A critical evaluation of Graham Allison’s claim that the US and China are destined to war because they are caught up in the ‘Thucydides Trap.’

The rise of a new power, and the displacement of the ruling hegemon is, according to Graham Allison, one of the most dangerous processes that can occur in international politics. This driver of human conflict was first conceptualized in the 5thCentury BC by the Athenian historian and general Thucydides. When trying to understand how Athens and Sparta ended up fighting the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), Thucydides determined that the war was driven by ‘the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta’ (Allison 2017, XV). Athens’s rapid rise in the face of centuries of Spartan dominance caused such structural stress in their relationship that the two powers crept towards the abyss (Allison 2015). Following third party provocations by other city states, Sparta eventually declared war on Athens leading to decades of war. Graham Allison has followed many other scholars in conceptualising Thucydides’ observations and applying them to a characterisation of human conflict. Allison writes that ‘over the past five hundred years, in sixteen cases a major power has threatened to displace a ruling power. In twelve of these, the result was war’ (Allison 2017: XVII). From the Peloponnesian War to the First World War, Allison argues that war has been the result of a transition of power between a rising and ruling power, and the psychological stress this inspired in the hegemon (ibid). The ‘Thucydides-Trap’(TT) describes how a ruling and rising power becomes locked onto a trajectory to war, even if they do not realise it (Allison 2017: 155). Allison breaks down the dynamic of the TT into three layers. The first layer is the objective reality; the facts that show that another power is rising and catching up with an established hegemon (Allison 2019). The second layer sees these conditions interpreted through perceptions; emotions and psychology which translates into fear and miscalculations in the ruling power (ibid). The third layer is politics; and witnesses’ countries being drawn towards that perceived threat, using hard-line policy as a means to outcompete rivals (ibid). The result ‘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’ (ibid). They are ‘like gasoline to a match’ rapidly turning ‘an accidental collision of third-party provocation into war’ (Allison 2017: 162).

According to Allison, the United States and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) are currently entangled in a TT. China’s economic rise, projected to overtake the US in GDP terms, has, according to Allison, caused profound structural stress to the Sino-US relationship (Allison 2015). The United States enjoyed around three decades of being the unchallenged unipolar power of the world, leading the world in its economic and military strength and constructing a liberal world order. Allison writes that America is ‘accustomed at being at the top of every pecking order, the number one trading, the largest number of billionaires’ etc. (Allison 2019). China’s economic achievement have, however, begun to challenge American superiority.  As China grows, American influence and power is in decline. Allison talks about the Belt and Road initiative who’s ‘promise to integrate the countries of Eurasia reflects a vision in which the balance of geostrategic power shifts to Asia’ (Allison 2017: 125). Similarly, he cites China’s development of facilities in the South China Sea which ‘will give China greater influence over the $5.3 trillion in trade that passes through it’ as well as ‘absorbing the nations of Southeast Asia into its economic orbit’ (ibid: 128). Allison argues the first layer of the TT is evident; the economic growth and achievements of the PRC provide objective evidence that China is a rising power and catching up with the US (Allison 2019). This is reinforced by China’s ‘growing entitlement, sense of importance, and demand for say’ in international politics (Allison 2015). This has driven an emotional response in the US (second layer) producing ‘fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo’, illustrated in its 2010 ‘Pivot to Asia’ and increased military deployments around East Asia (Allison 2015). This emotional response has created a ‘China fever’ in American politicians who, across the aisle, have reached a consensus that China is a threat and needs to be handled with hard-line policies (third layer) (Waldron 2017). Combined, these three layers form the basis of the TT that the US and China are currently entangled in. Allison stresses that even if war between the US and China is ‘unwise or undesirable’ it ‘does not mean impossible’ (Allison 2017: 155). Wars ‘occur even when leaders are determined to avoid them… events or actions of others narrow their options, forcing them to make choices that risk war’ (ibid). Allison therefore rejects arguments that China and the US cannot go to war because they are economically interdependent, and both are nuclear powers. The nature of the TT is that ‘misunderstandings, miscalculations and entanglements can escalate to conflict beyond anyone’s original intent’, regardless of how unwanted a conflict may be (ibid). Allison argues that between China and the US there are several flashpoints; the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula, that if they became ‘hot’, have a high likelihood of leading the US and China into a war (ibid). Allison does not argue that war is inevitable, as four of his sixteen case studies have resulted in no war. He stresses that these outcomes required ‘huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged’ (Allison 2015). Allison has not found any evidence to believe that this has occurred in the US-China relationship (Allison 2019). Allison therefore claims that on their current trajectory the US and China are destined for war because they are caught up in the ‘Thucydides Trap.’

