Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
Graham Allison. Boston-New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. 288pp. Appendices. Notes. Index. $28.
Reviewed by Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Graham Allison, director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, also is the author of seminal books: Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (with Philip Zelikow; Pearson, 1999) and Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (with Bob Blackwill and Ali Wyne; MIT Press, 2016).
In his most recent effort, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap, Allison has written another, well-structured, thoughtful book, examining prospects for the U.S.-China relationship as seen through the lens of the Thucydides trap. This is a term he coined in a 2015 article to express the potential frictions between a rising nation’s power and influence and those of a waning state. The model for this lens was Thucydides’ description of the Athens-Sparta conflict around 430 BC. In this book, Allison presents a rigorously logical thought process, borne by his considerable intellect, thorough scholarship, and decades spent in the government saddle along with other leaders. Those in accountable, responsible positions for conducting U.S.-China relations, and those who merely hold an interest, are well served by absorbing Allison’s thoughts and articulation. Even if one quibbles with Allison on random points, substantiating such views will be constructive.
An eager reader should not forgo the introduction and preface. In these 13 pages, placed in context are (1) similarities of challenges faced by Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, (2) meaning of “Thucydides trap,” (3) the notion that if “we (the U.S.) don’t do something differently, we’ll end up where we are headed” (attributed to Yogi Berra), and (4) historians’ vexation with trying to specifically rationalize why nations stumble unpurposefully into war. One might conclude from the title Destined for War that the thrust of the book is an inexorable march toward war. The introduction emphasizes the question mark in the subtitle, leading away from an “inevitable war” conclusion.
Early pages use macro statistics of the Chinese economy relative to the U.S. economy from 1980 to the present to make the case of a rising nation. By example, Allison points out that from an anemic position in 1980, the Chinese economy soared to 10 percent of the U.S. economy size in 2007, to 100 percent in 2014, to 115 percent today. We know economic growth is not linear, but this relative growth still amazes. Discussing China’s economic advance, many point out still daunting challenges. Problems of environmental pollution, serious lack of water, job creation for a huge and aging population, and endemic corruption beset the Central Committee and the Communist Party. Chinese leaders confront these issues continuously, and despite these issues, economic growth and its benefits continue.
Political science maintains that true national power is a function of a vibrant economy, strong political processes, military power, and national institutions. There are others such as geographic location, educational systems, waterways, and access to resources, but if one focuses on the big four, Allison makes a strong case for a burgeoning China.
Observers note that few line up for visas to China to live under its political system. To be fair, our own nation’s system seems to be struggling over the past several years to deal effectively—much less efficiently—with many of our own issues. One conclusion is that almost invariably, a nation’s domestic priorities will trump foreign policy.
In one major theme of the book, Allison quotes Sun Tzu’s familiar maxim: “Ultimate excellence (of the servant of the state) lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.” Chinese practitioners promote economic growth and commensurate military might to lay the foundations for gaining political objectives without ever having to resort to war. Using Sun Tzu’s maxim, over time China should gain influence and armed warfare might be avoided, but that is hardly an outcome favorable to U.S. interests.
Allison observes, “American conceptions of international order begin with U.S. military primacy.” As we see historically, military primacy is not sustainable absent a vibrant economy, and measures of military primacy change as information and cyber warfare become commodities. Thus, a tendency to militarize attitudes about national power that are political in nature might abet, but not create, success in gaining national objectives. Sun Tzu did not say military strength was a bad thing if the prospect of its employment was used wisely.
As both China and the United States grapple with the differences between our political systems and our roles in the world order—acknowledging that this bilateral relationship does not exist in a vacuum—this book provides a process for both countries to think about a future status that can be peacefully achieved. President Jiang Jemin in 1997 talked about communications leading to understanding, which is a precursor to any trust, essential to the United States and China moving together on any topic. Valid points, I think. Seasoned negotiators, some of them statesmen and stateswomen, would say one must understand fully one’s own goals, “have to haves” and wants, as well as the other negotiating party’s goals, needs, and wants, for negotiations to be successful and lasting. That we need to communicate and better understand each other are points driven home by Allison’s text.
