Graham Allison: No Reason Canada Can’t Have More Constructive Role in the World

An Interview with Graham Allison

“Why is it that, for all that we say about the stakes in Ukraine, there’s no Canadians that are fighting shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians, or Americans, or Germans or British? Why is that? As Biden has said, we are not going to fight WWIII over Ukraine.”

No Reason Canada Can’t Have More Constructive Role in the World

What advice might you have for a middle power like Canada when it comes to both dealing with China, and navigating competition between China and our greatest ally, the United States?

I am familiar with Canadian history. There are still some disputes about how we came to own the fat tail of Alaska. But, I believe we stole it, fair and square. If you go to the Canadian History Museum, there’s a very good account of how Teddy Roosevelt seized some territory, looked at Vancouver and…thought about it.

Canada is a wonderful player to try and put oneself in the position of. As a middle power that’s so close to the U.S., it has to be substantially deferential. On the other hand, you have thick relations with China, and you have very thick relations with Europe, including with Great Britain. So, Canada has a unique and wonderfully complicated set of connections.

I believe Canadians are modest—too modest. They don’t appreciate the extent to which they can contribute to statecraft, both intellectually and as a player. It’s not by accident that Canada is part of many high-level clubs. But, how often do the Canadians undertake an initiative? In some sense, the G20 may have been a Canadian initiative I suppose. I would say, in trying to think about U.S. relations with China or China’s place in the world, there’s certainly no monopoly on wisdom in Washington.

There’s no real monopoly on wisdom in Beijing either. So, there’s no reason why Canada, having serious relations with each, can’t play some more constructive role. I think if one needed inspiration for that, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore is a good example. You have this little city-state of six million people—who asked him to have any views about geopolitics and great powers in the world? Well, he just began to think, and he had a lot of views. Pretty soon people listened and said, wow, that’s pretty interesting. Then one thing led to the other, and pretty soon people were seeking him out as a person of strategic insight. So I would say, again, that’s why institutes like yours and other groups in Canada should not be shy about thinking, okay, let’s see what ideas we have.

Canada has strong relations with Europe, has a major role in NATO, has an integrated role with the U.S., has deep economic ties with China, and there are lots of Chinese Canadians. I think that means it will be difficult, and you’ll get stretched between the two from time to time, each will make unreasonable demands, and you’ll have to weave your way. However, I think there’s a space for Canada in this arena. I think Canadians are more likely to see the issues holistically than Americans. Americans, as you know, are solipsists. We think that we are the only thing that exists. We declare and do things, and everything falls into place according to our will—as H.R. McMaster calls it, strategic narcissism. We just think that we act, and other people accept, as opposed to asking how does this create incentives and disincentives for other parties? I think we also tend to think too often of the military instrument as the lead, as opposed to a broader picture.

So, if the U.S. and China are going to survive, and find a way to not get caught in Thucydides’ Trap, they’re going to have to recognize that on the one hand, this is the fiercest rivalry, with the most formidable rivals of all time. So that’s half of the picture. The other half is that each state is on a very small globe, and they each have nuclear arsenals that could destroy each other. Even more, we now understand that each emits greenhouse gases into the same enclosed biosphere, which by itself can make it uninhabitable for both. So they have to find some way to coexist or to cooperate to avoid co-disrupting, while competing in a fierce rivalry. That sounds like a contradiction, it sort of is a contradiction. But F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the test of a first-class mind is to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time and still function. That’s the test for an individual. Whether a state could be that smart—I don’t know. But, that’s what’s going to be required. I think Canada could play a role in helping articulate that.

How has the U.S.-China diplomatic rivalry evolved during the 21st century, as China has emerged as a dominant economic power? How has China’s diplomatic playbook evolved over the past two decades?

I wrote a book on this topic around the time Trump came into office. It had a big idea—the Thucydides’ Trap, an idea that Thucydides actually came up with about 2500 years ago. All I did was try to coin a term to illuminate what we’re seeing in the relationship between the U.S. and China today. The central idea is that when a rapidly rising power seriously threatens to overtake a major ruling power, well, fasten your seat belts—turbulence ahead. Twelve of the sixteen cases in the last 500 years have resulted in war. Is China a rapidly rising power? Who could argue otherwise? Some people have tried to argue otherwise, but their arguments are pretty poor. Is the U.S. a colossal ruling power? Of course, it is.

It will be the defining issue for the rest of our professional lifetimes—the impact of this unprecedentedly meteoric rise, across many dimensions, and faster than ever before in history, on what has been the most global power, certainly since Rome; and a power that has created an international order that has allowed us more than seven decades without great power war. Thucydides would say that this is the grandest rivalry of all times. I was asked at Davos this year, what would Thucydides say now? I said he would say, everybody seems to be entirely on script. He’s on the edge of his feet, watching for the grandest collision of all times.

