Assessing the contemporary relevance of Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (TAOW), is a collection of concise insights based on his military experience. According to Derek Yuen, the book was presented to the King of Wu in 512 BC, for whom Sun Tzu later served as a commander in the Battle of BoJu1. Sun Tzu has been studied from many perspectives such as his strategy and victory concepts, his relationship to Taoism, his life, his influence on Eastern military education, generalship’s leading features, the use of force, and his tactics – i.e., reckoning, espionage, deception, indirect approach. This essay discusses Sun Tzu’s relevance, focusing on three aspects: his perspective of statecraft and the strategic framework it proposes; his definition of victory; and his tactics, primarily espionage, adaptability, and deception.
Analytical while pragmatical, the book seems centered on the military commander. Succinct statements formatted as precepts to be followed, matched to its length, writing style, and structure, suggest a pocket manual. However, masterly concealed between the lines, a philosopher’s silhouette emerges, as Christopher Coker asserts, “…[TAOW’s] principal lessons lie beneath the surface”2. Its title plays the same elegant deception, as TAOW unmistakably goes beyond battlefield guidelines. In fact, within its tactical lessons, it speaks about statecraft, and in doing so, ultimately speaks about leadership.
One of the perspectives to portray the essence of strategy is the continual interaction between ends-means-ways which, functionally, serves state policy. TAOW does not provide a definition of strategy, but it portrays a broad, flexible, and ongoing assessment, with a philosophical attitude, to review information concerning state matters. The assessment leads into decision-making, turning into actions, with encompassing analysis and adaptation. This process configures a strategic framework within which war is defined3 as high-stake, vital, unneglectable, and the state “cannot afford to fail”4 at it. War should be mindfully pondered by the sovereignbefore it is carried out by the commander: “[i]n war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign”5. The hierarchy is clear.
Coker remarks that Sun Tzu’s perspective is “…to use the economic, the social and political [assets] as an alternative to military action”6. TAOW stresses avoiding confrontation as much as possible: “… [a] skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting”7. Military operations are an instrument at the sovereign’s discretion whenever others – i.e., espionage, diplomacy – are not conducive to pursued ends. This statecraft perspective, and its decision-making hierarchy, matches Colin Gray’s Grand Strategy definition, “[t]he direction and use made of any or all … assets … in support of [the state’s] policy goals as decided by politics. The theory and practice of grand strategy is the theory and practice of statecraft itself”8.
TAOW teaches to pursue state survival under an unifying leadership whose drivers are not emotional, and conducting war – when inevitable – as a strategic victory9, to paraphrase William Martel’s “better peace”. Similarly, Matthew Cohen states, “For Sun Tzu … reason and policy should drive war, not the passions of the people or emotional decision-making”10. Tom Kane supports Cohen when underlines TAOW’s caution about egos: “[warriors] must not attempt individual acts of bravado purely out of desire for glory”11. In addition, Sun Tzu stresses pondering war regarding its cost, in lives and in resources, at least in three chapters. Martel discusses TAOW’s “enduring contribution to understanding victory is the idea that the cost of victory is inseparable from its strategic value”12. Authors agree that war engagement deserves careful consideration, a complex skill that can not be fully programmable in algorithms. Evidently, TAOW educates policymakers, statespersons, and the military in assessing the pertinence of war within a comprehensive yet flexible perspective.
Structurally speaking, Coker asserts, “War is a cultural phenomenon informed by particular historical experiences and understandings of the use of violence”13. Despite cultural particularities, and based on Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics which concludes that “the roots of politics are older than humanity”14, Lawrence Freedman advocates for the “elemental features of human strategy that are common across time and space. These include deception and coalition formation, and the instrumental use of violent conflict and strategic behaviour” 15. Sun Tzu’s teachings have a solid stance in these: his main tactic is deception; he advocates for limited and instrumental use of violence, physical and psychological; and, for a statecraft perspective.
As the essence of strategy is the continual interplay between ends-means-ways, some argue that upcoming technological developments could prevent classical theorists from remaining relevant. Christopher Tuck objects stating, “Technology is not an independent variable: war has a technological dimension, but success in war is as much about how technology is used in relation to an enemy and in the context of such factors as strategy, logistics and generalship as it is about weapons and equipment per se.”16 Kathleen McInnis also criticizes scholars’ and practitioners’ overstated focus on quantifiable analyses, “study histories and think-tank reports and technical pieces to guide our decisions”17, referring to the “‘failure of imagination’… in 9/11”18. TAOW raises the importance of “subtle ingenuity of mind”19, “intuitive sagacity”20, and other qualitative skills, so far those cannot be algorithmed, i.e., John Wagner reports the limited perception of algorithms21 after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election.
Sun Tzu has been criticized for suggesting the predictability of victory based on an a priori comparison of the enemy’s and one’s own armies, in TAOW’s first chapter. However, it mentions the word ‘victory’ thirty-four other times, describing it in dynamic terms as the result of decisions and actions, such as following the book’s precepts22, making calculations23, and practicing five essential factors: prudence, managing different size of armies, unifying army, preparedness, and leadership24. Hence, reckoning and adaptability also lead to victory.
The definition of supreme excellence in battle, “consists[ting] in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”, followed by “… the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans”25 suggest two concentric concepts of victory: state-level victory, and military victory subjected to it. Or, as Martel states, a “politico-strategic victory … based on consolidating operational victories”26. Such a definition transcends time, landing within Robert Mandel’s Modern Victory model, in the Strategic Victory concept, “composed of interrelated informational, military, political, economic, social, and diplomatic elements”27. Likewise, TAOW stresses that conquered states should be taken undestroyed28; and that the sovereign controls the information given to officers29.
Sun Tzu was at the center of the nuclear era too. After 1945, four waves of strategists studied how-to and – remarkably – how-not-to use nuclear weaponry. Similarity is in the essence, since the supreme excellence in warfare is avoiding confrontation yet controlling the adversaries’ behaviour, all of which is the root of deterrence and compellence. Yuen’s Theory of Control supports this perspective30. Furthermore, TAOW instructs to gain control over the adversaries’ behaviours, which implies bargaining power, as Thomas Schelling theorizes, “…[a] power that comes from its capacity to hurt, not just the direct consequence of successful military action”31. Schelling’s “Coercive diplomacy, based on the power to hurt”32 also mirrors Sun Tzu’s instructions on bending the enemy’s will while avoiding confrontation. Bernard Brodie’s assertion, “The threat of retaliation does not have to be 100 per cent certain; it is sufficient if there is a good chance of it, or [a] belief that there is a good chance of it”,33 promotes deception and coercive negotiations to avoid a large bloodshed (MAD), mirroring Sun Tzu’s perspective.
Brodie recalls Sun Tzu’s connection between the sovereign’s assessment and the horrors of war when arguing that, “No belligerent would be stupid enough, in opening itself to reprisals in kind”34, and »[a]s advancing technology makes war more horrible, it also makes the decision to resort to it more dependent on an elaborate psychological preparation»35. The essence of their ideas again mirror each other. Ethical considerations about bloodshed – relevant to Sun Tzu and Brodie – related to nuclear weaponry come back to the forefront as Russia36 and USA37 brush-up their never decommissioned nuclear arsenals. Noteworthy, morality is hardly programmable informatically, according to Coker38; then, ethical discussions about nuclear strategies would hardly become obsolete in the foreseeable future.
Focusing on tactics, the UK Government’s intelligence plan to address foreign espionage – which quotes Sun Tzu39 – commensurates TAOW’s systematic intelligence organization, in resources like the Defence Doctrine40, the UK Cyber Security Strategy41, CONTEST42 (UK’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism), and MI543. “Analysing information establishes and maintains situational understanding and supports better decision-making” 44. TAOW’s spies network45 provides foreknowledge regarding “every kind of business”46 for the commander and the sovereign. Structurally similar: a network of intelligence officers providing information to inform strategic decisions. Also, MI5’s definition of British “intelligence officers and agents” as spies protecting state interests, mirrors TAOW’s final statement that “Spies are a most important element … on them depends an army’s ability to move”47. In a connected note, the contemporary informational space facilitates the spreading of “false tidings”48 and “false reports”49, helping intelligence officers from all fronts to gather data and divert the enemy’s attention at high speed, regardless distance. In addition, UK resources mentioned above develop comprehensive preparedness, which TAOW discusses in five chapters: I, III, VI, IX, and X.
TAOW exhorts commanders to exercise judgment and adaptability, “While heeding the profit of my counsel, avail yourself also of any helpful circumstances … beyond the ordinary rules”50. It equips the reader with scenarios and cases to adapt plans based on suitability to the context, “… not [to] repeat… tactics [but to] let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances”51. David Petraeus highlights as “key” 52 Sun Tzu’s remarks of ability to adjust tactics in avoiding predictability53 and combining operations.
Context evaluation54 and decision making55 – from TAOW – are the basis for the MOSAIC Warfare concept that DARPA currently develops. DARPA’s website accounts for, “…a direct line between [TAOW] and this concept… when applying [TAOW’s] ideas… [it] can give asymmetrical advantage”56. The individual warfighting platforms (tiles) create “a force package, capable to “attack simultaneously and overwhelm57” opponents’ forces. DARPA alleges that the “sense-decide-and-act decision loop”58 from TAOW transforms into an “observe-orient-decide-act decision cycle (OODA)”59 in the MOSAIC environment. Timothy Grayson explains that the tiles “already exist”60, and will be articulated into this resilient environment from where the commander could select individual pieces “on the flight… at mission speed”61. MOSAIC could add pieces developed later.