A still different strength of this book is the thought foundation laid by Allison on the thinking of both Henry Kissinger and Lee Kuan Yew. These two political giants rose in opposite parts of the world, from vastly different backgrounds, to share an unparalleled grasp of extremely complex relations among nations. Kissinger in the United States, and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore held world views that were fact based, lasting, and actionable by savvy, committed leaders. The fact that Allison drew deeply on his close knowledge of these two men adds substance and robust flavor to this book.
Readers do not spoil the book by skipping immediately to the conclusions chapter. Here Allison observes that “in high stakes relationships, predictability and stability—not friendship—matter most.” Further, though acknowledging China’s impressive economic delivery as pivotal to its leadership legitimacy, Chinese aspirations for power also stem from China’s view of its rightful place in the world, captured by the identity of “The Middle Kingdom.”
Allison’s book informs, illustrates a valid mosaic for thinking about China-U.S. interplay for decades ahead, offers ways to wrestle with the dynamism of a reemergent China, and suggests several paths for managing—not resolving—the road before us. That a peaceful path can be found is clear; whether such a path will be found, Graham Allison says is up to both Chinese and U.S. leadership.
Rethinking the Drone War: National Security, Legitimacy, and Civilian Casualties in U.S. Counterterrorism Operations
Larry Lewis and Diane Vavrichek. Marine Corps University Press, 2016. 222 pp. Illus. Tables. Appendices. Index. $25.
Reviewed by Commander Jeremy Vaughan, U.S. Navy
Rethinking the Drone War, published by Marine Corps University Press, is a collection of articles written in 2014 that attempts to improve the conduct of unmanned combat in a way that bolsters America’s image and influence. The authors contend that new U.S. strike processes, built by policies that balance combat effectiveness with civilian protection, could serve as a positive precedent in the midst of a global increase in the use of combat drones.
A reevaluation of drone combat could come at no better time. Military drone strikes have rapidly grown in frequency and scale. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in May 2017 that 80 airstrikes were executed in the few months since President Trump’s inauguration. The U.S. monopoly over unmanned combat also has eroded resulting in more attacks worldwide. Six nations operated armed drones when these essays were written—a number that has grown to nearly 30. Eight nations and, terrifyingly, two terrorist organizations have since conducted drone combat strikes.
Concepts of civilian protection and international norms with respect to the laws of war receive the greatest focus within the book’s four chapters.
Chapter one investigates casualty count discrepancies that continue to persist following U.S. drone strikes. Oversight, Larry Lewis argues in the report, is the best way to gather accurate civilian casualty data and fix problems that cause unintended death. Having made a strong case, the book ignores existing U.S. post-strike assessment efforts and lacks the detail necessary to implement policy that could close the large casualty reporting gaps.
In chapter two, Diane Vavrichek develops an oversight framework that attempts to balance combat effectiveness with how drone use is perceived. Since unmanned combat is largely classified, mistakes tend to be masked, which undermines trust. She recommends a pre-strike warrant process or post-attack forensics court to force accountability through information sharing. She weakens her position by noting that this desired transparency risks releasing targeting methods, showing enemies how to hide, and ultimately reducing counterterrorism effectiveness.
Lewis argues in the book’s third chapter that learning in one conflict zone has not transferred efficiently elsewhere. Enforcement of a common post-strike internal reporting process, audited by an independent review panel, is held by the author as the best way to propagate drone combat lessons and reduce deadly mistakes. While the U.S. military is notorious for relearning lessons at war, the authors ignore the rapid and universal improvement that occurred as start-up drone squadrons began standardizing and propagating improved tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Lewis concludes the compilation by sharply critiquing the impact of military aid on global security in the fourth chapter. Worthy analysis on its own, the chapter seems jarringly incoherent to the rest of a book centered on the sensitivities of civilian casualties and drone warfare. Though possible that tactical Security Force Assistance could be blamed for many of the strategic security challenges the United States faces, the reader may find it difficult to see how the author’s analysis helps policymakers “rethink the drone war.”
The appendices themselves are a worthwhile read. They serve as a useful primer on the important nuances between military and “other governmental agency” (CIA) operations and the gray space that connects covert, clandestine, and traditional military action.