Some scholars have criticisms of the Thucydides’ Trap and its application to the U.S.-China rivalry. Richard Hanania said China’s ambitions are limited to combating internal issues, and that it doesn’t pose a threat to U.S. interests. Lawrence Freedman has echoed this sentiment, saying China is interested in its regional position. Others have asserted that China is too weak for such a conflict and that the Thucydides’ Trap misdiagnoses where China finds itself in its development arch. How might you respond to some of these criticisms, and is the Thucydides’ Trap applicable to the modern era?

I think these criticisms come from serious people and deserve to be addressed individually. Let me start with the big picture. In the last six months, we have published four major reports on what I call the GOAT rivalry—greatest of all times. We focused on military, economics, technology, and diplomacy. Each of these reports begins with a snapshot of China in 2000, and then looks at China in 2021. We then summarized and collected the best sources detailing China’s path between 2000-2021. Any attempt to argue that China is not a meteoric rising power flies in the face of all the evidence. In the year 2000, China was a poor country, struggling to get into the WTO. Today, according to the CIA, China is the largest economy in the world if you’re looking at purchasing power parity. Anybody denying that is denying the facts.

Does China have only regional ambitions? I address that in my book by quoting the world’s most astute China watcher, the late Lee Kuan Yew. He was watching extremely closely because the survival of Singapore depends on what’s happening In China. He knew every Chinese leader. CCP leadership spent huge amounts of time talking to him, Xi included, because they wanted to see how he made this little Singapore miracle work. I wrote a book with Robert Blackwell where we interviewed Lee Kuan Yew. I asked him, you know, some people say that China and Xi aspire to displace the U.S. as a predominant power in Asia in your lifetime. What would you say to that? He looked at me, and smiled as though to say, of course. How could they not aspire to be number one in Asia and beyond? Is China primarily concerned with China? Yes. China mainly aspires to restore China’s greatness as China understands it. Is that primarily, in the first sense, local? Yes. Is it also regional? I mean, ask anybody in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or Vietnam.

I think China’s primary interest, globally, is in a permissive environment that will allow them to achieve all they can be at home. Where they will want to go after 2049, which is the current time horizon, nobody knows. As Xi Jinping has said about 2049, by then he hopes China will be as wealthy as other advanced countries. Since they have four times as many citizens, that is a GDP potentially four times as large as the U.S. They will move to centre stage in international relations. I don’t imagine that they will be like the Soviet Union—they have no ambition to take over and rule other countries. They have no illusions. As Henry Kissinger pointed out, both China and the U.S. have huge superiority complexes. In the American case, we believe we are the best and everybody wants to be like us. For China, they’re the best, and they believe nobody is good enough to even approximate being like them. They appreciate if people try a little bit, but they don’t expect they’ll ever be good enough.

Regarding efforts to argue that China is too weak to be a serious Thucydidian rival—sit back and watch its strength grow. If you look at their military capabilities—which is what Freedman is referring to in his criticisms—while the U.S. remains unquestionably the most powerful military nation in the world, along China’s periphery and in the adjacent seas, the military balance of power has changed dramatically over the last 22 years. In 1996, when I was at the Pentagon, China was intimidating Taiwan with missile tests and the U.S. brought two carriers up to the region to force them to back down. That scenario is impossible for the U.S. today, because if you brought carriers that close to the mainland, they would be sunk. Locally, the military balance has changed significantly. That does not mean that they have ambitions to overtake the U.S. as global hegemon, but rather that they are a Thucydidian rival seeking predominance in Asia. As Americans, we also believe we’re a major Asian power. Hawaii is in the Pacific and Guam is very close too. Japan, Australia, and South Korea are important allies of the U.S. I would say it’s pretty hard to argue that this is not the right lens for illuminating what we’re seeing.

What is the relationship between the war in Ukraine, the emerging alignment between Russia and China, and the great power rivalry between Beijing and Washington? How might the outcomes of the war thus far impact Chinese calculations about military action over Taiwan?

If anybody had failed to recognize the emerging alliance between China and Russia, there’s no better spotlight for it than the war in Ukraine. I’ve argued in writing for five years, that this is the most important undeclared alliance in the world. You have two leaders who plan on staying in power for a long time. Since 2012, when Xi became president, his first visit was to Moscow. The first person he talked to was Putin.