This essay will dispute Allison’s claim that the US and China are destined to war because they are caught up in the TT. It will critically evaluate his claim in two parts. The first section will deal with the theoretical side of Allison’s argument. The section will highlight the theoretical weaknesses in Allison’s methodology and argument. It will conclude that the TT cannot qualify as a credible theory to predict the outcome of the Sino-US relationship. The section part of the essay will use Power-Transition Theory to assess whether the US and China are destined for war. It will conclude from several observations that China’s history, agency, and political positions suggest that it would be highly unlikely for a conflict related to a power-transition to occur. The essay will therefore conclude that Graham Allison’s claim is incorrect. 

The Theoretical Weakness of the ‘Thucydides Trap’

Theories within social sciences require essential features that give them credibility as a legitimate approach. Johnathon M DiCicco highlights three components: ‘1) verifiable empirical scholarship 2) rigorous methodologies that facilitate reliable interpretation of events and 3) formal modelling techniques that ensure logical consistency’ (DiCicco 2017: 4). The first theoretical problem with Allison’s argument is that he fails to provide verifiable, empirical scholarship. Allison sixteen-historic cases demonstrate very little in terms of power transition and war. For one, Allison fails to fully explain what makes a country a ruling power and what makes a country a rising power (ibid: 16). His ‘histories use ‘rise’ and ‘rule’ according to their conventional definitions, generally emphasising rapid shifts in GDP and military strength’ but fails to provide metrics of: ‘how power is measured; or what a ‘ruling’ or dominant power is; what is a rapidly rising power and on what basis is one differentiated from a state that are rising slowly, or not at all’ (Ibid). Inconsistencies arise from Allison’s case files; the Soviet Union, for example, is presented as both a ruling (1970s-1980s) and rising power (1940s-1980s) at the same time (ibid). Allison’s team at the Belfer Centre has started ‘assembling a catalogue of metrics of national power and searching for data to more quantitive indicators of ‘rise and ‘rule’ to address these issues (Belfer Center, no date). Until this has happened however, the TT framework cannot be credibly used to answer this question with such obvious gaps in its analytical approach and taxonomy. A second theoretical issue is that Allison positions the TT on the notion that fear is inspired in the ruling power.  As a social theory ‘emotions like fear and alarm do not lend themselves to a reliable measurement; neither, for their part, do emotions associated with the rising power, like pride’ (DiCicco 2017: 10). So, whilst the US might be adopting hard-line policies toward China, this is not necessarily an indicator of fear. It would be impossible to measure the emotion of an entire country or population (ibid). Additionally, it is problematic ascribing a human emotion like fear or pride to collective structures like a government or state (ibid). 

Arthur Waldron has extended the criticism of Allison by considering the foundation of Allison’s argument; Thucydides’ statement that ‘it was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable’ (Allison 2015). Waldron is scathing in his review of Allison’s 2017 book and argues that Allison has taken Thucydides quote out of context, ignoring the events that led to the conflict (Waldron 2017). Waldron argues that Allison ignores the nature and behaviour of Athens prior to the war. For one, Athens had already risen as an established empire in the Peloponnese (ibid). It had a large military and economy which, according to Allison’s logic, should have made war inevitable decades earlier (ibid). War however had been prevented as leaders from both states formed a ‘web of friendship’ that managed their relationship (ibid). War only became inevitable when Athens’s arrogance became uncontrolled (ibid). As Waldron points out, the Athenians ‘wished to eliminate any Spartan threat by stirring up a war and teaching the Hoplite that they could never win’ (Ibid). When Pericles died and his agency ceased, ‘uncontrolled passions’ swept across Athens leading it to intentionally provoke Sparta and leave it no option than to declare war. (ibid). The same is true of several of the historical case files used by Allison. Japan’s rise in the 1930s, hadn’t inspired fear in the US. Despite disliking Japan’s behaviour in East Asia, they had no reason to ever ‘strike out and eliminate the Japanese threat’(ibid).  In his case-file, Allison argues that it was a 1941 oil embargo by the US that ‘recklessly cut the energy lifeline of a powerful adversary without due regard for the predictably explosive consequences’ that made conflict inevitable (Belfer Centre, no date). However, the US never believed their actions would lead to war. Testament to this, Waldron argues, is the state of shock the American public and government were in following the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941; which left the US with no option but to declare war on Japan (Waldron 2017). 

