[Graham Allison, Destined for War. Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boston, 2017. 364 pages]


REVIEW / Emili J. Blasco [Spanish version]

This is what has been called the Thucydides Trap: the dilemma facing a hegemonic power and a rising one that threatens that hegemony. Is war inevitable? When Thucydides recounted the Peloponnesian War, he wrote about the inevitability for the dominant Sparta and the emerging Athens to think of armed confrontation as a means of settling the conflict.

The fact that these two Greek polis necessarily thought about war –and finally they waged it–, does not mean that they did not have other options. History has shown that there are other alternatives: when Wilhemine Germany threatened to overcome Britain's naval force, the attempt of sorpasso (accompanied by several circumstances) led to the First World War, but when Portugal was overtaken by Spain in overseas possessions in the sixteenth century, or when the United States replaced Britain as the world's leading power in the late nineteenth century the power transfer was peaceful.

Destined for War. Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?, by Graham Allison, is a call to Washington and Beijing to do everything possible to avoid falling into the trap described by the Greek historian. In this book, the founding dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government reviews several historical precedents. Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, of which Allison is director, has researched on them in a program called precisely Thucydides's Trap.

This concept is defined by Allison as "the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one. In such condition, not just extraordinary, unexpected events, but even ordinary flashpoints of foreign affairs, can trigger large-scale conflict."

The structural stress is produced by the clash of two deep sensibilities: the rising power syndrome ("a rising state's enhanced sense of itself, its interests, and its entitlement to recognition and respect"), and its mirror image, the ruling power syndrome ("the established power exhibiting an enlarged sense of fear and insecurity as it faces intimations of decline").

Along with those syndroms, the two rival powers also experience a 'secutity dilemma': "A rising power may discount a ruling state's fear and insecurity because it 'knows' itself to be well-meaning. Meanwhile, its opponent misunderstands even positive initiatives as overly demanding, or even threatening."

The use of military force

Allison starts from the fact that China is already putting itself on par with the United States as a world power. It has done so in terms of the volume of its economy (China has already overtaken the U.S. in Purchasing Power Parity) and with regard to some aspects of military force (a report by Rand Corporation predicted that in 2017 China would have an "advantage" or "approximate parity" in 6 of the 9 areas of conventional capability). The author's assumption is that China will soon be able to wrest from the United States the scepter of main superpower. In this situation, how will both countries react?

In the case of China, its thousand-year perspective will probably lead to an attitude of patience, provided there is at least some small progress in its purpose of increasing its global weight. Since 1949 China has only resorted to force in three of 33 territorial disputes. In those cases, the Chinese leaders waged the war –they were limited wars, conceived as a warning to their opponents– even though the enemy was equal or greater, urged by a situation of domestic unrest.

For Allison, "As long as developments in the South China Sea are generally moving in China's favor, it appears unlikely to use military force. But if trends in the correlation of forces should shift against it, particularly at a moment of domestic political instability, China would initiate a limited military conflict, even against a larger, more powerful state like the US."

For its part, the United States can choose several strategies, according to Allison: accommodate to the new reality, undermine Chinese power (commercial war, fostering separatism of the provinces), negotiate a long peace, and redefine the relationship. The author does not give firm advice, but seems to suggest that Washington should move between the last two options.

He recalls how Britain understood that it could not compete with the United States in the Western Hemisphere, and how from there a collaboration between the two countries grew, as manifested in the First and Second World War. This should happen by accepting that the South China Sea is an area of Chinese influence. The United States should admit this, not out of mere condescension, but because it proceeds to a real clarification of its vital interests.

Despite its positive tone, Destined for War is one of the essays by the American establishment where the end of the American era and the passing the baton to China are most openly announced (it does not seem to glimpse a multipolar or bipolar world, but rather a primacy of the Asian country). It is also one of those assays that puts less accent –clearly less than it should– on the remaining strengths of the U.S. and the problems that can undermine the coronation of China.

More blog entries

Publicador de contenidos

Carrera por los recursos espaciales: de la minería al control de rutas

▲ proposal of lunar base for obtaining helium, taken from [Christopher Barnatt]. GLOBAL AFFAIRS JOURNAL / Emili J. Blasco [8-page document.... ReadmoreAboutRace for space resources: from mining to route control "

Conexión eléctrica entre Ceuta y la Península: un asunto de seguridad energética y medioambiental

The routeing of a submarine cable for power transmission to Spain's place has been stalled since 2016 The project of electrical interconnection between Ceuta and the Peninsula, of the network Eléctrica... ReadmoreAboutElectrical interconnection between Ceuta and the Peninsula: a matter of energy and environmental security "

Ecuador desaprovecha su salida de la OPEP y pierde producción petrolera

The country left the cartel in order to expand its pumping, but the Covid-19 crisis has cut extraction volumes by 10.8%. Construction of a variant of the pipeline that crosses the... ReadmoreAboutEcuador misses out on OPEC exit and loses oil production "

