“Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap” – Graham Allison

21-6-19

Dear Partners in thought,

You may want to read this Book Note on a laptop as it is rather long. 
I found a great book – clearly one of the “must read” now – that was published in 2017 but needs being revisited in light of the last two years. I would like to speak to you about “Destined for War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” by Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, founding Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School in the 1980s and an adviser to Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Obama. Having taught at Harvard for 50 years, GA never sought the limelight like some of his peers though could easily have done so, so much his work is enlightening. 

GA’s book is about Thucydides’s trap (from the author of “The Peloponnesian war” relating the fight pitting current leader Sparta against inexorably ascendant power Athens in 500 BC) creating a case file of 16 such rivalries at Harvard Kennedy to study the rise of an emerging power, like China today in the context of world leadership, creating fear and anxiety among established powers and a current world leader, like the U.S., which could (in the worst case scenario) lead to war which today would be cataclysmic. 

This book got rave reviews from the New York Times, London Times and Financial Times as Best Book of the Year then. Leading foreign policy advisers, politicians, scholars and businessmen from across the American aisle (thought not from the current administration) such as Henry Kissinger (SecState), Joe Biden (Vice President), David Petraeus (SecDef), Niall Ferguson (“Civilisation”), Walter Isaacson (Aspen Institute), Fareed Zakaria (CNN’s GPS), David Rubinstein (Carlyle), Ash Carter (U.S. Senator), William Cohen (SecDef), James Stavridis (CIA), Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs), Paul Kennedy (“The Rise and Fall of Nations”), Sam Nunn (SecDef) and Stephen Schwarzman (Blackstone) could not find enough words of praise for the quality and foresight of GA’s book.

GA’s book is structured as follows:

1. The rise of China.

2. The lessons from history (Athens vs. Sparta; the last 500 years; Britain vs. Germany). 

3. A gathering storm (Imagine China were just like us; What XI’s China wants; Clash of civilisations; From here to war).

4. War is not inevitable (Twelve clues for peace; Where do we go from here). The appendix provides an illuminating coverage of the 16 rivalries of the last 500 years, 12 of which resulted in war. A must read. 

Where is China coming from, so fast

China was not born yesterday. China was the clear Asian leader of much of the second millennial and, before deciding to stop sending her ships in far out waters, also the equivalent of the European powers of the 1500s albeit for a short half a century period. Its sudden inward-focus move led her gradually to an isolated and second citizen role in world history culminating with European powers relatively easily “invading” China or at least its big cities of the late 19th century, sowing the seeds for a gradual 100 year backlash which high point was the creation of the PRC in 1949 and pride recovered. Today the rise of China is nothing but going back to its former position though in a clear world leadership status as taking the words of Lee Kwan Yew, the father of Singapore and best analyst of China, it is today “the biggest player in the history of the world”. In 2014, China reported the leading world GDP at USD 17.6 trillion bypassing America’s 17.4 trillion and causing much uproar across America. The FT expects China’s GDP to be 20% greater than America’s in 2019, prompting many in Washington to look for other yardsticks than simple GDP, where incidentally America remains number one. Measured by purchasing power parity, which is a better yardstick (as confirmed to GA by economist and central banker Stanley Fisher) China has surpassed America and accounts for 18% of world GDP up from 2% in 1980. However many GDP rankings still show America first, which at best is a rear guard battle knowing the growth rate of China. Today China is the largest producer of ships, steel, aluminium, furniture, clothing, textile, cell phones, pharmaceuticals and computers and serves since the Great Recession as the leading engine of global economic growth, accounting for 40% of it since the crisis. Today China creates another Greece every 16 weeks and another Israel every 25 weeks. Former Australian PM Kevin Rudd, an astute China old hand, described the country’s explosion as “the English Industrial Revolution and the global information revolution combusting simultaneously and compressed into not 300 years, but 30”. China managed to increase the living standards of its population to unprecedented levels in history, lifting more than 500 million people out of extreme poverty between 1980 and 2004. China today is now richer than Europe in terms of accumulated private wealth and should bypass America around 2020. In 2015 China overtook America in the number of billionaires, potentially creating issues for Karl Marx if he saw how many Chinese “Communists” are wearing Prada today. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci see the Chinese, who bought half of all the world’s luxury goods in 2015, as their primary customers and Christie’s and Sotheby’s highest price auctions are now held in Shanghai and Beijing. In 2015 Tsinghua University passed MIT as top place for engineering studies in the famed U.S. and News and World Report university ranking. 

