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Interview with Graham T. Allison, Jr. (Harvard Kennedy School)

Interviewer: Geunwook Lee, Professor, Department of Political Science, Sogang University
Date: Sunday, May 27th, 2018
Venue: Executive Lounge, 19F, The Crown Plaza Fudan, Shanghai

Geunwook Lee:
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. It is my honor to have you attend Shanghai Forum 2018. I also really enjoyed being in the same session with you yesterday.

Graham T. Allison:
Thank you very much for having me. I enjoyed participating with you on the panel yesterday.

Let me start with your recent work. In your renowned book, Destined for War, you argued that power transition is dangerous. However, some argue that nuclear weapons might provide effective deterrents and that economic interdependence between the United States and China might restrain Washington and Beijing out of a collision course. Personally, I’d like to hear your opinion over this optimism.

I think it’s a complicated issue as a scholar understands. So, start with the big picture. The big picture is a rising China that is threatening to displace a ruling US. That’s the Thucydidean dynamic and that’s the underlying driver of events. That’s a condition in the real world that cannot be denied.

As I argue in the book – and Thucydides explained about what happened 2,500 years ago – when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, this sets in motion a dangerous dynamic that most often ends in a war. In my book, I looked at the last 500 years, 16 cases: 12 ended in war, four in no war. That’s the general proposition.

Now, each case is interestingly different of these 16. And so the seventeenth case that we are seeing now, the rise of China and its impact on the ruling US. Among the special conditions today are nuclear arsenals at superpower levels that, if used, will destroy both countries. That was also true in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which is also one of the cases that ended in no war. That’s a very promising, positive factor.

But we should remember that the most dangerous episode in recorded history was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In that case, John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States, went with what he thought was a one in three chance of a nuclear war that would kill 100 million people to prevent the Soviet Union placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. So if that had ended in a nuclear war, we would not say nuclear weapons make war impossible.

Secondly the economic interdependence: economic interdependence is entangled between the US and China now. It’s a big stabilizing factor. You can even see this in the trade conflict apparently. The trade conflict threatens farmers in the US who are selling their soybeans to the Chinese. All of a sudden, Trump gets the message that these people, who are his voters, are probably going to be unhappy at this trade war. So things calmed down a little bit.

Economic entanglement can be a big stabilizer. We should remember from history. The best-selling book in Europe for the decade before 1940 was a famous book called The Great Illusion. It said war is impossible because Britain and Germany were too economically entangled. So much so that at the end of the war, the victor would have lost more than he achieved. That was actually true, but it didn’t prevent World War I. I would say, while these are important stabilizing factors, they are not sufficient in themselves. 

The second question is also about what you said in your book. We had 16 cases of power transition and out of them 12 went to war, 4 did not luckily. In this sense, we have another question. In the book, you described how determined Theodore Roosevelt was to implement the Monroe Doctrine and to establish the United States as the hegemon of the Western hemisphere. The political leadership can make a difference. Bismarck once said that a preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death. Then the Thucydides Trap is something that political leaders choose to trap themselves rather than an inevitable destiny. That might not be an inevitable destiny that states cannot escape. So what would be the rule for the significance of political leadership in the Thucydides dynamics as you said?

As you know, political scientists argue about the relative importance of structural factors on the one hand and human agency or choices on the other. I think all sensible people appreciate that life consists of the interaction of the two. So structural realities in effect deal the hands, but individuals play the cards. So if I get a bad hand, it’s very hard for me in the poker game to beat you because I have to work with the cards I have. On the other hand, I still have choices to make. I think the interaction between the structural factors and the human choices is the story of history.

Interestingly, Thucydides, in analyzing the choices that the Athenians and the Spartans made, is emphasizing that they had choices. Actually, as you read in the book and listen to the debate in the Athenian assembly, half of the people think we should go to war while the other half think we should not. So they have choices to make.

Thucydides is emphasizing that recognizing the structural factors that give you your destiny, if you just go with the drift of events, is the problem. The choices you didn’t make – that’s your responsibility.

