During the transition of power from one hegemony to the next are periods of extreme upheaval and destruction in international history. One finds three such cases in the modern world.
First is the period of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) at the end of which France took over from Spain; second is the period of the wars waged by revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1792-1815) at the end of which Great Britain took over from France; and third is the period from the Great War till the World War II (1914-1945) at the end of which the United States took over from the United Kingdom as the new leader and hegemony of the world.
Many historians of international politics are saying that the world is once again moving towards a similar phase in history. Power in the international system is shifting from the West towards the East, or to be more precise, from the United States towards China.
Today China is certainly much stronger and more assertive than at any time in its modern past. Naturally, this increased strength and swag of China has kindled an academic-cum-popular debate regarding its implications for international order and peace. Authored by Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? is one of the latest and among the most prominent books to join this debate on the rise of China and its global impact.
Allison, a long-time academic at the Harvard University, has coined a new term —Thucydides’s Trap — to capture the possible consequences of the emergence of China as almost equal to the United States as a great power.
Thucydides’s Trap, according to the author, means “the natural, inevitable discombobulation that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power” (p xvi). In this present 17th case of Thucydides’s Trap, Allison sees China as the rising power whereas United States is designated as the ruling power. When stuck in Thucydides’s Trap, “not just extraordinary, unexpected events, but even ordinary flashpoints of foreign affairs, can trigger large-scale conflict” (p 29).
In the previous 16 cases of Thucydides’s Trap identified over the last 500 years, an overwhelming 12 of them have resulted in devastating war between the rising and the ruling powers.
The fact that a quarter, or four, cases of Thucydides’s Trap did not result in war informs us that “the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one” can be managed rather peacefully (ibid).
To sum up, Allison cautions us about our impending fall into Thucydides’s Trap while counselling us how to break the trap without it resulting in large-scale violence and war. This is the express motive of this book.
There is no doubt that the increased power of China has brought its increased imprint and influence throughout the world. It has become an important international actor in South and Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, and has even managed to penetrate many countries of the West.
It no more restrains itself in the name non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. Compelled to bring order and secure its interest, China has been taking sides in the domestic matters of many countries.
Though the second Cold War is yet to begin, international rivalry between the United States and China for political heft and economic interest has greatly intensified in the last few years.
Despite all this, Xi Jinping’s China is yet not as strong as Theodore Roosevelt’s United States before World War I or Stalin and Krushchev’s Soviet Russia after World War II, as Allison would like us to believe.
Actually, all the talk about China’s rise is based on a relentless increase in its economic size since the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. And measured in purchasing power of their respective currencies, China may be as big, or even slightly bigger than the United States.
But measured in US dollar, a currency of international exchange and reserve, Chinese economy is little more than half the American size. And even if China is as big as America (in PPP), it is not as rich as America.
The United States is four times richer than China. Extraction of wealth for a hegemonic war — which is what could be one of the results of the so-called Thucydides’s Trap — is easier in a rich country than in a poor one.
Extraction of wealth in poorer countries after a limit can cause revolt. Widespread rebellion and later the Bolshevik revolution against Tsarist Russia, while it was still involved in the Great War, is a case in point. Russia was the poorest of the five great powers to enter the World War I.
Moreover, equality in economic size does not mean equality in military strength. As Fareed Zakaria has shown in his seminal study, From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role, it takes some time to convert wealth into power.
It took the United States around quarter of a century from being the richest to being the strongest country of the world. Therefore, though contemporary China has a global reach, it is yet not a full-fledged great power on par with the United States.
However, the merit of the monograph under discussion lies in the fact that it has successfully highlighted the twilight period in international politics when an established hegemony is declining and a new one is yet to rise. Such periods of transition are full of confusion, upheaval and conflict.
Thirty years from 1914 till 1945 was one such period in the immediate past when Great Britain was declining and the United States was still to fully rise. Pocked with two aborted German attempts at hegemony, the result of this transition of power was two wars so widespread and devastating that a new term “world war” was minted to understand and describe them.
Policy-makers both in the United States and China, and other important international actors like India would do good to read this Allison book. It shall spur them to think and devise ways to avoid this plausible cataclysmic conflict, sometime in the future.
The reviewer is doctoral candidate, department of international relations, South Asian University, New Delhi