Things were not always built on China’s road to preeminence on brains and hard labour. While it is clear that hacking and intellectual property theft were rampant as China grew its economy, Chinese companies are now relying “far more” (perhaps not enough) on their own research having reached a stage where they can do so (amusingly one of GA’s Chinese colleague admitted that while Western companies had R&D departments, Chinese counterparts had R&D-T, the T standing for Theft). James Comey when at the FBI famously said in 2014 that “there were two types of big corporations in America: those who have ben hacked by the Chinese, or those who don’t know yet they have been hacked by the Chinese”. Getting to economic preeminence was a key strategic choice for China that all tools could assist. The rise of China presents a new world leader that does not just base its leadership on military might. Contradicting Secretary Clinton on her view of the obsolescence of the concept of the balance of power, Lee Kwan Yew offered the view that the new balance of power was a combination of economic and military, with the economic outweighing the military (the One Belt One Road initiative being a good case in point). This new balance of power construct is also known today as geo-economics, which uses economic instruments, from trade and investment policy, to auctions, cyberattacks and foreign aid to advance national strategic interests. To illustrate where China is today, a former Obama envoy to North Korea pointed out that all states in Asia-Pac today ask not “what does Washington think?” but “what does Being think?”. Today China embodies more than any other country in world history the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold, rules”.     

Who is XI? 

I wanted to touch upon Xi as a leader and a man as it is worth the detour. Xi was not born yesterday and his personal history as a leader of China is key. He was born a princeling of the revolution, his father being a trusted colleague and civil war brethren of Mao, Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun. Xi was destined to grow up as part of the Chinese elite but a paranoid Mao arrested his father in 1962 in a recurrent purge when Xi was nine years old. Red guards kept forcing him to denounce his own father for months. When his school closed, Xi had to defend himself in street fights and stealing books from shuttered libraries to educate himself. Sent in a reeducation camp in the country side, he lived in a cave, shoveling dung. His older half-sister, XI Heping, depressed by this non-life, hanged herself from a shower rail. Xi then decided the only way to survive was to become “redder than red” and started his “reborn” ascent. He was rejected nine times before joining the Communist Party of 89 million members he leads today. He finally managed to get into the prestigious Tsinghua University and joined the Central Military Commission, eventually returning to the countryside to be a provincial administrator. In 1997 he just made it to the Central Committee being 151st for the 150 slots available though Premier Jian Zemin made an exception to expand the allotment. As Party chief of the Zhejiang province in 2002, Xi oversaw spectacular economic growth in the region and was able to support key entrepreneurs like Jack Ma, the Alibaba founder. He avoided any display of wealth that could be expected from his status. When corruption scandals were burying Shanghai in 2007, Hu Jintao named him to deal with the matter, making him, while unknown until then, the most capable individual to be a next leader of the party. He became not only member of the standing committee of the party but as heir apparent to President Hu. Then by his second year as President, Xi started being referred to as the “Chairman of Everything” with no successor or deputy. Leading a visible anticorruption campaign he purged dozens of rivals for the party leadership, took a dozen titles for himself, including commander in chief of the military (a title even Mao never had) before becoming China’s “Core Leader” reflecting his leadership centrality. As we know he now has no term limit.                   

While Xi is definitely a very driven, even ruthless individual and politician, he is also a survivor who has seen tyranny “up close and personal”, something that is not known well enough and may be a positive factor in the way he would handle a spiralling bad relationship with America. He knows the cost of pain, is driven and eminently adaptable (you will note that while negotiating back following trade war sparkles early on in the Trump presidency, he became the leading voice for globalisation – as a de facto Communist leader even if we coud discuss Chinese Communism – at Davos in January 2017, a position that may have been self-serving but made sense for all parties to keep the game moving). Not forgetting that China and indeed Xi condoned recent moves that threatened the autonomy of Hong Kong with the proposed extradition law, showing the worse aspect of the differentiated cultural feature of China however modern it has become, the personal history of Xi  should let us hope that he should value costs and benefits and would follow a rational governance path in its dealings with America and the rest of the world. It would be great to say the same of his American counterpart.    

What does XI want primarily for China?     

