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DESTINED FOR WAR

 
 

Graham Allison

 
 

Subtitle: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap. Scribe, London, 2017, 364 pgs., graphs, paperback

 
 

Reviewer Comment:

This is a very important study of critical current and future conditions facing American and Chinese leaders (rulers) and citizens. It very forcefully presents a thesis that, if accepted, would affect American foreign and domestic policy and Chinese responses to those. Thus it should be carefully analysed. But even more important is Thucydides' own writing on the human condition for its very relevant lessons for very similar examples of human conditions today. The 'trap' is not one into which a 'state' might fall, but one in which individuals and human communities do fall frequently. History is the recorded record of human ideas, decisions and actions, not those attributed to some theoretical concept. (See, for instance Housel).
The fundamental problem with this study is common to modern academic political science and economics practitioners: the insist on study of aggregates of humanity rather than individuals. They insist that doing otherwise generates too much 'noise' in the data for modeling behavior. Political scientist academics frame their efforts around the abstract concept of the 'state' which was aduced during the Renaissance to replace the 'Great Chain of Being' as the legitimizing concept for rulers. But the ancient Greeks had no such concept. They believed that individuals were responsible for the results of their actions.
Thucydides did not write an essay on political theory but on psychology, especially the effect of protracted war resulting from the excessive desire for empire. His text is a continual analysis of psychological aspects of 'human nature'. He wrote during the great Greek expansion of thought about rationality and rational human behavior that includes emotional responses as well. It is about such topics as fear, courage, generosity, greed, hubris, honor, dishonor, decisiveness, indecision, calculation, competition, agresiveness, reluctance, passivity, ignorance, altruism, friendship, loyality, thoughtfullness, panic and others. His concept of 'inevitable' is more about the effect of war on the responses it will generate on and by humans, due to human nature, than on that of war itself.

The author invokes Thucydides's analysis of the 'Peloponnesian War' in which, in one comment, Dr. Allison claims Thucydides ascribed its causation to the struggle between a 'status quo' power and a rival 'growing power' which the former feared it would be overpowered by if it did not act to curtail the perceived expansionist policy of the latter - That is, the conflict between the powerful and apparently expansionist power, Athens, and the conservative, defensive status quo power, Sparta. But there is nothing in Thucydides' work that refers to this concept. It is not the subject that Thucydides had in mind as the purpose of his sketch. He wanted to write a case study on the rise and fall of empire and its effects due to the mentalities of human actors - that is the effect of imperialism as a human goal on the individuals and community seeking it. Thucydides saw the psychological essence of individual's evaluation of present and future conditions expanded to the individuals comprising a community - society. So, it would be that some Spartans 'feared' Athenian expanded agression but for what reason? And was it actually the Spartans who had the greatest 'fear' or others such as the Korinthians? His study is actually an excellent description of the results of individual human decisions resulting in actions. This is why he devoted the great majority of his text to the speeches of the principle actors engaged in debates designed to sway the opinions of their audiences. Nor is it the real causes of the war than various modern analysts perceive, sometimes depending on their own priorities such as economic.

For another example of Thucydides' thinking please read Diodorus Siculis The Historical Library in which he also describes and comments on human history as the result of the personal psychology of the human actors - not inaniment or abstract entities such as a 'state'. Both Plutarch and Cornelius Nepos also describe the events of history as the result of the actions of individuals. They focus on the personalities and psychological makeup of individuals. But this aproach is no longer in favor in our academic circles today. One result is the failure to recognize the actual sources of politics.

Dr. Allison presents other examples of similar international rivalries - Germany vs. Britain; and others, 16 in all, some of which led to war and others did not. In these cases as well the role of the human actors was decisive. He titles the example as a conflict or potential conflict between two 'states' but in his description of the resulting causes and events he has to rely on informing the reader about the roles of real individual actors, yet by abstracting these by assigning human nature to this abstract 'state'. In doing so he and others fulfills the actual purpose the creators of this abstraction had in mind; to justify the agressive policies of rulers and legitimize their claim to rule. They are not personally responsible for the adverse for citizens results when they base their actions on the inherent demands of the 'state'.

