Destined For War (or Peace): Graham Allison on America, China and the Thucydides Trap
A rising China is locked in a power struggle with a hegemonic United States — but will they go to war?
Graham Allison tackles this divisive question in Destined for War by examining the US-China dynamic through the lens of ancient Greek historian Thucydides. Allison’s premise is clear: that ‘China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war — unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it.’ This article explores Allison’s arguments and his interpretation of Thucydides’ trap. Subsequently, it reveals several shortcomings in Allison’s thesis. We conclude that limitations in Allison’s logic detract from the credibility of his thesis and reduce the applicability of Thucydides’ trap to contemporary geopolitics.
“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”
In the 5th Century BC, Athens and Sparta clashed in the Peloponnesian War. The conflict was the earliest case of the Thucydides’ trap: a situation where ‘a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, [and] the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception’. Thucydides considered the war to be ‘inevitable’ — not literally, but he considered war to be the most likely outcome whenever a rising power encounters a ruling power.
In Destined for War, Graham Allison similarly argues that in the most salient geopolitical contest of our time, between the US (the ruling power) and China (the rising power), war is ‘more likely than not’. Looking back across history, Allison argues that the US and China are spiralling into Thucydides’ trap. Allison identifies sixteen instances where a rising power has confronted an established power, from the ancient Athenians and Sparta to 20th century Germany and Britain. Crucially, Allison highlights that twelve of these instances resulted in war.
Allison commences by challenging the widely held assumption that China is still yet to match, let alone overtake, the US on various measures of power. He maps out China’s rapid development as a global superpower, highlighting the pace with which it is gaining on the US in key indicators. Measured by Purchasing Power Parity, Allison contends that China’s economy is already larger than America’s. He also indicates that China may well have surpassed America in some measures of military strength, owing to China’s advantage in six of nine areas of conventional military capability. Quoting Lee Kuan Yew, Allison firmly states China’s capacity to become ‘the biggest player in the history of the world’.
In Part Two, Allison examines the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War and WWI. He then begins Part Three by drawing parallels between these cases and the ‘Gathering Storm’ between the US and China. He explores the American and Chinese pyches, from Theodore Roosevelt’s aspiration to make the 20th Century the ‘American century’ to President Xi Jinping’s bold intentions for China today. Here, Allison sets up the collision — between an American unwillingness to acquiesce quietly to an ever more assertive China, and a Chinese ambition ‘to be rich, to be powerful and to be respected’. He rounds out his argument with a discussion on the potential ‘clash of civilizations’, canvassing past, present and future differences between American and Chinese values, cultures and peoples. He discusses differences in the two countries’ strategic orientation, which frames the subsequent discussion on potential paths to war.
Allison elucidates the conditions that could lead to a military escalation between the US and China. Detailing five hypothetical scenarios — from a Taiwanese push for independence to a North Korean collapse — Allison maps out potential avenues to a US-China military conflict. He touches on ‘sparks, background conditions and accelerants’, from accidents to cyber-attacks, that could increase the chances of conflict. Finally, he offers twelve ‘clues for peace’ that describe the modern factors working against Thucydides’ trap. In summary, Allison offers historic parallels and an insightful lens by which to analyse the US-China relationship. However, closer examination reveals a series of limitations in his argument.
Most notable is that Allison overstates some arguments and understate others without clear justification. In particular, Allison’s attempts to defend his argument are often counterproductive and weaken his central thesis. For instance, a central tenet of Allison’s assertion is that a US-China war is ‘more likely than not’. But when he considers how leaders should navigate these power politics in practice, Allison admits that ‘war is no longer an acceptable option’ given the constraints imposed by nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction. Rather than defending the credibility of his own thesis in light of this counterargument, Allison permits himself to hold contradictory views about the modern stakes of war and understates the influence of nuclear deterrence on preserving peace.