Allison’s failure to explain these factors is largely due to the lack of agency in the TT argument. As Waldron states, Athens and Sparta hadn’t initially gone to war, because human agency had managed their relationship and formed mechanisms to maintain peace (Waldron 2017). Afterall, war does not just arise, it requires intentional human action to initiate it. In Allison’s argument ‘diplomacy, bargaining and statecraft are driven by the distribution of power’ (Alexandroff and Stein 2017). Allison negates the influence of human agency in the outbreak and prevention of conflict. As Alexandroff and Stein note, great power relations ‘are as much reliant on negotiation, bargaining and to fulfil national interests’ as ‘changing relative power balances’ (ibid). It is evident that leaders are more than ‘puppets responding to shifts in material power’, they are essential plays in both beginning wars and preventing them (Pempel 2015: 93). It’s leaders alone that ‘resolve crises, devise formulas, and negotiate the understandings and agreements that will make it possible to navigate the political implications of changing power configurations’ (Alexandroff and Stein 2017). Allison’s omission of agency is a serious deficiency in his argument. When asking ‘why the Cold War never went hot’, particularly during ‘close calls (for example the Cuban Missile Crisis)’ Allison uses structural explanations that it was ‘the spectre of nuclear destruction’ that prevented war (Belfer Centre, no date). He does not account for the centrality of communication and crisis management in preventing the outbreak of conflict during the Cold War. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was, arguably, the singular leadership of JF Kennedy and his call for moderation and negotiation that stopped a pre-emptive strike on the USSR. Through careful management the agency of JFK and Khrushchev prevented war. Without room to discuss agency further, this essay maintains the TT argument is both weak and unfit to answer whether the US and China are destined for war. 

The influence of nuclear weapons on modern conflict is an under-discussed area by Allison. Nuclear weapons have fundamentally changed the nature and frequency of major conflicts between the great powers (Eland 2006: 17). While acknowledging their impact, Allison does not account for the overarching implications of nuclear weapons for the TT argument. Allison uses the cost of nuclear war as a warning for the US and China to manage their ‘clash of civilisations’ but does not account for how they may have changed the nature of warfare (Allison 2019: 89). All three of the last historical cases analysed by Allison, all in the nuclear era, did not result in war. It is a pattern that Allison attributes to the ‘huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions’ that were made by both the challenger and the challenged (Allison 2015). He does not conceptualize that nuclear weapons ‘restrain competition and inhibit conventional war between powers possessing them’ because ‘they induce caution because their effects are so horrific’ (Eland 2006: 17) In addition, Allison’s study of post-WW2 power transitions does not consider the ways in which the nature of conflict has now changed. Great power rivalries are no longer driven by a ‘desire to enlarge territory and achieve national advancement through territorial gain’ as they were in all of Allison’s pre-1945 case studies (Alexandroff and Stein 2017). Great power rivalries now largely take place within the economic domain, between what Rosecrane calls ‘trading states’, who see little gain in major conflict (in Ibid). This essay argues that the TT is an unsuitable approach to interpret power-transitions, and therefore cannot be used to argue if the US and China are destined for war. 

Are the US and China Destined for War? – an alternate theory.

Power Transition Theory (PPT), is a far more theoretically-sound approach to address this question. The PTT offers a framework to evaluate the claim that the US and China are destined for war. It usefully addresses Allison’s claim because much of the TT argument duplicate ‘some of the efforts of PTT research without explicitly building on PTT’s useful contributions’ (DiCicco 2017: 2-3).  In short, PTT conceptualises international politics as a hierarchy (Ibid: 5). At the top of the pyramid is the single dominant power (ibid). Below this are a small group of great powers, followed by medium and then small power states (ibid). It measures a state’s power as a state’s ability to influence the rules-based international system and the benefits it can yield from it (ibid: 4). Powerful states are able to yield disproportionate benefits from the international system compared to weak states (ibid). States are only powerful in the first place because they have several perquisites: ‘a large population, efficient political organisation and industrial economic development’ (ibid: 5). The dominant power exists above all because it benefits the most from the international order that it has created. The United States (the current dominant power) is therefore not only the most powerful because of the international order, but also highly satisfied with the status quo, and thus reluctant to revise the order (ibid).

