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Foreign Policy

Escaping the Thucydides Trap

Mar 29 , 2019
  • Graham Allison

    Director, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Editor’s note:  On March 22, the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) hosted the 2019 Harvard Alumni China Public Policy Forum at its Beijing headquarters with the theme “Global Trade War and Public Policy Adjustment”. Former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Graham Allison delivered the keynote speech titled “How to Escape the Thucydides Trap". CCG has kindly allowed the China-US Focus to publish the text of the speech.

Let me thank you very much for this opportunity. We are going to take about a half hour to remind you of the arguments that are in my book. If you want a fourteen-minute version of it, you can look at my TED talk, which is also online. But what I am mainly interested in the conversation that will follow because when Mr. Wang and I were talking at the Munich I told him, it’s been two years since I sent this book to the publisher, I have been searching for ways to escape the Thucydides trap. And that's the search that I'm still on. I'm hoping that today I'll get a few more ideas. If you've been watching what's happening in the relationship between the US and china over the last couple of years, you’re probably a little confused, and even if you weren't watching very carefully, you’ve probably been a little busy, because in Washington, the subject of china and the issue of china has basically done an about face almost one eighty on a country that for a quarter century was seen as a friend, is now seen as a foe.

China is a country that Obama, when he left office, called a strategic partner, which is the same thing that President Bush called China, which is the same thing that President Clinton called China, which is now by the official designation by the U.S. government called a strategic adversary. And this is the view not simply of the Trump administration but indeed of the whole Washington political class. It is one of the few things on which democrats and republicans are virtually unanimous. You can see this in the votes in Congress, on what have now been a half dozen pieces of legislation basically blaming China or pushing forward Taiwan, in which there is not been a single voice in either house that’s spoken up against these. To try to help us understand what's happening I 'm going to present a big idea, which is actually the idea in my book, and then an even bigger challenge, which if I knew the answer to, I would tell you. But as I agreed with my friend, Mr. Wang, that, I'll tell you what I'm currently thinking but I am not entirely satisfied with what I’ve got, so I'm hoping somebody here maybe has better ideas, and I'll try to do this in about thirty minutes. 

President Xi:The Person Who Clearly Understand Thucydides Trap

One person who clearly gets it is President Xi Jinping. And as he frequently says, the challenge for China is, and the challenge for the U.S. and China, is to build a new form of great power relations. And that if we were successful in building a new form of great power relations, we could avoid the Thucydides Trap. As somebody who works directly for President Xi said to me, “Why do you think President Xi talks about a new form of great power relations? What's wrong with the old form?” He said the reason why is because we know the old form follows in the footsteps that have been treaded by so many different countries over the centuries of history to a conflict, often a catastrophic conflict, and that's not where we want the U.S.-China relationship to go. So in order to prevent that, we need to have a new form of great power relations.

What's the big idea? Is China rising or risen? How is China's rise impacting the U.S. and the international order of which the U.S. has been the principal architect and guardian? How could Thucydidian dynamic lead to war, especially a war nobody wants? Is war between the U.S. and China inevitable? Today, where does this Thucydidian story stand for the U.S. and China? And finally, how to escape the Thucydides Trap?

So in the ways of Washington today, what has to start with a tweet size answer to every subject. What's the big idea? Thucydides trap is the dangerous dynamic that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power. Think China and the U.S. today. Is China rising or risen? Yes, it’s risen faster, further on more dimensions than any country ever in history, and therefore has arrived. It's also continuing to rise. How is this impacting the U.S.? As China realizes its own dream, it's inevitably and inescapably encroaching on positions and prerogatives that the U.S. has become accustomed to at the top of every pecking order. How can a Thucydidian dynamic lead to war? How did China and the U.S. find themselves at war in 1950? In the Thucydidian dynamic, this rivalry creates a vulnerability to extraneous actions unrelated to the rivalry, by some third party, unintended by either of the principal rivals, which nonetheless one or the other feels obliged to respond to, setting up a spiral that often ends in a conflict, even a catastrophic conflict. Is war between the U.S. and China inevitable? No, let me say this three times quickly. No, not inevitable, no, not inevitable. This book is not saying war is inevitable.

