[CLS 34] Prof. Graham T. ALLISON (John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard)
Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

2018.06.29 16:00 - 18:00

The 34th China Lecture Series was held on June 29th with Professor Graham T. Allison, a renowned American political scientist and Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center(1995-2017), who gave a lecture based on his international bestseller, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

More than 300 people gathered to listen to Prof. Allison’s valuable knowledge and insight including the 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations Mr. Ban Ki-moon, who gave congratulatory remarks.

Before tapping into the main question, Prof. Allison first introduced Thucydides and his ideas. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote “it was the rise of the Athens and the fear this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Prof. Allison defined the Thucydides’s trap as a dangerous dynamic which occurs when a rising power threatens to replace a ruling power. The Spartans who were the ruling power for over 100 years weren’t pleased with Athens rising as a new naval power in the region. Even if they both thought it not wise to go on a war and brilliantly negotiated for the 30-year peace, the war was inevitable when their allies Corinth and Corcyra got into a conflict 15 years later.

Prof. Allison also indicated that 12 of the 16 cases in which Thucydides’s trap occurred in the past 500 years ended violently. He said understanding this concept may help people look through the noise and see the underlining dynamic into the relationship between the United States and China ― China as the rising power threatening to displace the US, the ruling power.

The rise of China has been in fact one of the main geopolitical events in the past 25 years. China achieved its title as world’s number one in numerous areas including manufacturing (2011), trade (2012), the middle class (2015) and billionaires (2016), high level of artificial intelligence research (2016). Prof. Allison cautiously implied that this impact of the rise of China on the US and on international order will most probably become the next geostrategic challenge in the next 25 years.

Lastly, in light of the recent North Korea-US Summit, Prof. Allison eloquently allotted some time to discuss about the role Korean Peninsula may play in the US-China Thucydides’s Trap scenario. He laid out three possible paths that can be taken. The first path is the one past US administrations have taken, which President Trump has accused of helping North Korea to be at their current level with the ICBM. The second path is a more aggressive one where the United States attacks North Korea first to prevent more ICBM tests. The third option, which Prof. Allison calls the ‘minor miracle,’ is the most preferable one: getting on a path to negotiations. Fortunately, Kim Jong Un and President Trump have chosen to take this path recently. However, if the negotiation does not turn out the way both anticipated, Prof. Allison pointed out that there is a great danger of North Korea threatening South Korea, causing United States to intervene. And China has already demonstrated their potential response to this kind of scenario when the US approached their border in 1950.

Prof. Allison ended his remarks by shifting the gear back to the main question: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap? The answer is both yes and no, he said. If the two powers settle things as usual then history must be expected to be as usual. Proactive studies on failures and successes from history and efforts to come up with more imaginative solutions must be pursued to save the US and China from heading toward the Thucydides’s Trap.

The lecture was followed by a discussion session with Prof. Choi Byung-il (Ewha Womans University), and Prof. Lee Geunwook (Sogang University). They discussed relevant topics including the Taiwan issue, optimists’ view on the economic inter-dependence and nuclear weapons as effective deterrents in the US-China collision course, as well as America’s current global

Graham ALLISON, CHOI Byung-il, LEE Geunwook

Lectures and Topics

  • Speaker: Graham ALLISON, Harvard Kennedy School

    Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

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  • Panelist: CHOI Byung-il, Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies


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  • Panelist: LEE Geunwook, Sogang University


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