Reduction of civilian casualties and improved international legitimacy through greater transparency and accountability are worthy goals, but the path laid by Lewis and Vavrichek is well trodden and without a clear prescription. Despite a claim that many of the book’s ideas are already incorporated in U.S. policy, readers may find that the policy recommendations lack enough clarity to produce real change. In addition, many of the writers’ arguments have been explored in works like the more philosophical Drone Warfare by John Kaag and Sarah Kreps (Polity, 2014) or in Hugh Gusterson’s more practical Drone: Remote Control Warfare (The MIT Press, 2016). While Rethinking the Drone War clearly describes why legitimacy matters to U.S. security policy, its recommendations have perhaps landed slightly behind its target.
So Long for Now: A Sailor’s Letters from the USS Franklin
Jerry L. Rogers with foreword by Robert M. Utley. Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 2017. 416 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $29.95.
Reviewed by David Sears
Historians writing about the savagery of war often discount the impact of individual deaths, instead aggregating casualties to detail victory and defeat. And while, for narrative purposes, they may describe particularly heroic sacrifices, they seldom account for the seismic impact of a single loved one’s wartime loss to family and community. By contrast, in So Long for Now: A Sailor’s Letters from the USS Franklin, Jerry L. Rogers gives one death—that of his oldest brother, Elden D. Rogers—full measure. “His loss,” says the author, now a retired National Parks Service employee, “became the single most important event in an entire generation of one family.”
So Long for Now is not an authoritative account of the Pacific war or the actions of the fast carrier USS Franklin (CV-13). Indeed, author Rogers is scrupulous about what he knows, expansive about what he doesn’t. Instead, he uses the Pacific war as backdrop, inserting occasional historical markers—dates, battle locales, and outcomes—to convey how history is ticking on.
Letters written and received by Elden become the fundamental increments of the drama. Letters mostly convey the commonplace, with only rare glimpses into writers’ underlying emotions. Elden, facing existential peril but constrained by censorship rules, updates his family on everyday events while downplaying risk. His correspondents—primarily his mother, Grace, and girlfriend, Virginia—write back with the latest on family milestones, shared acquaintances, and hometown doings. But pieced together, the letters convey a poignant story.
Rogers is as much editor as author. He supplements the letters with explications and backstories. This approach slows pace and lengthens the book. Concedes Rogers in the preface: “I am required by filial duty to write this, but you are not required to read it.” The caution applies to his loved ones who “have developed ways to shut away memories.” But I also take it is a reminder to a broader audience: they must approach the book on Rogers’ terms.
That said, there is much to savor in So Long for Now. Rogers, once employed as keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, displays fine touch with times, places, and the people who occupy them. He writes, for example, of a suspicious, small town crowd that “evaporated faster than it had condensed.” Elsewhere, he describes how living on board the big carrier Franklin was like having Elden Rogers’ “newly discovered larger world condensed, compressed and canned.”
Elden met girlfriend Virginia when both were 17. In another time, their relationship might have flared and extinguished. Indeed, when Elden shows up unannounced just before going off to war, Virginia passes him off as her “cousin” so she can keep a date with an older, richer beau. It’s a heartless snub, but Elden and Virginia continue to write. Their separation—Elden at sea, Virginia at home—somehow revives the spark. In fact, the link offers rare insights into the emotions of an otherwise taciturn Elden. One of Virginia’s letters “tells us more about Elden in a personal way than most other sources.”
Captain James M. Shoemaker, the Franklin’s first skipper, convinces his sailors that CV-13 possesses a “lucky number.” The illusion holds until 30 October 1944, when a kamikaze strike triggers explosions and fires that kill 56. The Franklin soon limps across the Pacific for repairs in Bremerton. Captain Shoemaker, a crew favorite, is replaced by a polarizing successor.
This tragedy’s silver linings were the home leaves for Franklin sailors. Elden’s return to Vega, Texas, in late December “was the happiest moment of this story.” He spends most of his time with family and scarcely five hours with Virginia. Nonetheless, “something transformative” seems to seal the two teens’ futures.
In February 1945, the Franklin returns to the Pacific. The war is going well, but the earlier blow disabuses surviving crew of CV-13’s “luck.” Even as he looks forward to marrying Virginia, Elden respects the odds. “Things were so bad in our last tour out there,” Elden confides by phone to a friend in Hawaii, “that I don’t think I will make it this time.”
The curtain rises for the final elegiac act. So long for now becomes so long forever. Elden was killed on 19 March 1945 in a Japanese air attack.