The purpose of the book is to prevent a war, not to predict a war, not to suggest a war would be a good idea. A war would be a crazy idea, would be a catastrophic idea. And if war occurs, statesmen will not be able to blame some iron law of history. It'll be for failures to take actions that they could have taken that would have prevented a war. The purpose of this book is to try to motivate thinking Chinese and thinking Americans and thinking people in other parts of the world. What can we do to prevent a sequence of events that could end in a war. That would be catastrophic for everyone.

Where does this rivalry stand today? Right on track. If Thucydides were watching he would say this looks like the grandest rising power I ever saw, accelerating towards the most colossal ruling power I ever saw. Well, we've got an unstoppable force and an immovable object. I'm looking forward to seeing the grandest collision of all times. I think that's what he would say. The strategic rationale, in particular, that gave a picture of what would be U.S.-China relations would be, has collapsed both in Washington and in Beijing. Finally get a plea for strategic imagination in thinking about how to escape Thucydides trap. As Dr. Wang said, I've thought of nine possible avenues of escape, but I need something better than any other ones that I now have on my list. But I'll try to stimulate your imagination.

China Raising: the Concept of Thucydides Trap

You can go to your Wechat friends or tweet your friend. You met today a great thinker and you know how to pronounce his name. His name is Thucydides. He's the father and founder of history, wrote the first ever history book. It's called the history of the Peloponnesian war. And It's about the war between Athens and Sparta that destroyed the two great leading city states of classical Greece.

Thucydides Trap is a term that I coined six or eight years ago to make vivid Thucydides’s insight. This is his idea, not mine. The idea is that when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the outcome is frequently war. And writing about what happened twenty five hundred years ago, think about it as roughly the time of Confucius, in Greece. Thucydides said famously, it was the rise of Athens, which rose spectacularly, and the impact that this had, the fear instilled in Sparta, which had ruled Greece for a hundred years that caused the war.

Is China rising or risen? The answer is yes. I made this short and graphic for my TED talk, but actually its cause it is a variant of a piece I wrote for China Daily when they ask what's happened in China that impresses you the most in the forty years since the opening in 1978. At the time of the opening, what percentage of Chinese were struggling to survive on less than two dollars a day? That's the abject poverty level of the World Bank. Take a guess who knows the answer? What percentage of Chinese had less than two dollars a day? Ninety percent, nine out of every ten. And if you have two dollars a day, most of your day is spent trying to find enough food to eat for you and your family, just barely struggling to survive.

Now, 2018, forty years later, what has happened to this ninety percent and so today, ninety percent has been shrunk to one percent. Today, Ninety nine percent of Chinese have been raised above that level. This is about eight hundred million people. Never before in history have we seen such a miracle in flipping the pyramid of poverty, and Xi Jinping has said by the end of 2020 the number’s going to be zero. This is the World Bank standard, and Hu Chun hua has an assignment from Xi Jinping that by the end of 2020, the number is gonna be zero, completely eliminate. Rising or risen? For this Harvard audience, some of you may remember this bridge right outside the Kennedy School and the business school. I can see it out of my office. The construction of this bridge began when I was Dean of the Kennedy School. I quit being dean in 1989. Project started in 2012. It was a two year project that was said to be finished by 2014, but in 2014 they said it wasn't finish. Uh, take another year, 2015. They said it would take another year. Tell us when it’s gonna be finished. 2017 was finally finished three times over budget. There’s a bridge here like this in Beijing, call the SANYUAN bridge, has about twice as many lanes of traffic. I try to drive up when I'm here. In 2016, the government of Beijing decided to renovate. How long did it take to renovate the Sanyuan bridge? Here you can go to YouTube and see this, this is also in my Ted Talk, the answer is forty three hours, forty three hours. So, as I said to the [Beijing] vice mayor who had been attending a graduate executive program. I said he would bring a group to Harvard and finish off the Harvard bridge,I would make a small contribution.

How is this rising China impacting the U.S.? The answer is in every way possible. To see it vividly look at this cartoon. I made this cartoon for Senator John McCain’s Armed Services Committee in 2014 to help them understand the context of the Obama administration's major initiative towards Asia. What was the Obama administration's major initiative towards Asia? Sometimes called re-balance but the pivot towards Asia. I had compared the U.S. and China to two kids on the playground sitting on opposite ends of a seesaw, each of them represented by the size of their GDP in purchasing power parity.