So I think understanding that we face a dangerous dynamic does not lead to fatalism. It leads to requirements for imagination and adaptability in order to choose wisely and in order to prevent the past mistakes.

Since you raised the issue of the structural factor in international relations, as an international relations theorist I would say your assessment of the future US-China relations reminds me of offensive realist John Mearsheimer in some sense. Actually, Prof. Mearsheimer recently gave a talk in Seoul at KFAS and I had the pleasure of being one of the panelists in the discussion. Personally, I’d like to hear your opinion on Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. Every time I read Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Politics, I hear your voice rather than John’s.

I would say there are some similarities and some differences. I know Mearsheimer and I like his book very much. But I disagree. He and I certainly belong to this school of realism. But I would say almost everybody really does because everybody agrees you have to start with the structural realities. Those are crucial.

The question of whether there’s - in either technology or in the drive of events - a decisive advantage for the offensive is not at all clear in the circumstances. As you said, certainly with respect to nuclear war, a war in which whether I go first or whether I go second at the end of the day both you and I are dead, the incentive for going at all is zero. The incentive for preventing war is overwhelming. So one of the great discoveries during the Cold War was that once two nations acquired superpower capabilities that provided a reliable second strike (in nuclear). After I do my best offensively, preemptively in the first instance to disarm you, you still can kill me.

Even at the end of the day, I’m dead. This is a losing proposition. So therefore, I have to find a way to co-exist with you because the only alternative is to not exist. So if it’s co-existence or no existence, I think I will co-exist.
What does co-existence require? That requires - as we found in the Cold war –I have to compromise sometimes, I have to constrain myself sometimes, communicate quite a lot and  have to be extremely cautious. So I think those same lessons actually apply in the American-Chinese competition where China now has a reliable second-strike capability. If you ever end up in a general war, it will end up killing most Americans. So that is anything for which America should commit suicide as Bismarck said. That’s not a very good idea. What’s the other alternative? That’s why we should be exploring other options.

In this sense, your proposition about learning from the Cold War is very interesting because, these days, Chinese leadership is talking about new types of great power relationship rather than old types. If we have a new type of great power relationships, we are expected to see the old type of great power relationships. In my opinion, that might be a kind of Cold War experience. So what would you say and what kind of lessons would we have to learn from the Cold War experience even though that is the old type of a great power relationship?

I like very much Xi Jinping’s idea of a new form of great power relations. There’s a person who works directly for him, who said to me : “Graham, why do we call this a new form? It’s because we understand that the old form ends up going down this Thucydidean Trap to disaster. So we need a new form.” I like that. Then we need to know the content of the new form. I think, in developing the content of the new form, we can take advantage of everything. Some will be lessons that we learned from mistakes that were made in the old forms. Some will be from successes in the old forms. But the package together will be new.

So I think the unfortunate fact is that Xi Jinping first started talking about this when he came to the US in 2012 when he was vice president. And here we are, six years later, and nobody has filled in much content. What is the specific content of the new form of great power relationship? What I’ve been doing in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and the US, and what I’m hoping to do in Korea, is to say we can all be trying to give some content to this idea. To take a specific example, I think in the new form of great power relations, both parties would pay great attention to crisis prevention, not managing the crisis – that’s another problem – but preventing a crisis that could drive them into war.

How about the Korean Peninsula? That’s a good example. Who could think of a way to prevent a war on the Korean Peninsula? I would say President Moon has been thinking very actively and acting very actively. So, this is not only for China. It’s not only for the US. Even people in Singapore might have an idea. So anybody can think of ideas. Taiwan is another case. If Taiwan would go the wrong direction, you can end up with a war between US and China. Can the Taiwanese think of this? Of course they can. So they can think of some good ideas.

All of us, if we became challenged to say who could write things on the white board that might be an idea, some of them might turn out to be bad ideas. But I think we should be filling up the board with ideas. Then we will find which ones will be good ones. 

Then let’s say you are in charge of designing the package. Then what kind of items you might put on the white board? 

