Global Ethics Forum: Can America & China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? with Graham Allison


(upbeat music) – Good evening, everyone. I’m Joanne Myers, and on
behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank
you all for joining us on this very special
evening as we welcome the eminent Harvard
scholar Dr. Graham Allison. Tonight he will be discussing
his very timely book, entitled Destined for
War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? – The book and tonight
does three things. First, it introduces
you to a great thinker, and before you’re done tonight,
those of you who haven’t met him before will or
will be reintroduced to a great thinker; it
presents a big idea; and it poses a
consequential question. The great thinker is Thucydides. Thucydides wrote the
first ever history book, history defined as an accurate
account of what happened and why, without any
interference from
spirits or myths or other external
themes of the sort that Herodotus was given
to including in his story. So, Thucydides just tried
to get the facts right, and he did so with a famous
book on Classical Greece, called The History, that’s
why he calls that the name of the Peloponnesian War. You can actually go
download that for free, read just Book One,
the first 100 pages. If it doesn’t knock your
socks off every other page, check your pulse. This is a very, very
thoughtful fellow. So, Thucydides. The big idea, this idea that
I coined about six years ago, is called Thucydides’s Trap,
a metaphor to make vivid Thucydides’s insight,
so this is his idea, not Graham’s idea, that
when a rising power threatens to displace
a ruling power, like Athens impacted
Sparta, which had been the dominant power in
Greece for 100 years; or Germany impacted Britain
120 years or so ago, that was the roll-up
to World War I, even though Britain had
been the dominant power for a century; or China is
impacting the U.S. today, so when a rising power threatens
to displace a ruling power, in general, poop happens. Thucydides’s Trap is the
dangerous dynamic that occurs in this interaction
between a rising power that is threatening to
displace a ruling power. In the book I review the
last 500 years of history. I found 16 cases
of this phenomenon, of which, say, the rise
of Germany and its impact on Britain is a good example. In 12 of these cases
the outcome was war, in four of the cases
the outcome was not war. So to say that under these
conditions war is inevitable would be mistaken, and
this book does not say war is inevitable. To say that under these
conditions war is possible, even likely, even that
the odds are against this, would be accurate. So that’s Thucydides’s Trap. Finally, the question is
the subtitle of the book, which has already
been mentioned, which is Can America and China
Escape Thucydides’s Trap? That’s I think the question. So why don’t I take
about 20 minutes left to organize my comments as
answers to three questions. So I’ll give you
three questions. For each of them I’ll give
you the tweet-sized answer, in respect of Washington today, and then I’ll say
a little bit more, since we have a little bit
more time than a tweet. Question one: What has
been the most significant geopolitical event
of the last 25 years? Second question: What will
be the most significant geostrategic challenge for the
U.S. for the next 25 years, so from this point
looking forward as far as anybody can see? And third, this
nagging question: Can America and China
escape Thucydides’s Trap? First, the tweet-sized
answers: The geopolitical event of the last 25 years has
been the rise of China. Never before has a country
risen so far so fast on so many different dimensions. Indeed, for those of you
who haven’t been watching, the first chapter of the
book gives you a good jolt. I quote former Czech
President Václav Havel’s wonderful comment: “Things
have happened so fast “we haven’t yet had
time to be astonished.” I would say look at the
facts and be astonished. Looking forward at
the next 25 years, or as far as anybody can see,
the geostrategic challenge will be, my tweet, the
impact of the rise of China on the U.S. and on
Americans’ sense of our role in the world and on
the international order that the U.S. constructed
and has largely underwritten for the last seven decades. So, the impact of the
rise of China on the U.S. and the international order. Finally, can America and China
escape Thucydides’s Trap: the third question. There the book retreats
to the professorial perch, actually that’s my
job most of the time, and answers
decisively no and yes. Let me explain. So, no if we insist
on business as usual in relations with China, and
that’s I think what we’ve seen for the last 20 years under
both Republicans and Democrats, then we should expect
history as usual, and history as usual in
this case would be war, indeed, god forbid,
a catastrophic war. So, no if we insist
on business as usual. But yes, we can escape
Thucydides’s Trap if we take seriously Santayana’s
insight, in which he said, “Only those who refuse
