If you are an Australian reader you may find Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s insights in Destined for War rather provocative and unnerving. Why? Because he examines the rivalry between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China through the lens of history and confronts us with the possibility of war, using an apt metaphor called the ‘Thucydides Trap’. He poses this central question: can the political leadership of both countries overcome the historical structural stresses that have brought other great powers to war?
Australians will find little comfort in the sixteen case studies Allison presents, with twelve of them over the past 500 years resulting in war. Nor do the long shadows cast by Thucydides’ penetrating study of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) give us much cause for optimism either.
For if we, as Australians, draw historical parallels with this ancient Greek war, we will find more in common with the people of Melos than with the Spartans or Athenians. Athens crushed Melos mercilessly in 416 BC for refusing to side with the Athenian cause.
In perhaps the most famous passage in Thucydides’ History, the Melian Dialogue, the Commissioners of Melos assert a moral case in their defence against their Athenian invaders. They ‘invoke what is fair and right’ and declare to the Athenians that they ‘trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust.’
The Athenians, in reply, do not permit their hearts to be warmed by such moral sentiments. Instead, we witness raw power and cold, naked political realism as they inform the Melians that ‘you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’
Melos fell. Thucydides notes rather breezily that after the Melian surrender, the Athenians ‘put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists who settled the place for themselves.’ Defeat in war is always tragic and costly.
Ominously, Professor Wang Yiwei, a guest of the Chinese embassy visiting Australia in September 2019, warned of the fate facing Australia if it did not renounce its reliance on the United States and refused to realign itself with China. He predicted that Australia may experience the tragedy of being the ‘first sacrifice’ in a new Cold War between the US and China.
The questions of geopolitics are not simply academic; they also warn of grave danger and unimaginable suffering for those who fail to heed the unchanging realities of history.
Australia, like Melos of the Peloponnesian War, is an island middle power. We jealously guard our sovereignty and our democratic traditions. We value and cherish international institutions and the rules-based global order. We seek engagement, not conflict. The United States is our closest security ally and investment partner, while China is our largest trading partner.
We certainly do not seek war. Indeed, we live with the harsh reminders of war all around us. 60,000 Australians perished in the First World War more than a century ago. Memorials dot the Australian continent commemorating the sacrifices of our former generations. We are a peace-loving people.
This is why many of us will find Professor Allison’s book confronting. Some may feel a rising sense of apprehension and dread when he writes that ‘based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognised at the moment.’
There is hope, however. As historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, ‘History has a way of escaping attempts to imprison it in patterns. Moreover, one of its basic data is the human soul.’ Allison’s conclusion, mercifully, is a human one that defies brutal historical determinism.
This book is a call to avoid war in the future by seeking great leaders and developing wise statecraft. Allison’s call to action is that we get back to basics: clarify vital interests, understand our rivals, develop strategy and focus on our own garden (or, as he puts it, sort your domestic problems).
Perhaps the choice isn’t as simple as war or peace. But whatever conclusions we reach by the end of this book—and regardless of whether we are attracted by the specific Spartan, Athenian or Melian perspectives—we should all heed Professor Allison’s advice and redirect our energies to overcoming the structural challenges of the two rival great powers that lie at the heart of this profound book.