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Destined for War summary

Graham Allison

Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

4.2 (126 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

Destined for War by Graham Allison examines the rising tensions between the United States and China and the risk of a catastrophic military conflict. The book offers valuable insights to understand and prevent such a future.

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    Destined for War
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    China’s stratospheric growth makes it a plausible rival to the US

    Nearly two and a half thousand years ago, a decades-long war raged across southern Europe and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – the Peloponnesian War. Fought between the rival kingdoms of Sparta, an established power, and Athens, a rising force, the Athenians’ eventual defeat heralded the beginning of the end of the Ancient Greek empire.

    Why did the Athenians and the Spartans go to war? Plenty has been written about the diplomatic failings, shifting alliances, and territorial squabbles that lit the spark of the conflict. But contemporaneous Thucydides offers a far more succinct explanation: Athens’s rise to power inspired fear in Sparta. When this dynamic occurs, conflict is all but inevitable.

    In the first decades of the twenty-first century, we’ve seen this dynamic playing out again, between two different powers: the US, which established itself as the dominant political and economic global force in the twentieth century, and China, whose swift growth sees it poised to topple American supremacy.

    China’s rise as a global power has been swift. In 1971, Henry Kissinger visited China – then largely closed to foreigners – to lay the groundwork for President Richard Nixon’s visit the following year. The statesman recalled a provincial, rustic backwater. Fast-forward a few decades and the picture is quite different.

    Now, China has transformed from a largely agricultural society to an industrialized nation, with the infrastructure to match. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd describes the intervening decades in China as a combination of the English Industrial Revolution and the global information revolution playing out at light speed. Rome may not have been built in a day, but by 2005 China was building the square foot equivalent of Ancient Rome every two weeks as part of its drive to modernize. On top of that, between 1949 and 2014 the average life expectancy of Chinese citizens doubled. It’s become the world’s leading producer of, among other things, aluminum, ships, computers, cell phones, clothing, and furniture – essentially, it’s the world’s dominant manufacturer. And it’s on track to becoming the world’s dominant economic power, period.

    Between 1980 and 2017, China’s GDP grew from 7 percent of the US’s to 61 percent. To put that into perspective, every 2 years since 2008 the increase in the size of China’s GDP has been equal to that of the entire economy of neighboring India. And while in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, Chinese growth slowed by one-third – global growth slowed by half. Even when it was slowing down, China still came out ahead. 

    According to the former Singaporean Prime Minister, and astute China-watcher, Lee Kuan Yew, when China comes to full power, it won’t just tip the balance of global power. “The world,” he said, ”must find a new balance”. In his view, China isn’t another big player on the world stage – China is the biggest player. The US is certainly aware that global equilibrium is shifting. After decades of focusing foreign policy on the Middle East, in 2011 then foreign secretary Hilary Clinton announced the government’s policy focus would shift to Asia.

    On its side, China is thirsty for power: this is a nation that’s not afraid to enforce sanctions or threaten aggression to force its agenda through on the world stage. It’s a situation that Thucydides might find all too familiar, and a dynamic that historians have seen acted out on the world stage time and again.

    In the next section, we’ll go back in time to look at some of these instances and see which other nations have found themselves stuck in a Thucydides Trap.

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    What is Destined for War about?

    Destined for War (2017) applies ancient military thinking to a very contemporary conflict: the power struggle between the established power of the US, and the rising power of China. It uncovers how this dynamic has led to conflict in past centuries, and spells out what the US and China must do in the future to avoid all-out war.

    Destined for War Review

    Destined for War (2017) by Graham Allison is a thought-provoking book that delves into the possibility of a future conflict between the United States and China. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It offers a comprehensive analysis of the historical patterns that have led to wars between major powers and applies them to the current relationship between the US and China.
    • The book explores practical strategies that could be implemented to avoid a catastrophic war and achieve a peaceful coexistence.
    • With its accessible writing style and compelling arguments, Destined for War keeps readers engaged and challenged throughout, shedding light on an important subject matter.

    Who should read Destined for War?

    • News junkies who want a deeper understanding of the US’s relationship with China
    • Those interested in how ancient political theory can be applied to contemporary conflicts
    • Those new to world politics who are curious about the current power struggle between China and the US

    About the Author

    Graham Allison is a renowned scholar, political scientist, and the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He serves as the Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and leads Harvard University’s long-running Thucydides Trap Project. 

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    Destined for War FAQs 

    What is the main message of Destined for War?

    The main message of Destined for War is that the US and China are on a path towards a dangerous conflict.

    How long does it take to read Destined for War?

    The reading time for Destined for War varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Destined for War a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Destined for War is worth reading as it provides valuable insights into the rising tensions between the US and China.

    Who is the author of Destined for War?

    The author of Destined for War is Graham Allison.

    What to read after Destined for War?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Destined for War, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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