to study history “are condemned to repeat it.” So we are not obliged
to make the mistakes that the kaiser made in 1914
or that Pericles made in 431 when Corcyra and Corinth
got into a conflict. So there are plenty of
mistakes that others have made that we don’t necessarily
have to repeat, but we will do if we just
do business as usual. So, no and yes. Let me say a few more
words about each. But that’s the frame. So, to the first question,
the biggest geopolitical event of the last 25 years,
the rise of China. If you haven’t been watching,
I think you will find this 20 pages of Chapter One
on the rise of China a jolt. When I do the presentation
of it with slides, I would show you the slide of
the bridge that goes across the Charles River in Cambridge
between the Kennedy School and the business school. It’s called the Anderson Bridge. I can see this bridge
out of my office. The renovation of this
bridge, the discussion of it began when I was dean
of the Kennedy School, and I quit being dean in 1989. The construction project
began in earnest in 2012 and was declared to
be a two-year project. In 2014 it was declared
it wasn’t finished. That was obvious
for anybody to see, with the big traffic
jams, and they said it would take one more year. In 2015 they said
it wasn’t finished and would take one more year. In 2016 they said,
“We’re not gonna tell you “when it’s gonna be finished.” But it was already
three times over budget. And now actually all
the traffic works on it, they just still haven’t
quite finished it. There is a bridge in
Beijing that I drove across two months ago when I was there
called the Sanyuan Bridge. It’s got three times
more lanes of traffic than the Anderson
Bridge, so it is bigger. In 2015 the Chinese
decided they wanted to renovate the Sanyuan Bridge. How long did it take to
complete that project? Forty-three hours. Now, I know in New York
the Second Avenue subway only took (laughing), so
you are not like Boston. How many miles of
high-speed rail has the U.S. successfully constructed
that are operating today? The answer is zero. We have one project that has
actually been very active, it’s from San Francisco
to Los Angeles. It was started 10 years
ago, and it was announced to be done in 2017. It was then announced that
it might be finished in 2029, that’s the current
estimate, and many people in California think that
it will never be finished. In the same 10-year period
when we were not building the 500 miles, China built
and are now operating how many miles of
high-speed rail? 16,000. In fact, most Americans
don’t know that China today has the largest
national economy, bigger than the
American economy. “Well, no, that can’t be. “I read in the paper
always that China “is the second-largest economy.” Go to the IMF website,
go to the CIA website, take the yardstick they regard
as the single best yardstick for comparing
national economies. That’s called
Purchasing Power Parity. You will see that China’s
economy is today bigger than America’s economy. “Well, that shouldn’t be. “I don’t like that. “I think our economy should
be the biggest economy.” Well, that’s good,
I’d like that, too. But the facts are hard to deny. The first proposition
is that what’s happened literally in the 25
years, we’re old enough to remember where
we were 25 years ago so while we have hardly been
watching, this meteoric rise has just been in
every dimension. China will be rivaling, and
in many domains surpassing, the U.S. over this period of
time, as it already has been, and for some time to come. So that’s the past. Looking to the future, the
geostrategic challenge. As I said, it’s
the impact of this. This is really again
Thucydides’s idea. So, I’m the ruling
power, Sparta, Britain, I’ve been the ruling
power, U.S., for 100 years. So this is natural. This is the way things should
be, they were all my life. Actually this is a good
way for things to be. So this is not just
the status quo, this is the international order; actually it’s the international
order we constructed and we’ve maintained. And without this international
order, you, upstart, would not even have had a
chance to become an upstart. So actually the Asian
order that the U.S. has provided for the seven
decades since World War II, the economic and security order, has provided the
environment that’s enabled all of the Asian miracles. They would not have occurred
in the absence of that. Nobody has benefited more
from this than China. When I was working in
the U.S. government, I often explained to them why
they should be so grateful for this, and they
should, I think. Indeed, we tried to explain
to them why they should help pay for it, they should
share more responsibilities. And they say, as
Athens said to Sparta, “But you put all of this in
place before we even got here. “You didn’t take account of
our interests because we didn’t “even count when you
established this order.” As the Chinese tell us, “You
wrote the rules for what is “the IMF and what
is the World Bank “and what is the
alliance structure,
you didn’t consult us.” In this dynamic, the rising