Sun Tzu’s benchmark teaching is “All warfare is based on deception”62. Freedman considers it “… a vital strategic quality[:] deliberately sending untrue signals with a view to change another’s behaviour”63. Concealing plans, strengths, positions, and resources, TAOW’s tactical lessons are all standard practices nowadays, i.e., NATO has a counterstrategy against deceptive enemies64; Petraeus values that concealing “enabl[es] … surprise”65. Secrecy enables concealment, furthers protection of interests, and facilitates success; also, it is extended to one’s own officers66 when managing hierarchical access to classified information, which is a standard practice for governments, defence, intelligence, military, and interstate instances. Also, Freedman’s assertion supports Sun Tzu’s coercive tactics to control adversaries’ behaviours.
While strategy and victory are dynamic concepts, and, tactics and weaponry respond to their times, certain aspects of warfare are structural, inherent to humanity, and to statecraft, such as a pursued end, strategic behaviour, decision-making, conflict, and fear. Sun Tzu’s teachings – delving on such aspects – commensurate to current perspectives in defence, security, and strategy. The strategic framework that emerges from TAOW – analytical, practical, broad, flexible, and integrative – is relatable and cross-culturally adaptive to state, non-state, military, non-military, and interstate domains. Evidence suggests that the West (USA and UK) finds Sun Tzu’s teachings relevant in military field tactics, espionage and intelligence, and innovative developments like MOSAIC Warfare.
TAOW, appealing tactical, focuses, in fact, on statecraft, leadership, ongoing decision-making, and adaptability. Its concept of victory accommodates state and military success, always at the service of state policy. Simultaneously, it promotes a culture of reflection, preparedness, and resilience, favouring diplomacy, alliances, espionage, and coercive negotiations as a better approach to interstate relations.
Coker, Christopher. Future War. Oxford: Polity Press, 2015.
Freedman, Lawrence. Strategy: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Gray, Colin. The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Kane, Tom. Strategy: Key Thinkers. Oxford: Polity Press, 2013.
Mandel, Robert. The Meaning of Military Victory. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006.
Schelling, Thomas. Arms and Influence. Hartford: Yale University Press, 1995.
Tzu, Sun. The Art of War, Translated by Lionel Giles. Leicester: Allandale Online Publishing, 2000.
Yuen, Derek. Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read the Art of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Journal articles and book Chapters
Brodie, Bernard. “The Absolute Weapon.” Chap. 12 In Strategic Studies: A Reader, edited by
Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo, 441-475. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central
Cohen, Matthew. “Strategy’s Triumvirate: Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz.” Chap. 3 In On Strategy: A Primer, edited by Nathan Finney, 25-36. Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2020. https://lccn.loc.gov/2020020513
Coker, Christopher. “What would Sun Tzu say about the war on terrorism?”. The RUSI Journal
- 1 (2003), 16-20, https://doi.org/10.1080/03071840308446848
Jordan, David, et al. “Conclusion: The future of Warfare.” Chap. 18 In Understanding Modern Warfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 437–60, DOI:10.1017/CBO9781316460276.020
Martel, William. “Victory in Scholarship on Strategy and War”. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 24 no. 3 (2011), 513-536, DOI: 10.1080/09557571.2011.617356
Government of the Russian Federation. “Decree of the President of the Russian Federation dated 02.06.2020 No. 355 ‘On the Fundamentals of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence’». Accessed June 2, 2020. http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001202006020040
Government of the United Kingdom. “CONTEST the United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism”. Accessed on June 2, 2020.
Government of the United Kingdom. “The UK Cyber Security Strategy”. Accessed on Jun 2, 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cyber-security-strategy
Government of the United Kingdom. “UK Doctrine Defence”. Accessed on June 1, 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/jdp-0-01-fourth-edition-british-defence-doctrine
MI5, “How Spies Operate”. Accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.mi5.gov.uk/how-spies-operate
News and magazine articles
McInnis, Kathleen. “Strategists Have Forgotten the Power of Stories.” Foreign Policy, May 19, 2020. Accessed May 20, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/19/national-security-policymaking-mythos-logos-strategy/
Mehta, Aaron. “Live nuclear testing could resume in ‘months’ if needed, official says.” DefenseNews, May 26, 2020. Accessed June 6, 2020. https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nuclear-arsenal/2020/05/26/live-nuclear-testing-could-resume-in-months-if-needed-official-says/
Petraeus, Gen. David. “‘The Art of War’: As relevant now as when it was written.” The Irish Times, March 26, 2018. Accessed June 8, 2020. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-art-of-war-as-relevant-now-as-when-it-was-written-1.3440724
Wagner, John. “Clinton’s data driven campaign relied heavily on an algorithm named Ada. What didn’t she see?.” The Washington Post, November 9, 2016. Accessed on June 2, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/11/09/clintons-data-driven-campaign-relied-heavily-on-an-algorithm-named-ada-what-didnt-she-see/
NATO. “NATO’s response to hybrid threats.” Accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_156338.htm?selectedLocale=en
DARPA. “DARPA Tiles Together a Vision of Mosaic Warfare.” Work with Us. Accessed June 18,
DARPA. “Mosaic Warfare and Multi-Domain Battle.” Work with Us. Accessed June 18, 2020. Video available through DARPA site linked above, hosted in https://youtu.be/33VAnIEjDgk
1Derek Yuen, Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read the Art of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), xi.
