Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison

I’ve been on a China kick lately, and like Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, this book was recommended by Ray Dalio. Having finished it, I see why he suggested reading it.

Allison examines the way that Thucydides’ Trap has played out since the late 1400s between 16 different country pairs. The concept of Thucydides’ Trap is best explained with a quote from Thucydides himself:

“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war in evitable.“

Thucydides, Ancient Greek historian

This is the premise of the book: there has been, and will continue to be, a significant global impact from the 40-year-long Chinese rise as a country encroaching upon the established world power of the United States of America.

I enjoyed Allison‘s writing style, as it is concise when it needed to be but packs a punch when an important point needs to be made. He is able to transition between different important elements including financial and economic details, military strategies, and leadership styles. His descriptions of President Trump in the USA and President Xi Jinping in China are excellent.

There are several key quotes in this book, and my top three are:

In the old concept, balance of power meant largely military power. In today’s terms, it is a combination of economic and military, and I think the economic outweighs the military.

Lee Kuan Yew, (page 20)

The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.

Winston Churchill, (page 28)

What America needs most at this moment is not a new “China strategy” — or what passes for strategy in Washington these days — but instead a serious pause for reflection. … There is no “solution” for the dramatic resurgence of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.4 billion people. It is a condition, a chronic condition that must be managed over a generation.

Graham Allison, (pages 214-215)

I especially enjoyed Allison‘s description of the Chinese mindset, and how that stems from the history of the Chinese civilization. The Chinese think long-term, as opposed to the commonly short-term thinking of the USA. China as a civilization has been around for 5,000 years. It makes sense that the Chinese people would think long-term. By contrast, the USA has only been around for almost 250 years. We have a great history, but not a long history.

Allison examines several case studies from the historical examples of Thucydides’ Trap. He draws similarities between events and nations of the past and the current events happening between China and the USA.

One example is the rising power of the USA in the early 20th century as it sought to take away global economic dominance and naval supremacy in the Western Hemisphere from the United Kingdom. These efforts were largely initiated by Theodore Roosevelt. This did not result in war.

Another example goes back to the early 1500s as the rising power of the Hapsburgs came up against the ruling power of France. They were in competition over land power in western Europe. This led to war between the groups.

Allison describes how the Chinese empire is on a collision course with the USA. He describes Xi Jinping‘s mindset, and how it is similar to Donald Trump‘s mindset. Often, in the past, this similarity of mindset between competing country leaders leads to conflict. I was fascinated to learn of Xi Jinping‘s childhood, upbringing, and early political life.

I was reminded several times of God’s control over political authorities, and what Paul writes in Romans chapter 13:

“1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

Rom. 13:1-5 NIV

There are many points that could be made about China, and especially about their leadership in the form of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Allison does a good job of not casting a moral judgment, as this clearly was not the purpose of his book.

However, the authoritarian style of government in China undoubtedly suppresses God-given human rights. The same government that has pulled over 500 million people out of poverty has also removed their privacy, implemented social shaming for behaviors not aligned with the CCP, and detained and relocated religious minorities into reeducation camps.

Overall, this book is well worth the read, and I’m glad I read it. It has prompted me to learn more about Chinese history, but especially the incredible surge in growth over the last 40 years. I plan to read and write more on China in the future.

Allison’s book is available here:

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