power naturally feels, I’m bigger, I’m stronger,
I deserve more say, I deserve more sway. This current
situation is unfair, it doesn’t really
rate my interest consistent with
my size and scale. We are finally now standing
up to be big and strong, the way we always were until
some foreigners showed up about 200 years ago, these
Europeans with technology, and they humiliated us. Then the Americans
came on to help. But now we’re bigger,
we’re stronger, so we’re standing
up for ourselves. And the ruling power,
the U.S., says, Wait a minute, you’re trying
to upset the status quo. Indeed, you are trying to undo the whole international order,
and what are the consequences of that going to be? That story is as old
as history itself, and we can see how
those dynamics work. I describe those in the book, and you can see
the elements of it. But I think the impact of the
rise of China on Americans’ sense even of who we are
and our role in the world you can already see in part. This book was not written
with Donald Trump in mind. Actually, it was completed
before he was elected. But I have in the preface
just two or three pages that note that Thucydides
wouldn’t be all that surprised at the campaign that was
run, and even the election of somebody like Trump, because
he would say ruling powers become insecure and
they become fearful. Even in the extreme they
can become paranoid. Remember what in Greek
comes right after fear comes extreme paranoia. In the campaign, the
principal obstacle to American greatness,
according to Donald Trump, was China, which has been
“raping our economy,” he said, and so forth. This impact I think we
haven’t seen the end of. We have actually only
seen the beginnings of it. But I think anybody who
missed China’s ambition to stand tall and be
strong in the East, and as I explain in the
book, and this comes from Lee Kuan Yew, who was
the person who knew China the best, this leads
to the question: Are these folks serious
about displacing the U.S. as the predominant power in
Asia in the foreseeable future? Actually, I have it
in the book. He says, “Of course. Why not? Who could
expect them to do otherwise? “How could they not want to be
the dominant power in Asia?” But wait a minute. But we’re the dominant
power in Asia, and our dominance has
provided this environment. So there’s the rub. Finally, can America and China
escape Thucydides’s Trap? Thucydides’s idea is not, let
me make sure what it is not, that because the rising
power is getting bigger and stronger, it says,
“I’m big and I’m strong, “it’s time for me
to attack you.” And it’s not because
the ruling power says, Well, look at this upstart. He is already almost
as big as I am. If I leave him alone,
tomorrow he’s going to be even stronger. I better fight him now. That’s not what happens. What happens is that, caught
in this dangerous dynamic, third-party actions become
provocations to which one or the other feels obliged
to react, to which the other primary actor feels
obliged to respond, which then leads to a
cascade, often dragging people where they don’t want to go. So, how did the assassination
of an archduke in 1914 produce a conflagration that
burned out the whole of Europe, at the end of which it was
so devastated that historians had to create a
whole new category? That is why it is
called World War I. It’s a puzzle. I have a good
chapter on it in the book. It’s a question I have
asked since I was a student at Harvard. I still can’t believe it. I can’t understand it. It doesn’t make any sense. After the war, every one
of the principal actors had lost what he
cared about most. So, the Austro-Hungarian
emperor is trying to hold his empire together; the
empire is dissolved, he’s gone. The Russian tsar is
trying to back the Serbs; his whole regime had been
overthrown by the Bolsheviks, the communists. The kaiser is trying to back
his only ally in Vienna; he’s been tossed out. France is militarily allied
with Russia; it’s been bled of its youth for a whole
generation, never recovers as a player in
international affairs. And Britain, which had been
a creditor for 100 years, has been turned into a
debtor and is on a slow slide to decline. So if you had given to people
a chance for a do-over, nobody would have chosen this. But they did, and it happened. So who is our best
candidate for a provocateur in the current dynamic between
the United States and China? Kim Jong-un. Could Kim Jong-un drag the
U.S. and China into war? Never, it’s impossible. I asked this at the PLA
Senior Colonels’ Academy when I was there
a few months ago, and this young colonel said,
“Absolutely not, no way.” He said, ‘Nobody in
China wants to have a war “with the United
States, not one person. “Everybody knows it
would be catastrophic.” And he said, “I study the
U.S. Nobody in the U.S. “wants a war with China. They
know that would be crazy. “So it can’t happen.” So I said, “Well, thank you,
but when I’ve studied it, “it says Chinese
study history a lot. “Does anybody else have a view?” This other senior colonel said, “Let me answer. Of
