The mischaracterization of Sun Tzu as a metonymy for all Chinese strategic wisdom, past, present, and future, grossly distorts the text’s importance and provides unrealistic expectations of what The Art of War can reasonably offer the modern strategist. Moreover, it leads to a myopic view of current Chinese strategic thinking.
Rather than piling on more translations, we would be better served by exerting greater effort reevaluating the text in a manner that recognizes that many of its arguments were based on unique historical factors which may not directly apply to modern strategic thought yet allows for the identification of carefully derived tenets which still maintain their relevance. Establishing a more judicious interpretation of The Art of War is a worthwhile and achievable goal, but we must be willing to follow the circuitous route to reach it.
Weaponizing a narrative resembles weaponizing a disease in several ways. One similarity is that neither is kinetic, yet both can have immense effects. Both are dangerous and chaotic, but are less dangerous to the faction prepared for the risks—or with less to lose. Like viruses, narratives can combine to create overwhelming effects, and can appear and propagate with unnerving rapidity. Unlike viruses, though, the narrative is so inexpensive that almost anyone can weaponize and deploy it. Also unlike viruses, the weaponized narrative targets our minds.
For 70 years now the United States has fielded the most powerful military forces in the world. This has led to the US military staying physically, mentally, and culturally in their comfort zone, unwilling and largely unable to think the unthinkable; in a few decades the US Army may be in the position of those armies and non-state enemies we have fought since World War II, struggling to cope with deficits in forces, materiel, technologies, and personnel. In DOD terms we may very well be the “near-peer competitor;” smaller, technologically weaker, with older and less capable systems than those against whom we are called to go to war. In strategic terms, such a future scenario is plausible, possible, and, increasingly probable.
Carl von Clausewitz, the young Prussian strategist of the Napoleonic age, is a giant in the field of security studies. His seminal work, On War, is widely considered the definitive text in understanding the nature of war. His famous quote, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” is generally considered the cardinal rule for war—it is often quoted and equally often ignored in practice. So, it is unsurprising that contemporary Western strategists and thinkers look towards Clausewitz for answers and insights, but is he the only choice?
In a lecture to field grade officers at the U.S. Army War College in 1981, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor described strategy as the sum of ends, ways and means; where ends are the objectives one strives for, ways are the course of action, and means are the instruments by which they are achieved.
In light of the recent East-West tensions due to Russia’s near-annexation of Crimea, China’s aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas, continued instability in the Middle East, and the threat of a nuclear Iran, or worse, a failed nuclear Pakistani state highlight the dangers the United States faces in the decades to come. The recently released DoD Budget and QDR both highlight the need to rebalance the force through greater investments in technological solutions at the expense of manpower along with the future applications of the joint force.
On March 8 Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi gave his first major press conference against the background of the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress. More than 500 journalists listened to the FM for 95 minutes, but it was the very last statement that deserves the most attention. Wang outlined the three main foundations for China’s new age foreign policy and behind the traditional aesthetically sophisticated formulas one can see a pure case of Thucydidian realism.
What’s a budding young strategist to do? By all means, read the classics. Read them in full, cover-to-cover…or at least the portions written by the original authors. (I skip the hundreds of pages of forewords and afterwards.) Next thing you know, you’ll be far more adept at recognizing the obligatory gratuitous Clausewitz quote. It won’t be long before you find yourself groaning at the inevitable article which begins by invoking politics by other means.