I agree with much that Dr. Allison proposes about today's world situation, but I disagree with Dr. Allison's detailed exposition on several levels.
The most basic and significant is that he is thinking in modern theoretical political terms. For Thucydides there were no such things as 'status quo powers' or 'growing powers' (or states having power) there were only individuals organized into families, clans, tribes, communities, and polities. In his essay, titled a 'Syngraphe', Thucydides devotes only part of the content to description of events, while most of it is devoted to his analysis of speechs of individuals and people's reactions to them and to his analysis of the decisions that generated those events. He focues on the motivations of individuals and factions. In his selection of both events and speeches he organizes his material to counter contemporary Greek public opinion on the role of various individuals and the 'real' causes for the conflict between the Spartans plus allies and Athenians and their allies. And he leaves out, on purpose, mention of events that do not serve his objectives.

First: Dr. Allison, as do so many others now, gives to the 'state' human attributes - anthropomorphism - psychological attributes such as fear. But the 'state' is a modern abstract concept and has no such attributes. And Thucydides does not attribute such attributes to 'states' of which he did not have the concept. Thucydides very clearly is studying the psychology of individuals - both political leaders and their followers. And he identifies three leading human motivations - desire for security, desire for honor, and desire for wealth. From these desires he finds - desire for power - domination and to avoid domination in the course of achieving and protecting these - and fear - fear of loss of security first, fear of loss of honor second and fear of loss of wealth third. In writing his Syngraphe he hopes to provide for future leaders a better understanding of the role of human psychology in effecting the course of human events in ways they may not expect. He is especially concerned with the effect of persute of empire on the psychological response of the actors in accordance with the realities of human nature. He was writing at a critical period in the development of Greek philosoply including historical thinking between Herodotus and Plato. Both Machiavelli and Hobbes were students of Thucydides and should be studied at the same time for their understanding of what he was thinking. And for them the concept of a 'state' as a source of justification rulers use to explain their actions is its modern purpose.

Second: All politics is local. The foreign policy of a ruler (or society) is dependent on and reflection of internal political policies. And thus this shows repeatedly in Thucydides' accounts. And on two levels. Both the Athenian and Spartan societies were riven with internal competitions between individuals and family groups - Athenians more so that Spartans - both societies relied greatly on slavery, but the Spartans more so while the Athenians relied more on controling external peoples - that is within those two societies themselves. Plus both societies were hegemons over leagues of 'allies' on which their individuals depended for basic security (safety), especially, and for honor to a significant degree, and in the case of Athenians also very much for wealth. Both societies depended critically on their food supply, Athenians more on external sources than Peloponnesians. The political positions of the leading players on both sides, as rendered in their very revealing speeches, continually recognize their fear of loosing 'allies' that, if these defected, would join the other side. And Thucydides strongly describes the threatening attitudes and actions of the allied peoples to do just that, defect.

Third, Thucydides' larger theme is the study of empire - its pros and cons - and its effect on the thinking of the people who create and defend it, until they ultimately crave it. He clains, and so describes the processes as being the natural course of human nature in action. His method derives also from the new methods of analysis being developed by his contemporary medical scientists: - Athens as a case study of the onset and decay of the disease of empire building. And he recognized that both the Athenians and Spartans had their own vulnerabilities and sources for fear apart even from loosing 'allies'. The Spartans were always fearful of their own helots revolting. And the Athenians were always fearful of being cut off from their critical external sources of food, timber and gold. They had already lost (after great expenditure, twice) their grain source from Egypt and suffered but survived attacks on their always vulnerable supply chain from Crimea via Hellespont. They were also seeking grain from the 'West', that is Sicily and Italy. To one degree or another all the Greek communities, except Sparta and Thessaly, were critically dependent on external food supply.