Xi’s ambitious strategic plan for China is based on four key points:

1. Revitalising the Party, cleansing it of (endemic) corruption, restoring its sense of mission, and reestablishing its authority in the eyes of the Chinese people

2. Reviving Chinese nationalism and patriotism to instill pride in being Chinese (Make China Great Again?)  

3. Engineering a third economic revolution, entailing painful economic reforms to sustain China’s historically unsustainable rates of growth

4. Reorganising and rebuilding Cina’s military so that it can “fight and win”      

The reasons for the gathering storm

As the late Samuel Huntington, another Harvard professor, wrote in 1993 with his well-known “Clash of Civilisation” the China-America rivalry and rising leadership clash is based on clear cultural differences exemplified by the table set up by GA below: 

 AmericaChina
   
Self-perception“Number one”“Centre of universe”
Core ValueFreedomOrder
View of GovernmentNecessary evilNecessary good
Form of governmentDemocratic republicResponsive authoritarianism
ExamplarMissionaryInimitable
Foreigners InclusiveExclusive 
Time horizonNowEternity
ChangeInventionRestoration and evolution
Foreign policyInternational orderHarmonious hierarchy 

How could a China-America (effectively WW3) war erupt today? 

I think the current U.S. administration does its best to slowly but surely, perhaps unwittingly as not realising the extent of their damage, drive the U.S.-China rivalry to an eventual state of war in the near to medium term. The trade war that benefits no party and hurts America even if grounded in real grievances is a very aggressive way to tackle issues. When GA wrote his book, the trend was already set and the road to confrontation open by Washington. However for a war to erupt there needs to be a trigger point which GA covers though some examples of how things could deteriorate quickly.    

The key trigger points today offered by GA, all linked with a potential and mutually lethal gradual economic and trade dis-intermediation between China and America are: i) an “accidental” collision in the South China Seas; ii) A Taiwanese independence move (always a favourite at election time on the island); iii) a war provoked by a third navy triggering treaty commitments; and iv) a North Korean collapse. These are the main cases in addition to the famed dispute on a few deserted but maritime natural resource-rich islands which mainly involved Japan (involving a traditional degree of historical resentment from Beijing) with America playing one-sided referee of sorts though trying to ensure that cold minds prevail.         

Why history should still make us hope for the best? 

Against this Thucydides trap backdrop, GA drawing upon his Harvard Kennedy Thucydides case file still believes that war is not inevitable and gives us 12 clues for peace:

Clue 1: Higher authorities can help resolve rivalries without war. GA is using the # 1 case of his Thucydides case file to make the point: Spain vs. Portugal (Late fifteen century). As Portugal became the first European country to set itself free from Muslim rule early in the second millenary, it became the equivalent of a Western leader. This position was challenged when Spain was born following the merger of two kingdoms and as Spain wanted to be recognised as regional leader (and de facto world leaders). Both monarchs decided to ask for the Pope to take a view on who should lead (quite a bold move as the Pope of the day was Spanish and owed his position largely to Sain). In the end the Pope stated that the world wold be shared and separated in two zones of influence which suited both parties after some haggling (and explains why Brazilians speak Portuguese). Of course for this too happen you needed two willing parties, both Catholic and sharing similar cultural values. I am not sure Xi would go for Pope François today.        

Clue 2: States can be embedded in larger economic, political, and security institutions that constrain historically “normal” behaviors. GA is using the # 16 case of his Thucydides case file to make the point: Germany vs. Britain and France (1990s-present). Germany (including predecessor Prussia and Bavaria) went to war three times (or fomented it), twice with devastating global impact in a short time of world history. Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand lobbied hard against German reunification in the early 1990s as “it would give Germany in peace what Hitler had wanted in war”. In the end, there was a pragmatic, institutionally-driven agreement to “Europeanise Germany” rather than “Germanising Europe”, all parties being part of this much attacked today but crucial European Union (then European Community). Germany, the poster child of an economic and political giant though a military dwarf became integrated with its neighbours though the EU institutions and (largely) protected by America and NATO. The Deutsche Mark eventually became the Euro and the European central bank was based in Frankfurt. Consequently one may ask were the EU collapse due to economic stress and the rise of populism, and the U.S. withdrawing NATO’s security blanket, whether a country with such martial traditions could not resort to its old ways. International institutions do restrain “normal” historical behaviour and are a great win of the post-WW2 era. And one would hope in such a bad case scenario that years of prosperity and war-less dominance would have changed Germany’s original DNA as I believe it did.    

