Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Tucydides's Trap?

AuthorDuffield, Blake
PositionBook review

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017. vi + 384 pages. Hardcover, $28.00.

Is a war brewing between the United States and China? In the current global climate could an ultimate military showdown between these two nations be considered anything, if not inevitable? What lessons, if any, can the study of history provide that might guide diplomats as they navigate the troubled waters of economic competition, geopolitical rivalry, and ideological divergence? These and other critical questions underlay Graham Allison's fascinating study, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? Allison's answers to these inquiries are as poignant as they are chilling: "On the historical record," he writes, "war [between the United States and China] is more likely than not." (xvii). Allison does, however, note that there is a silver-lining--"war," he says, "is not inevitable. History shows that major ruling powers can manage relations with rivals" (xvii). What remains to be seen, though, is if American leaders are willing to apply the lessons of history.

Allison's premise hinges on the conclusions of the ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, and his seminal text, the History of the Peloponnesian War. Therein, Thucydides explains that the structural cause of conflict between the two combatants of his study, Athens and Sparta, was the growing power of the bourgeoning city-state of Athens, which created fear in the established Greek hegemon, Sparta. This so-called Thucydides Trap, Allison argues, is not merely ancient history; instead, Allison claims to have identified no less than sixteen historical parallels to have taken place in the last five-hundred years, wherein war has occurred, or at the very least been threatened, between an emerging challenger state and an established, dominant power. The grave implication for modern-day China and the United States is that in no less than twelve of these cases war was the eventual outcome. Grimly, Allison posits that unless American leaders learn from history, they too may very well succumb to Thucydides's Trap.

Of these historical parallels examined by Allison, he claims none is so pertinent to the contemporary struggle between the U.S. and China as that of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany and Britain, who spiraled into World War in the summer of 1914. In his overview of the...

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