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

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Graham Allison joins me Tuesday morning to discuss his new book and its central question: Can the U.S. and China avoid war?




HH: Honored to have Graham Allison as my guest. He is the director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, founding dean of the Harvard Kennedy School. Dr. Allison served as the assistant secretary of Defense. He’s advised Secretaries of Defense and presidents from Reagan to Obama. He is the author of a brand new book, so timely this morning, Destined For War: Can America And China Escape the Thucydides Trap? I have linked that over at I have tweeted it out. Dr. Allison, welcome on a day of ominous signals from the Korean Peninsula with three missile tests, three carriers, two nuclear submarines there. I’d say we’re getting very close to the Thucydides trap, are we not?

GA: Well, unfortunately, yes, I agree with you. I think that the most dangerous situation, and most urgent today, is on the Korean Peninsula. And I think that’s the scenario that could most rapidly lead to an outcome that people can’t really imagine, but that would involve Americans and Chinese killing each other.

HH: People can’t imagine it, but it’s happened not that long ago. I visited on Sunday the grave of Bill Barber, Col. Barber, a Medal of Honor recipient for his valor at the Chosen Reservoir. We have been at war with China before, both declared and undeclared. And we are now close to a conflict in North Korea that General Mattis said, or Secretary Mattis said on Sunday is not unthinkable, but would be horrific.

GA: Absolutely correct. I thought what Mattis said was spot on, and you can remember, because you have some sense of history, but if you ask ordinary citizens, or indeed, God help us, my students at Harvard, has the U.S. ever been at war with China, you know, they look puzzled. And if you ask well, do you have any idea what happened in the Korean War, they think, I tell a story, I mean, I gave a lecture on the Cold War. And a coed came up after and said Professor Allison, that was brilliant. I really was, it was fascinating. I’d never known why they called it cold war. But you should, but you know that’s irrelevant, because it’s ancient history.

HH: Oh, my gosh.

GA: So I said, I said ancient history? What means ancient history? And she said well, everybody does. That’s what happened before you graduated from high school.

HH: (laughing) Well, Dean Allison, I wanted to find for people the Thucydides trap using your own words on Page 29 of your new book, Destined For War. This is the phenomenon I have labeled the Thucydides trap – the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one in such conditions, not just extraordinary, unexpected events, but even ordinary flashpoints of foreign affairs can trigger large-scale conflict. We’ve got a lot of the former, and we’ve gone one of the, I mean, we’ve got a lot of the latter, and we’ve got one of the former on the North Korean Peninsula, so I can’t imagine a more timely book than Destined For War.

GA: Well, I think most people can’t quite get it that what’s happening on the Korean Peninsula. But General Mattis certainly does, as you said, and talked about it yesterday or Sunday. So basically, North Korea has been moving down a track, step by step, including just yesterday, to test missiles which are bringing it to the point where they’ll have the capability to launch a nuclear warhead against Los Angeles or San Francisco. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, from the first moment he heard about this, when Obama told him in the transition, Trump tweeted, and he said ever since, is not going to happen, not going to happen, never going to happen. So we have basically, you know, we can watch this almost like a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. We are…

HH: That is exactly right.

GA: …the Cuban Missile Crisis…yeah.

HH: And you are the expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis. This one is not taking two weeks. It’s taking two months, or perhaps eight months. But it is unfolding in very similar terms. I’m sure you know, Admiral Stavridis.

GA: Absolutely.

HH: He said on this show three weeks ago we must not allow the streams to cross, quoting of all things Ghostbusters, meaning miniaturization of warheads by the Norks and their development of a ballistic missile capability. Those two streams must not be allowed to cross. And he began to talk in very specific terms about how one goes to war with North Korea. But we really don’t know, do we, what China would do if that happened?

GA: Well, I think that as you said to start with, we did actually see this movie once before. So basically, if in the next 13 months, not 13 days as you say, President Trump will probably come to a crossroad. And on the one hand, he can attack North Korea to prevent it acquiring the capability to attack Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s on the one hand. And on the other hand, he can acquiesce in its achieving that capability. That was just they crossroad Kennedy came to at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where either Khrushchev was going to have nuclear missiles in Cuba, they were going to be completed, and able to launch against the U.S., that’s the one hand, or on the other hand, he was going to attack them. So in the case Trump has no other option, if he attacks North Korea to prevent it launching or continuing its testing program, he can even have a limited attack that tries to prevent launching and testing of ICBM’s. But in any case, in general, when we’ve come to this crossroad before, which we have four times previously, the intelligence community says it believes that North Korea will respond by attacking Seoul at least with artillery that it has, and will probably kill about a million people in the first 24 hours. So let’s imagine, God forbid, that happens. How does South Korea and the U.S. respond? Almost certainly with a massive air attack to prevent North Korea having the ability to launch a second round of artillery or missiles to kill ten million people. So now, we have attack North Korea. At that point, you’ve got the beginning of the second Korean War. And in the first Korean War, China demonstrated, even when it was extremely weak as compared to today, I mean, it had just barely, well, it just barely consolidated control of China. But in any case, China entered the war and beat us back down to the 38th Parallel where the war had begun, because China’s not prepared to have Korea unified under a government that’s an ally with its military competitor, the U.S. So I would say it’s quite likely, quite likely, that China would enter that war, and we would enter that war, and then hard as it is to imagine, we would have Americans and Chinese fighting each other.