Argentina ve en Vaca Muerta una tabla de salvación, pero falta más capital para su desarrollo

The hydrocarbon field is the central axis of the Gas 2020-2023 Plan of President Alberto Fernández, which subsidizes part of the investment Activity of YPF, Argentina's state-owned oil and gas... ReadmoreAboutArgentina sees Vaca Muerta as a lifeline, but more capital is needed for its development "

El gas natural licuado cambia el juego en el hemisferio americano

U.S. LNG sales to its neighbors and exports from Latin American and Caribbean countries to Europe and Asia open new perspectives Not to depend on gas pipelines, but to be able to buy or sell... ReadmoreAboutLiquefied natural gas is a game changer in the American hemisphere "

Could Spain partner up with Morocco in the field of solar energy?

The two countries are greatly exposed to solar radiation and they already share electricity interconnectors Spain was an early developer of solar energy, but it didn't keep the pace with the... ReadmoreAboutCould Spain partner up with Morocco in the field of solar energy? "

Surinam sigue a Guyana en el ‘milagro’ petrolero

The finding of a "significant" amount of oil in off-shore wells places the former Dutch colony in the footsteps of neighboring Guyana. The intuition has proved to be right and the... ReadmoreAboutSuriname follows Guyana in the oil 'miracle' "

Climate Refugees will raise, nations should find the way for shelter them

▲ Flood rescue in the Afghan village of Jalalabad, in 2010 [NATO]. ESSAY / Alejandro J. Alfonso In December of 2019, Madrid hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP25,... ReadmoreAboutClimate Refugees will raise, nations should find the way for shelter them "

La nueva guerra de precios petroleros

March and April 2020 will be remembered in the oil industry as the months in which the perfect storm occurred: a drop of more than 20% in global demand at the same time that the oil industry... ReadmoreAboutThe new oil price war "

Was the Madrid COP25 useful?

The UN Conference did little to increase international commitment to climate change action, but did at least boost the assertiveness of the EU In recent years, the temperature of the Earth has... ReadmoreAboutWas the Madrid COP25 useful? "

La minería ilegal, la otra destrucción de la Amazonía

Gold mining and oil transport pollute Amazonian rivers It is not only the fires that are negatively affecting the Amazon, which is undergoing an accelerated reduction of... ReadmoreAboutIllegal mining, the other destruction of the Amazon "

Centroamérica aprovecha sus volcanes para generación eléctrica

Geothermal energy already accounts for 7.5% of the Central American electricity mix, with installed capacity still far below the estimated potential. Volcanic activity and tectonic movement... ReadmoreAboutCentral America harnesses its volcanoes for power generation "

Jordan River Basin: Hydropolitics as an arena for regional cooperation

▲Satellite imagery of the Jordan River [NASA]. ANALYSIS / Marina Díaz Escudero Water is an essential natural resource, not only for individual survival on Earth, but also for nation-states... Read moreAboutJordan River Basin: Hydropolitics as an arena for regional cooperation "

Qué hará Bolivia con su gas natural cuando Brasil y Argentina ya no lo necesiten

The upcoming gas self-sufficiency of its two major gas-buying neighbors forces the Bolivian government to seek alternative markets Yacimientos Pretrolíferos Fiscales gas plant in... ReadmoreAboutWhat Bolivia will do with its natural gas when Brazil and Argentina no longer need it "

Blood diamonds keep going through Antwerp

The Belgian city, the world's capital of diamonds, has applied more regulations, sanctions and scrutiny on the industry, but still there are some bad practices ▲ The diamond industry has... ReadmoreAboutBlood diamonds keep going through Antwerp "

Cumbre del Clima 2018, un paso hacia adelante

The meeting COP24 made progress in regulating the Paris agreement , but "carbon markets" remained blocked. Mobilizations in favor of governments taking more drastic measures... ReadmoreAboutClimate Summit 2018, a step forward "

La nueva Guyana petrolera y su proyección internacional

One of the poorest countries in the Americas may become the world's largest oil producer per capita, disrupting the relationship with its neighbors. The promising oil discoveries... ReadmoreAboutThe new oil Guyana and its international projection "

Acuífero Guaraní: mejor que otros, pero pervivencia no asegurada

Geopolitical misgivings about perceived foreign interests should not distract beneficiary countries from implementing sustainable use. The Guarani Aquifer has given rise to a... ReadmoreAboutAquifer Guarani: better than others, but survival not assured "

El 'boom' de la quinoa

Global interest in this fashionable grain has brought additional income to Andean communities. The localization of quinoa production, especially in Peru and Bolivia (together they account for... ReadmoreAboutThe quinoa boom "

Impulso a la conexión gasística de los países de la Iniciativa de los Tres Mares

Poland-Germany struggle for influence in the European region between the Baltic, the Adriatic and the Black Sea The latest summit of the Three Seas Initiative (TMI) was attended by the... ReadmoreAboutBoosting the gas connection of the Three Seas Initiative countries "