Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?

A Conversation with Graham Allison

Professor at the JFK School of Government at Harvard

How can the U.S. and China avoid war? Imagination, Harvard scholar says at Duke

If the U.S. and China are to avoid going to war with each other in the coming decades, “it’s going to require a lot more imagination than we see in the current strategic community” in this country, one of the world’s top political scientists told an audience at Duke University on Wednesday.

Both countries also have internal governance problems that can knock them off track and increase risks, said Graham Allison, a 77-year-old Harvard professor whose work includes a renowned study of the Cuban Missile Crisis and a new book on the security issues China’s rise creates.

“I’m too red-blooded American to ever sell the U.S. short,” Allison said after the moderator of his lunchtime talk, Duke political science professor Peter Feaver, asked whether China has the stronger hand to play. “But I’d say for the first time, for the first period in my life, I have less certainty than that, about our current situation, than before. And this is mostly about our ability to govern ourselves.”

By contrast, conversations with former students from China have Allison thinking that that country’s leaders, from President Xi Jinping on down, have the imagination it’ll take to navigate its many political, environment and economic problems.

Allison’s appearance at Duke was essentially part of a speaking tour to promote his latest book, “Destined for War,” which compares the U.S.-China relationship to others in history that have seen an established world power have to cope with the rise of a new one.

The scholar has published a shorter version of the book’s central argument in The Atlantic, noting that he and his collaborators have looked at the history of 16 such rivalries, and found that war between the contending powers is the most common outcome.

The major exceptions include the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, which sparked many proxy conflicts but never resulted in all-out battle between the main protagonists’ armies.

Another was the nascent conflict between the U.S. and Great Britain that continued into the early 20th century, with one British prime minister voicing regret in the late 1800s that his predecessors hadn’t intervened in the American Civil War to secure a break-up of the U.S. and “reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions.”

Wednesday at Duke, Allison said there isn’t a “single, dominant” trigger for conflict between established and rising powers. But he frets about their “vulnerability to third-party actions,” with the U.S. and China for example the risk that North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons could become a flashpoint.

He was pessimistic about that, seeing the possibility that in a year’s time the U.S. will either have acquiesed to North Korea’s arsenal or attacked it.

That drew a challenge from Duke political science Ph.D. student So Jin Lee, a South Korean who asked whether “there is nothing in between that’s possible.”

Her query prompted Allison to harken back to his best-known work, the 1971 book “Essence of Decision” that put the Kennedy administration’s deliberations during the Cuban Missile Crisis under the microscope.

The initial choice for then-President John F. Kennedy seemed to be attacking Cuba or accepting the Soviet Union’s placement of nuclear missiles there. An immediate nuclear war seemed the likely outcome of an attack, and a much-increased risk of a future one if the Soviets had reacted to acquiescence by pressing their military advantages in Europe, Allison said.

But Kennedy “said, ‘Thanks, I don’t like these options,’” Allison said, paraphrasing in the broadest sense. “Only then did he become really inventive.”

History records that the ensuing military and diplomatic moves included a public naval blockade of Cuba and a private trade for the removal of the Soviets’ Cuban missile bases and U.S. ones in Turkey.

Allison praised Duke for developing a strong program to train students to think about the “grand strategy” embedded in foreign policy, and encouraged students to take the time to analyze, contemplate and understand the basics of a dilemma.

“In Washington today, you have to describe the solution in the same sentence you describe the problem,” he said. “I’d say that’s one of the problems.”