Fourth, The account Thucydides renders itself is subject to considerable controversial modern analysis as to his own real motivations in writing it and to the veracity of his assessments about causes - to what extent was he pro-Athenian in outlook. Did he want to blame the Peloponnesians when public opinion outside Athens blamed the Athenians?

The analysis of modern authors depends also on their personal point of view - for instance, historians, political scientists, economists. They will find 'causes' related to their opinions on what motivates humans. For instance, the economist John Hicks, writes in his Theory of Economic History that: 'it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the Peloponnesian War, which began as a struggle between Athens and Corinth, is (in some of its aspects) another example' - that is of a trade war similar to that between medieval Genoa and Venice.

Then there is the disagreement I have with Dr. Allison's descriptions of some of the other of the 16 examples he provides as case studies. Again the policies pursued by what he considers 'states' were actually just like those of Athenians and Spartans, motivated by the same set of psychological factors on the relevant individuals in the course of their rivalry and conflict with opponents within their own society.

Dr. Allison first published his hypothesis of conflict between existing great powers and newly 'rising' want-to-be great powers in the Atlantic magazine and then took to promote the concept in testimony before Congress and meeting with Executive Branch officials. But his detailed descriptions of the facts in each of the 16 cases are questionable, or superficial, and in some cases clearly false. More on these examples follow when I can discuss each of his examples.

Now, he has organized a group - a Great Power War Project - to conduct further research and promote the thesis.

His conception of the relations between the United States and China, about which the whole book is actually focused, apppars to be that of a member of the 'school of thought' that the Chinese leadership in seeking to make China the dominant world power is only doing what comes naturally and it is up to the Americans to continue to accept and promote this. Continuation of the policy of assisting China would ultimately result of Chinese cooperation. Although that he advocates this policy position is not clear. Perhaps he is being non-commital and seeking to present all options.

To examine Dr. Allison's thesis one must study the several different subjects he addresses. These include: what Thucydides actually thought and wrote and why - the actual history of the Peloponnesian War- what the Chinese rulers' actual policy and objectives are today - what American foreign policy will be - what the real future world political- economic environment will be - what were the actual historical events and policies that Dr. Allison uses as his example case studies.

For Thucydides the student should read Hobbes' translation and the Landmark edition of the history of the war. The student should consider what Machiavelli and Hobbes thought about and learned from Thucydides. Then read Voegelin, Kagan, Grundy and Green. Of equal importance to the study of Thucydides today is study of American and Chinese societies and the political competitions between individuals and factions within both socities. For methodology read Raico. For current Chinese policy read Ward and for the future read Zeihan. I include in the references some that relate to these topics.

As I noted above, this is a very important analysis of the current state of Chinese - American relations and some of the unfortunate potentials that mistakes of leadership could create. But I would urge Dr. Allison and the senior policy leaders to toss this myth of the 'state' away and focus on the motives, desires, decisions, and objectives of real people. It is they who live in a "Thucydides trap".

 
 

Preface

 
 

Introduction

 
 

Part One: The Rise of China

 
 

1. "The Biggest Player in the History of the World"

 
 

Part Two: Lessons from History

 
 

2. Athens vs. Sparta

 
 

3. Five Hundred Years
In this chapter Dr. Allison lists the 16 'case studies':
1 15th century Portugal vs. Spain
2 16th century France vs Hapsburgs
3 16th- 17th century Hapsburgs vs Ottoman Empire
4 17th century Hapsburgs vs Sweden
5 17th century Dutch Republic vs England
6 17th-18th century France vs Great Britain
7 late 18th early 19th century United Kingdom vs France
8 mid 19th century France and UK vs Russia
9 mid 19th century France vs Germany
10 late 19th- early 20th century China and Russia vs Japan
11 early 20th century UK vs US
12 early 20th century Uk + France and Russia vs Germany
13 mid 20th century USSR + France and UK vs Germany
14 mid 20th century US vs Japan
15 1940 - 80 US vs USSR
16 1990's UK and France vs Germany

