Destined for War

Destined for War

Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Graham Allison

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2017, 384 pages

Book Review published on: August 18, 2017

Graham Allison tells his readers early on, “This is not a book about China.” While China figures prominently in Destined for War, there’s much more going on in this volume: the relationship between major powers, the causes of war, and the use of history to inform understanding and policy. The breadth of these themes and the skill with which Allison weaves them together mark this book as a must read to contribute to an understanding of the contemporary operational environment.

Allison, perhaps best known for Essence of Decision, a study of decision making during the Cuban Missile Crisis, argues that the dynamic between Athens (a rising power) and Sparta (an established power) that led to the Peloponnesian War “provides the best lens available for illuminating relations between China and the U.S. today.” This “Thucydides Trap,” however, is not inevitable, and there are actions both sides can take to avoid war. Key to war avoidance is an understanding of the underlying structural factors—“conditions in which otherwise manageable events can escalate with unforeseen severity and produce unimaginable costs”—that define the relationship.

Destined for War begins with an account of the rise of contemporary China and then turns to history for potential approaches to explain the relationship between Beijing and Washington. For those whose knowledge of the Peloponnesian War is a bit rusty, Allison offers a precis of Thucydides’s account. The heart of the book draws on the Thucydides Trap Project at Harvard, specifically the database of sixteen cases of a rising power bumping up against a dominant state. Five cases from the early 1500s to the mid-1940s in which conflict resulted describe this phenomenon. Detailed chapters about Britain and Germany in the lead-up to World War I (“the closest analogue to the current standoff”), and the United States and Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (“imagine China were just like us”) combine to offer what Allison calls “applied history” that informs analysis, perspective, solutions, and assessment of possible consequences of policy. In drawing conclusions about China and the United States, based on historical analysis and taking into consideration strategic and cultural factors–for example, China plays weiji (go) while the United States plays chess–Allison concludes that the two sides are not destined for war. He derives “12 clues to peace” from the analysis of the Thucydides Trap cases. These clues provide guidelines for avoiding conflict, notwithstanding potential flashpoints like the East China Sea that might trigger an armed clash.

Students and practitioners in the security community will find Destined for War an essential addition to the literature that purports to make sense of the complex contemporary security environment. Allison has done a service by reminding us of the value of a historical perspective—not simply the embrace of specific historical analogies—in grappling with security dilemmas like the relationship between the United States and China and in not becoming ensnared in Thucydides’s Trap.

Book Review written by: Mark Wilcox, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas