“Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?” by Graham Allison – a good read

Like many of you, I have been watching/reading about the US & China relationship over the past few years. I started with the news but quickly found that the news was too reactive, too sensational, and they didn’t look at critical issues deep enough. Then I turned to debates, talks given by various speakers, thinkers, historians. Of many speakers, policymakers, thinkers, I have found Kevin Rudd (former prime minister of Australia) to be particularly insightful and candid on this topic. I recommend the following talks from him: Kevin Rudd on the U.S.-China Trade War in Nov 2019, Are China and the US doomed to conflict?.

I know this book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?” from Graham Allison because Kevin recommends/references it many times in various talks. It is a must-read for anyone interested to know how the US/China relationship may play out in the future by learning about what happened 16 times before when a rising power challenged a ruling one in the last 500 years.

  • It is concise and illuminating.
  • I am startled by the uncanny similarities between what is happening now between the US/China relationship and what happened previously between Germany / the UK (early twentieth century), Germany/France (mid-nineteenth century), England/Dutch republic (mid to late seventeenth century), etc.
  • I didn’t know about Thucydides before reading this book. Such a shame! This quote sticks with me “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.
  • I learn that over the past 500 years, there have been sixteen cases in which a rising power challenged an established power. What is not great is that 75% of those cases resulted in wars. The remaining 4 cases, which did not lead to war, offer us clues for the future.
  • The topic is complex yet the overall narrative of the book makes it easier to understand. It has a short passage about Xi Jinping, the man too. To quote Lee Kuan Yew “He [Xi Jinping, the likely incoming president of China] is reserved – not in the sense that he will not talk to you, but in the sense that he will not betray his likes and dislikes. There is always a pleasant smile on his face, whether or not you have said something that annoyed him. He has iron in his soul, more than Hu Jintao, who ascended the ranks without experiencing the trials and tribulations that Xi endured.”
  • It also offers a concise comparison between the US and China civilizations, their cultural differences at fundamental levels. Many authors like Martin Jacques have talked about this, but I like the straight forward, to the point articulation from Graham. (you can also check out Martin’s book “When China Rules the world.”)
  • As for the expectation from the West that China should “hurry up and be like us“, Graham pointed out what the US did during its ascendency, placing the UK as the global hegemon at the end of 19th century, early 20th century, especially during the Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. It is illuminating to learn about these events, and perhaps it can provide some needed humility.

The book doesn’t end with specific policy recommendations. Read it and you will appreciate why Graham chooses to leave it that way.

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I do.


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