In 2004, Chinese was about half the size of the U.S., in 2014, China was slightly larger than the US and by 2024, on the current trajectory, China will be half again larger than the U.S. So as the U.S. has debated the so-called re-balance, which was to put less weight on our left foot, fighting wars in the Middle East in order to put more weight on our right foot in Asia where the future lies, the seesaw has basically moved to lift both feet off the ground. This is the tectonic of power, the tectonic of power as GDP has shifted. What does this mean? The answer is big impact everywhere. But one example is trade. Beginning of the century, the U.S. was the dominant trading partner of every Asian nation. This is a track from 2017, at which point China is now the dominant trading partner of every Asian nation. So as China rises, it’s inevitably displacing the U.S. propositions and prerogatives that the U.S. is accustomed to as its normal position.

In the current debate about whether China can be decoupled from the U.S. or from the global economy, the proposition is: what does that mean in a world in which China is actually the dominant trading partner? It's hard to even give content to the idea. This is not very useful for you, but it's a quiz I give my students at Harvard in my class, to ask the question, when could China become number one? and students have to fill in the right hand column. Your best guess of I actually have 46 indicators, these are just a short version. So they write 2020, 2030, not in my lifetime, you know different answers. And then I showed them this slide which says already. So all of these things already happened. China already has  the largest manufacturing. China already has the largest middle class and already has the most billionaires. China already has the largest GDP, measured by purchasing parity. So the world's premier China watcher until he died in 2015 was the founder and builder of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. He was also my tutor about China. I had a great good fortune to know him over many decades and I spent a lot of time with him. Actually I wrote a book about him that you can check out. The book is basically another colleague and I ask the key questions and then we capture his pearls of wisdom in terms of the answers. One of the questions is: are China's current leaders, that’s Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, serious about displacing the U.S. as the predominant power in Asia in the foreseeable future? Chinese usually find this question very uncomfortable. China scholars find it even more uncomfortable. So you cannot get most Chinese scholars to answer this question. Lee Kuan Yew was eighty-eight years old. So he said he just tell things as he sees them. What does he say? Of course. Why not? Who can imagine otherwise? How can China not aspire to be number one in Asia at that time in the world?

In my book, I look at the last five hundred years of history. There are 16 times,16 cases with a rising power threatening to displace a ruling power. 12 of these cases ended in war, four did not. I have a discussion of them in the book. Actually, if you go to the Thucydides trap website, you just put that up on your screen. You'll see the cases and the sources and there's disputes about them. But basically, what this suggests, and each case is interestingly different, that in general, where the Athens rises or Germany rises as a hundred years ago, or China rises today and tries to, as it rises, displaces or disrupts the incumbent. Sparta, Great Britain which had ruled the world for a hundred years, the U.S. after American century, the outcome is violent conflict.

But in four of the cases, there was no war. To say that war is inevitable big mistake, wrong, not inevitable. To say that there's a very serious danger of war. Correct. Indeed, more often than not, war is the outcome. So how does this happen in this dynamic? It's complicated, and each case is different, but they're basically three layers to the story. First layer is the material, what Marx would call the objective conditions. Second layer is perceptions, emotions, and psychology, what Marx would call subjective. And third is politics, the struggle within each government for power. In the normal story, let's take China today, China, as it realizes its dream to be great again, the great rejuvenation of the great Chinese people. It's not about the U.S. this is not about displacing the U.S.. This is simply about China taking miserably poor people and making them less poor. And then taking people who have a little bit of money and making them moderately well off and taking moderately well off and having them very well off. The aspiration for Chinese to become wealthy is a noble, reasonable, understandable aspiration.

But the impact of that on America as its accustomed to being at the top of every pecking order, the number one trading partner, the largest number of billionaires, the leader of AI or whatever, is uncomfortable. The same way it was for Britain as it saw Germany grow strong, the same way it was for Sparta as it's all Athens grow stronger. So in that, first you have reality, the objective conditions. Secondly, the objective conditions are processed through perceptions and emotions and psychology, which often leads to misperceptions. In Thucydides line, it was the fear that this instilled in Sparta.

A combination of perception and emotion and psychology, which often becomes misperceptions and even miscalculation. And finally, politics in which in competitive politics within each government, nobody wants to have any opponent to his right on a national security issue. Everyone struggles to be tougher than his political opponents. And actually in the current debate within Washington, you can see democrats positioning to run from the right of Trump against China, which seems hard to believe. But that's the way politics works, especially the politics of national security issues. So stack these three things on top of each other, reality perception, politics, and this creates a huge vulnerability to some extraneous action or some third party action, that becomes a trigger that produces a spiral that produces the war.

