Taking lessons from a historical pattern called “Thucydides’s Trap,” in this TED Talk political scientist Graham Allison shows why a rising China and a dominant United States could be headed towards a violent collision no one wants — and how we can summon the common sense and courage to avoid it.
Graham Allison – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
So, let me thank you for the opportunity to talk about the biggest international story of your professional lifetime, which is also the most important international challenge the world will face for as far as the eye can see.
The story, of course, is the rise of China.
Never before have so many people risen so far so fast, on so many different dimensions. The challenge is the impact of China’s rise — the discombobulation this will cause the Unites States and the international order, of which the US has been the principal architect and guardian.
The past 100 years have been what historians now call an “American Century.” Americans have become accustomed to their place at the top of every pecking order. So the very idea of another country that could be as big and strong as the US — or bigger — strikes many Americans as an assault on who they are.
For perspective on what we’re now seeing in this rivalry, it’s useful to locate it on the larger map of history. The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. Twelve of those ended in war.
So just in November, we’ll all pause to mark the 100th anniversary of the final day of a war that became so encompassing, that it required historians to create an entirely new category: world war.
So, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns of World War I fell silent, but 20 million individuals lay dead.
I know that this is a sophisticated audience, so you know about the rise of China. I’m going to focus, therefore, on the impact of China’s rise, on the US, on the international order and on the prospects for war and peace.
But having taught at Harvard over many years, I’ve learned that from time to time, it’s useful to take a short pause, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. The way I do this is, I call a time-out, I give students a pop quiz — ungraded, of course. So, let’s try this.
Time-out, pop quiz Question: forty years ago, 1978, China sets out on its march to the market. At that point, what percentage of China’s one billion citizens were struggling to survive on less than two dollars a day? Take a guess — 25%? 50%? 75%? 90%? What do you think? 99 out of every 10 on less than two dollars a day.
2018, 40 years later. What about the numbers? What’s your bet? Take a look. Fewer than one in 100 today. And China’s president has promised that within the next three years, those last tens of millions will have been raised up above that threshold. So it’s a miracle, actually, in our lifetime.
Hard to believe. But brute facts are even harder to ignore. A nation that didn’t even appear on any of the international league tables 25 years ago has soared, to rival — and in some areas, surpass — the United States.
Thus, the challenge that will shape our world: a seemingly unstoppable rising China accelerating towards an apparently immovable ruling US, on course for what could be the grandest collision in history.
To help us get our minds around this challenge, I’m going to introduce you to a great thinker, I’m going to present a big idea, and I’m going to pose a most consequential question.
The great thinker is Thucydides. Now, I know his name is a mouthful, and some people have trouble pronouncing it. So, let’s do it, one, two, three, together: Thucydides. One more time: Thucydides.
So who was Thucydides?
He was the father and founder of history. He wrote the first-ever history book. It’s titled “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” about the war in Greece, 2500 years ago. So if nothing else today, you can tweet your friends, “I met a great thinker. And I can even pronounce his name: Thucydides.”
So, about this war that destroyed classical Greece, Thucydides wrote famously: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable.”
So the rise of one and the reaction of the other create a toxic cocktail of pride, arrogance, paranoia, that drug them both to war.
Which brings me to the big idea: Thucydides’s Trap.
“Thucydides’s Trap” is a term I coined several years ago, to make vivid Thucydides’s insight. Thucydides’s Trap is the dangerous dynamic that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, like Athens — or Germany 100 years ago, or China today — and their impact on Sparta, or Great Britain 100 years ago, or the US today.
As Henry Kissinger has said, once you get this idea, this concept of Thucydides’s Trap in your head, it will provide a lens for helping you look through the news and noise of the day to understand what’s actually going on.
So, to the most consequential question about our world today: Are we going to follow in the footsteps of history? Or can we, through a combination of imagination and common sense and courage find a way to manage this rivalry without a war nobody wants, and everybody knows would be catastrophic?
Give me five minutes to unpack this, and later this afternoon, when the next news story pops up for you about China doing this, or the US reacting like that, you will be able to have a better understanding of what’s going on and even to explain it to your friends.
So as we saw with this flipping the pyramid of poverty, China has actually soared. It’s meteoric. Former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, I think, put it best. He said, “All this has happened so fast, we haven’t yet had time to be astonished.”
To remind myself how astonished I should be, I occasionally look out the window in my office in Cambridge at this bridge, which goes across the Charles River, between the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School.
In 2012, the State of Massachusetts said they were going to renovate this bridge, and it would take two years. In 2014, they said it wasn’t finished. In 2015, they said it would take one more year. In 2016, they said it’s not finished, we’re not going to tell you when it’s going to be finished.
Finally, last year, it was finished — three times over budget.
Now, compare this to a similar bridge that I drove across last month in Beijing. It’s called the Sanyuan Bridge. In 2015, the Chinese decided they wanted to renovate that bridge. It actually has twice as many lanes of traffic. How long did it take for them to complete the project? 2015, what do you bet? Take a guess — OK, three — Take a look.
The answer is 43 hours.
Now, of course, that couldn’t happen in New York. Behind this speed in execution is a purpose-driven leader and a government that works.
The most ambitious and most competent leader on the international stage today is Chinese President Xi Jinping. And he’s made no secret about what he wants. As he said when he became president six years ago, his goal is to make China great again — a banner he raised long before Donald Trump picked up a version of this.
To that end, Xi Jinping has announced specific targets for specific dates: 2025, 2035, 2049.