By Chet Yarbrough
Destined for War (Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
By: Graham Allison
Narrated by Richard Ferrone
Allison briefly reviews the history of war to reinforce an argument about its causes. He suggests wars come from the rise of competing hegemonic powers. A quibble one may have with Allison’s argument is that it diminishes reasons beyond power that led to WWII. The rise of Hitler may not have occurred if reparations for WWI had not been excessive. However, his main point is that cultural differences are seeds from which power and conflict grows. Allison suggests, when nation-state’ cultures are different, countries competing for political and economic power incline toward war. He gives many relevant and convincing examples.
Graham Allison suggests the cause of war is defined by Thucydides (Greek Historian of the Pelopnnnesian War, Born 460-455 B.C., Died 400 B.C.) in the fifth century BC.
The “Thucydides’s trap” is when one country achieves a competitive level of political power it challenges existing hegemonic powers, leading to conflict and probable war.
Allison argues that war is not inevitable but that to avoid it requires acceptance of spheres of influence. This is not a new concept. The terms “sphere of influence” became legally significant in the 1880s when Africa was being colonized by European countries. It was meant to explain a colonizer’s political claim for exclusive control of a particular area of the world.
Allison notes that China’s Chairman Xi is, in a singular respect, the same as America’s Ex-President, Donald Trump. That “sameness” is Xi’s goal of making China “Great Again”. In no other respect, does Xi seem comparable to the bombastic Trump.
Allison explains China is culturally unique based on its history, reaching back to 1600 B.C. Like Ancient Egypt (3400-3200 B.C.), China is as culturally different as any nation-state in the world. Allison offers a highly intelligent and informative analysis of how different Chinese culture is from American culture.
To avoid war, Allison argues America, the current hegemon of the world, must couch its political behavior and power in ways that acknowledge cultural difference between itself and rising hegemons of the world.
Allison recalls the history of England’s dealings with America after the 1776 revolution. England reluctantly accepted America’s eventual rise to hegemon of the world. (Some would argue, England’s decision to remove itself from the European Union accelerates that decline.)
The United Kingdom’s economic, military, and political power (its sphere of influence) diminishes as America’s flourishes. England remains a power in the world, but its sphere of influence steadily declines.
Russia struggles with their sphere of influence because of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. In 2021-22 Russia may invade Ukraine, just as they did Crimea in 2014, to re-expand its sphere of influence. Russia maneuvers to politically enlist China as an ally to accomplish that end. Putin undoubtedly cultivates China’s objection to America’s attempt to expand its sphere of influence in the far east.
The issues of Ukraine and Georgia are more precarious for Russia than the rest of the world. Putin’s demand to expand Russia’s sphere of influence renews a cold war that will inevitably become hot. The only question is where the heat will lie.
Robert Kagan reveals the fundamental mistake made by Putin in a May-June 2022 “Foreign Affairs” article. History reveals mistakes of great nations like France, Great Britain, Germany and Japan in thinking they could remain or become world hegemons by force.
Kagan’s point is Great Britain adjusted to its changed role from hegemon to a nation among nations. England prospered and maintained its integrity as an independent nation, capable of improving the lives of its people without falling on the sword of its hegemonic past.
Ukraine and Georgia will become Putin’s Vietnam. It is a war that can only be resolved at the expense of many Russian’, Ukrainian’, and Georgian’ soldier’s lives. The most other countries can do is support Ukrainian and Georgian resistance while pursuing a diplomatic solution that respects sovereign independence.
The inference one draws from Allison’s book is that America must recognize the cultural difference between itself and China to avoid war. Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other hegemons of world history, America must gradually adjust its behavior as a hegemon of the world. America, like all hegemonic powers, effectively operates within a sphere of influence. America’s sphere of influence is being challenged in the Far East by China.
Allison’s view of the world gives weight to Putin’s great concern about Ukraine’s independence and implied wish to join NATO. The fear Putin has is a reminder of even Gorbachev’s opposition to western encroachment on eastern bloc independence.
The sense one draws from Allison’s insight about culture is that no country in history has ever treated its citizens equitably. In America, the stain of slavery and native Indian displacement remain festering wounds. When and if those wounds heal, America’s sphere of influence will either grow or diminish. In China, it may be the wounds of Uighur discrimination and Han superiority that wounds its future as a hegemon. In Afghanistan, the unfair treatment of women may doom its sphere of influence. In Russia, it will be the mistakes Putin makes in violating the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia.
Every nation’s sphere of influence is affected by internal cultural errors and external cultural influences. Only a state that adjusts to the demands of its culture will survive. Culture is not exportable, but it has weight. Foreign cultures can only be an influencer to other countries. A culture imposed by force will fail as both America and France proved in Vietnam. Cultural change must come from its own citizens as it did with the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Spheres of influence evolve. They are not static.
America’s goal should be to understand other cultures. In that understanding, there must be acceptance of a competitor’s sphere of influence. Allison is not suggesting America withdraw from the world stage, but that engagement be along the lines of a containment strategy like that proposed by the former ambassador to Russia, George Kennan, in the 1950s. Kennan’s long memorandum is born of an intimate understanding of Russian culture.
Allison argues America should pursue a policy of minimizing conflict while promoting democracy to citizens who seek freedom and equality.
Allison recommends engagement with rising hegemonic powers with an eye on their respective cultures. Allison argues, only with understanding of cultural difference is there a way to avoid Thucydides’ trap.
One cannot deny the economic success of China. At the same time, anyone who has visited China in recent years knows of dissidents who object to communist monitoring and control of citizen freedom. Tiananmen Square remains a rallying point for mainland China resistors. Hong Kong continues to demonstrate against Xi’s influence on the lives of local business owners. Taiwan objects to Xi’s intent to repatriate their island country. Tibetans are denied their rights as followers of Buddhist belief.
In sum, one comes away from Allison’s book with the hope of a future without war. Hegemonic powers will rise, and fall based on the evolution of their respective cultures. History suggests governments that rely on the “rule of one” in modern times will not last. Adding population demographics and ecological threats, China’s “rule of one” suggests the best policy for American democracy is acceptance of spheres of influence with a policy of Kennan-like’ containment.
Chairman Xi is mortal, and mortality is the penultimate harbinger of change. In the long run, freedom and equality will change the nature of even the oldest cultures.