Think of 1914. In my book, I have a good chapter on what happened in 1914. You had a rivalry between Germany rising and Great Britain. An archduke who was a second level official from Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914. He was not connected to Britain. He wasn't connected to Germany. But that action and the reactions to it within six weeks had the whole of Europe at war with each other. And in four years had destroyed all of Europe and Europe’s position as the leader of the world at that time. So, third party actions or accidents, external behavior, can produce this set of reactions, especially in the period of vulnerability. And I would say, in looking at the current relationship between the U.S. and China, I have a chapter in the book call from here to war, five paths to war. The two the most worrisome right now are North Korea and Taiwan, maybe we'll talk about those when we talk further. But I would say both of them look very dangerous to me. So this was a book that, the news agency put out with various peoples’ essays, a number of excellent essays. If you want the TED version of the talk, it’s up in Mandarin. And the Mandarin edition to the book was published in December. (38:30)

Joint Effort: How to Escape the Trap

Let me close on how to escape the Thucydides Trap. That's the search I've been on. I've so far found nine possible avenues of escape. Let me mention two of them, just to stimulate your imagination. I'm hoping I'm gonna hear some others. So first would be the recognition. This came from a Chinese friend. He said, why don't we simply recognize that the threat to us comes from this Thucydidian dynamic.

We are both faced with a condition, a structural condition in which China is rising and will continue to rise for its own benefit, not about you. And you will continue, Americans, to try to maintain leadership in an international order, because this is provided seven decades without great power war and this has been great for the world, and you think this is your mission. This rivalry, we recognize, creates this vulnerability. Let's take that to be the puzzle and ask how in a new form of great power relations, we can manage that vulnerability to prevent some third party action provoking us in a way that produces a war. What would that mean?

First, recognizing the systemic threat. This is a systemic threat that comes from structural reality, not from the intention of either of the parties. Secondly, jointly preventing crisis. So joint actions in crisis prevention. Asking, how could Taiwan do something that drags us into war? And then considering today, what we could do now, in advance of that, to prevent that from happening? Asking, how could events in North Korea drag the U.S. and China into a war? What could we do today to deal with that? How could an accident in the South China Sea produce an escalation? What could we do today to deal with that? Basically identify paths to war, crisis prevention, and finally crisis management, prepare for crisis, because we know despite our best efforts to prevent crisis, some stuff will happen. And so when stuff happens, you want to have established lines of communication. You want lines of communication at multiple levels. You would like to have military-to-military conversation so that you're able to talk very candidly. Those are three elements of what would essentially be of managing a condition.

A second idea on the nine paths of escape, again came from a Chinese colleague in Shanghai, it's a combination of a Chinese idea and an American idea. So the Chinese idea comes from the Song dynasty. This is about one thousand years ago. So the Song were dealing with a northern proto-Manchurian tribe called the Liao, and they ultimately agreed in a treaty. To have what they call a rivalry partnership. Rivalry on the one side and partner on the other. How can you be in a rivalry and a partnership? The answer is, well, in life sometimes you have complicated relationships. So Apple and Samsung, these companies are vicious competitors selling smart phones, and actually Samsung has beat apple with the current race for the selling of smart phones. But also Samsung is Apple's biggest supplier. So there are partners in some respects and rivals.

What about that? That is actually not all that different from an idea that John F. Kennedy came up with after the Cuban missile crisis. Remember, in the Cuban missile crisis, you almost had a nuclear war that could have been annihilation of hundreds of millions of people. Kennedy thought he had barely survived. So afterwards, he kept thinking, we can't be doing this again. We've got to find some alternative to this. And he gave a famous speech four months before he was assassinated, an American university speech in which he said, we're gonna have to settle for quote “a world safe for diversity.” A world safe for diversity in which I'm still anti-communist. I still believe the Soviet Union is an evil empire. I still believe America's government and American form of government is the appropriate form of government, but I have to find some way to live with the Soviet Union, even as I complete with. So whether one could take these two ideas and stitch them together to produce some concept that would be a strategic rationale for the U.S.-China relationship. I don’t know. Each of the nine avenues for escape that I've identified have pros, and they have cons.

No one of them seems compelling to me at this point. So that's why I'm continuing to look. Now to conclude, big idea - Thucydides Trap, big challenge - how to escape the Thucydides Trap. I've got my pencil, I’m hoping to write down some good ideas.

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