A lecturer and national security advisor, who served in various governmental positions, worked in key policy-making areas and was decorated with many notable awards, Graham Allison has profoundly impacted security studies and masterfully blended history, politics, and international relations to explore the concept of the “Thucydides Trap.”

From Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, where he put forth a more systematic way of crafting foreign policy decisions, to Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World, his books remained in the list of best sellers, within his own country as well as all around the world.

Allison presents a compelling and accessible analysis of the potential conflict between the United States and China in Destined for War: Can China and America Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, a masterwork for historians, professors, and students of political science, history, or International Relations. The book provides diplomats and future policy crafters with ample knowledge to tackle the growing tense relations between China and America due to economic competition, geopolitical rivalry, and territorial disputes.

The book revolves around a central theme of Thucydides’s Trap, coined by Graham Allison and first used in an article for the Financial Times in 2012. The term has its roots in the name of ancient historian Thucydides and his articulated work on the war between Spartans and Athenians in the Peloponnesian War. The term is interpreted as when a rising power is set to challenge the dominance of an existing power; war becomes the ultimate result.

Allison provided 16 cases from history that demonstrated the same Thucydides’ trap where on several occasions, the fear of a rising power resulted in war with the few exceptions of resorting to peaceful ways.

Allison marked three factors behind the escalation of conflict; fear, interest and honor. Rising power syndrome in when the rising power harbors to have greater respect, pursuance of its interests, and high entitlement in world politics and the Ruling power syndrome is where the surge of another power brings about a sense of decline and the fear of replacement, damaging the honour of ruling power – plays a major factor.

The author’s claim of Chinese unprecedented economic growth, which overtook America in 2014, along with its growing political alliances, trade networks, coercive diplomacy and the institution, policies and system of governance bête noire to that of Americans, is a road towards escalation.

The book has been divided into four parts, and each part is quite distinct in revealing the possible outcomes of a war between China and America and how the Chinese ambition of regional dominance will shape the future world.

Initially, Graham Allison wrote quite adamantly about China’s growing power, intensifying the pressure on Washington. He calls China the “biggest player in the history of the world.”

The data cited in the book shows China taking the lead in every sector, from the largest economy in 2014 to high pace infrastructure development, railway lines, poverty elevation and a more focused STEM revolution.

As Allison mentions, China has been relentlessly enhancing its military capability, upholding Mao’s dictum that “Power grows out of the barrels of a gun.” The unprecedented growth of China procured geo-economics as a new standard of power.

The author quite efficiently depicted how China holds influence over its partner countries and how blatantly it has used that to pressurize them. From replacing the American economy as the largest to growing a substantial military arsenal, all these factors instill the fear of substitution in America and a sense of endowment in China, which will swell a conflict.

On the other hand, they provide areas for cooperation as well.

Moving further, Allison extracts the lessons from history. He provides several cases where a rising power threatened a ruling power – descending to mutual settlement in some while waging war in others. The author marks the Peloponnesian war between 431-404 BCE, where the regional Greek hegemon, Sparta, was challenged by Athens’s increasing political and economic might.

Allison described how Athens and Sparta avoided war in this intense environment, but a spark came in the form of third-party involvement; Corinth, the Spartan ally who attacked Corcyra – which had been under the patronage of Athenians.

Subsequently, in the next section of this part, Allison brings up several cases where he shows how the variety of aims, insecurities, and concerns can be a source of tension between the two powers. As delineated by the case of Pearl Harbour, in which an ambitious Japan waged war on much greater America to secure its economic terms.

Meanwhile, the growing resentment in late 19th century Japan against Russia’s over-exercise of power led to the conflict between the two nations. Displaying the role of domestic drivers, the author shows how leaders opt for war with external enemies to attain unity within the state. France vs. Prussia in the 1860s is an example where Otto van Bismarck of Prussia went to war for his desire for a Unified Germany.

Furthermore, the book examines the conflict from different perspectives. First, it talks about what American rise to global power was like. From the pressing policies of Theodore Roosevelt to escalating Spanish- American war. USA had been quite ruthless in its initial stages – still, it is.

The way America enforced Monroe doctrine in its continent when Germans threatened the invasion of Venezuela by Germans is the same as what China is exercising in the South China Sea nowadays. Panama Canal and Alaska boundary dispute are adamant about its implacable grails.

Subsequently, according to Allison, the clash between civilizations provides one of the deep rooted area for conflict escalation. America, being a Liberal society with a keen emphasis on liberty, equality, democracy and individualism, faces off with the Chinese system, which is more authoritative, centred around one party and completely subordination to the state.

Finally the book asserts that despite the clash of interests and a high probability of conflict, war can still be avoided by employing several ways, as shown through the example from history where Spain and Portugal settled their inconveniences through the arbitration of high authority.

After World War 2, how Germany was integrated with thick economic dependence and provided a security umbrella to halt its vicious ambitions supplied a study case for China and America. The way Britain tackled the growing power of America in the late 19th century without going towards any conflictual options and recently the diffusion of tensions between America and the Soviet Union under the possible threat of nuclear Armageddon is a bright example of avoidance of conflict between major powers.

Overall, Allison provides the strategic options for America to contain, integrate or settle the terms with China. From accommodating big China – as Britain did with America – to undermining the credibility of Chinese sensitive areas, including the legitimacy of the CCP, supporting the independence of Tibet, Taiwan, or Xinjiang insurgency, a variety of options are available for America.

China is a proponent of long-term policies for growth, which is quite a positive point for America to pursue peaceful relations with it. Besides, it describes global challenges such as nuclear anarchy, global terrorism and climate change as possible areas of cooperation.

Owing to the arduous knowledge of Graham Allison in security and China studies and a profound infield experience, Destined for War successfully brings out one of the most sobering analyses of a possible dissent between the two major powers of the 21st century; China and America. With the growing global threats such as climate change, a more inclusive and holistic response from all the countries, especially the major powers, is necessary.

Although a diabolical emphasis on Chinese growth and missing out on certain necessary events were employed to generate a more likely outcome, the book still has much of an aura to research. The structural development of the chapters makes it quite clear-cut to explain the relevance of its central argument.


*The reviewer is a research intern at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and an International Relations student at the National Defence University, Islamabad. 

**The views expressed in this review do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization neither endorses nor assumes any responsibility for the content of this review.

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