course they could.” And he said, “Why, of course,
they could. They already did. This already happened in 1950.” The young man said,
“I wasn’t born then.” “That’s okay. I
can’t help that.” In 1950 North Korea
attacked South Korea. South Korea was almost overrun. The U.S. came to rescue
at the last minute, pushed the North Koreans
right back up the peninsula, right across the 38th Parallel. MacArthur thought he was going
to finish all the business by Christmas and we
were coming home. Korea was going to be unified. Out of the blue
came 300,000 Chinese and then another half million. Beat us right back down the
peninsula to the 38th Parallel, where the armistice. Tens of thousands of Americans,
hundreds of thousands of Chinese, and millions of
Koreans died in this war. Most of the Americans
were killed by Chinese, most of the Chinese were
killed by Americans. Did anybody want a war between
the United States and China? No. Mao had only the
year before barely consolidated control of China. The U.S. was Superman. We had just dropped
atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years
before to end World War II. So the idea of “You’re
going to attack Superman? Forget about it.” But they did, and it happened. So watch this space. In the months immediately
ahead, either Kim Jong-un is going to conduct
more ICBM tests, and after the next series
or the series after that, but not a year,
before a year’s out, he’s going to have the ability
to strike San Francisco and Los Angeles with
a nuclear warhead. That’s inconceivable, but I’m
telling you that is a fact. Or somebody’s
going to attack him to prevent this from happening. Or there’s going
to be a miracle. So I’m praying for a miracle,
but that’s hard to count on. How bad would it be if Kim
Jong-un would be able to attack San Francisco or Los Angeles
with a nuclear weapon? For folks in San Francisco
this is a big event. But he is not going to stop
when he can only do that. He’s going to continue
working on his program, and pretty soon he’ll be
able to get a nuclear weapon to New York, oh,
my god, or Boston. Yikes! Is he going to attack us? No. Because he knows we would
respond and destroy his society. But if he succeeds in having
the ability to attack us, what else is he going to do? Or, and this is exactly what
Donald Trump told Xi Jinping when they first met, which
was in Mar-a-Lago in April, he said to him, you
can solve this problem. You’re a big country. This is a little country
right beside you. You can solve this problem. But if you don’t
solve this problem, I’m going to solve the problem,
because I’m telling you there’s no way in hell Kim
Jong-un is going to be able to attack America
with nuclear weapons. “But,” he said, “if I do it,
you’re not going to like it.” Then he served him
chocolate cake, this was the opening
dinner, he excused himself, went to the room next
door, and announced that the U.S. has just
launched 59 Cruise missiles against Syria, just
to make the point of how we might do this. So, will Trump
attack North Korea in the months immediately
ahead? He might. And, if he does, will the
North Koreans attack Seoul? Almost certainly. And, if they attack Seoul,
will we then destroy the artillery and the rockets that can do more damage
to Seoul? Probably. And, if we do that, will we
have a second Korean War? Likely. And, if we have
a second Korean War, will China become a
combatant? Likely. You think, Well, this is crazy! 1950 was pretty crazy,
too. Crazy things happen. To conclude, the purpose
of this book is not to be fatalistic, it is not
to be pessimistic, I am inherently optimistic. It is to say that
the dangerous dynamic that we find ourselves
in creates extreme danger that we wouldn’t otherwise face or wouldn’t otherwise
recognize, and under conditions of extreme danger one
requires extreme actions, more imagination than
you would normally have. So, business as usual;
no, you’ve got to stretch the imaginations,
more adaptability than one would normally have. So I’m hoping what the
book will do is help a thinking American community
and the American policy community first recognize, yes,
this is extremely dangerous. There is no simple way to
escape these conditions. This is going to be a chronic
condition for years to come, decades probably to come, and
to deal with it successfully we will have to have
as much imagination and as much adaptability as,
for example, the U.S. displayed in creating what was ultimately
the Cold War strategy. So it’s not like this is
beyond human capacity, not even beyond American
capacity, just not normal. So, can the United
States and China escape Thucydides’s Trap? The answer is no and yes. – Well on behalf of all of
us, you can see how grateful we were for giving us so
much time and your insights. Thank you so much. – [Announcer] For
more on this program and other Carnegie Ethics
Studio productions, visit carnegiecouncil.org. There you can find video
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Danny Hutson

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