This sort of review also occurs in nonfiction reviewing as well, though perhaps somewhat less often. Nonfiction has some structural and evidentiary bases which can be disputed and interpreted in a fashion not possible in fiction.
Arthur Waldron has delivered just such a robust, trenchant criticism in his There is no Thucydides Trap: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap. The target of his slicing and dicing is Destined for War by Graham Allison.
Allison posits that China's rise makes it probable that there will be conflict between the US and China, the Thucydides Trap. Waldron is impatient with such trite reasoning.
Let us start by observing that perhaps the two greatest classicists of the last century, Professor Donald Kagan of Yale and the late Professor Ernst Badian of Harvard, long ago proved that no such thing exists as the “Thucydides Trap,” certainly not in the actual Greek text of the great History of the Peloponnesian War, perhaps the greatest single work of history ever.Poor Allison.
Astonishingly, even the names of these two towering academic giants are absent from the index of this baffling academic farrago. It was penned by Graham Allison, a Harvard professor — associated with the Kennedy School of Government — to whom questions along the lines of “How did you write about The Iliad without mentioning Homer?” should be addressed.
Allison’s argument draws on one sentence of Thucydides’s text: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian Power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” This lapidary summing up of an entire argument is justly celebrated. It introduced to historiography the idea that wars may have “deep causes,” that resident powers are tragically fated to attack rising powers. It is brilliant and important, no question, but is it correct?
Clearly not for the Peloponnesian War. Generations of scholars have chewed over Thucydides’s text. Every battlefield has been measured. The quantity of academic literature on the topic is overwhelming, dating as far back as 1629 when Thomas Hobbes produced the first English translation.
In the present day, Kagan wrote four volumes in which he modestly but decisively overturned the idea of the Thucydides Trap. Badian did the same.
Ignoring all this, Allison takes Thucydides literally: Wars (sometimes) begin when rising powers like Athens threaten established powers like Sparta. But do they really? The case is difficult to make. Japan was the rising power in 1904 while Russia was long established. Did Russia therefore seek to preempt Japan? No. The Japanese launched a surprise attack on Russia, scuttling the Czar’s fleet. In 1941, the Japanese were again the rising power. Did ever-vigilant America strike out to eliminate the Japanese threat? Wrong. Roosevelt considered it “infamy” when Japan surprised him by attacking Pearl Harbor at a time when the world was already in flames. Switch to Europe — in the 1930s, Germany was obviously the rising, menacing power. Did France, Russia, England, and the other threatened powers move against it? They could not even form an alliance, so the USSR eventually joined Hitler rather than fight him. Exceptions there are, and Allison makes a half-baked effort to find them, but these are not the mainstream. Is this some kind of immense academic lapse?
No. What has really happened is that Allison has caught China fever, not hard around Harvard, although knowing no Chinese language and little Chinese history.
As a result, Allison seems to have been impressed above all by Chinese numbers: population, army size, growth rate, steel production, etc. So if that sentence from Thucydides is correct, then China is clearly a rising power that will want her “place in the sun” — which will lead ineluctably to a collision between rising China (Athens) instigated by the presumably setting U.S. (Sparta), which will see military preemption as the only recourse to avert a loss of power and a Chinese-dominated world. To escape this trap, Allison demands that we must find a way to give China what she wants and forget the lessons of so many previous wars. Many of Allison’s colleagues at Harvard also believe this to be true.
The reality, however, is that Allison’s recipe is actually a recipe for war. Appeasement of aggressors is far more dangerous than measured confrontation. Did China become more aggressive in the South China Sea in the 2000s because the Obama administration got tougher or because it went AWOL on the issue? I’d say the latter is more likely. When it comes to China, we might want to be more mindful of the “Chamberlain Trap” after the peace-loving prime minister of England, one of the authors of the disastrous 1938 Munich agreement that sought to avoid war by concessions, which in fact taught Hitler that the British were easily fooled. That is the trap we are in urgent need of avoiding.
China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports a huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: In China, one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India, the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water, too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: Mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level, but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.
