China and Thucydides’ trap: Graham Allison speaks to UVU

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Noted political scientist and diplomat Graham Allison spoke to UVU students and faculty on Thursday regarding the relationship between the United States and China.

Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. He’s also worked as an advisor in the Department of Defense for every administration since Reagan.  

The term ‘Thucydides’ trap,’ coined by Allison himself, refers to a historical trend which says that when one major power moves to supplant another, war is the outcome more often than not. The historian Thucydides saw this during his record of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens’ growth essentially scared Sparta into war. That conflict created the first Thucydidean rivalry, the same type that the U.S. and China find themselves in today.

Allison reviewed the two big predicaments in the world today: nuclear and climatological mutually assured destruction. Thanks to nuclear weapons, total war between the U.S. and China would lead to destruction on both sides.

“Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” former-President Ronald Reagan said, a sentiment echoed by Allison in his lecture.

As far as climate goes, the U.S. and China are first and second in the world in emissions. If one or both powers are unwilling to curb their emissions, we’ll create a biosphere that’s uninhabitable for anyone, Allison said. 

It’s worth noting that Professor Allison said war is not always inevitable in a Thucydidean rivalry; in the Belfer Center’s studies of 16 rivalries, one-quarter ended in coexistence, though the rest broke out in war. 

In talking about how world powers can coexist, Allison brought up a story of a Chinese dynasty and a Mongol horde. Knowing that neither side could win, both sides negotiated a treaty that made them rivals in some arenas, but allies in others. 

He compared this arrangement – which would be ideal for relations between the U.S. and China – to the rivalry between Apple and Samsung. The two companies are fiercely competitive, but Samsung is still the biggest supplier of parts for Apple products. If Samsung were to fail, Apple would be in trouble, thus they are “condemned to be together,” as Allison phrased it.

“Frequently, neither power wants the war,” Allison said. More often, he said, a ‘black swan’ or an unintended accident will trigger war. An example he gave was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was the last straw that led to World War I.