But in each of these examples it is easy to identify the important and responsible individuals (leaders and others) and to perform the detailed analysis that is inevitably required for study of the motivations, decisions, and actions of real individuals rather than resort to a crutch 'reasons of state' that, indeed, rulers since in the Rennaissance that excuse replaced the concept of 'chain of being' as the justification for their policies and actions. Looking further back one sees that the 'state' has replaced the demands of Marduk and Ashur as the claim rulers express as the motive that guides them. Of course the Hapsburgs were not even a 'state'. And only the Sun King among rulers laid such claim, 'I am the State'. Dr. Allison provides varing levels of detail in his description of why each 'case' was chosen.

 
 

4. Britain vs Germany

 
 

Part Three: A Gathering Storm

 
 

5. Imagine China Were Just Like Us

 
 

6. What Xi's China Wants

 
 

7. Clash of Civilizations

 
 

8. From Here to War

 
 

Part Four: Why War is not Inevitable

 
 

9. Twelve Clues for Peace

 
 

10. Where Do We Go from Here"

 
 

Conclusion

 
 

References:
I include in this list a few references specific to Thucydides' history text and the text itself, others to scholars' analysis of that text, others to strategic thinking in general, and others to descriptiion or analysis of the current and future relations between China and the United States. The reader will find that the opinion of authors on all these issues varies greatly, some even in total oppsition to each other. Due to space I have left out references to the histories of Dr. Allison's other case studies.

 
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William T. Blum - 'Causal Theory in Thucydides' Peloponnesial War'. based on textual analysis

 
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George Kateb - Thucydides' History: 'A Manual of Statecraft' - application of modern political science theory

 
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Eric Voegelin - The World of the Polis - Volume Two of Order and History One chapter on Thucydides in evolution of philosophy and thinking in classical Greece, but very illuminating at the level of philosophy.

 
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G. E. M. de Ste. Croix - The Origins of the Peloponnesian War excellent discussion of the economic aspects of war and Greek thinking about their economic environment not included in most discussions of either Thucydides or of the war.

 
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Raphael Sealey - A History of the Greek City States 700 - 338 B.C. full history of the context of the war

 
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Thucydides - The Peloponnesian War, 2 vols. trans by Thomas Hobbes, ed. David Grene, 1959. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. - the only contemporary full source on the war.

 
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Thucydides - The Peloponnesian War trans. by Thomas Hobbes, Intro. by Bertrand de Jouvenal, ed by David Grene

 
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Thucydides - The Peloponnesian Wartrans., by Rex Warner, Intro by M.I. Finley

 
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Thucydides - The Peloponnesian Wartrans. and ed. by Sir Richard Livingstone

 
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Donald Kagan, 1969, 4 volumes - The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War,
Most comprehensive description and analysis of the war.

 
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Donald Kagan, 1974, The Archidamian War,

 
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Donald Kagan, 1981, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian expedition,

 
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Donald Kagan, 1987, The fall of the Athenian Empire.

 
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Victor Davis Hanson, 1989. The Western Way of War Description and analysis of the Greek methods for conducting battle with details on hoplite arms, armor and tactics.

 
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Victor Davis Hanson, 1999, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, more description of combat and more description of the major battle.

 
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Victor Davis Hanson, ed., 2010 Makers of Ancient Strategy Includes other authors in addition to Thucydides up to Roman era

 
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G. B. Grundy, 1961 Thucydides and the History of his Age very extensive analysis of both the author and the war including economic factors.

