“Two centuries ago, Napoleon warned, ‘Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world.’ Today China has awakened, and the world is beginning to shake.” So begins Graham Allison’s insightful work on the rise of China and the inherent risks of war with the United States. Allison offers a unique perspective having served as assistant secretary of defense and advisor to secretaries of defense under every president from Reagan to Obama. He is also the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Starting with the rise of Athens and its competition with Sparta resulting in the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century B.C., Allison guides the reader through 16 rivalries that have existed between nations up to the present day. All but four descended into war. The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, observed that the war between Athens and Sparta erupted because “The rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta made war inevitable.” This is Thucydides’s Trap.
According to Allison, we are living in the 17th case — a rising China against the established power of America. Will this rivalry culminate in war, as was the case with Great Britain and Germany leading up to World War I, or will diplomacy and statesmanship ameliorate the situation, as was the case with the United States and the U.S.S.R.? Allison clearly lays out the foundation of this current rivalry, documenting China’s quick rise to power, its current status, and its future trajectory, as well as the friction this has caused with the United States. He also delves into possible scenarios between the two powers that could devolve into conflict.
The greatest deterrent that Allison touches upon is the risk of nuclear war. Both sides realize that all out war using nuclear weapons is suicide, but as Allison explains, an escalation of confrontational events could bring on an out-of-control spiral into nuclear Armageddon. Given the recent provocative actions taken by North Korea and President Donald Trump’s response, it is not hard to imagine a chain of events leading to conflict that would include China.
Destined for War has been widely read by those in Washington’s halls of power. We can only hope they heed the warnings in this book and implement policies that protect our interests and avoid destabilizing the precarious situation with China.