Graham Allison
3,415,960 views • 18:43

So, let me thank you for the opportunity to talk about the biggest international story of your professional lifetime, which is also the most important international challenge the world will face for as far as the eye can see.

The story, of course, is the rise of China. Never before have so many people risen so far so fast, on so many different dimensions. The challenge is the impact of China's rise — the discombobulation this will cause the Unites States and the international order, of which the US has been the principal architect and guardian. The past 100 years have been what historians now call an "American Century." Americans have become accustomed to their place at the top of every pecking order. So the very idea of another country that could be as big and strong as the US — or bigger — strikes many Americans as an assault on who they are.

For perspective on what we're now seeing in this rivalry, it's useful to locate it on the larger map of history. The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. Twelve of those ended in war. So just in November, we'll all pause to mark the 100th anniversary of the final day of a war that became so encompassing, that it required historians to create an entirely new category: world war. So, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns of World War I fell silent, but 20 million individuals lay dead.

I know that this is a sophisticated audience, so you know about the rise of China. I'm going to focus, therefore, on the impact of China's rise, on the US, on the international order and on the prospects for war and peace. But having taught at Harvard over many years, I've learned that from time to time, it's useful to take a short pause, just to make sure we're all on the same page. The way I do this is, I call a time-out, I give students a pop quiz — ungraded, of course. So, let's try this. Time-out, pop quiz.

Question: forty years ago, 1978, China sets out on its march to the market. At that point, what percentage of China's one billion citizens were struggling to survive on less than two dollars a day? Take a guess — 25 percent? Fifty? Seventy-five? Ninety. What do you think? Ninety. Nine out of every 10 on less than two dollars a day. Twenty eighteen, 40 years later. What about the numbers? What's your bet? Take a look. Fewer than one in 100 today. And China's president has promised that within the next three years, those last tens of millions will have been raised up above that threshold. So it's a miracle, actually, in our lifetime. Hard to believe. But brute facts are even harder to ignore. A nation that didn't even appear on any of the international league tables 25 years ago has soared, to rival — and in some areas, surpass — the United States.

Thus, the challenge that will shape our world: a seemingly unstoppable rising China accelerating towards an apparently immovable ruling US, on course for what could be the grandest collision in history. To help us get our minds around this challenge, I'm going to introduce you to a great thinker, I'm going to present a big idea, and I'm going to pose a most consequential question. The great thinker is Thucydides. Now, I know his name is a mouthful, and some people have trouble pronouncing it. So, let's do it, one, two, three, together: Thucydides. One more time: Thucydides.

So who was Thucydides? He was the father and founder of history. He wrote the first-ever history book. It's titled "The History of the Peloponnesian War," about the war in Greece, 2500 years ago. So if nothing else today, you can tweet your friends, "I met a great thinker. And I can even pronounce his name: Thucydides." So, about this war that destroyed classical Greece, Thucydides wrote famously: "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable." So the rise of one and the reaction of the other create a toxic cocktail of pride, arrogance, paranoia, that drug them both to war.

Which brings me to the big idea: Thucydides's Trap. "Thucydides's Trap" is a term I coined several years ago, to make vivid Thucydides's insight. Thucydides's Trap is the dangerous dynamic that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, like Athens — or Germany 100 years ago, or China today — and their impact on Sparta, or Great Britain 100 years ago, or the US today. As Henry Kissinger has said, once you get this idea, this concept of Thucydides's Trap in your head, it will provide a lens for helping you look through the news and noise of the day to understand what's actually going on.

So, to the most consequential question about our world today: Are we going to follow in the footsteps of history? Or can we, through a combination of imagination and common sense and courage find a way to manage this rivalry without a war nobody wants, and everybody knows would be catastrophic? Give me five minutes to unpack this, and later this afternoon, when the next news story pops up for you about China doing this, or the US reacting like that, you will be able to have a better understanding of what's going on and even to explain it to your friends.

So as we saw with this flipping the pyramid of poverty, China has actually soared. It's meteoric. Former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, I think, put it best. He said, "All this has happened so fast, we haven't yet had time to be astonished."

(Laughter)

To remind myself how astonished I should be, I occasionally look out the window in my office in Cambridge at this bridge, which goes across the Charles River, between the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. In 2012, the State of Massachusetts said they were going to renovate this bridge, and it would take two years. In 2014, they said it wasn't finished. In 2015, they said it would take one more year. In 2016, they said it's not finished, we're not going to tell you when it's going to be finished. Finally, last year, it was finished — three times over budget.

Now, compare this to a similar bridge that I drove across last month in Beijing. It's called the Sanyuan Bridge. In 2015, the Chinese decided they wanted to renovate that bridge. It actually has twice as many lanes of traffic. How long did it take for them to complete the project? Twenty fifteen, what do you bet? Take a guess — OK, three — Take a look.

(Laughter)

The answer is 43 hours.

(Audience: Wow!)

(Laughter)

Graham Allison: Now, of course, that couldn't happen in New York.