The order of the hierarchy is not however static. ‘Endogenous growth of economies’ constantly alters the relative distribution of power among them, which in time can diminish the dominant powers’ preponderance- and possibly peace’ (ibid: 4). Currently the United States, is experiencing relative stagnation in its economic growth, while China, a powerful great state is drawing close to reaching a state of parity with the US (ibid). According to PTT, ‘an emboldened challenger might take a play for pre-eminence in the order or create a new one in its place’ (ibid). In this scenario ‘the rising power might demand from the dominant power alterations to the existing order, or the replacement of the existing order with a new one’ (ibid). Unlike in the TT, the dominant power’s decision to go to war would not be motivated by emotions like fear, but in terms of the benefits it would lose if the rising power upset the status quo (ibid: 9). Thus, power transition theorists argue that in this sort of power-transition scenario armed conflict is highly likely. However, unlike with Allison’s TT, PTT considers the impact of agency in a power transition scenario. Afterall, going to war is not an unintentional act, it is a purposeful action determined by human agency (ibid: 7). While structural pressures can certainly push states towards conflict, agents still have significant influence and a role into the consequential steps toward war (Ibid: 11). In PTT, war can only arise from a calculated challenge by a rising state that is choosing to initiate war (Ibid: 7). 

Accepting that PTT offers a viable and credible theoretical framework, it can be used to answer the claim that the US and China are destined for war. The question revolves around whether China is going to challenge the United States position as the dominant power in the world? To answer this question the PTT makes a number of observations that need to be taken about the behaviour of China. The first is there is should be discernible examples in China’s history of it initiating a war as a challenger to move up the hierarchy of the PTT pyramid; and they haven’t (ibid: 11). As David Kang and Xinru Ma show in their work on the Imjin War (1592-1598), conflicts related to power transitions are largely a Eurocentric phenomenon (Kang and Ma 2018: 138-139). In their work they show that the Imjin War, the only break in peace between Japan, Korea and China in the three hundred years before and after, was motivated by Japan’s pursuit of wealth and prestige not ‘by a power transition between a rising power and declining power’ (ibid: 143). It is power vacuums not power transitions that cause conflict in East Asia (ibid: 149). Kang and Mu argue that a regional power transition has already taken place with China moving above Japan in the hierarchy. Instead of war there has been increased economic and diplomatic cooperation between China, Japan, and its Asian neighbours (ibid: 146). PRC military doctrine indicates that it will only engage in a conflict when it interprets sovereign Chinese territory or national interests to be directly under-threat, as demonstrated with MacArthur’s advance to the China-Korea boarder in 1950 (Ji 2014: 242). In this respect, historical evidence suggests that China will not want to directly challenge the US’s position. 