Clue 3: Wily statesmen make a virtue of necessity – and distinguish needs and wants. GA is using the # 11 case of his Thucydides file to make the point: United States vs. Britain (early 20th century). As America was surpassing Britain in all areas under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt and its goals were becoming evident from the disputes in Venezuela, to the contest with Canada over Alaska, Britain could have gone to war. However Britain knew the cost to be horrendous and the likelihood of victory small, all at a time when the Irish Question was gradually becoming front page news at home. So Britain chose to accommodate American demands without sacrificing its vital interests. It also stressed the common values shared by both countries while minimising the areas of division thus paving the way for more cooperation and benefits (for London) in the future. Britain chose accommodation, distinguishing needs and wants, at a time when, as Imperial Britain, it was ruling the waves. In doing so Britain stressed its diplomatic approach to international affairs, showing why it achieved leadership status in the first place and also why a cataclysm like WW1 – not yet in the cards then even if war noises could be heard in Europe – could only end its era.      

Clue 4: Timing is crucial. GA keeps using the # 11 case file. Windows of opportunities open and close rapidly without warning, forcing leaders to be able to act quickly (if they want or care). In 1861, Lord Salisbury could have sided Britain with the Confederacy during the American civil war (Britain and France leaning more closely to the South which was perceived a lesser competitive threat going forward). It would have been the right strategic move to protect British economic and other interests against a growing U.S. hegemon. Two Americas would have made the defence of British interests much easier in relation to Venezuela, Alaska and elsewhere. Lord Salisbury missed his chance and could not find a similar opening. Opportunities missed are opportunities foregone especially in matters of preventive interventions such as siding with the South. GA stresses rightly that when the cost of intervention is lowest (in relative terms – now or later) and the effectiveness of action highest, the need to act is ambiguous and uncertain. Democratic governments who need agreements form various parties before “acting” on such a preventive mode see the cost of effective intervention to have risen which unless the case is crystal clear becomes a strong deterrent to action. As an aside (and realising the crucial topic of slavery), I never understood why Britain or France never sided with the South for obvious strategic reasons at the time though the world could have been very different and I might be a proud citizen of the German Empire by now (in admittedly a least-dark scenario, with all due respect for my German friends).  

Clue 5: Cultural commonalities can help prevent conflicts. GA keeps using the # 11 case file. While influential Britons and their leaders knew they were no longer number one, they also knew that the English values, through language and culture, would keep prevailing albeit with American world leadership. The term “English-speaking people” became very fashionable in the London clubs, all the more as these “people” would continue ruling the world. During WW2, Harold McMillan famously said: “These Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go”. While diplomatic pragmatism (and ingenuity like with McMillan) was always a British trait that served this great nation well, it is clear that cultural commonalities help prevent conflicts. But what about the China-America rivalry here?         

Clue 6: There is nothing new under the sun – except nuclear weapons. GA is using the # 15 case of his Thucydides case file to make the point: Soviet Union vs. Unites States (1940s-1980s). Even though we live in the nuclear age, lessons of the past do matter, perhaps even more than before. We live in an unprecedented time of globalisation, economic integration and worldwide communication while facing climate change and (less now) Islamic extremism. There is always a propensity to think that our times are different. Norman Angell’s “The Great Illusion” remains known for having convinced British leaders that war was no longer a viable opportunity given the economic interdependence of the pre-WW1 period which indeed was the first era of globalisation. In his words of delusion, war was “futile”, as the “war-like do not inherit the earth”. Albert Einstein observed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that nuclear weapons “have changed everything except our way of thinking”. What has changed is the clear understanding that a nuclear strike today against a nuclear power, given the nuclear weaponry advancement, would likely mean extinguishing all life on both sides of the rivalry if not on earth itself. Nuclear weaponry has made leaders thinking and taking a pause. However can all world leaders think? Especially today? And by the way, Norman Angell might have been right as war in the early 1900s was no longer a viable option, while it ended killing millions of people, destroying three empires and finally, decisively ending British leadership. GA argues that leaders of those days, like Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and his famous “Ah, if we only knew” would not have gone for it if they had thought about it more. But then my humble guess is that they would not have believed in anything than a quick and pleasant war back then – as they did and so the early troops.       

