President Donald J. Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People, Thursday, November 9, 2017, in Beijing, People’s Republic of China. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
One of the original insights that drives our understanding of international relations was made about 2,500 years ago by the historian Thucydides. In examining the causes of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
In other words, when a rising power threatens to displace an established power, the most likely outcome is war.
Modern scholars call this dynamic Thucydides’s Trap.
We are living in a moment when this theory will be tested.
Tensions between the United States and China are escalating by the day. This includes, most recently, a dispute over the status of Hong Kong. But there are also other numerous points of contention, many of which stem from the fact that the United States is the status quo power while China is on the ascent.
My guest today, Graham Allison, is a legendary scholar of international relations. The last time we spoke was just after the release of his 2017 book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? The book examined over a dozen historic cases in which global power shifts resulted in wars, and a few cases in which it did not. The book makes a compelling case, that war between the US as established power and China as the rising power –while not inevitable – is far more likely than we might think.
I wanted to re-connect with Graham Allison to see if he thinks world events are confirming or refuting his thesis. This includes the role of this pandemic in shaping trends that might lead to war.
If you have 25 minutes and want to learn what history and international relations theory can teach us about the likelihood of conflict between the United States and China in the near future, have a listen.