 
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Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides,trans of the text plus extensive discussion and background information

 
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Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Xenophon trans of his continuation of the history of the war

 
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June W. Allison - Power and Preparedness in Thucydides detailed examination of key terms used by Thucydides - a literary study

 
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Xenophon, Hellenica, I. II

 
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Diodorus Siculus, The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian Vol. 2

 
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Diodorus Siculus, The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian Vol 1

 
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Plutarch - The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans - read Themistocles, Pericles, Alcibiades,

 
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Cornelius Nepos - The Book of Cornelius Neos on the Great Generals of Foreign Nations Miltiades, Themistocles, Aristides, Pausanius, Cimon, Lysander, Alcibiades, Thrasybulus, Conon, Dion, iphicrates, Chabrias, Timothes, Datames, Epamindondas, Pelopidas, Agesilaus, Eumenes, Phocion, Timoleon

 
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John Hicks - A Theory of Economic HistoryAs an economist Dr. Hicks contendes that the Peloponnesian War was a trade war between Athenains and Corinthians

 
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Peter Green - Armada from Athens: The Failure of the Sicilian Expedition 415 - 413 B.C.
But includes much analysis of the total background inclding economics and the long term rivalries between Athenians and Corinthians as well as Spartans.

 
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Josiah Ober - The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece
Places the war in full context of Greek history with empahsis on Athens and Sparta

 
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J. K. Davies - Democracy and Classical Greece
About the immediate period before, during and after the war

 
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Oswyn Murray - Early Greece
Greek society up to the Persian War

 
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John V. A. Fine - The Ancient Greeks
History of the entire classical era and before

 
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Philip de Souza, Waldemar Heckel, The Greeks at War:From Athens to Alexander

 
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Andrew Wilson - Masters of War: History's Greatest Strategic Thinkers
Includes Thucydides about the greatest. Also includes some strategic thinkers who were relevnt to the recent 'case' studies

 
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William Rodgers - Greek and Roman Naval Warfare

 
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John Sloan - 'The Peloponnesian War'
- expansion of article in Brassey's International Military and Diplomatic Encyclopedia - a summary of events

 
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Philip Bobbitt - The Shield of Achilles
The history of the origin and development of the concept 'state' since the Renassance

 
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Ralph D. Sawyer - Ancient Chinese warfare
useful both to compare Chinese with Greeks and to compare ancients with current.

 
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Jonathan D. T. Ward - China's Vision of Victory
Personal observations from living in China

 
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Michael Pillsbury - The Hundred-Year Marathon
Based on years of direct discussion with Chinese military and civilian leaders

 
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Gordon Chang - The Coming Collapse of China Focused on the fundamental weaknesses of the position of China in the world

 
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Robert Spalding - Stealth War Focus on Chinese espionage

 
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Charles and Louis-Vincent Gave - Clash of Empires
Analysis of the balance of power today

 
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Kai-Fu Lee - AI Super-powers China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order
Focus on the current and future development of artificial intelligence in China and U.S.

 
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Peter Zeihan - The Accidental Superpower
geopolitical analysis of the world economy and U.S. role

 
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Peter Zeihan - The Absent Superpower
Continuation of above but with focus on results of development of shale oil in the U.S.

 
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Peter Zeihan - Disunited Nations: A Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World
Expected geopolitial results of American withdrawal of enforcement of the Bretton Woods Agrement and resulting international conflicts.

 
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Victor Davis Hanson - China's Brilliant, Insidious Strategy

 
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Charles Hawkins & Robert Love eds. The New Great Game
Transcript of a meeting with influential Chinese political - military theorists

 
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William Hawkins - 'This is Truly a Trade War'

 
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Robert D. Kaplan - Asia's Cauldron geopolitical basis for analysis

 
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Geoff Dyer - The Contest of the Century

 
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Ralph Raico - "The European Miracle"

 
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Morgan Housel - "Five Lessons from History"
Very important description of the role of human psychology in making decisions

 
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James Buchanan & Gordon Tullock - The Calculus of Consent
Very influential study about the personal motivations of 'public servants'.

 
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James Buchanan & Robert Tollison ed. The Theory of Public Choice II
- This concept is that 'public servants' that is politicians and government bureaucrats are actually motivated in pursuit of their own private benefits as much as any one else. Of course study of Thucydides or any ancient author will show this. But it takes inconoclastic economists today to seek to prove it.

 
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