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Can China and America Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Taylor Stockdale
Statecraft is risky business. In fact, at times and for some, a matter of life and death.
 
The fickle fortunes of city-states and nations, their rise and fall throughout history, can seem both destined and accidental. From the rise and fall of Athens to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, professional historians and pundits alike, continuously argue and debate without end the causes and conditions of our history in hopes of finding something, if not final, then definitive, to say.  
 
As many of you reading this will know, I come from a military family—a family perennially involved in reading and discussing politics, history, philosophy, leadership and more. As the youngest of four boys, in my earliest years, I did a great deal more listening than talking on these subjects. But in college and in all these years that have followed, I’ve become ever more engaged with national and international affairs. And certainly now as Head of Schools, I feel a real responsibility to our students to be both interested and involved in civic life in our country and our global community of nations. There is no doubt that Webb is educating the next generation of leaders who will be called upon to act with honor and moral courage in the most critical of circumstances.
 
For all of these reasons, and at the suggestion of two of the smartest, unbounded thinkers I know, I was excited to read Graham Allison’s new book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Allison was the founding dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and the director of its Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Additionally, he served in the government advising presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.
 
Now, Thucydides in a nutshell. Known for writing a contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War (the three-decade long conflict between Greek city-states Athens and Sparta), Thucydides summarized his thoughts on the conflict like this: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Allison develops this further into what he calls Thucydides’s Trap: when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, the most likely outcome is war. Allison tests his tenet with frightening results. He reports that these “conditions” have occurred some 16 times over the last 500 years—and twelve times it has ended in violence. He begins in the late 15th century with Portugal and Spain and ends in the present.
 
Perhaps the most pleasing attribute of this book to me, discussing not only ancient history but modern day China and America, is that Allison means to be prescriptive—to offer solutions. He wants to answer the simple question: can China and America agree on a “shared primacy”? 
 
The road to a safer and more secure world must be won, according to Allison, through careful study from the highest levels of political leadership, greater cultural understanding between nations, sophisticated political strategy, and more. And when discussing present day China and America, he states firmly and succinctly, “The return to prominence of a 5,000-year-old civilization with 1.4 billion people is not a problem to be fixed.”         
 
Though this isn’t a book about China, but rather about the effect a rising China will have on America and the current world order, he does flesh out exactly what he means by “a rising China.”
 
Between 1980 and the start of the Great Recession of 2008, China’s economy grew an average of 10 percent annually—leading to the Chinese economy doubling every seven years. And, “…for every two-year period since 2009, the increment of growth in China’s GDP has been larger than the entire economy of India,” Allison says. Further, today, China is the largest producer of ships, steels, aluminum, furniture, clothing, textiles, cell phones, and computers.  They are the largest consumers of many products, including automobiles—and the largest importer of oil, user of energy, and producer of solar power in the world.
 
A final staggering note from Allison, “Since the Great Recession of 2008, 40 percent of all of the growth around the world has occurred in just one country: China.”
 
Again, while the book is a torrid tapestry of political and military history through the ages, hope is offered as well. Allison writes, “‘Fear’ is Thucydides one-word reminder that facts about structural realities are not the whole story. Objective conditions have to be perceived by human beings…”
 
Human beings. There’s our problem…and our solution. 
 
“The US-China gap most relevant for the Thucydides’s Trap emerges from competing conceptions of world order. The Chinese believe in harmony through hierarchy, both at home and abroad…On the other hand, Americans aspire to an international rule of law that is essentially American domestic rule of law writ large,” Allison says.     
 
The book concludes succinctly with advice and warnings. Allison firmly advises that US leaders clarify our country’s most vital interests, understand what China is trying to, work on sophisticated political strategies, and finally make domestic challenges and opportunities central. 
 
Allison also warns that without “stronger and more determined leadership” and the “recovery of a sense of civic responsibility” America will be doomed to “follow Europe down the road of decline.”
 
Certainly, Allison’s call for better leadership, for a renewed civic responsibility is at the heart of our mission at The Webb Schools. Indeed, inside our classrooms and out—on our playing fields, in student leadership, chapel and more, our faculty and staff work tirelessly with our students to recognize that doing the right thing often means doing the hard thing. No work is more important to us than this. 
 
I hope many of you will find this short review interesting enough to search out the book and read it yourself. I look forward to hearing your thoughts as you do.

Taylor Stockdale is Head of Schools of The Webb Schools. He and his wife, Anne, have two children, Bailey '11 and Claire '14.
 
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