The Other Side of the Coin


  1. I am proposing to research the avoidance of war among cases of rising and ruling powers…
  2. …because I want to trace their individual processes toward peace…
  3. …in order to help my audience understand whether these peace processes differ and how future states may draw on these historical examples to defuse tension and conflict.

The main puzzle that I intend on exploring comes from Graham Allison’s observations on conflict in his book Destined for War. Here, he argues for the Thucydidean notion of rising powers threatening the hegemony of ruling powers, thus prompting war. It is important to note however that he does not consider the outcome of war as inherently inevitable. He along with Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center finds “sixteen major cases of rise vs. rule” (Allison 244). Of these cases, four result in peace, while twelve end in war. Naturally, a puzzle emerges from the minority of cases that contradict Allison’s hypothesis. Although I think Allison’s larger claim and conclusions remain valid, the question still remains: why is it that, in some cases, states do not dive into the hellish pits of war, and instead, preserve some modicum of peace? Allison offers incredible and insightful analysis as to why and how certain states go to war, but the other side of the coin is missing. He offers one measly chapter, titled 12 Clues for Peace, that aim to offer some intimations of these peace processes, but it remains largely undeveloped. Allison’s main motivations for writing the book is to first, spread awareness that “war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized” and second, spread awareness that “war is not inevitable”.[1] While he convinces his audience of the first proposition, the second proposition is arguably the most important factor since it offers an escape route from Thucydides’ Trap.

With my focus aimed squarely at this potential evitability of war, I began rummaging through databases, trying to find existing literature that might explain cases of peace. I found Charles Kupchan’s book How Enemies Become Friends to be useful since he explores a puzzle similar to mine.[2] He employs a method of small-N analysis blended with historical narration, examining cases of what he describes as rapprochement and the emergence of stable peace. Broadly speaking, he describes a process of “unilateral accommodation”, in which one state essentially defers to the other, allowing a less confrontational relationship to ensue.[3] He arrives at this theory after going through the history of various cases, including Anglo-American relations at the turn of the 20th-century chapter 3.

Some of the primary sources that have added to my puzzle are artifacts, speeches, and correspondences from the four cases I intend on studying. The Treaty of Tordesillas, which essentially relaxed the tense relations between Portugal and Spain of the late 1400s, offers valuable insight to the desires of both parties and the factors that motivated each side to opt for peace. Allison places supreme emphasis on the importance of intervention from superior powers, (which, in the case of Portugal and Spain, was the Pope)[4] while the treaty itself focuses far more on a realpolitik division of spheres of influence, making the Holy See’s role appear as more of a formality to cement the agreement.[5] Regardless, Kupchan’s theory of unilateral accommodation does not seem to match with either Allison’s interventionist perspective or a realpolitik perspective. This does not discredit Kupchan’s ideas, but it does show their limitations.

Additionally, President McKinley’s 1897 inauguration speech serves as another useful primary source in navigating this puzzle. His speech highlights the importance and success of arbitration and peaceful negotiations with the British. He responds to the British willingness to accommodate the newly powerful America with a reciprocating statement meant to ensure a continuation of relaxation: “We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression”.[6] These sources help contextualize my puzzle and offer a launching pad to investigate the similarities and differences between these two cases (along with others).

My interest in this area of research stems almost solely from my fear of a Sino-American war. Even if the chances are small (which is by no means clear), its potential outcome for death and destruction have placed an impetus on me to study the topic with an eye toward prevention. The consequences of such a war would easily match the horror of World War 2 and would almost certainly surpass it. Therefore, studying peaceful outcomes among analogous historical cases is of the utmost importance if a Sino-American war is to be avoided. If we want peace, we must understand peace and the process from which it emerges. In terms of a “conceptual problem”[7] as outlined by Booth et al., the condition is that, while rare, rising and ruling powers sometimes avoid war. The consequence of not understanding this puzzle leaves the world less prepared in dealing with increasingly contentious Sino-American relations and the evasion of the larger historical trend.


  1. What explains the cases that contradict Allison’s hypothesis of rising and ruling states duking it out in total war?
  2. Why did Spain and Portugal not go to war over the New World at the turn of the 15th century?


[1] Graham Allison. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

[2] Charles Kupchan. How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Graham Allison. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 190.

[5] “Treaty of Tordesillas.” 2017. Treaty of Tordesillas, August, 84. According to the source, “The most important parts of the treaty are translated in E. H. Blair and J. A. Robertson, Philippine Islands (1903-1909). I. 115-129”.

[6] William McKinley, Inaugural Address, Washington DC, March 4, 1897. The Avalon Project.

[7] Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (4th ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 54.

2 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Coin

  1. Jordan — this post provides you with a good foundation for your proposed research, though some work remains to be done on the problem statement and the draft research questions. With regard to the problem statement, remember that the middle part of that statement needs to be an explicit explanatory question (a “why…?” or “what explains…?” question that clearly points to either the specific outcome(s) or the more general pattern of variation that you propose to explain). What would a revised problem statement look like for your project? As you continue your research, keep giving some thought to your draft general research question as well. This should be a “what explains variation in…?” type question (see Methodology Matrix). What would that look like for your project?

    • Dr. Boesenecker,
      Thank you for the feedback. A better rendition of the problem statement might be as follows: “why do rising and ruling powers occasionally avoid conflict?”. This, while looking at cases in a small-N format, will explore the patterns of conflict avoidance among rising and ruling powers.

      For a more general research question, I might revise my question by asking, “what explains variation in the outcomes of rising and ruling power cases despite apparent similarities?”.

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