The Limits Of Predictive Power: Graham Allison’s “Destined For War”

The central thesis of Dr. Graham Allison’s Destined for War:  Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? is relatively straightforward to state.  When a rising power (China) is confronted by a relatively declining power (the United States), the declining one often resorts to making war on its enemy.  Allison’s term for this phenomenon is “Thucydides’s Trap,” a phrase taken from the following observation by the great Greek historian:

It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.

As Dr. Allison sees history, this dynamic–i.e., a declining power making war on a rising one–has been a significant feature of the international great-power scene for many centuries.  In the past five hundred years, he notes no fewer than sixteen examples of a nascent power being confronted by an established one.  Sometimes the status quo power has made war on its opponent; sometimes it has not.  Allison wisely shies away from making a direct prediction on a coming conflict, pointing out only that such a confrontation is a possibility.  He thus avoids the slide into irrelevance that has been the fate of many less prudently worded tomes, such as George Friedman’s 1991 book The Coming War With Japan.  

The temptation in reviewing a book that has the words “destined” and “war” in the title is to focus on whether the review thinks the author is “correct.”  This is something we need not do, because Dr. Allison spends his efforts detailing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two countries, rather than trying to act as fortune-teller.  No one really knows what the future will bring, and very few things are really inevitable.  The great value of Allison’s book is the meticulous detail with which he analyzes the relative positions of each power.  Anyone looking for a succinct summary of China’s economic miracle can find no better account than what is contained within these covers.

Just as fascinating is Chapter 9, entitled “Twelve Clues for Peace.”  Here, Allison uses case studies of past great-power rivalries, and explains the reasons that made them either bloody or bloodless.  History is so rich in examples that a historian can prove nearly anything he wants just by a selective sampling; but we have to start somewhere, and comparative case studies at least give us a place to begin.  The book contains a wealth of sober, dispassionate analysis, and is highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand current economic and political trends.

Each reader, of course, will eventually reach his own predictive conclusion as to whether a war is likely to happen.  That is part of the fun of the game, after all.  Perhaps books like this are as valuable in what they say about our own thinking as they are in what they say about international relations.  I couldn’t help recalling historian Will Durant’s aside that appeared in the 1934 edition of his book, Our Oriental Heritage (the first volume of his “Story of Civilization”) as the last sentence in the chapter in Japan:

Usually in history, when two nations have contested for the same markets, the nation that has lost in the economic competition, if it is stronger in resources and armament, has made war upon its enemy.

Allison does not mention this Will Durant quotation, and I have no idea whether he is aware of it.  But this passage to me seems much more on-point–and unsettling–than the Thucydides quote he takes as the go-to line for his book.  Perhaps we need a “Durant Corollary” (focused on economic power) to the “Thucydides Trap.”  In any case, the dynamic of the rising power testing the declining power is one that historians have observed for a long time.  It is always a bad sign if everyone thinks war is inevitable; for by believing that war is inevitable, we help make it so.  It is almost as if some collective delusion, some conscious group-think, takes hold of our minds at once and leads us down a certain path.

Recall the 1890 publication of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s masterwork The Influence of Seapower On History, 1660–1783.  Upon its publication, the book generated a storm of interest.  Kaiser Wilhelm II devoured it with relish, and ordered copies for every ship in the German Navy.  Theodore Roosevelt read it carefully, as did the leaders of all the other great powers.  Everyone (or nearly everyone) seemed to think that the book stood for the idea that “sea power is the key determinant of national destiny” and that “to survive, you need to build a big navy.”

Yet no one seemed to notice that part of the book’s title was this range of dates at the end:  1660–1783.  In other words, Mahan never intended to make some generalized, sweepingly broad rule that sea power was always more important than anything else.  He was limiting himself to a specific period of time,  1660 to 1783, and argued that sea power had played a critical role during that specific period.  But this did not resonate with the leaders of the great powers; his equivocations and qualifications were lost on them.  What they heard was:  naval power is all-important.  This was the age of military build-ups, arms races, and relentless jockeying for position.  England, France, and Germany saw and read in Mahan’s book what they chose to see and read.  They thought they had found in Mahan an apostle of navies, and they used him as the justification they needed to continue building guns and battleships.

We must take care not to let our inclinations color our judgments.  Nothing is inevitable in history, and to believe so is to abdicate our own responsibilities to future generations.  Perhaps this is the best lesson to be found in Allison’s book, and it is one that I hope never to forget.

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