New York Times, 6 June 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/opinion/obama-and-xi-must-think-broadly-to-avoid-a-classic-trap.html.

4. LTG H. R. McMaster, “Strategy, Policy, and History” (remarks, Foreign Policy Initiative, Washington, DC, 30 November 2016), http://foreignpolicyi.org/2016forum/mcmaster.

5. Colin Gray, Executive Summary, Thucydides Was Right: Defining the Future Threat (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2015), http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/files/1256-summary.pdf.

6. David Gompert, Hans Binnendijk, and Bonny Lin, Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR768.html.

7. Harvard Belfer Center, Thucydides’s Trap Project (website), accessed 26 December 2017, https://www.belfercenter.org/thucydides-trap/overview-thucydides-trap.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."