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


review / Emili J. Blasco [English version].

It is what has been called the Thucydides trap: the dilemma faced by a hegemonic power and a rising power that threatens that hegemony. Is war inevitable? When Thucydides narrated the Peloponnesian War, he wrote of the inevitability for dominant Sparta and rising Athens to think of armed confrontation as a means of settling the conflict.

That these two Greek polis necessarily thought of war, and eventually came to it, does not mean that they had no other options. History has shown that there are: when Wilhelmine Germany threatened to overtake Britain's naval strength, the attempted sorpasso (accompanied by various circumstances) led to World War I, but when Portugal was overtaken by Spain in overseas possessions in the 16th century, or when the United States replaced Britain as the world's leading power in the late 19th century, the handover was peaceful.

The call for Washington and Beijing to do all they can to avoid falling into the trap described by the Greek historian is made by Graham Allison in Destined for War. Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? The Dean founder of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government reviews in his book several historical precedents. The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, of which Allison is director, has done research on these precedents in a program called Thucydides's Trap.

This concept is defined by Allison as "the strong structural stress caused when an emerging power threatens to unseat a reigning power. In such a status, not only extraordinary or unexpected events, but even ordinary hotspots of tension in international affairs can trigger large-scale conflicts."

This structural stress is produced by the clash of two profound sensitivities: the emerging power syndrome ("the reinforced sense that an emerging state has of itself, its interests and its right to recognition and respect"), and its inverse image, the reigning power syndrome ("the established power exhibits a heightened sense of fear and insecurity as it faces signs of decline").

Alongside the syndromes both rival powers also experience a security dilemma: "a rising power may disregard the fear and insecurity of a leading state because it knows that it itself is well-intentioned. Meanwhile, its opponent misinterprets even positive initiatives, taking them as excessively demanding or even threatening".

Use of military force

Allison starts from the fact that China is already catching up with the US as a power. It has done so in terms of the volume of its Economics (China has already surpassed the U.S. in Purchasing Power Parity) and in relation to some aspects of military strength (a Rand Corporation report predicted that in 2017 China would have "advantage" or "rough parity" in 6 out of 9 areas of conventional capability. The author's assumption is that China will soon be in a position to wrest the scepter of major superpower from the United States. At this point, status, how will both countries react?

In the case of China, its millennial perspective will probably lead it to an attitude of patience, provided that there is some small progress in its purpose to increase its specific world weight. Since 1949 China has resorted to force in only three out of 33 territorial disputes. In those cases, China's leaders waged war - limited wars, conceived as notice to their opponents - despite the fact that the enemy was equal or greater, urged by a status of domestic unrest.

For Allison, "as long as events in the South China Sea generally move in China's favor, it seems unlikely that China will use military force. But if trends in the correlation of power were to turn against it, particularly at a time of domestic political instability, China would initiate a limited military conflict against an even larger and more powerful state such as the United States.

For its part, the United States can opt for several strategies, according to Allison: adapt to the new reality, undermine Chinese power (trade war, encourage provincial separatism), negotiate a lasting peace and redefine the relationship. The author does not give a firm committee , but seems to suggest that Washington should move between the last two options.

He recalls how Great Britain realized that it could not compete with the United States in the Western Hemisphere, and how this led to the creation of a partnership between the two countries, which became evident in the First and Second World Wars. This would have to be done by accepting that the South China Sea is a area of Chinese influence. And this is not out of mere condescension, but because the United States is proceeding with a real clarification of its vital interests.

Despite its positive tone, Destined for War is one of the essays of the American establishment that most openly announces the end of the American era and the passing of the baton to China (it does not seem to envision a multipolar or bipolar world, but rather the primacy of the Asian power). It is also one of those that places less emphasis - certainly less than it should - on the strengths of the United States and the problems that could undermine China's coronation.

Categories Global Affairs: North America Asia Security and defense World order, diplomacy and governance Book reviews