(Laughter)

Behind this speed in execution is a purpose-driven leader and a government that works. The most ambitious and most competent leader on the international stage today is Chinese President Xi Jinping. And he's made no secret about what he wants. As he said when he became president six years ago, his goal is to make China great again —

(Laughter)

a banner he raised long before Donald Trump picked up a version of this. To that end, Xi Jinping has announced specific targets for specific dates: 2025, 2035, 2049.

By 2025, China means to be the dominant power in the major market in 10 leading technologies, including driverless cars, robots, artificial intelligence, quantum computing. By 2035, China means to be the innovation leader across all the advanced technologies. And by 2049, which is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, China means to be unambiguously number one, including, [says] Xi Jinping, an army that he calls "Fight and Win." So these are audacious goals, but as you can see, China is already well on its way to these objectives. And we should remember how fast our world is changing. Thirty years ago, the World Wide Web had not yet even been invented. Who will feel the impact of this rise of China most directly? Obviously, the current number one. As China gets bigger and stronger and richer, technologically more advanced, it will inevitably bump up against American positions and prerogatives.

Now, for red-blooded Americans — and especially for red-necked Americans like me; I'm from North Carolina — there's something wrong with this picture. The USA means number one, that's who we are. But again, to repeat: brute facts are hard to ignore. Four years ago, Senator John McCain asked me to testify about this to his Senate Armed Services Committee. And I made for them a chart that you can see, that said, compare the US and China to kids on opposite ends of a seesaw on a playground, each represented by the size of their economy. As late as 2004, China was just half our size. By 2014, its GDP was equal to ours. And on the current trajectory, by 2024, it will be half again larger. The consequences of this tectonic change will be felt everywhere.

For example, in the current trade conflict, China is already the number one trading partner of all the major Asian countries. Which brings us back to our Greek historian. Harvard's "Thucydides's Trap Case File" has reviewed the last 500 years of history and found 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. Twelve of these ended in war. And the tragedy of this is that in very few of these did either of the protagonists want a war; few of these wars were initiated by either the rising power or the ruling power.

So how does this work? What happens is, a third party's provocation forces one or the other to react, and that sets in motion a spiral, which drags the two somewhere they don't want to go. If that seems crazy, it is. But it's life. Remember World War I. The provocation in that case was the assassination of a second-level figure, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which then led the Austro-Hungarian emperor to issue an ultimatum to Serbia, they dragged in the various allies, within two months, all of Europe was at war.

So imagine if Thucydides were watching planet Earth today. What would he say? Could he find a more appropriate leading man for the ruling power than Donald J Trump?

(Laughter)

Or a more apt lead for the rising power than Xi Jinping? And he would scratch his head and certainly say he couldn't think of more colorful provocateur than North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Each seems determined to play his assigned part and is right on script.

So finally, we conclude again with the most consequential question, the question that will have the gravest consequences for the rest of our lives: Are Americans and Chinese going to let the forces of history drive us to a war that would be catastrophic for both? Or can we summon the imagination and courage to find a way to survive together, to share the leadership in the 21st century, or, as Xi Jinping [said], to create a new form of great power relations?

That's the issue I've been pursuing passionately for the last two years. I've had the opportunity to talk and, indeed, to listen to leaders of all the relevant governments — Beijing, Washington, Seoul, Tokyo — and to thought leaders across the spectrum of both the arts and business. I wish I had more to report. The good news is that leaders are increasingly aware of this Thucydidean dynamic and the dangers that it poses. The bad news is that nobody has a feasible plan for escaping history as usual.

So it's clear to me that we need some ideas outside the box of conventional statecraft — indeed, from another page or another space — which is what brings me to TED today and which brings me to a request. This audience includes many of the most creative minds on the planet, who get up in the morning and think not only about how to manage the world we have, but how to create worlds that should be. So I'm hopeful that as this sinks in and as you reflect on it, some of you are going to have some bold ideas, actually some wild ideas, that when we find, will make a difference in this space. And just to remind you if you do, this won't be the first time.

Let me remind you of what happened right after World War II. A remarkable group of Americans and Europeans and others, not just from government, but from the world of culture and business, engaged in a collective surge of imagination. And what they imagined and what they created was a new international order, the order that's allowed you and me to live our lives, all of our lives, without great power war and with more prosperity than was ever seen before on the planet. So, a remarkable story. Interestingly, every pillar of this project that produced these results, when first proposed, was rejected by the foreign policy establishment as naive or unrealistic.

My favorite is the Marshall Plan. After World War II, Americans felt exhausted. They had demobilized 10 million troops, they were focused on an urgent domestic agenda. But as people began to appreciate how devastated Europe was and how aggressive Soviet communism was, Americans eventually decided to tax themselves a percent and a half of GDP every year for four years and send that money to Europe to help reconstruct these countries, including Germany and Italy, whose troops had just been killing Americans. Amazing. This also created the United Nations. Amazing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The World Bank. NATO. All of these elements of an order for peace and prosperity. So, in a word, what we need to do is do it again. And I think now we need a surge of imagination, creativity, informed by history, for, as the philosopher Santayana reminded us, in the end, only those who refuse to study history are condemned to repeat it.

Thank you.

(Applause)