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Are the U.S. and China heading toward war? What ancient Greek history can teach us

August 22, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Harvard professor Graham Allison ponders the conflict between the world’s two greatest powers in his new book, "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides' Trap?" Allison joins Margaret Warner to discuss what happens when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Are the United States and China heading toward war? It’s a theoretical question, but one with its roots in the writings of an ancient Greek historian. In this latest addition to the NewsHour bookshelf, Margaret Warner talks to Professor Graham Allison of Harvard University about his new work, “Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARGARET WARNER: To what degree do you think the United States and China fall into this trap that this historian Thucydides set up 25 centuries ago?

GRAHAM ALLISON, Harvard University: I would say almost precisely. Thucydides observed a competition between Athens and Sparta, and wrote famously about the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta. So, when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, in general, bad things happen.

In this case, we see almost a prototypical rising power in China, which is restoring — being restored, as some think of it, to its natural place at the center of the universe, and is the dominant power. And no ruling power has ever been sure that it belongs as number one than the USA. So, I would say, this is an almost perfect lucidity dynamic, and I think we’re seeing the syndrome in both cases, and the behavior of both parties.

MARGARET WARNER: You call about the ruling power syndrome and the rising power syndrome. The sort of habit of mind that takes place.

GRAHAM ALLISON: So the rising power thinks: I’ve become bigger. I’ve become stronger. My interests deserve more weight.

I deserve more say. I deserve more sway. The current arrangements are confining because they were set in place when I didn’t really matter. So, things should be adjusted.

And the ruling power thinks: the status quo is terrific, in which I’m the ruling power and you’re a lesser power. And the status quo has been so effective, it provides an order that’s allowed you to grow up, to become big and strong.

So, if you look at companies, when you have an incumbent and disruptive upstart, Uber versus the taxi industry, or Google and Apple versus established industry — generally what happens in this, is both of the parties, each, almost to the fact, act out this syndrome.

And you can certainly see this in the U.S., thinking: Wait a minute. China, as President Trump said, is eating our breakfast, eating our lunch, eating our dinners, all everywhere.

And China thinking: The U.S. is trying to keep us down.

MARGARET WARNER: What role does the — do the sort of personalities, temperaments, governing styles of the leaders play in this?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Well, they can be substantial. And I think, I look at the last 500 years. I find 16 cases which a rising power threatens to displace a major ruling power. Twelve of them end in war, four of them not in war.

We take a war case, which is particularly instructive, World War I. Now, how could the assassination of an archduke, who otherwise nobody cared much about, in Sarajevo by a Serbian terrorist, have produced a spark that created a fire that burned down the whole house of Europe? So devastating, that by the end of the war, historians had to invent a whole new category, World War.

I mean, it seems incredible, but Germany had risen great fear in Britain. Germany was being ruled by the kaiser. The kaiser, as Bismarck said about it, is like a balloon fluttering in the wind on the end of a string. And if anybody ever let go of the string, which they did, watch out.

Each of the parties distrust the other hugely. Everything each other does is misinterpreted. External events can have impacts that would otherwise be inconsequential. The role that the leaders play can be very important. And in the German case, Germany versus Britain, the kaiser is a particularly instructive case.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush and President Obama have worked very hard with the Chinese. The Chinese leader, President Xi, has even talked about avoiding the Thucydides trap. So, given all of that, is it inextricable?

GRAHAM ALLISON: It’s not inextricable. And if, God forbid, we find ourselves in a war with China in the next year, or several years, leaders will not be able to blame some iron law of history. But if we look at what’s happening on the North Korean peninsula today, that’s the fastest path to war. Not a war China wants, not a war the U.S. wants. But if the only way to stop Kim Jong-un from testing ICBMs that can deliver nuclear warheads against San Francisco and Los Angeles is to attack them, President Trump has said he’s going to do that.

And if the U.S. attacks North Korea in order to prevent this test, it’s quite possible, that will be a trigger to what will ultimately end in a war between the U.S. and China. So, I think it’s extremely dangerous.

MARGARET WARNER: What can these two powers do now to avoid that track?

GRAHAM ALLISON: What you would wish and hope, is that there was like adult supervision. Now, of course, we know in international affairs, there’s not adult supervision. It’s an anarchy and there’s nobody on top of Xi Jinping or Donald Trump.

But if they should sit down and just say, let’s for a moment, stand back from the situation. We — neither of us want war, there’s a little pipsqueak country between us that’s taking actions that may drag the two of us somewhere where we don’t want to go. Let’s think about it and look at it.

And apart from the Thucydidian dynamic, apart from the fact that there’s zero level of trust between the two parties, because when the Chinese look at this situation, they think, well, you shouldn’t even be in the Korean peninsula. If you weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a problem.

And we look and say, Korea’s one of the most successful countries in the world. It’s really a poster child of the post-World War II project to build a new international order. It’s a democracy, market economy, so we think we need to be there.

But you would wish that people would still stand back and say, look, war would be catastrophic. We should become much more imaginative about willing to adapt and adjust in order to find a way around this.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in making adjustments, is it the United States that’s going to have to make more adjustments?

GRAHAM ALLISON: I would say both parties would have to make very substantial adjustments, but historically, the ruling power has to make more painful adjustments than the rising power.

MARGARET WARNER: Graham Allison, author of “Destined For War: Can America and China Avoid the Thucydides’s Trap?” Thank you so much.

GRAHAM ALLISON: Thanks for having me.

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