China: The Greatest Disruptive Force Today

| General Michael Hayden
General Michael Hayden
Former Director, CIA and NSA

Graham Allison’s ominously titled Destined for War fulfills an implied promise made by his seminal Atlantic magazine article 18 months ago. That article was labeled The Thucydides Trap: Are the US and China Headed for War? and indeed the ancient Greek historian’s warnings permeate both that article and the current book. 

Repeated throughout both is Thucydides’ insightful analysis on the causes of the tragic (and avoidable) Peloponnesian War: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Substitute China for Athens and the United States for Sparta and you have the heart of Allison’s thesis.

As a good historian, though, Allison doesn’t leave it there and holds the “emerging power-status quo power” template up to 16 similar examples from the last five centuries, ranging from Prince Henry the Navigator’s Portugal dealing with the rising Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella through today’s Britain and France accommodating a now unified Germany. Both of these challenges were actually resolved without war. Sadly, 12 of the 16 were not. Hence Allison’s thesis and his urgency.

Allison’s scholarship pulls these historic examples forward vividly and efficiently, and as he gets closer to our time, he enriches the narrative with a detailed account of America’s emergence at the beginning of the 20th century. The chapter, “Imagine China Were Just Like Us”, is incredibly revealing. Let’s just hope that Xi Jinping doesn’t channel his inner Teddy Roosevelt.  

Allison benefits from some channeling of his own, invoking Samuel Huntington with a masterful summary of Huntington’s thesis that the “clash of civilizations” will be the fault line underpinning the most important global conflicts. Allison compares the sharply different culture and values that distinguish Americans from Chinese (essentially rejecting the universal values theory that has animated much of American diplomacy), and warns that it was common language, values, history and culture (and some British wisdom) that eased the peaceful transition from British to American dominance in the early 20th century.

Allison wisely dwells on the thoughts of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, that island nation’s former benevolent autocrat and an astute observer of China. China was not about to become a democracy, Lee observed, “If it were to do so, it would collapse.” And he was ruthless in critiquing China’s “operating system.” But Lee also conceded that China was becoming “the biggest player in the history of the world.”

Allison agrees and rightly observes that China’s emergence is a tectonic shift in global geopolitics, one that has not yet fully engaged a United States distracted by terrorism, an unstable Middle East and a revanchist Russia. While China sees this shift in strategic terms and in time units measured in decades if not centuries, America’s “hedge and engage” response has been tactical, short term and too much tied to restoring a past American hegemony.

It’s hard to argue with Allison’s analysis or his critique. The text is a little light, though, in discussing the inevitable problems that the Chinese juggernaut must face: a demographic pyramid with the point on the wrong end because of a three plus decade “one child” policy; a pending environmental catastrophe; social unrest; maldistribution of wealth; a democracy deficit.

It’s not that Allison is unaware. He notes these challenges, but there is an implicit assumption that China’s near straight line progress will continue. The opening chapter of Destined for War, for example, is a near breathless two dozen pages of uninterrupted Chinese success.

There are alternative views. Just two years ago in a conference at Allison’s own Kennedy School, there were views expressed that the American economy was a better 21st century bet than the Chinese. 

Surprisingly, the traumatic 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations and subsequent suppression of them merit just three mentions, all in passing, with no discussion of why they happened or what has happened to the forces that generated them.

None of this detracts from the overall merits of the book, though. We can quibble over the fine print, but there is no doubt that China is the greatest disruptive force in the world today. Allison raises critical issues with a sense of both drama and history. His prose should alarm serious American thinkers…and perhaps divert us from debates over backchannels to Russia, presidential tweets and the ghost wiretapping of Trump Towers.

And if you want some serious strategic imagination, pay special attention to the last ten pages or so. Worth the read.

The Author is General Michael Hayden

General Hayden is a retired four-star General in the United States Air Force; he was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006-2009 and the Director of the National Security Agency from 1999-2005.

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