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What Sun Tzu knew

Why an ancient Chinese text on warfare remains a favourite manual for policymakers from Donald Trump to Dominic Cummings.

In a tweet in July 2012, Donald Trump cited one of Sun Tzu’s most celebrated maxims: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Trump is not known as a great reader, and this must be one of the few direct quotes from a book in all of his compendious Twitter corpus. His former consiglieri Steve Bannon was also a Sun Tzu enthusiast, believing his ancient text, The Art of War, provided guidance in how to conduct a trade war with China, while one of the president’s ex aides had “Art War” on his car’s licence plate. Perhaps more significantly, Trump’s one-time defence secretary, James Mattis, a former Marine Corps general respected by military leaders throughout the world for the sobriety of his judge-ment, revealed in an interview in 2018 that he is closest to Sun Tzu in his thinking about warfare.

In Britain The Art of War is known to be one of the inspirations of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings. Removing the Conservative whip from Tory rebels last September provoked shock and horror in the liberal commentariat – not necessarily a disadvantage from Cummings’s point of view – while securing the party against further damaging divisions. A Conservative majority of 20 following a general election would be of little use if it could be undone at any point by a faction of 21 Tory Remainers. Sun Tzu writes: “The only way to manage the troops consists of making them equally resolute, so they act as one.” As if illustrating this point, Johnson’s withdrawal bill has gone through the Commons without a single Tory dissenter or abstainer.

There are innumerable translations of Sun Tzu, and dozens into English. Any new edition must add value compared with those that exist already. This small volume is a taster for a forthcoming full-scale Norton Critical Edition containing a range of historical and analytical essays, and presents a fresh, distinctive and original rendition of the much-parsed classic. Translated by Michael Nylan, professor of early Chinese history at the University of California at Berkeley, with the assistance of a working group that included a former military officer, a poet and other specialists, the text is presented in a form that is clear and readily understood and at the same time inexhaustibly rich in meaning.

Like other ancient Chinese texts The Art of War is a composite work compiled from many sources, probably towards the end of the Zhanguo or Warring States era (475-221 BCE), when China was divided into seven contending kingdoms. The dating is important, since the period was one of more or less continuous insecurity for rulers, military commanders and ordinary people alike. The Art of War resembles other early Chinese texts in making the avoidance of violent death a key concern.

The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is commonly read in the West as a mystical text, and it does contain references to a cosmic order that is inaccessible to human reason. But it is also a manual of personal survival in perilous times. In Chinese thought, mysticism and practical usefulness are not at odds in the way they have been in the west. Lao Tzu – like Sun Tzu, a figure whose historicity is doubtful – recommends “acting without acting” (wu wei), a stance of calm receptivity that responds to a hidden logic in events, as a means of communing with another order of things, and as a strategy for dealing with the everyday world. The Art of War is a handbook on living in a time of disintegration, and if it is being read more than ever today, one reason is that ours is such a time.

There will be many who deplore the use of The Art of War as a guide to politics. In fact there is nothing novel in the notion that war and politics are closely related. In his canonical treatise On War the Prussian general and strategist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) described war as a continuation of politics by other means. But those who apply Sun Tzu to politics today take a different and more radical view. Politics is itself a species of warfare, they believe. One of Sun Tzu’s most famous maxims reads: “Warfare is the art of deception”. An analogous view was presented in the Indian Arthashastra, probably composed in the 4th century BCE and attributed to a philosopher known as Kautilya or Chanakya, which argued that secrecy, dissimulation and other war-like strategies are essential for political survival in uncertain times.

 In the West, this goes against the classical tradition formulated by Aristotle, in which politics is the pursuit of an agreed truth about the common good. But there have long been dissenters from this way of thinking. The best known is Machiavelli, who recommended that rulers project an image of virtue while being ready to be ruthless when circumstances required. A couple of generations later, Thomas Hobbes believed the interpretation of biblical texts should be decided by the sovereign. Conflict over the meaning of the Bible had fuelled wars of religion, and for Hobbes the goal of politics was not truth but peace.

Machiavelli and Hobbes are often disparaged as amoral thinkers. Yet each of them believed a methodical disregard for truth was the only way to achieve good ends. For the Florentine it made possible republican self-government, and for the English rationalist it was a precondition of “commodious living” – a condition beyond mere survival that included a decent standard of living and access to learning and the arts. These thinkers believed safeguarding the common good may require methods that morality condemns, but they were not immoralists. Rather, they knew more about the hazards of politics – Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured after being accused of conspiring against the Medici, and Hobbes forced to go into exile a little before the English Civil War – than Aristotle, Kant, Rawls and other preachers of virtue, and they wrote more honestly about the conflicts of value that politics involves. Deception may be a vice, but without it the good is powerless.