Clue 7: MAD (mutually assured destruction strategy) does not make all-out war madness. GA keeps drawing on the # 15 case file. The MAD doctrine simply means that the decision by one state to kill another is simultaneously a choice to commit national suicide. The U.S. and the USSR eventually learned to live with each other while they could have gone for Armageddon. GA stresses that America needs to find ways to live with today’s Russia even if it is not the USSR and while it deserves ample criticism on the way it conducts its own affairs. Today, as GA stresses, China has developed a nuclear arsenal so robust that it creates a 21st version of MAD with America. Ronald Reagan in his ever-wise Gipper ways once said; “A nuclear war cannot be won and must therefore never be fought” which sums it all. However I would add that peaceful relations among “non-friends” make it key for deterrence to be credible. On a personal note, I believe that this initial definition of the MAD doctrine is not reassuring as states that are at the end of their economic ropes in an age of geo-economics may decide (the likelihood being still low) for a first strike rather than living in perceived infamy all the more if power is concentrated, leadership is “sick” and there is no checks and balance. Like in Putin’s Russia one day? However it is also a fact that we cannot roll back what they did at Los Alamos and live in a nuclear-free world even if limitation treaties are key if only as powers exchange on those vital matters.  

Clue 8: Hot war between nuclear powers is this no longer a justifiable option. The MAD lessons of the Cold War are relevant for today’s key rivalry. The nuclear age in a way has rendered hot war (between nuclear powers) impossible given the “Siamese twins” features of the key protagonists. Compromise has to be the word of the day (though I would add that for this you need level-headed leadership which is not frequent in the Washington leadership that conducts foreign policy almost to please its core voter base, itself not equipped to understand the intricacies of today’s world, even with a nice red MAGA cap on). There is a possibility that historical memory is vanishing in Washington and that nobody in charge was there to make things happen during the Cold War or even remember it as if it were a far away, very distinct matter from dealing with China today, itself requiring new methods as what is new is a change and is thus arguably best. It is also true that some of the Chinese generals quoting Mao’s claim, that “300 million lives lost would still make China survive”, does not help. One of the practical suggestions from GA would be to foster the candid conversations between U.S. and Chinese political leaders, as well as discussions and war games among their military so they could internalise better the cost of a nuclear Armageddon and that war is simply no longer an option.           

Clue 9: Leaders of nuclear powers must nonetheless be prepared to risk a war they cannot win. GA keeps using the # 15 case file. GA takes my point about deterrence here. Even if nuclear war is not winnable, key states need to be ready to use it and be credible about it, otherwise it has no purpose and the keys to the palace should be sent by express courrier right away. The “more responsible power” may choose yielding rather than the escalation of war but then why having nuclear weapons in the first place and being a key actor in International affairs? GA mentions the less-deadly but dynamic economic and cyber-competition between Washington and Beijing and argues that America is right in confronting China in terms of currency manipulation (Romney’s great tirade in 2012), subsidising domestic producers, protecting their own markets or stealing intellectual property. The U.S. thus is right in showing it is ready to risk economic warfare with China (perhaps I would add not in the way that Trump does it and without traditional allies). On the same basis, America needs to keep nuclear warfare in its toolkit in order to deter real and potential adversaries such as China.           

Clue 10: Thick economic interdependence raises the cost and thus lowers the likelihood. Looking back at the Europe of the early 20th century, the British and German economies were so inter-woven that they functioned nearly as one, no pain could be inflicted to one without the other suffering (interesting when thinking about the American-Chinese economic relationship today). There were however increasingly pamphlets and books in London such as “Made in Germany!” which was a vigorous attach against the rising industrial state across the Rhine. The U.S. today is the largest market for Chinese exports and China is America’s largest creditor, giving us a new MAD which GA called MAED, the E being obvious. If war erupted, putting aside which kind of hot war, the end of the Chinese-American mutual dependancy would create social and economic havoc for both sides. It is not only a matter of investment and trade flows in 2019, it is a matter of integration with everything sold in the U.S. being made with Chinese components, even Boeing aircraft. As GA puts it artfully, China made a “cosmic bet on an open market place to which it can sell its products and on daily arrivals of tankers delivering oil to power its factories, cars and planes”. This cosmic bet is also political in nature as extraordinary economic growth is also the “mandate of heaven” that keeps the Communist Party (that could change its name) in power. China is thus clearly vulnerable to trade disruption, perhaps more than the U.S., even if I think it can withstand longer upheaval than America given its history. In addition two-third of China’s oil imports travel oceans controlled by the U.S. Navy which compounds the problem of interruption for Beijing. In the end one would hope that a reality check takes place in what type of threats and measures are made, notably by the current U.S. administration and how far they can go. Nothing is for sure sadly.           

