A war between the U.S. and China in the near future isn’t inevitable – but it’s certainly likely, according to Graham Allison.
The national security and defense analyst spoke Thursday to the World Affairs Council of Charlotte about his recent book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”
Allison, a Charlotte native, is the director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served as assistant secretary of defense in the first Clinton administration and is currently on the advisory boards of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and CIA director.
His book examines the potential for a war between China and the U.S. Allison defined the “Thucydides Trap” as the tension that results when a rising power challenges an established power, as first identified by Greek historian Thucydides, chronicler of the war between ancient Athens and Sparta.
If we insist on business as usual, we will likely produce history as usual, even if history as usual is catastrophic.
This situation has arisen 16 times in the past 500 years, and 12 of them have resulted in war, Allison said. The reality isn’t as ominous as the book’s title makes it sound, but the consequences of China’s rise are important for all Americans to understand, Allison said.
“Never has a country risen so much, so fast, on so many dimensions,” he said.
Allison compared the relationship between the U.S. and China to a playground seesaw. In 1980, he said, the U.S. held all the economic power with its feet planted firmly on the ground. In 2014, the seesaw was balanced. By 2024, China’s economy will be twice as large.
“For Americans, the idea that there could be another country as big and strong as we are is inconceivable,” he said. “For me, it’s inconceivable. But we need to get used to it.”
The tension in Thucydides’ pattern comes from the rising power’s growing entitlement and sense of importance, which conflicts with the established power’s insecurity and determination to defend the status quo.
President Donald Trump’s withdrawals from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement have opened the door for China to become a global leader in trade and climate change, Allison said.
“We made a mistake and shot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “The Paris agreement wasn’t great, but it was a very important step in recognizing the problem and starting a discussion.”
To avoid a war, Allison said the U.S. needs to examine two of the four cases in the last 500 years that haven’t led to open conflict: America’s rise to dominance against Great Britain in the late 19th century and the Cold War era. In both, the rival powers used all forms of competition short of bombs and bullets.
No one in China wants war, and it would be catastrophic, Allison said, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
“If we insist on business as usual, we will likely produce history as usual, even if history as usual is catastrophic,” Allison said.
Taylor Blatchford: 704-358-5354, @blatchfordtr