Nobody should write the final package, but I would put some things on the board and let other people do so as well. One would be recognizing that the alternative to co-existence is no existence. So we have to find a way to live together, however uncomfortable. That means all the lessons we learned from the Cold War plus. So in the US-Chinese relationship all the five Cs: constraints, caution, compromise, communication, and cooperation.

Number two is the economic relationship. Because of this economic entanglement, because of the global economic system, everybody is richer than we would be otherwise. So, we should be happy about that. Many poor people in China, 600 million who used to be miserably poor, now have some dignity in their lives with a little bit more money and sometimes a lot more money. Everybody should be happy about that as human beings. So that’s what we celebrate. But does that have to be adjusted now and adapted in some significant ways, particularly if China gets as big as the US? So I would say work on that problem.

In another part, this is not a good one for Trump right now, but for the rest of the world: climate. If we recognize that the behaviors of human beings and emitting greenhouse gases to create energy are going to make an environment where nobody can live in hundred years, we have to find a way to work together to limit greenhouse gases. That was the first step made in the Paris Agreement. Trump made a terrible mistake, in my view, by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. I would think in time we will and have to get back to that.

We could make a long list of these and I think there will be quite a lot. I think crisis prevention is a very big one because one of the things Thucydides taught us was that in this dangerous dynamic it’s the very rare case where one or the other of the parties decides this is a good time for a war. Most often what happens is in this dynamic some third party action, like the 1914 assassination of an archduke becomes a trigger for a set of reactions by the two principal parties that ends in a war they did not want to have. So in 1914, the Germans did not want a war with Britain. The British didn’t want a war with the Germans. But one thing led to the other and they found themselves in a war.

In this sense, we might have another Thucydides dynamic between Beijing on the one hand and New Delhi on the other. India is a rising power, topping the list of the fastest growing economies in the world for the coming decade. Let’s say now India is rising. How will India’s prominence impact the balance of power in East Asia? Will India become the next ‘rising power’ against the ‘established power,’ China? 

There’s a big ‘if’, as you said. I think most people would agree India is likely to have more people than China in the next decade. But will India manage to sustain high levels of growth? It has done for maybe one year and it falls back, one year and falls back. That’s always been projecting the next decade. I’m still somewhat skeptical.
But to take your ‘if’, if India were able to grow substantially faster than China, and if therefore the gap between China and India was closing, then I think we would see another Thucydidean dynamic in the relationship between China and India. And in some ways that will remind us that in the World War I story you not only had rising Germany creating fear in Britain, but you also had Germans worry about Russia – Russia looked a little bit like India because the Germans kept thinking the Czar is finally going to get their act together. Even though the Russians had been decisively defeated by the Japanese in 1905, still, the Germans were thinking, “Wow, they have so many soldiers and such a large population. Maybe they are going to get bigger; maybe they are going to get stronger.” So I would say you could have these two things going on simultaneously, which could make things more complicated and more interesting.

This question might be a little personal. You have demonstrated continued devotion to the research on US national security and defense policy. What had motivated you into this field?

I was a student in 1962. I had just graduated from Harvard and gone to Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. And the Fall of 1962 was the Cuban Missile Crisis. I had only arrived in Oxford a month before. The British press in particular played this as somehow these crazy Americans and these crazy Soviets are going to drive the world into a nuclear war and we are all going to be killed. Since I was 22 years old, I thought this would be terrible: this would be end of everything. So I became fascinated by the prospect of even a nuclear war and the imperative of doing everything we can to reduce the risk of catastrophic war. I worked on nuclear weapons, the Cold War and when the Soviet Union collapsed, I had the good fortune as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration when we were trying to make sure none of these 14,000 nuclear weapons went loose to the world. So I’ve continued to have that as one of the threads through my life and I’ve enjoyed working on that.

Would you like to send a brief message to the audience of Shanghai Forum 2018?

I would say to the Shanghai Forum that I’ve been honored to be able to be a participant. I think it’s an extraordinary gathering of minds. I think there were great conversations and I hope it’s inspiring for the students because there is a lot of problems that are being left unsolved and a lot of opportunities for the next generation.


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