Indeed, one could make a strong case that nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction have played a role in reducing the likelihood of modern states succumbing to Thucydides’ trap. Consider the instances where the outcome of a rising power challenging a ruling power has not been war: two of the four instances occurred in the post-WWII era of nuclear weapons. In fact, these were the last two times a rising power encountered a ruling power. It would be rash to suggest that nuclear weapons have eliminated entirely the likelihood of war. Indeed, the ascendance of Donald Trump to the helm of the world’s nuclear powerhouse has sparked fear in some commentators that nuclear war may be possible. But deterrence theory suggests — and, oddly enough, Allison agrees — that nuclear weapons have raised the stakes of war to an all-time high and have reduced its likelihood to an all-time low. The unprecedented stakes of war in an era of nuclear deterrence suggest that the US and China are less likely than ever to fall into Thucydides’ trap.
Allison also inadequately accounts for any actions short of military conflict and the changing nature of warfare. He paints the outcome of US-China power politics as binary, suggesting that it will either result in war, or in no war. But Allison does not define war other than overt military conflict. This oversight raises the question of how Allison’s theory accounts for other forms of conflict, such as economic or cyber war. Specifically, what qualifies as a Thucydides’ trap between the US and China? If hot war between superpowers is no longer an option, what other state actions would qualify? Allison does discuss hypothetical scenarios in which the US and China engage in economic and cyber conflict, but he frames them as accelerants and precursors to overt military conflict rather than ‘war’ in their own right. This characterisation reveals a limitation in Allison’s thesis, as he leaves unaddressed the question of whether actions short of overt military conflict — were they to occur — would constitute Thucydides’ trap.
Allison also understates the unprecedented level of global economic interdependence and its role in reducing the chances of military conflict. In his ‘clues for peace’, Allison concedes that ‘thick economic interdependence raises the cost — and thus lowers the likelihood — of war’ and suggests that the deep US-China economic relationship has created a scenario analogous to ‘MAED: mutual assured economic destruction’. He touches on a crucial point — that there exists an extremely high opportunity cost to overt military conflict due to the deep links between the US and Chinese economies. But Allison does not explain how this notion interacts with his argument that the US and China are more likely to go to war than not.
This is not to say that economic reliance guarantees peace — it did not prevent the US and China from engaging in proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, nor did it stop the UK and Germany spiralling into WWI. But Allison does not adequately rebut the argument that the unprecedented level of economic interdependence between today’s rising and ruling power, let alone the unprecedented level of global economic interdependence, could reduce the chances of another Thucydides’ trap.
Allison also concedes that international institutions like the UN, IMF and World Bank may assist in preserving peace. Two of Allison’s twelve ‘clues for peace’ assign a role for international institutions in preventing conflict: he indicates (1) that ‘Higher Authorities can help resolve rivalry without war’, and (2) that ‘states can be embedded in larger economic, political and security institutions’. This liberalist argument seems legitimate, especially considering the last two entries in Allison’s Thucydides’ trap casefile both resulted in no war and both occurred after the establishment of the League of Nations, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions. Certainly, then, there is a case to be made that these institutions may have helped to maintain peace and might continue to do so.
Some argue that bodies including the UN are ‘toothless tigers’, more ineffectual than not: think China’s militarisation of the South China Sea or Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Others suggest America’s current anti-international rhetoric and actions are placing these international frameworks and institutions at risk. Nonetheless, international institutions continue to advocate for the maintenance of the global rules-based order. And while it is difficult to point to these institutions’ power and influence directly, their very existence can act as yet another inhibitor that slows potential conflict or systemic rupture. We do not suggest that international institutions are solely responsible for the maintenance of peace. However, in combination with the forces outlined above — the presence of nuclear weapons and the unprecedented level of economic interdependence — international institutions contribute in some way to preventing nations in the modern era from falling into Thucydides’ trap.
So, will the US and China go to war?
Allison thinks it is more likely than not. But the limitations in the logic of his argument — especially his propensity to prioritise certain competing, but equally legitimate, arguments — demonstrate that it is as compelling to argue that the US and China are less likely to succumb to Thucydides’ trap as it is to argue that they are more likely to do so. Allison subjectively weights some arguments more than others without a clear justification for doing so. There is much to be said for acknowledging counterarguments and potential limitations in one’s own thesis, but not to the extent that it threatens the integrity of the argument itself. Ultimately, while Allison employs a useful historical lens through which to analyse great power politics, his struggle to effectively address counterarguments speaks to the limitation of relying on the Thucydides trap as a tool to understand modern international relations.
by James Mohun and Ryan Hawkins
(Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer)