Great Powers and Great Risks: An Ancient Chinese View

A 2,400-year-old text provides citizens and leaders in the societies that are still rationally organized with a wealth of advice that is very appealing but difficult to follow in practice because of institutional degradation and bad popular habits.

In his famous book on strategy, compiled 24 centuries ago, Chinese Master Sun warned of certain risks that can befall even the strongest powers. In this note I will dwell on two. They have special utility in the geopolitical context of the 21st century. Their contemporary relevance confirms the judgment of many that The Art of War is a text for the ages.

Since the 1980s the Sunzi (Sūnzĭ bīngfǎ)–as The Art of War is also called—moved beyond the realm of security studies to the campuses of business schools and to popular culture around the world, magnified by social media. But let us not get distracted by its fame and its multiple applications, good or bad, and instead focus directly on two of the original central prescriptions.

One prescription for a strong state (that is, a state with strong armed forces) is to avoid protraction. A large section of the Sunzi is concerned with the dangers and costs of protracted operations. Protraction poses a mortal danger to all belligerents, from which no one benefits, or rather, from which all lose.

Looking at the map, it is clear that the Middle East –which I prefer to call the Levant—is an area of protraction par excellence, with conflicts that have been raging for decades, nay centuries, and which tend to expand and multiply. From the colonial drawing of boundaries after WWI, to the continued redrawing during and after WWII, to the insertion of the state of Israel in 1948, to the many wars since then, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the Sinai, and so on, to the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the fiasco of American intervention in Iraq, to the current civil and sectarian wars on multiple fronts, to the failure and collapse of several states, to the many awakenings and ensuing nightmares, the Levant is home to protractionsine die —what is regularly referred to as ‘endless war.’

For any great power to intervene directly in an area of acute protraction is to court failure or worse: direct and embarrassing defeats. It happened to all great powers, and the list is long: The British Empire, France, Russia, Japan, and the United States, to name a few which got –repeatedly— a bloody nose.

Current globalization adds new ingredients to the explosive mix: speedy interaction and spillover, features that have always been present in protracted conflicts, but on a reduced scale and at a much slower pace (think of the international brigades in the Spanish civil war). Today there is an active network of warriors, weapons, information, ideology, propaganda, and recruitment spanning large areas of the world with astounding speed.

Under such circumstances only containment is the appropriate strategy, keeping a firm list of priority interests in the region (e.g. access to energy sources, free navigation routes, etc.) and securing them through a series of temporary and opportunistic alliances with a variety of actors. Containment is a policy to prevent the spread of a rival ideology and/or socio-economic system in the global chessboard. It represents a middle-ground position between appeasement and rollback. In a context of protraction, there are no friends and no safe allies –only nimble, cynical, and shifting deals, preferably at a distance or through proxy actors on the scene of “endless war.” Patience is paramount, persistence essential, good intelligence uppermost. The use of non-obvious and non-lethal levers of influence (financial tools for example), and the capacity to shift gears on short notice all play their part.

But none of these features of protraction avoidance plays well in an open society, in the full light of public and social media. Especially in the case of the United States –still the most powerful nation on earth—the populace has been habituated to expect decisive battles, to support “just wars” and to honor heroes. It is Hollywood’s war. This is a serious hindrance to the pursuit of appropriate strategies and leads us to another central principle of strategy in the work of Master Sun.

This prescription of the Sunzi puts emphasis on the intellectual, as opposed to the heroic, qualities of statesmanship and command. The intellectual qualities enable the leadership to get the “large picture”, and lead the country in the deployment of the appropriate instruments of action. This quality Master Sun called “net assessment.” In fact, there is a Director of Net Assessment at the U.S. Department of Defense, whose task is to uncover lessons that may be of value to the production of American strategies.

What is meant by the term “net” or “strategic assessment”? In general it implies an analysis of the interaction of two or more national security establishments both in peacetime and in war, usually oneself and a potential enemy.

Net assessment is divided into several categories, the most salient of which is what Master Sun calls “the spiritual strength of the state”, by which he means the ability to mobilize, make sacrifices, and to resist the rivals’ attempt at subverting its resolve. The other categories (environment, terrain, command, and method) are very important but may come to naught with the failure of the first.

It has been said repeatedly that democracies are slow to rally around a security threat, but when they finally do, they display unstoppable resolve. Their spiritual strength is kept in reserve, but when needed it is deployed in massive ways. This feature was shown several times during the 20th century, most especially in reference to the United States.

However, in the 21st century we live in an age of what a political scientist has called “post-democracy”. In fact, democracy in the rich countries has devolved into a plutocracy with entertainment for a consumerist base. If Victorian England was derided in the 19th century as “a nation of shopkeepers,” [1] America in the 21st could well be called “a nation of shoppers” [2] who have outsourced defense to professionals and contractors –and increasingly to robots— in far-away places. That is fertile terrain for a series of warring actors in a zone of protraction to goad the containing power into direct intervention, through a series of more or less spectacular provocations (i.e. terrorist acts) that play on the fears of pacific consumers. The common and ultimate goal of terrorists is twofold: to draw the big power into a protracted fight in their terrain, and to effect “regime change” in the homeland of the powerful: from an open society into a garrison state, turning Athens into Sparta.

With the Sunzi, in the remote period of Chinese history when it was written, already command was no longer based on aristocratic pedigree; it was an intellectual enterprise, based on the ability to test and process the elements of net assessment and to craft a strategy with their subtle variations. In our own days of post-democratic dysfunction in politics –in fact a period of widespread political reaction in Europe, Russia, and the United States—instead of proper command as the Sunzi wanted, leadership could fall in the hands of mediocre politicians, of hot-headed advisors that prefer bombast to cold strategy, and with a frightened populace behind ready to endorse cockamamie “crusades.” If that day should arrive, then even the greatest powers will meet their demise.


[1] “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers.”—Napoleon I

[2] “I encourage you all to go shopping more” —George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks.

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