Thucydides, fear and China

Over the last 15 years a veritable cottage industry has arisen to describe similarities between 1) contemporary East Asia and Europe before World War One and 2) the potential for conflict between the United States and China, based on the work of Thucydides. Often scholars make both points, which is the case with Graham Allison’s recent article in the Atlantic. While the topic may not be new, it is no less significant for that reason. Allison makes this comparison based on a historical study done by his team for the Belfer Study at Harvard. I won’t summarize the results here, because I’d encourage you to view the presentation itself, but suffice it to say that there are reasons for serious concern. If Allison’s team is correct, the odds of war are higher than for peace, although conflict is not inevitable. For any nation in the region (see my book review of Malcom Fraser’s Dangerous Allies)  the current situation should be worrying. While the United States is currently preoccupied by Russia’s actions in Europe, Allison states that the greatest threat remains a conflict with China. The reason that so many authors write about the parallels with World War One is that conflict is likely to come about less from malice and planning than coincidence and misinterpretation. Scholars have often spoken about Europe “sleepwalking” into World War One. While it is easy to condemn that long-ago generation of statesman, diplomats and leaders, its more discomfiting to ask how current leaders would respond to a similar challenge. For all these reasons, I strongly recommend Allison’s piece in the Atlantic.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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