2Christopher Coker, “What would Sun Tzu say about the war on terrorism?”, The RUSI Journal 148 no. 1, (2003): 17, https://doi.org/10.1080/03071840308446848
3Sun Tzu, The Art of War (Leicester: Allandale Online Publishing, 2000), 1.
4Tom Kane, Strategy: Key Thinkers (Oxford: Polity Press, 2013), 9.
5Sun Tzu, Art, 25.
6Coker, “What would,” 18.
7Sun Tzu, Art, 9.
8Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Scholarship Online, 2010), 18.
9William Martel, “Victory in scholarship on strategy and war”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 24 no. 3, (2011): 520, DOI:1080/09557571.2011.617356
10Matthew Cohen, “Strategy’s Triumvirate: Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz,” in On Strategy: A Primer, ed. Nathan Finney (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2020), 29.
11Kane, Strategy, 9.
12Martel, “Victory,” 522.
13Christopher Coker, Future War (Oxford: Polity Press, 2015), 104.
14Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 5.
16Christopher Tuck et al., “Conclusion” in Understanding Modern Warfare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 442.
17Kathleen McInnis, “Strategists Have Forgotten the Power of Stories”, Foreign Policy, May 19 2020, accessed May 20, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/19/national-security-policymaking-mythos-logos-strategy/
19Sun Tzu, Art, 61.
21John Wagner, “Clinton’s data-driven campaign relied heavily on an algorithm named Ada. What didn’t she see?”, The Washington Post, November 9, 2016, accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/11/09/clintons-data-driven-campaign-relied-heavily-on-an-algorithm-named-ada-what-didnt-she-see/
22Sun Tzu, Art, 3.
24Ibid., 10 -11.
26Martel, “Victory,” 516.
27Robert Mandel, The Meaning of Military Victory (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006), 16.
28Sun Tzu, Art, 8-11.
30Yuen, Deciphering, 125.
31Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Hartford: Yale University Press, 1995), 31.
33Bernard Brodie, “The Absolute Weapon,” In Strategic Studies: A Reader, ed. Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2014), 460.
36Government of the Russian Federation, Russian Nuclear Deterrence Strategy, 2020, accessed June 4, 2020, http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001202006020040
37Aaron Mehta, “Live nuclear testing could resume in ‘months’ if needed, official says”, DefenseNews, May 26, 2020, accessed June 6, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nuclear-arsenal/2020/05/26/live-nuclear-testing-could-resume-in-months-if-needed-official-says/
38Coker, Future, 81-84.
39UK Ministry of Defence, “UK Defence Doctrine”, accessed June 1, 2020,
40UK, “Defence”, 3
41UK Cabinet Office, “UK Cyber Security Strategy”, accessed June 2, 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/60961/uk-cyber-security-strategy-final.pdf, 15
42UK Home Secretary, “CONTEST the United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism”, accessed June 2, 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97995/strategy-contest.pdf, 44-57
43“How Spies Operate”, Security Service MI5, accessed June 3, 2020, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/how-spies-operate
44UK, “Defence,” 42.
45Sun Tzu, Art, 59-63.
47Sun Tzu, Art, 63.
52David Petraeus, “‘The Art of War’: As relevant now as when it was written”, The Irish Times, March 26, 2018, accessed June 3, 2020, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-art-of-war-as-relevant-now-as-when-it-was-written-1.3440724, 2.
54Sun Tzu, Art., 27.
56DARPA Tiles Together a Vision of Mosaic Warfare,” DARPA, accessed June 18, 2020, https://www.darpa.mil/work-with-us/darpa-tiles-together-a-vision-of-mosiac-warfare
60“Mosaic Warfare and Multi-Domain Battle”, Video in DARPA, accessed June 18, 2020, https://youtu.be/33VAnIEjDgk
62Sun Tzu, Art, 3.
63Freedman, Strategy, 5.
64NATO, ”NATO’s response to hybrid threats,” accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_156338.htm
65Petraeus “‘Art,’” 2.