Sun Tzu’s view of war is not dissimilar. Nowhere in the text is it presented as heroic or noble. War is a great evil, but the least bad wars are won without ever being fought, with victory achieved by stealth. Of course, deception has always been an important element in warfare. The Second World War was won by a succession of deceptions, including concealing information obtained about the enemy’s intentions via the Enigma machine and a campaign to mislead the German high command about the place and time of the Allied invasion of Europe. But the importance of deception has increased by a quantum leap with information technology and cyberwarfare. The boundaries between war and peace have blurred, while warfare has morphed into new and more irregular shapes. More than at any time in the past, war, politics and deception are intertwined.

But again, this is not unprecedented. Vladimir Lenin was a master of what became known as maskirovka. In use in the Soviet Union by the early 1920s, the term referred to any strategy or tactic in which deception was central. The practice ranged from the use of camouflaged or fake military positions in the Russian Civil War to large-scale strategic operations in which the Soviet leadership made commitments it had no intention of honouring. Lenin came to power by promising peasants land he always meant to expropriate. Later, the New Economic Policy implemented between 1921 and 1928, which allowed peasants to own and profit from their land after the disaster of war communism, fostered the perception that the Soviet state was moderating its ideological fervour. As a result it was able to make trade deals with the capitalist West and industrialise the country on the basis of a brutal collectivisation of agriculture. Stalin’s assault on the peasantry was not a departure from Lenin’s strategy but its continuation after a false retreat.

Post-communist Russia has used sys-tematic deception in its war in Ukraine and in Syria. The “little green men” who appeared in Ukraine in 2014 were no more local militias that had formed spontaneously, as the Russian state media claimed, than the NGOs that reported Assad’s atrocities in Syria were Western-led conspirators. Few have accepted the Kremlin’s versions of events. They are best described as examples of what Russians call vranyo – the propagation of falsehoods that everyone knows to be false. But a continuous stream of disinformation makes access to facts difficult, and soon all that remains are shifting perceptions. Here, Vladimir Putin has applied the lessons of Sun Tzu masterfully.

Though far less adventurist in its behaviour towards other states, China has followed a similar strategy. While portraying itself as a poor developing country devoted only to becoming part of a rule-governed world order, it has built up holdings in Western economies on a scale that gives it increasing leverage over Western governments. As Sun Tzu noted, deceiving and confusing the enemy is a more effective path to victory than openly fighting with them.

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The lessons of Sun Tzu for the West are discomforting. What was remarkable about the Iraq War was not that it was preceded by a campaign of disinformation but that the war had no definable strategic objectives. Was the aim to disable weapons of mass destruction (for whose existence there was no reliable evidence) or to install democracy? As some perceived at the time, the effect of toppling Saddam’s regime was to destroy the state of Iraq, unleash Islamist fundamentalism and greatly increase the power of Iran in the region.

Western-imposed regime change in Libya in 2011 has been even more disastrous, handing over the country to jihadists and people smugglers and triggering a costly civil war. The nearly 20-year presence of Western forces in Afghanistan has served no discernible purpose. Was it meant to disable terrorist forces, whose bases were ultimately in Pakistan? Or defeat the Taliban – an impossible task – and build schools the Taliban will shut down when Western forces eventually leave?

Rather than defending itself against real threats, the West has been possessed by fantasies about projecting its values throughout the world. When these values are derided and rejected by leading sections of the West itself, it is a vain enterprise. Incoherent societies cannot formulate coherent strategies.

Sun Tzu teaches that knowing your limitations is every bit as important as knowing your enemies. As Nylan writes in her incisive introduction:

Perhaps the most profound message derived from The Art of War (one of immense relevance today) is that any victory depends upon knowing oneself at least as well as the other party… Know thyself, The Art of War enjoins the reader, before trying to command others in matters great and small.

Bemused by ideologies that accord them a privileged place in history, Western elites seem resistant to self-knowledge. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a text of matchless wisdom. How much the West can learn from it is another matter. l

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

The Art of War
Sun Tzu. Translated by Michael Nylan
WW Norton, 160pp, £19.18

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out