What would Thucydides make of the tensions between the US and China today? It is more than an academic question. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian general and historian wrote that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”. As the American political scientist Graham Allison first noted in 2012, throughout history when an emerging power has threatened to displace an existing great power this has more often than not led to war, even when neither side sought it. Allison led a research project into “Thucydides’s Trap” at Harvard University that investigated 16 such cases over the previous five centuries, starting with the rise of Spain challenging Portugal in the late-15th century Atlantic. Twelve of these cases led to war.
Speaking to me from Boston over video link, Harvard’s Douglas Dillon Professor of Government gives an ominous answer to the question of current tensions. He says that Thucydides “would not be surprised by any of the behaviours” involved in the US-China relationship today. “Both parties are right on script, almost as if they were competing to show which could better exemplify that classic role of the ruling power and the rising power, and they are accelerating towards what would be the greatest collision of all times. And if you remember in my book, I forecast ‘expect things to get worse, before they get worse’.” The book in question is Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (2017), which grew out of the Harvard project.
Allison studied under Henry Kissinger as a doctoral student and in 1971 published Essence of Decision, which challenged prevailing “rational actor” theories of international relations and is widely considered the definitive study of the Cuban missile crisis. He has advised successive US administrations, and as Pentagon planning chief in the mid-1990s shaped America’s post-Cold War recalibration under Bill Clinton. But even by the standards of his first book, Destined for War has had an enormous impact – studied closely on both sides of the Pacific, it is probably the most influential work on international relations of our time. Allison recalls how, at the Davos summit in January this year, a Chinese delegate approached him and asked whether he might be to blame for a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of superpower rivalry. To which came the dry reply: “No, blame Thucydides.”
I start our discussion by playing devil’s advocate. China’s economy has struggled in the past year and some economists now even question whether it will ever overtake the US in terms of GDP. Does Thucydides’s Trap really still apply? “I think this is the predictable pattern that Thucydides described,” he replies. China’s economy is already larger than America’s as measured by purchasing power; it has displaced the US as the world’s top trading partner; it is the number one supplier of critical materials. “China is a meteoric rising power and the US, as a colossal ruling power, is not about to give up its place atop every pecking order comfortably. And if Americans awaken to it, they’ll be shocked. And they’ll react in the way that Thucydides wrote about.”
We are talking against the backdrop of a tinderbox world. Earlier this year a Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down over US territorial waters. On 14 March a Russian fighter jet forced down an American drone over the Black Sea. And a memo leaked in January this year from General Mike Minihan, the head of US Air Mobility Command, envisioned war between America and China over Taiwan within two years (“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025”). Minihan’s rationale is that presidential elections in both the US and Taiwan in 2024 will provide Xi Jinping, recently confirmed in a third term as China’s president, with a window for action in the subsequent year.
I ask Allison about these upcoming votes. When discussing the US election, he invokes his “four Ps” of how a rising power impacts on a ruling power in Thucydides’s Trap. He says all four dimensions are present in today’s US. There are shifts in power (“I used to be able to demand something or push a button, but it doesn’t happen any more”), perception (“I used to look down at you because you were smaller than I was and now I’m looking up or eye-to-eye”), psychology (“I’m accustomed to me being number one and not you, you’re threatening my identity”) and politics (“never let a serious [political] opponent get to your right on an issue of national security”). Allison observes that the Republican presidential platform next year may well advocate formal recognition of Taiwan, as one of the prospective candidates – former secretary of state Mike Pompeo – already does. “American politics is driving towards something that could become a provocation that China could not avoid,” Allison says. On Taiwan’s election, he notes that President Tsai Ing-wen cannot run again and that Lai Ching-te, the candidate of her Democratic Progressive Party, “privately is very keen on becoming an independent country [and he] is not as circumspect as Tsai”.
A particularly striking applied historical example of Thucydides’s Trap is the build-up to the First World War, in which the rise of Germany after unification in 1871 destabilised Europe’s order to the point where it produced catastrophic conflict in 1914. On this parallel I have two questions for Allison.