HH: I have to reintroduce Graham Allison. If you do not know who he is, America, one of America’s preeminent strategic thinkers, his brand new book, Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? And I would say there are, there are a number of takeaways in this book. Number one, a portrait of Xi Jingping, which I was unaware of, and I try and keep up on this, I did not know his father was denounced and disgraced by Mao. I did not know the indignities with which young Xi Jingping had to put up with. I didn’t know he had to live in a cave, he had to steal books from libraries to educate himself. He’s a tough cookie. With that kind of an upbringing, Graham Allison, I think every American ought to know that Xi Jingping might show up at Mar-A-Lago and have a good time with the President, but this is one tough cookie.

GA: Absolutely. So my tutor on this was Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and builder of Singapore. And he said about Xi Jingping this man has iron in his soul. So we should not underestimate it.

HH: I have to tell you as an aside, I oversaw the construction of the Nixon Library for former President Nixon, and he had 13 people cast in bronze for his library. One of them was Lee Kuan Yew, because he admired him so much. And I was unaware of your biography of Lee Kuan Yew. I have to go and read that now. But I want to jump to the four imperatives. You know, I’m going to give away a little bit of the end. I can’t condense a book in a segment, but I want people to know you say we have to clarify our vital interests, we have to actually understand what China is trying to do, we have to “do strategy”, which I want to emphasize thank God for Secretary of Defense Mattis, and number four, we have to make domestic challenges central for both China and the United States if we are to avoid the Thucydides trap. People can read Destined For War by themselves, but would you explain what do strategy means?

GA: Well, again, I’m glad that you and former President Nixon put Lee Kuan Yew in the pantheon. And I think that’s a, Lee Kuan Yew was a global strategist.

HH: Yup.

GA: A global strategist. So what does it mean to do strategy? In Washington today, strategy is just an almost promiscuous word. It is so, well, oh, yes, tell me what the strategy is, I tell you what I want, and I say that’s the strategy. Bill Clinton even at one state said about strategy, oh, it’s like we don’t need strategy anymore. We just do jazz improvisation, because things change so fast. And as I say in the book, President Obama, one of the smartest American presidents, made one of the dumbest statements, in my view, when he said we don’t need George Kennan anymore. So George Kennan, for your listeners, was one of the key architects of the Cold War. So what doing strategy means is understanding first what are the structural realities that we can’t change. So it’s simply a fact that China is now as big as we are in terms of its economy. That’s a hard thing for Americans to get used to. We never saw anything like this before. As Lee Kuan Yew said, and I quote in the book, he basically said you Americans are going to have a great problem dealing with this, because you’ve never seen anybody this big. This is the biggest player in the history of the world. So you’ve got to start with the structural realities. But then we need to be clear what are our vital interests, and what are only things that we also care about but don’t care about as much as the things that we care that are essential for our survival and well-being? And then we have to ask what therefore paths of action can we choose that we can sustain? Now again, that seems almost impossible if you listen to the Washington circus today to imagine the U.S. Government having a strategy and sustaining a strategy, but the fact is that when dealing with the surge posed by the Soviet Union that became then the redevelopment strategy for the Cold War, that strategy took about four years to develop, and people worked on it through Kennan all the way to Nitze. But by 1950, you’ve got the outlines of a strategy, and lo and behold, both under Republican and under Democratic administrations, for almost four decades, we stick with it to the point of victory in the Cold War. So I think it’s not, I’m not pessimistic or fatalistic about this. But I do think it’s a wake up to say no, no, no, what we’ve been doing in the recent past has failed. I think that’s absolutely right. And if we just keep doing, as I say in the book, business as usual, we’ll produce history as usual.

HH: Yeah, a nightmare.

GA: And in this case, that would be catastrophic.

HH: I want to close by saying that just because they’re friends, Xi Jingping and the President, you point out that Pericles and the king of Sparta were friends. And the famous Corinthian appeal to the Spartans, I learned it from Stanley Hoffman in Gov 40, forty-two years ago, while you are at home, they are constantly abroad. This is, we’ve got 30 seconds, Dean Allison, and I’ll get you back on. We just have to focus on China, and we have to focus on both winning, because we really can’t come into a conflict.

GA: I think you’re exactly right, and I think if you imagine thinking about what’s vital for us and what’s vital for China, there’s plenty of space for adaption and adjustment.

HH: Graham Allison, thank you. Destined For War, a must-read book, and boy, especially in these times, come back soon, Graham Allison, an honor to have you.

End of interview.


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