Thursday 11 January 2024

Graham Allison Explains Why Elites Lick China’s Boots

 As we head into the New Year, Chinese President Xi Jinping is weighing his options. Now that President Joe Biden has less than a year guaranteed left in the White House, Xi may be thinking this is the best opportunity China will ever get to recapture Taiwan. The complex calculations behind China’s actions and its expectations of a U.S. (under)reaction are best summed up by one academic who’s been holed up at Harvard for over half a century.

Harvard government professor Graham Allison first made his bones in the 1970s with a paper on the Cuban missile crisis, where he devised bureaucratic and organizational models for looking at foreign policy decisions. Theseave now become standard operating procedure for a new generation of foreign policy wonks. He went on to have an illustrious career at Harvard as a professor, founding dean and think tank director, advising both the Reagan and Clinton administrations as well as countless other agencies and task forces over the decades. Even within Harvard’s elite pool, he ranks among the top. Perhaps only the late Henry Kissinger outpaced him in terms of government influence. But uness you went to college for political science, you’ve most likely never heard of him.

However, he’s broken through to some mainstream notoriety with his 2017 book, “Destined for War: Can America Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” The core concept references the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, whose explanation of the causes of the Peloponnesian War has been studied for thousands of years. “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable,” Thucydides explains.  In general terms, war is likely when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power.

In his book, Allison applies this ancient concept to U.S.-China relations — predicting that war between the two countries is all but inevitable if we stay on the current trajectory. The U.S. is currently the dominant world power in both military and economic terms. But we are declining in relative power as China quickly rises to challenge our leadership in both areas. In theory, we can never be sure of China’s true intent — do they want to peacefully co-exist or dominate us? — so we must calibrate policy with a gaping blind spot. If they seek domination and we fail to preempt them, they win; if we treat them as an enemy when they want peace, we lurch towards an unnecessary war. If not through outright aggression, this tension and paranoia on both sides can lead to dire miscalculations.  

Allison analyzes 16 Thucydides Trap scenarios throughout history, finding that 12 of them led to war. From here, he examines several ways for the U.S. and China to become the exception rather than the rule. While he avoids explicit policy proposals, he nevertheless implies that U.S. “accommodation” of China’s rise is the best path to avoid war. Treating China like an enemy is just too great a risk; we must make room for them in the current system or everyone loses. In essence, this amounts to a continuation of U.S. policy for the past three decades. While it’s been heavily criticized for methodological flaws and historical inaccuracies, the book became wildly influential.

After the book’s release, the concept of a Thucydides Trap became a leading framework to analyze U.S.-China relations. It was named a notable book by numerous legacy outlets and was praised by luminaries like Kissinger, former CIA director David Petraeus and former Defense secretaries William Cohen and Ash Carter. Harvard launched a Thucydides Trap Project to expand on the book’s findings. While “Thucydides Trap” was mentioned in only 720 articles between 1989-2016, according to Google Scholar, it appeared over 4600 times in the last six years. Allison’s ideas even found their way into the Trump administration

But when all is said and done, Allison is just another coastal Liberal running with the same cable news preferences and talking points. In an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2017, he wrote how Donald Trump could “stumble into war” with China. Trade wars, escalation over Taiwan and North Korea, Trump’s mean tweets — all unnecessary brashness he argued would lead us closer to war.

Of course, none of this ever came to pass, but it became one of the most powerful narratives against Trump and Trumpism. We can’t prioritize our own interests against China, the experts all tell us, otherwise we risk another world war. Our national interest can’t be separated from the international interest in peace and stability. The only answer is accommodation — to make room for China within the current system even if it requires ceding some of our leadership and influence. Trump’s temperament and inexperience risks a deadly miscalculation; we need to have “adults in the room.” Despite four years of peace under Trump, the establishment still clings to this narrative.

The establishment preference is not lost on Xi Jinping. “We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap,” he said in a speech. Our elites are perfectly fine ceding power to China as long as they continue to benefit from it personally — and Xi knows it. China counts on the U.S. to continue to accommodate its rise until it’s too late.

All of this is surely going through Xi’s head at this very moment. The Biden administration follows Allison’s Liberal way of thinking and will continue to accommodate China under the guise of averting catastrophe. And time is running out. Better to take Taiwan now than risk having a Republican in the White House next year who won’t rely on this easy “intellectual” cop out to avoid a confrontation.

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