The first starts from the observation that the spark that began that war flew in Sarajevo, far from where the majority of the conflict played out. Might a US-China conflict be similar? Might the Sarajevo of our times be not Taipei but Brasilia, or Kinshasa, or Islamabad, the capitals of states where the two powers are in a contest for influence? “I was talking to somebody in Washington about that this morning,” Allison replies. “People in Washington have awakened to a Chinese-brokered [diplomatic] recognition [between] Saudi Arabia and Iran. [They think]: ‘Well, that’s inconceivable. Iran is the number one threat to Saudi. So how, how did this happen?’ And then you look around and you say: ‘Wait a minute. The Chinese brokered this deal. The Chinese! They’re on the other side of the world. What do they have to do with these two countries? And where did this come from?’ My summary of this is, ‘Game On, everywhere.’” This could indeed mean that conflict is triggered in an arena other than the Pacific, given China’s growing role in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East: “This heats up the whole atmosphere and feeds part of the growing hostility and even demonisation of China in Washington, in the politics, as Thucydides would have told us.”
The second question concerns blocs: Europe’s pre-1914 alliance system helped to propel the continent to war in 1914. We are speaking in mid-March, shortly after a major US-UK-Australia (Aukus) summit in San Diego and shortly before a summit between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Is the world entering a new era of big-bloc politics? Here, Allison sees fewer resemblances to conditions before the First World War. The future, he says, will be more multipolar than either unipolar or bipolar. “It’s going to be a much messier world, with many, many actors not determined by any [superpower]’s commands.”
Again he cites Saudi Arabia – a supposed American ally that is increasingly following its own course. According to US intelligence, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist. But as Allison puts it, the Saudi response to US censure over the killing amounted to: “Screw you. You’re trying to ostracise me, you need me as much as I need you.” Allison sees the Saudi-Iran rapprochement as part of this message to the US: “You will have a lot of independent players not asking for permission, not apologising, just pursuing their interests. I think that will be the game.”
[See also: What is the Macron Doctrine?]
This messier world will be a more dangerous one. I recall Allison’s lectures at Harvard on the Cuban missile crisis and ask him whether those lessons have been retained in major capitals. “About half and half,” he replies. On the one hand, he argues, Vladimir Putin understands well that nuclear war with Nato would mean the end of everything. But on the other, the chances of catastrophic misunderstandings or miscalculations are rising. “In the case of China, as far as I can see, [bilateral communication] is all shut down after the antics over the balloon. If you believe what we learned in the Cold War – which I think is absolutely right – that communication at many levels, some of them private, to reduce risk is important, [then] the absence of these is dangerous.”
Could China stop Putin from using nuclear weapons? Allison answers with a further reference to the Cuban missile crisis: “Remember that JFK said that nuclear powers must avoid confrontations that force an adversary to choose between humiliating retreat and nuclear war.” Beijing can keep Putin from pressing that button for as long as the Russian president does not face comprehensive humiliation, he argues. Xi has strong incentives to avoid such an escalation, given Beijing’s concern about Asian states such as South Korea pursuing their own nuclear weapons. Yet here, Allison adds: “If Putin has to choose between losing everything and nukes, I’m betting he chooses the latter. I’m betting that he strikes Ukraine with a tactical nuclear weapon.”
The conversation leaves me with the impression of a world careening towards yet greater chaos and conflict, blind to the wider forces of history. “I think too often, we imagine that we’re writing on a blank slate, that we can just decide what we want to do,” says Allison. How much should we feel beholden to historical patterns such as Thucydides’s Trap? He replies that structural realities determine about 80 per cent of events. Many things really are externally determined. “I might like to run a marathon in Boston,” the 83-year-old professor says. “But in this life it ain’t gonna happen, given my age.” But, I note, that leaves 20 per cent of events that can be shaped. “Exactly,” comes the reply. “There are two mistakes here. One is to be arrogant: ‘I’m actually writing on a blank slate.’ The other one is to become fatalistic.” I quote a line by Otto von Bismarck, the unifier and first chancellor of the German empire: “The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to his coat-tails as he marches past.” Allison responds to it immediately: “That’s a great reminder of how, if you fail to take hold of the coat-tails, you’re not going to get where you are going.”
Then Graham Allison switches metaphors. “Think about a river that you are rowing in. You can try to row upstream, but only with a lot more exertion. Or you can declare to the river that it should stop, but that’s not going to do much good. Or maybe you can dam the river, or dam part of it, or maybe you can cut a little tributary.” In other words: though we must be humble before the forces of history, we must recognise where we still have agency. “If the river is big enough and flowing hard enough, there’s going to be water going somewhere. But it’s not necessarily determined that it stays in exactly the channel that it’s in.” Thucydides would doubtless approve.