Conversations on the Future

The US, divided within, needs to reinvent itself: Harvard's Graham Allison

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WASHINGTON - Psychologically, and perceptually, it is a difficult adjustment for the United States to accept a resurgent China, said Professor Graham Allison from Harvard, author of the seminal 2017 book Destined For War: Can America And China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

It was Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew who had predicted that China would be the biggest player in the history of the world, Prof Allison told The Straits Times in an interview for the video series Conversations on the Future.

And Mr Lee had predicted that "the impact of this on Americans and American psychology was going to be profound, and that it was going to become a fact", recalled 82-year-old Prof Allison, who in 2013 co-authored a book on the late Singapore leader.

Commenting on the prevailing view of China in the Washington, DC political-security establishment, the prominent political scientist said: "There is an axiom that says: In your domestic politics, never let anyone get to your right on an issue of national security.

"As a rising power impacts a ruling power, the impact on the psychology and politics of the ruling power is such that parties begin to first say, 'No, we're not going to recognise it.'

"Secondly, as they recognise it, (they say), 'How did this happen… Why didn't (we) do something.'"

And then there is the impulse to find someone to blame, he said.

"You saw this in Great Britain as Germany rose, and you've seen this in the US today - that people are running to see who can be tougher on China."

Sensible views about China are regarded as somewhat suspect by many in the Washington political game today, Prof Allison noted.

This comes at a time when the United States is "as troubled as I've seen in my lifetime".

"The level of partisan division in the US today is paralytic," he said. "And you can see that in Washington."

Yet it is not the first time the US has been in dire straits.

Prof Allison recalled how, in conversations with Mr Lee, the latter had said the US has some magical "black box".

"After having screwed up things, almost to the point of disaster, somehow out of the ashes… the US reinvents itself," he said.

"He was using just a metaphor to say there's something slightly mysterious about it," said Prof Allison. "But, in the weaknesses of America, reflected in the current divisions, is this capacity to criticise ourselves to recognise the reality, and then, God willing, from time to time to overcome these obstacles."

That is reason for optimism, Prof Allison said. "We've done this before."

But he cautioned: "You wouldn't want to be overconfident. Because in the story of the cat that had nine lives, the tenth time, you know that cat dies.

"But I don't think we've exhausted our nine lives if that's what we've had, though I have a difficult time describing what the process is likely to be for recovery in the short term.

"I think this house is continuing to divide.

"Abraham Lincoln was right, a divided house cannot stand, so I think we need a reinvention."

  • The Conversations on the Future series focuses not on current news but on broader, and larger, long-term issues and trends. Among the interviewees are Yale law professor and author Amy Chua, historian Wang Gungwu, Chinese science fiction writer Chen Qiufan, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh and retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan.

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