The second observation concerns whether China presently shows a willingness to use force to disrupt the American status quo (DiCicco 2017: 11). In order to answer this question, one must look at regional and international developments. Regionally, it would appear that since the Cold War China has shown a willingness to disrupt the American status quo as the dominant military presence across the region. As Yongjin Zhang observes, China has been ‘increasingly uncompromising, and sometimes aggressive in dealing with simmering territorial disputes and hardening maritime claims in the South China Sea’ (Zhang 2016: 770). It has militarised a range of artificial and natural islands in the maritime territory and has increasingly been aggressive toward its neighbours (ibid). The militarisation of the South China Sea threatens ‘to escalate regional, territorial and maritime disputes into geostrategic rivalry between China and the US’ (ibid). While China’s defences in the South China Sea certainly do threaten the operations of the US Navy and undermine its dominance in the region, it is important to ask whether China is actually attempting to upset the status quo, or in fact the United States forced China to act more assertively following the US’s 2010 Asia Pivot. As Wu Xinbo recognises, China has for a long time regarded the US its single most important relationship both economically and politically (Xinbo 2013: 380-8). It has made its policy of refraining ‘from challenging US core national interests’ and committed to a mutually beneficial relationship (ibid). This essay maintains that China has not willingly disrupted the status quo but has been increasingly forced to act assertively to defend against what it sees as a national security threat. From China’s perspective ‘the global US empire surrounds China in a post-Cold War policy of neocontainment’ with military facilitates and military groups surrounding China across Asia (Eland 2006: 8). This essay maintains that China’s ‘adventurism’ in the South China Sea is an attempt to defend interests, not an attempt to upset the American status quo. China also shows willingness to cooperate with the US. As T.J. Pempel highlights, ‘China has eagerly joined and, today, actively participates in countless multilateral bodies such as the WTO, UN and the IMF, which required major accommodations within China’s domestic financial and economic system’ (Pempel 2015: 92).  In 2018 China conducted military cooperation activity in at ‘least 20 bilateral and multilateral exercises’ and ‘continues to contribute more peacekeeping forces than other UN Security Council permanent members’ (Department of Defence 2018: 17) In consideration of all the above factors, the PTT strongly suggests that war will not be caused by China’s rise.

Conclusion

This has essay has demonstrated the weaknesses in Graham Allison’s claim that the US and China are destined for war. In the first section the essay considered the theoretical weaknesses in Allison’s argument. It concluded that the TT is not a credible framework to understand power-transitions due to methodology flaws in Allison’s argument. The essay highlighted the lack of a coherent theoretical framework due to an absence of metrics and the consideration of agency in his argument. This section stressed Allison’s failure to account for major developments in modern-day power transitions, including the influence of nuclear weapons and trading states. The essay therefore determined that the TT is not a complete and suitable approach to understand power-transitions and thus to answer the claim made by Allison. In order to evaluate Allison’s claim, the essay proceeded to use PTT to determine whether the US and China are destined for war. The essay considered a number of observations regarding the nature of China. It concluded, in line with PTT, that there is no evidence to suggest that China will try to challenge the US status quo and initiate a transition of power. The essay also stressed China’s historical reluctance for war.   As a consequence, this essay concludes that first the US and China are not caught in the TT, as there is not enough evidence to support its existence. And second, they are not destined for war, as the observations made using PTT provides no evidence to suggest that China will challenge the US status quo in the world. 

HR Sawyer

Bibliography 

Alexandroff, Alan and Stein, Arthur (2017) ‘The Trap in ‘The Thucydides Trap’: Framing US-China Relations’, available at https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/30/05/2017/trap-‘-thucydides-trap’-framing-us-china-relations

Allison, Graham (2017) Destined for War Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Harvard: Scribe Publications 

Allison. Graham (2015) ‘The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China Headed for War?’, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/

Allison, Graham (2019) ‘Escaping the Thucydides Trap’, available at https://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/escaping-the-thucydides-trap, accessed

Allison, Graham (2019) ‘China vs. America: Managing the Next Clash of Civilisations’, Foreign Affairs, 96 (1): 80-90

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Eland, Ivan (2006) ‘Is Future Conflict with China Avoidable?’, available at http://www.independent.org/publications/policy_reports/detail.asp?id=9261

Department of Defence (2018) Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, Washington DC, Office of the Secretary of Defence 

DiCicco, Johnathan M. (2017) ‘Power Transition Theory and the Essence of Revisionism’available at https://oxfordre.com/politics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-311?print=pdf

Kang, David C; Ma, Xinru (2018) ‘Power Transitions: Thucydides Didn’t Live in East Asia’, The Washington Quarterly, 41(1): 137-154

Pempel, T.J. (2015) ‘Thucydides (Clap) Trap: US-China Relations in a Changing Asia-Pacific’, Global Asia, 10 (4): 88-93

Waldron, Arthur (2017) ‘There is No Thucydides Trap’, available at https://motto.media/2017/06/21/arthur-waldron-there-is-no-thucydides-trap/

Xinbo, Wu (2013) ‘Chinese Visions of the Future of US-China Relations’ in Shambaugh, David (ed.) Tangled Titans, the United States and China, Washington DC: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers 

Zhang, Yongjin (2016) ‘Introduction: Dynamism and contention: understanding Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping’, International Affairs, 92(4):769-772

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