war on the rocks

To War or Not to War? U.S.-Chinese Relations as the Central Question of Our Times

November 1, 2017

Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

Thomas J. Wright, All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power (Yale University Press, 2017)

Editorial Note: It is our pleasure to present the first book review roundtable of the Texas National Security Review. In these review roundtables, one or two books are reviewed by various experts from their perspectives. Van Jackson, a WOTR senior editor and TNSR associate editor, chairs this first roundtable of four reviewers. His introduction is published here at War on the Rocks. Please visit the Texas National Security Review to read all of the contributions. 

 

The future of the Asia-Pacific hinges, to a great extent, on the interaction of U.S. and Chinese foreign policy. Yet articulating what either state’s foreign policy will or ought to be requires assessing a number of connected and underlying issues, including the trajectory of U.S. and Chinese power, the balance of resolve between them, and the durability of an international rules-based order. The disagreements that have surfaced about these analytical issues provide a useful way of understanding the vast disparity in the content of scholarly counsel on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Enter the four contributors to our roundtable review of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? and All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power, by Graham Allison and Thomas Wright respectively. Each one teases out the relative merits of the advice these books offer to policymakers. In so doing, however, our contributors reveal just how much the big questions about U.S. foreign policy and the future of Asia hinge on debatable assumptions and historical interpretations. Each emphasizes different analytical assumptions and insights from the two books that, in turn, suggest different answers to the question of what the United States ought to do.

Do the United States and China feel structural pressures that favor war, or are they deterred from war while still experiencing a high-stakes competition? Our contributors disagree. The former argument resonates with Australian National University’s Hugh White, who believes the United States is in a competition with China that it cannot win short of disastrous war, while Neville Morley — a classicist at the University of Exeter — challenges the logic of such a claim. Mira Rapp-Hooper of Yale and Rosemary Foot of Oxford suggest the United States and China share incentives to cooperate as much as they share incentives to fight, making it unlikely that structural pressures will determine Asia’s future.

The contributors also raise questions about the uses of history to illuminate the present moment. Morley takes issue with Allison’s use of historical analogy between today and Thucydides’ time, in part because of how the world has changed, but also because of the analytical distortions that arise from admitting evidence from the highly contested historiography of the Peloponnesian War generally. Foot, Morley, and Rapp-Hooper all find fault in Allison’s interpretation of specific historical cases occurring between the Peloponnesian War and today. Foot in particular comments on the multi-causal narrative that Thucydides himself presents, an implicit criticism of modern scholars and policymakers quick to reduce his monumental History of the Peloponnesian War to a sparse structural model. And yet White dissents, believing the present moment ought to be simplified from the complexity of modern life to a historical essence—the balance of resolve between the United States and China.

Finally, on the question of lessons for U.S. policy, the contributors render different assessments. While the power transition thesis convinces White that the only way for the United States to avoid a conflict is to cede ground to a rising China, Rapp-Hooper views Wright’s “responsible competition” approach as the necessary path forward. If anything, Rapp-Hooper sees the competitive approach Wright recommends as insufficient to preserve U.S. centrality amid China’s growing sphere of influence in Asia. She makes the same observation as Foot: that “responsible competition” differs little from President Barack Obama’s policy of “rebalancing” to Asia. Morley, meanwhile, cautions that a belief in structurally induced conflict could lead to prescriptions for “military expansion and more aggressive responses to perceived challenges” rather than accommodation. Indeed, the entire realist theoretical tradition has been built on such expectations.

The question hovering over both Destined for War and All Measures Short of War is how to view and respond to the present moment in world politics. This roundtable review suggests neither book has the answer, but both are a good place to start.

 

Van Jackson is an American scholar, strategist, and policy expert specializing in Asian security and defense affairs. He is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, also at Victoria. He is also author of the Cambridge University Press book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.-North Korea Relations. Dr. Jackson hosts the podcast series Pacific Pundit, and holds additional affiliations as an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. He is an Associate Editor at the Texas National Security Review, as well as a Senior Editor for War on the Rocks

Image: U.S. Army