America’s decline relative to a rising China has sparked interest among academics about power shifts in the international order—whether they can happen peacefully and under what conditions; what precedents exist and what they tell us. Now comes an important book, Twilight of the Titans, by Joseph M. Parent and Paul K. McDonald, who use quantitative analysis of power transitions to analyze the problem. What they find provides a warning to a rising China, and a road map for a declining United States to regain its standing.
The Harvard political scientist Graham Allison called the problem “the Thucydides Trap,” in which the country in relative decline so fears the rise of a challenger that it chooses to go to war to prevent it. And while Allison’s book Destined for War has its detractors, it served the worthwhile purpose of drawing us all back to Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian Wars and sounding the alarm that U.S. policies designed to confront China risked accelerating American decline.
One reason Allison was roundly criticized was that in order to have a large enough number of cases to write a political-science book, he created “transitions” among great powers that didn’t withstand rigorous examination. So, for example, Britain and France ceding ground to Germany after World War II is strongly conditioned by those three countries having a common security guarantor, the United States, that was substantially stronger, and that advocated for and buffeted the change. History has really seen only one peaceful hegemonic transition: Britain to the United States in the late 19th century. It remains an open question whether nuclear weapons will stabilize hegemonic transition.