Disappointing take on China vs US

Graham Allison’s “Destined for War” is an accessible book about one of the most important topics in current international affairs – the relationship between the U.S. and China. However, I was actually a bit disappointed with the amount of new content and ideas in the book.

The titular idea of a “Thucydides Trap” – where the rise of a new power and the relative decline of the ruling power creates so much stress in the inter-state system that war is likely to break out – was clearly put forth in Allison’s original 2015 article in The Atlantic. The idea is so simple that it is immediately compelling. But it is not really developed as a proper hypothesis or theory of international relations. In comparison, I though that Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” did a much better and more convincing job at expanding upon the author’s central thesis. As a book that deals with a similar topic – but in a more ambitious attempt to generalize and specify the key variables of why wars between major powers occur, I can recommend Dave Copeland’s “Origins of Major War”.

However, taken as a more popular take on the topic, Allison’s book does have some goodies. He draws interesting parallels between the U.S. during the Teddy Roosevelt years and what China seeks to achieve today. However, I wish Chinese history had been explored in much further detail. In places, I almost had the impression (due to the numerous direct quotations) that the author had read material by Lee Kuan Yew, Henry Kissinger and a few others and called it a day.

That is probably very unfair of me, but I was surprised at how little new historical analysis there was in this book. In other places, where I was better able to judge critically, I found outright issues with the argumentation. For instance, Germany is seen as the principal “rising power” that Britain feared in the prelude to WW1. However, the massively impressive The Sleepwalkers” by Cristopher Clark debunks exactly this thesis. Instead, it was Russia that was seen as the British Empire’s main challenger and the system’s rising power. The entente with Russia and France was a way for Britain to ensure that it would not be the target of Russian aggression and imperial rivalry (and these relations were getting very strained by 1914).

Now, Allison himself writes that – of course – each case of the Thucydides Trap is more complicated “than that” – because “it always is”. So I might be nit-picking. Nevertheless, the Britain-Germany case is showcased as a prime example of the Thucydides Trap and yet Allison himself mentions that Britain saw Germany as the rising power, while Germany feared Russia as the rising power instead (?) Would it not be logical to assume that Russia indeed was perceived as the system’s rising power in Europe? Or is it more complicated than that – and hence we need a slightly more elaborate model (a la Copeland) to properly explain when major wars occur and when they don’t.

In summary, I would say that the 2015 article in The Atlantic spurred my own imagination about the Thucydides Trap. By the time I read this book, I may have thought about the issue a lot and hence I now feel disappointed. But even with that assumption, I would have been interested in more original insight as to Chinese history and current strategic thinking, because there are so many books about European major wars and so few (that I have read or been recommended) about the vast history of Asia. The scenarios about how a conflict between the US and China could escalate contain interesting bits of “what-ifs” but are also a bit bare-bones.

All in all, it’s a very accessible and easy to read book. It’s just not a great book within either international relations or history, in my humble opinion. And I simply expected more, since the author’s original idea was at least 3 years old by the time of publication.

Destined for War: can America and China escape Thucydides’ Trap? By Graham Allison (2017), Scribe UK; 384 pages