Power and Strategy the Sun Tzu Way

As argued in the previous post, Clausewitzian notions of power and strategy posit that a state realizes its interests by deploying lethal military force directly at the “center of gravity” of an adversary’s position. This focal point of power will often be well-defended, so the struggle to get at and destroy this point will feature a substantial fight resulting in multiple casualties for both the forces fighting and the civilians caught in the combat. In the contemporary age, however, several factors make this approach to power and strategy problematic. First, the development of nuclear weapons means that nuclear-armed states risk significant damage (if not total destruction) for using military force to realize a particular goal. Depending on how valued the target is for both adversaries, a war that begins with a mere skirmish runs the risk of escalating to a full exchange of nuclear capability that results in the destruction of not only the belligerents, but all human life. Secondly, (and very much related to the potential horror of the previous point), notions of human rights have taken a greater hold in world politics today, meaning that military conflict that results in significant loss of human life is increasingly seen as taboo and must be avoided at all costs. A traditional Clausewtizian-style war may have resulted in damage and destruction during the period of conflict, but it had the “benefit” of “solving” the conflict in that one side won and gained and another lost and suffered some kind of negative consequence. The tensions weren’t allowed to fester indefinitely, potentially leading to even greater calamity or the possibility of an even more intractable standoff. A third reason for less Clausewitzian behavior in the world has been (and continues to be) the hegemonic status of the United States, which has become a de facto arbiter of violent interstate conflict in the world—essentially deciding when and where major Clausewitzian deployments of power take place. In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early days of the last decade, this  use of this strategy was utilized; in other cases where Clausewitzian deployments of force might have already taken place (here one might think of the conflict over tiny archipelagoes in the South China Sea contested by China, Philippines, Vietnam, and others), they have yet to materialize in part because the US has acted to discourage it. The insistence by the United States on building international institutions to mediate conflicts contributes to this reduction in Clausewitzian conflict.

But is the Clausewtizian strategy the only way to deploy coercive force? In war, is combat the only way states can settle conflict between them? What about non-state actors who are denied the ability to generate significant military capability and the right to use it—how do they use coercion to realize their interests against states or other non-state actors? Finally, is violence the only way to think about coercion—are other avenues of power available that might also be considered “coercive”. The answer to these questions lies in looking at the greater sweep of history and understanding the Clausewitzian notion the power and strategy is actually not as dominant a precept as one might think. For much of history and many in other parts of the world, the diversity of understandings for the nature of power and use of force was far better appreciated, and no one thinker epitomized this appreciation better than Sun Tzu and his immortal tract The Art of War

The Art of War begins by acknowledging one of the key arguments of Clausewtiz’s On War—its inherent violence and lethality:

War is

A grave affair of state;

It is a place

Of life and death,

A road

To survival and extinction,

A matter

To be pondered carefully [1]

Here, however, one can say many of the similarities between the two works end, for where Clausewitz spends many hundreds of pages trying to delineate, describe and analyze every aspect of war, Sun Tzu says simply:

War has no

Constant dynamic;

Water has no

Constant form [2]

In other words, war cannot be understood in some rigid scientific manner that is true for all times and spaces. There are myriad ways of deploying violent force that do not conform to the act of mass combat, and like the different ways water can do damage against an object—from a rushing flood that sweeps away a rock in an instant to drops of moisture seeping into a different rock and cracking it apart over time—so the deployment of violent force can take on different forms that nevertheless produce similar results.

Indeed, so diverse are the various forms war can take that Sun Tzu argues the ultimate expression of military prowess is to bring about the surrender of an enemy without having to fight in the first place:

Ultimate excellence lies

Not in winning

Every battle

But in defeating the enemy

Without ever fighting [3]


The Skillful Strategist

Defeats the enemy

Without doing battle,

Captures the city

Without laying siege,

Overthrows the enemy state

Without protracted war [4]

The means to accomplish victory in war require one to “know the enemy, know yourself”[5] and from this knowledge develop a plan that allows for swift victory. Yet the acquisition of this knowledge isn’t necessarily about identifying the weak points in the enemy’s lines or finding vulnerabilities in the enemy’s weapons, but in finding weaknesses in the enemy’s strategy that enable the contest to be as brief and as one-sided as possible for the belligerent that adopts Sun Tzu’s philosophy. At the heart of this approach is the idea that “the way of war is the way of deception,” and that rather than a straight forward contest of strength of arms, war is about cunning and ruse and trickery and theatricality.[6] 

From this point of view, we can see a new kind of conflict emerge that transpires not only between states, but also between states and non-state actors. Sun Tzu’s philosophy and strategy of war gives spaces for organizations that are not great powers in the world to engage in some forms of violence that are not available in the Clausewitzian vein. Moreover, there is also a sense that this strategy allows otherwise powerful states who could engage in Clausewitzian combat to eschew such costly activities in favor of the more muted forms of engagements Sun Tzu allows for. This includes the sort of cloak and dagger activities that were common during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States and the efforts by both superpowers to subvert strategies and allies through espionage activities. Nuclear weapons and the possibility of worldwide destruction prevented a Clausewitzian-style conflict from taking place, but these conditions did not prevent other ways of deploying lethal force from being practiced. Indeed, Sun Tzu himself seems to understand this and devotes the final chapter of The Art of War on espionage activities. And despite the reduced scale of the violence, the effects can often be just as profound as that of a traditional war. The Cold War is full of examples of the superpowers successfully using espionage activities and other cloak and dagger ruses to topple governments, subvert political parties and interfere in the domestic affairs of foreign governments. This was all done without having to mobilize the mass amounts of troops and resources to attack the “center of gravity” of the targeted regime (though in the Cold War, this also took place).

There is one other interesting elements to consider here. Sun Tzu, in his chapter on espionage, seemingly acknowledges the notion of war his Prussian counterpart will make several thousand years after his death and the enormous costs entailed in such a strategy. He says:

Raising an army

Of a hundred thousand men

And marching them

Three hundred miles

Drains the pockets

Of the common people

And the public treasury…

It causes commotion

At home and abroad

And sets countless men

Tramping the highways

Exhausted [7]

Sun Tzu is obviously saying that fighting war in the Clausewitzian way is very costly. Because of this, the importance of information relating the size, strength, location and disposition of the enemy is of great value and importance. In saying this, Sun Tzu is bringing into the equation of war the place of information andthe means to acquire and make best use of it. “Spies,” Sun Tzu says, “Are a key element in warfare. On them depends an army’s every move.”[8]

This observation sets up the next step in thinking about power and strategy in the age of the spectacle. What if the information itself becomes the means by which the political outcome is achieved. For Sun Tzu, information is valuable only in the sense that is provides the means to more effectively deploy lethal force. But what if the information—or to put it more precisely, the effects of that information–could be deployed as the power itself? What if the information can used as a non-coercive form of power? Would such deployments of information that have the same outcomes as the deployments of violent force still be seen as an act of war? These questions bring up the role of propaganda and media and offer the possibility of new forms of strategy that rely on these novel tools to realize state (and non-state) interests. This topic will be discussed in the next post.

     [1]Sun Tzu, The Art of War, John Minford, trans. (New York: Penguin, 2002), 3.

     [2] Ibid., 38.

     [3] Ibid., 14.

     [4] Ibid., 16.

     [5] Ibid., 19.

     [6] Ibid., 6.

     [7] Ibid., 89.

     [8] Ibid., 95

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