What’s more, Chinese are leaving China in unprecedented numbers. The late Richard Solomon, who worked on U.S.-China relations for decades, remarked to me a few weeks before his death that “one day last year all the Chinese who could decided to move away.” Why? The pollution might kill your infants; the hospitals are terrible, the food is adulterated, the system corrupt and unpredictable. Here in the Philadelphia suburbs and elsewhere, thousands of Chinese buyers are flocking to buy homes in cash. Even Xi Jinping sent his daughter to Harvard. Does that imply a high-profile political career for her in China? Probably not. It rather implies a quiet retirement with Xi’s grandchildren over here. Our American private secondary schools are inundated by Chinese applicants. For the first time this year, my Chinese graduate students are marrying one another and buying houses here. This is a leading indicator. If it could be done, the coming tsunami would bring 10 million highly qualified Chinese families to the U.S. in 10 years — along with fleeing crooks, spies, and other flotsam and jetsam. Even Xi’s first wife fled China; she lives in England.
Allison, however, misses this; “immigration” is not in his index. Instead, he speculates about war, based on some superficial reading and sampling of the literature, coming to the question “What does Xi want?” — which I take as meaning that he thinks Xi’s opinion matters — which makes nonsense of the vast determining waves of economic development, not to mention his glance at Thucydides — with the opinion following that somehow we should try to find out what that is and cut a deal. This is geopolitics from a Harvard professor? This is the great wave of history?
How to conclude a look at so ill conceived and sloppily executed a book? Do not blame Allison. The problem is the pervasive lack of knowledge of China — a country which is, after all, run by the Communist Party, the police, and the army, and thus difficult to get to know. This black hole of information has perversely created an overabundance of fantasies, some very pessimistic, some as absurdly bright as a foreigner on the payroll can make them.
I am more of a mind with Waldron. I see five prevailing challenges for China in the future, none of which individually are simple and all of which are pressing.
The most obvious is the demographic challenge. Observers have long been asking whether China would get rich before it got old. The former one-child policy, combined with rapid urbanization and with rapid increase in consumerism have kept China's total fertility rate (1.56) way below replacement for more than a generation now. Sociologically and economically such rapid falls in TFR put stress on a nation. Who will man the army, the manufacturing plants, the farms, etc. Who will pay for the elderly? These are not insurmountable problems but China's economic rise is recent and its national consensus fragile. There is little margin for additional stresses.
Unmet expectations is a second challenge. For nearly forty years, China managed to pull off a blinding 10% growth a year as it transitioned to a market economy. In recent years, that pace has slowed to a still stellar 5%. But at 10% growth, you are doubling every 7 years and at 5% every fourteen years. If a third of your population has known nothing but becoming twice as rich every seven years, then five percent growth can seem disappointingly pedestrian.
The third challenge is loss of low hanging fruit. Committing to a relatively free market economy was philosophically difficult and hugely consequential in its implementation, but in the scheme of things, that was probably the easiest fruit for the picking. Your biggest lifts in income generation, health and education come at the bottom of the s-curve: getting everyone to full literacy and numeracy, building highways and sewer systems, basic infrastructure including hospitals, etc. But once you have done that, the rest of the fruit is higher, more out of reach. Returns on effort are lower. You have to work harder to get less. It happens with every economy. The low hanging fruit has all been picked in China.
This is related to the fourth challenge, Hayek's knowledge problem, especially true of such a large (population and geography) country as China. While China relaxed its market regulations, it has kept its political centralization. In the first flush of growth, you can generally afford some level of capital misallocation (ghost cities). But as your market matures, its continued growth depends to an increasing extent on the free flow of information. The free flow of information can be challenging to a highly centralized and authoritarian political system. The desire for economic growth requires more knowledge transparency than is easily accommodated.
The final challenge is very similar: Complexity requires freedom. Continued economic growth requires more information that is precise, accurate and timely. But as the economy continues to grow, it becomes more complex. That complexity is thwarted by knowledge obfuscation and by control. Complexity requires freedom. That increasing complexity is challenging even for countries with long and strong traditions of freedom. For a country where that tradition is not strong, the burden is even greater.
These five challenges are not insurmountable but they belie the easy expectations conjured by forty years of magical growth. They require a sophisticated touch, group cohesion, and a big dollop of luck.