Clue 11: Alliances can be a fatal attraction.  History shows that leading nations when perceiving been threatened seek allies, this with dangerous consequences as shown with the “doomsday machine” that led to WW1. As China was reasserting itself in the Asia-Pac region, many countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and even India sought closer ties to America at a time when Obama was strategically pushing for his “pivot”, focusing on Asia, to the sorrow of many of us in Europe (that oddly, if may add, may have precipitated Russia’s adventures in Crimea and eastern Ukraine). The pre-WW1 doomsday machine of the two big alliances was designed to protect peace but led automatically, in a sleepwalking way, after a regrettable but relatively inconsequential assassination focused on local Balkan grievances, to the the biggest war in the history of mankind at the time. Given that China’s presence throughout Asia is felt more than ever, demands for ever closer military alliances with America from Asian states will surge. America should remember the pre-WW1 doomsday machine and read the fine print of those treaties, however worthwhile they may be for strategic reasons.   

Clue 12: Domestic performance is decisive. What nations do inside their borders matters as much as what they do outside. At the end of the day, what matters is a tryptic that GA sees as: i) economic performance creating the substructure of national power;  ii) competence in governance allowing for mobilisation of resources for national purposes; and iii) national élan or spirit, sustaining both. The best example of how the tryptic works is to review the U.S.-Soviet rivalry and note that had the Soviets been able to sustain twice the rate of growth of America’s to become the leading economic power and Communist ideology being capable of overcoming nationalism in building the “new socialist man”, Moscow would have consisted a position of WW2 victor across Europe and probably Asia. History decided otherwise. Thinking about China, the Hong-Kong extradition law is definitely not what should have been tried in terms of corporate governance and possibly the respect of engagement. It is likely that China will find an honourable way to back down, which the international community should give them, as the price is not worth the gain, something GA would agree with.     

These 12 clues are definitely worthwhile though those that applied to specific situations in history may not be a perfect fit for the China-American rivalry of today. While both protagonists have achieved world power status, their cultural commonalities besides those shared by leading powers of their days is tenuous, making clue 5 a bit academic. One key feature however, stressed by these clues (clue 10), is the benefit of interdependence through economic and trade relations which lowers markedly the path to war. This is why the trade war initiatives taken by Washington since 2017, which are not without any rationale on some issues, is both detrimental to peace but also self-wounding to America in the short term (Americans pay for the tariffs) and the longer term (making a hot war more likely as the fabrique of international commerce is gradually destroyed). As for the “wily statesmen” of clue 3, would Donald Trump qualify? Probably not. So the key question is “can we rely on Xi to manage Trump and avoid a gradual descent to war resulting from a destruction of what the two countries built together over the last 20-30 years?”

How to tackle the problem? 

On the basis of his dozen clues GA offers us some directions for “where we go from here” which is useful and fuels the debate. 

1. Begin with structural realities. GA finds that too often and especially today in Washington little analysis is being done before formulating policy as if, I could add, what mattered was either to please or being loyal. GA seems to find that the problem with Washington today is that the question of “What to do” is not asked and no preparatory work done (a 101 subject I might add) to help understanding where we are. Instead a culture of “don’t just stand there. Do something” prevails. American leaders like any other should not take seriously the recommendations of policy advisers who have not first demonstrated a deep understanding of the challenge at hand. If I may add, the Trump administration behaves as its leader to the tunes of instant TV reality and cannot reasonably change its course at this point. In order to achieve GA’s sound and simple objective the 2020 elections should return sanity and rationale to the White House. Thinking about Pennsylvania Avenue, I just saw that Newt Gingrich released a new book titled “Trump against China” which, given its author is likely to be entertaining but with the objective of pleasing the Trump crowd – and its leader. Having said that I will take a look even if GA is by far my cup of sensible tea.      

Nixon before he died reflected on his opening of China in 1972 (that clearly was done to counter the Soviets and widen the divide with Moscow) thinking they had created a Frankenstein. In spite of all his shortcomings he felt like Napoleon writing and likely bored in 1817 on the St. Helena Island that “We should let it sleep as when China will wake up, the world will shaken”. History gave reason to the disgraced president on so many yardsticks, well beyond what he could have ever imagined. By 2040, based on actual growth rates (the latter being the defining race differentiator), China’s GDP will be three times America’s. 