Should somebody as smart as Xi and his generals be concerned while watching Russia’s poor performance in this war against Ukraine? I hope so and I think so. What they thought was going to be a quick coup didn’t occur. A formidable military force in which they have invested a lot in modernizing put on a very poor showing in the first innings. They were unable to effectively integrate land, air, and water equipment. We haven’t really thought about how complicated integrated military operations are, but if you’re going to try and integrate air, sea, land, and intelligence you better be practicing. I think there’s at least ten reasons why a serious observer in Beijing would look at this and say, well, these are things that give me a little more reservation about what we’re capable of doing, if we were to decide to, or were forced to choose to attack Taiwan. I’m sure they’re studying this. The Chinese military, more seriously than any other military in the world, studies the wars of other parties and tries to understand what’s happening.

You have said that, ultimately, we will have to negotiate with Putin in the end, just as we did with Stalin and Mao. Do you stand by this assessment, and what do you think such a negotiation would look like or result in?

The answer is yes. The idea that you have to deal with the devil comes from international relations, and we’ve seen it many times throughout history. There may be some devils that are so horrible that you basically have to resort to total war—Hitler, for example. However, in the case of Japan, the U.S. ended up negotiating. The Emperor remained the Emperor, even though we imposed what was essentially a total surrender. Most wars do not end in total surrender, and this is certainly unlikely to be that. The point that most people watching don’t want to acknowledge, but that I think is absolutely fundamental, is that if events on the battlefield force Putin to choose between a humiliating loss on the one hand, and escalating the level of destruction, up to and including tactical nuclear weapon strikes on Ukrainian targets, I’m giving five to one odds he chooses the latter. The idea that he could suffer a humiliating loss and survive in Russia is very low. For him, this is existential. It’s all about him and his vision of Russia. He has the capability to act if he feels like he has to. Zelenskyy can’t really say so, he can’t even really admit this to himself, and I wouldn’t expect that he would. Certainly, Biden has figured this out, as have most of the Europeans. Why is it that, for all that we say about the stakes in Ukraine, there’s no Canadians that are fighting shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians, or Americans, or Germans or British? Why is that? As Biden has said, we are not going to fight WWIII over Ukraine. Worse than the atrocities that Putin has visited on Ukraine would be all those atrocities, plus similar atrocities, on Germany, Canada, and America.

We’re not going to have a war with Russia if we can avoid it. Why is that? It’s because of this terrible hangover from the Cold War that didn’t go away. Unfortunately, most young people and most people in positions of authority don’t feel or understand it. We live under a specter of mutual assured destruction. We live in a M.A.D. world. You and I each have arsenals of nuclear weapons such that if I do my very best to attack, disarm, and destroy you, I can succeed in destroying you—but not without triggering a retaliatory attack upon me that destroys me and my society. If we go to war with someone, even though we have the greatest military in the world, and even though we killed every last one of them, at the end of that story, my society has also been destroyed. A nuclear war cannot be won. It must therefore never be fought.

What that requires is constraints, even self-constraints on the greatest military force in the world, in dealing with another force that it can’t defeat and destroy without risking the destruction of its society. I wish and pray that Putin is struck by lightning. I would be happy for a terrible disease to break out, and for all the Putinistas to fall over tomorrow. If somebody had a chain that I could pull, and they went away, I would pull it. Absent that, he will remain, certainly, as the commander of a superpower nuclear arsenal, just as the leaders of the evil empire did. We’re going to have to find some way to survive with him. I think that means that wherever this war stops, I suspect, we will get to something like a stalemate, which is approximately what it is now. It won’t be a permanent solution. Ukraine will never give up its claim to recover all of its territories, nor should it.

Back in 2014, Putin seized Crimea and some of Luhansk and Donetsk. There was fighting for a year, and then it petered out. It was low-level conflict across a line of control for the period from 2016-2022. I would think maybe we get back to something like that. During that period, you could imagine a negotiated ceasefire, or it could just be implicit. In any case, there will be negotiations of the sort. How many times has Macron talked to Putin in the period since the invasion? The answer is twenty-two. How does one stop this? I’m very eager to support stopping the killing as soon as we can. Whether Ukraine reclaims 100 kilometres or loses another 100 kilometres—that’s not the bigger picture for Ukraine. The long-term picture for Ukraine is for Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians, who have been amazing, to build a successful country. That’s going to be a much bigger challenge than preventing the Russians from erasing them. They hadn’t been doing a very good job before the Russians came. They’ve got a very big challenge, but they also have a very big claim, morally and politically, on the West, to provide all the support it can so that Ukraine has a chance to build a society. This is a fantastic challenge, but a great opportunity. If you turn out to be the West Germany to East Germany, or the South Korea to North Korea, in time, you’re going to recover everything and maybe more. This needs to end sooner rather than later, because what I don’t want is my nightmare to come true: Putin conducting a nuclear strike on Ukraine…and then we wonder…oh, God, what kind of a world do we live in?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Graham Allison


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