Destined for War by Graham Allison: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Destined for War by Graham Allison.

In short

Destined for War is a continuation of the popular article in The Atlantic on the same subject. In this book Allison describes what tends to happen when a rising power starts to confront the ruling power. Athens vs. Sparta; France vs. Germany; Soviet Union vs. USA; and currently China vs. USA. The scary thing: 12 out of the 16 historical cases ended in war.

This is what Allison calls a “Thucydides Trap”, a reference to the first case of a rising power vs. a ruling power, in which “the growth of power of Athens, made war inevitable” according to Thucydides. The book is partly a description of some of the case studies, but mostly deals with the current ongoing Thucydides trap: China vs. USA. Is war inevitable in this case, or can it be avoided?

Allison argues it’s not inevitable but that there’s a realignment of world power, and that the USA must get used to the new growing and assertive power of China. On top, of course, is the growing economic and regional dominance of China.

If you’re interested in geopolitics, history, international relations or politics Destined for War is a must-read to understand the ongoing power struggle.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

The case studies

Ruling PowerRising PowerResult?
PortugalSpainNo war
HapsburgsOttoman EmpireWar
Dutch RepublicEnglandWar
FranceGreat BritainWar
United KingdomFranceWar
United Kingdom, FranceRussiaWar
Russia, ChinaJapanWar
United KingdomUnited StatesNo war
Russia, United Kingdom, FranceGermanyWar
Soviet Union, United Kingdom, FranceGermanyWar
United StatesJapanWar
United StatesSoviet UnionNo war
United Kingdom, FranceGermanyNo war
United StatesChina?

For more information on the case files and methodology you can check the Belfor Center’s website.

Book notes from ‘Destined for War’

  • “More important than the sparks that lead to war, Thucydides teaches us, are the structural factors that lay its foundations: conditions in which otherwise manageable events can escalate with unforeseeable severity and produce unimaginable consequences.”
  • Does the twenty-first century make the entire concept of balance or power old-fashioned? Lee Kuan Yew, first prime minister of Singapore, states it is not. But not just military power is of importance for the balance of power, economic power is more important still.
  • Using “geo-economics”, or using economic instruments for geopolitical goals, will become more important. China, with projects such as the ‘Belt and Road Initiative‘ obviously excels in this.
  • “The contest between a rising and ruling power often intensifies competition over scarce resources. When an expanding economy compels the first to reach farther afield to secure essential commodities, including some under the control or protection of the second, the competition can become a resource scramble. The attempt to deny a state imports it judges crucial for survival can provoke war.”
  • Allison identifies several traps that can lead to war:
    • When a rising power feels indignity after previous treatment (or victimhood) it will become more determined to get to its “rightful” place.
    • States can never be certain of the other’s intent, so they focus on capabilities. Defensive actions of one party will seem like offensive to the other, heightening the tensions.
    • Networks of alliances carry risks as well as rewards. States can hedge when the power balances changes by making deals and alliances with parties they would previously have rejected.
  • What does China want as a rising power? Allison lists the following four objectives:
    • “Returning China to the predominance in Asia it enjoyed before the West intruded”
    • “Reestablishing control over the territories of “greater China” (Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, et cetera)
    • “Recovering its historic sphere of influence along its borders and in the adjacent seas so that others give the deference great nations have always demanded.”
    • “Commanding the respect of other great powers in the councils of the world.”
  • “War for Chinese strategists is primarily psychological and political; military campaigns are a secondary concern. In Chinese thinking, an opponent’s perception of facts on the ground may be just as important as the facts themselves”
  • The changing facts of the balance of power (China’s economic output, military capabilities, world power, regional influence, et cetera) means that we enter a period in which the relationship between the ruling power and the rising power needs to be determined – with all the potential risks it has.
  • “China and the US would be better served not by passive-aggressive “should diplomacy” (calling on the other to exhibit better behavior) or by noble-sounding rhetoric about geopolitical norms, but by unapologetically pursuing their national interests. In high-stakes relationships, predictability and stability – not friendship – matter most. The US should stop playing “let’s pretend.”

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