Every day on his way to work at Harvard, Professor Allison wondered how the reconstruction of the bridge over Boston’s Charles River could take years while in China bigger bridges are replaced in days. His book tells the extraordinary story of China’s transformation since Deng abandoned Mao’s catastrophic Stalinism, and considers whether the story will end in war between China and America.
China erects skyscrapers in weeks while Parliament delays Heathrow expansion for over a decade. The EU discusses dumb rules made 60 years ago while China produces a Greece-sized economy every 16 weeks. China’s economy doubles roughly every seven years; it is already the size of America’s and will likely dwarf it in 20 years. More serious than Europe, it invests this growth in education and technology from genetic engineering to artificial intelligence.
Allison analyses the formidable President Xi, who has known real suffering and is very different to western leaders obsessed with the frivolous spin cycles of domestic politics. Xi’s goal is to ensure that China’s renaissance returns it to its position as the richest, strongest and most advanced culture on earth. Allison asks: will the US-China relationship repeat the dynamics between Athens and Sparta that led to war in 431 bc or might it resemble the story of the British-American alliance in the 20th century?
In Thucydides’ history the dynamic growth of Athens caused such fear that, amid confusing signals in an escalating crisis, Sparta gambled on preventive war. Similarly, after Bismarck unified Germany in 1870-71, Europe’s balance of power was upended. In summer 1914, the leaderships of all Great Powers were overwhelmed by confusing signals amid a rapidly escalating crisis. The prime minister doodled love letters to his girlfriend as the cabinet discussed Ireland, and European civilisation tottered over the brink.
Allison discusses how America, China and Taiwan might play the roles of Britain, Germany and Belgium. China has invested in weapons with powerful asymmetric advantages: cheap missiles can sink an aircraft carrier costing billions, and cyber weapons could negate America’s powerful space and communication infrastructure. American war-games often involve bombing Chinese coastal installations. How far might it escalate?
Nuclear weapons increase destructive power a million-fold and give a leader just minutes to decide whether a (possibly false) warning justifies firing weapons that would destroy civilisation, while relying on the same sort of hierarchical decision-making processes that failed in the much slower 1914 crisis.
Terrifying near misses have already happened, and we have been saved by individuals’ snap judgments. They have occurred, luckily, during episodes of relative calm. Similar incidents during an intense crisis could spark catastrophe. The Pentagon hoped that technology would bring ‘information dominance’: instead, technology accelerates crises and overwhelms decisions. Real and virtual robots will fight battles and influence minds faster than traditional institutions can follow.
Allison hopes Washington will rediscover its 1940s seriousness, when it built a strategy and institutions to contain Stalin. He suggests abandoning ‘containment’, which is unlikely to work in the same way against capitalist China as it did against Soviet Russia. It could drop security guarantees to Taiwan to lower escalation risks. It could promote new institutions to tackle destructive technology and terrorism. Since China will upend post-1945 institutions anyway, why not try to shape what comes next together? Perhaps, channelling Sun Tzu, the West could avoid defeat by not trying to ‘win’.
It is hard to see how the necessary leadership might emerge.
We need government teams capable of the rare high performance we see in George Mueller’s Nasa, which put man on the moon; or in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs such as Sam Altman and Patrick Collison. This means senior politicians and officials of singular ability and with different education, training and experience. It means extremely adaptive institutions and state-of-the-art tools, not the cabinet processes that failed in 1914. It means breaking the power of self-absorbed parties and bureaucracies that evolved before nuclear physics and the internet.
New leaders must build institutions for global cooperation that can transcend Thucydides’ dynamics. For example, the plan of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, to build a permanent moon base in which countries work together to harness the resources of the solar system is the sort of project that could create an alternative focus to nationalist antagonism.
The scale of change seems impossible, yet technology gives us no choice — we must try to escape our evolutionary origins, since we cannot survive repeated roulette with advanced technology. Churchill wrote how in 1914 governments drifted into ‘fathomless catastrophe’ in ‘a kind of dull cataleptic trance’. Western leaders are in another such trance. Unless new forces evolve outside closed political systems and force change we will suffer greater catastrophe; it’s just a matter of when.
I hope people like Jeff Bezos read this timely book and resolve to build the political forces we need.