As GA states, borrowing from Kissinger, the key challenge in statecraft is not to get lost on secondary issues but to recognise “a change in the international environment so likely to undermine national security that it must be resisted no matter what form the threat takes or how ostensibly legitimate it appears”. Key questions Washington should reflect upon are as follows: Is China bigger and more powerful than the US such a challenge? (knowing that is broadly the case) Is “military primacy” (America’s key power ingredient for decades) essential for ensuring America’s vital national interests? Can the U.S. thrive in a world where China writes the rules? Tough but useful questions. However there is a need for listening abilities and pragmatism that may not be there yet.                   

GA’s other and non-breathtaking recommendations are to “Apply history” (GA and Niall Ferguson suggested setting up a White House History Advisory Council on the same model as its Economic Advisers Council, so as to learn from history in the right way); ii) recognise that America’s post-cold war China strategy is fundamentally a contradiction and iii) review all the strategic options – even the ugly ones. Then Accommodate. Undermine. Negotiate a long peace. Redefine the relationship with China.  

By way of conclusion, GA points to a few more things, also bringing back memories of his studying and teaching at Harvard (his adviser in 1962 was a gifted foreign-born academic, with a penchant for applying 19th century diplomacy to the Cold War context, people thought would go far: Dr. Henry Kissinger): 

1.Clarify vital interests

2. Understand what China is trying to do

3. Do strategy 

4. Make domestic challenges central 

I think that to fully complete the exercise it would also be useful to wear the shoes of Xi and China and not just America’s. Such key questions we should ask are: i) Would China want non-nuclear war (nuclear war being not feasible even if prepared for) even if forced, taking the stance that it would not be a first striker? and ii) would it ever finally bow to (undue) pressure from an American bully whatever warranted grievances in order to preserve the global trade environment?    

This book is about America and China and their rivalry. As a European I can only regret that there is little mention of where we are, Europeans, in this debate, is made. I still believe in the old Western Alliance and all the institutions (UN, World Bank, IMF, GATT, EC/EU, etc.) that made our world what it is today even if some voters prefer to forget the “taken for granted” and like cheap elixirs, some of them that would also unshackle them and restore by sheer miracle past historical grandeur. I think we have to work with America, as allies, in their dealings with China (assuming America still wants and values allies). Hopefully a different America – the one we knew and built our world. By the same token I feel it important to work on bridging gaps between the two cultures of the West and China. As such and as I told you I became a seed investor in a start-up founded by Greek entrepreneurs who set up a Hong-Kong company focused on outbound middle class Chinese tourism in Europe. I also felt that the more the Chinese travel the more a mutually harmonious relationship can be developed (which if I may be facetious is not an easy task when you see those hordes of tourists everywhere across Europe!)        

Quite aside from the focus on the China-America rivalry, this book is wonderful by the number of issues it deals with looking at that Thucydides Trap case file not the least those found in the realm of “what would have happened if”. As a French-born European, I cannot escape thinking of what would have happened in 1936 if Britain and France had sent a mere division of troops to enforce the Versailles treaty that Hitler had violated by remilitarising the Rhineland. German troops would have likely retreated. The German generals who were aghast at Hitler’s reckless move, may have used that French-British move to topple him. WW2 may not have happened (then). Interestingly, Churchill, who is much decried lately (not due to Boris Johnson’s following) by his opposition to D Day was very much in favour of that move in 1936. Such a move that may have terminated an abject tyran may not have registered among the great moves in history simply as nobody would have fathomed then the alternative that sadly became the history we know. Even if Europe and the world due to that cataclysmic clash largely grew stronger, more interdependent, collaborative and enjoying 75 years of peace and prosperity (with all the obvious set downs along the way) of a rules-based world order.            

I realise I have written much about this book and may have given too much away. However it is a very rich book. I have not dealt with Sparta-Athens, the 500 years, Britain vs. Germany, much of what China is today and why which GA goes through at great length. And he developed all the points I told you much further. I recommend you to go to Amazon (unusual move for a lover of bookstores but that book may possibly no longer be at your local Waterstones or Barnes & Nobles) and order this book as it deals with one of the key issues facing the future of our world. I would like to thank my friend and follower Christina for pointing me to this great book. This Book Note is dedicated to my friends George and Nikos, great entrepreneurs believing, like me, that global business engenders peace and are part of those who work on making the West and China “harmoniously” cooperate for a better future.    

Warmest regards,

Serge       


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