In This Review

The Improbable War: China, The United States and Logic of Great Power Conflict
The Improbable War: China, The United States and Logic of Great Power Conflict
By Christopher Coker
Oxford University Press, 2015, 256 pp

Coker takes aim at what he considers a dangerous liberal misconception: that today’s world of complex, interlocked economies and shared interests has made war between major powers, such as China and the United States, irrational and therefore unlikely. In the years prior to World War I, many held a similarly sanguine view about Europe; such optimists soon learned that rationality was not the constraint on violence they believed it to be. As Coker explains, ideology and emotional appeals to “national purpose” have just as much influence on states as sober cost-benefit assessments of the national interest. He stops short of predicting a Sino-American, but he convincingly argues that the rise of China will be as disruptive to the U.S.-led international order as the rise of Germany after 1870 was to the British-led order of that era. China will want to rewrite the rules of the system and reassert its place in Asia, and the United States will inevitably resist. Deep cultural and ideological divides between China and the United States will make a peaceful power transition even more difficult. What worries Coker most is intellectual complacency. If leaders in Beijing and Washington think war is impossible, they will not do the hard work of overcoming the mistrust and antagonism generated by their conflicting interests, worldviews, and values.