The prodigious rise of China in the last few decades has stirred intense debates about the scale of America’s relative decline and the risk of a catastrophic hegemonic war between Beijing and Washington. Graham Allison and Richard McGregor’s recent studies offer superb analyses of the powerful forces underpinning those dynamics and of the latter’s threatening implications for international stability.
Destined for War is a brilliant exercise in “applied history,” a method of enquiry that seeks to “illuminate current predicaments and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues.” The starting point of the book is the “Thucydides trap,” named after the Athenian general whose study of the Peloponnesian war (fifth century B.C.) constitutes a foundational bedrock of the disciplines of history and international relations. According to Allison, the most fundamental lesson to draw from Thucydides is that beyond the immediate sparks that triggered the famous conflict between Athens and Sparta, the key problem was “the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one.” As Athens bridged the gap with its rival, the two city-states and their respective allies found themselves on a seemingly unstoppable path to collision. Some of their leaders made diplomatic gestures while trying to reason with radical domestic forces on both sides. But these initiatives were defeated by the deadly combination of three primary conflict drivers: “interests, fear, and honor.” The result was a ruinous war that terminated the golden age of the Greek civilization. Allison’s book then explores sixteen power transitions that unfolded in the last five centuries and argues that the same structural rifts between declining and aspiring hegemons emerged again and again. In twelve cases, those tensions triggered major military encounters. The case of Britain and Germany before World War I receives particularly close attention. However, building on the four transitions that occurred peacefully, Allison explains how a combination of contextual factors (economic interdependence, cultural affinities, etc.) and enlightened leadership can help reduce “transitional frictions” and steer away from disaster. The other half of the book applies this analytical framework to the U.S.-China competition, contending that war is more likely than we think, but not inevitable. The current policy options, ranging from accommodation to aggressive moves, are described objectively. Allison’s recommendations (differentiating vital interests from secondary ones, fixing problems at home, etc.) rightly call for drastic course corrections in U.S. grand strategy. Unfortunately, the pivot/rebalance to Asia seems no more than a futile continuation of Washington’s post-Cold War “engage but hedge” approach, which may prove both self-defeating and dangerous.