Speech presented by Karlis Neretnieks, Major General (ret), Chairman of Section 1 (Land Warfare) in the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciencies, at the 9th Sun Tzu Symposium held in Qingdao 25-27 August 2014
Sun Tzu and European Security today
To my mind Sun Tzu`s thinking has in no way lost its validity in today´s world. I will try to show why by looking at some of Sun Tzu`s dictums and put them in a European context.
Why should anyone in Europe be afraid of Russia? A country that has a GDP that is only some 12 % of the EU and only 140 million inhabitants compared with 500 million in the EU? In any ones ears it should sound ridiculous. How come that Russia just ignores Europe in its dealings with Ukraine, a close neighbour of the EU and partner of NATO?
How come that Europe needed American help to launch a very limited air campaign in Libya in 2011? Help from a country that has a similar GDP as the EU but only two thirds of the population. How come that extremists in the Middle East don’t care the least when Europe condemns ethnical and religiously based slaughter of people?
One part, an important part, of the answer is that Europe has forgotten, or rather European politicians don´t have the courage and sense, to live up to what Sun Tzu states in the very first paragraph of his writings:
War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life and death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it is studied.
Sun Tzu Chapter 1, paragraph 1
This should not be interpreted as Sun Tzu thought that waging war is a desirable activity. On the contrary. What he meant was that military strength is a prerequisite for promoting peace and stability. At least that is my interpretation of the following paragraph.
Now the general (in modern language; the armed forces) is the protector of the state. If this protection is all-embracing, the state will surely be strong; if defective, the state will certainly be weak.
Sun Tzu Chapter 3, paragraph 18
With this in mind Sun Tzu devoted his thinking to how to create military capabilities and how to conduct campaigns. If you have the capabilities, and can make it credible that they can and will be used, then it will be less likely that you will have to use them. Anyone thinking of threatening peace will probably think twice before he makes you an enemy.
Today no one seriously considers the EU, or its leading members, as important military players, prepared to act decisively in situations other than when their own survival is at stake. Perhaps not even then, the means will be lacking. Sun Tzu’s first and most basic condition for being an active player in preserving peace is not there.
Apart from different skills and physical factors important when conducting campaigns as; the importance of training, logistics, good leadership, use of terrain and others, Sun Tzu stresses the importance of deep knowledge and understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both the enemy and yourself. Regardless how good you are at fighting, if your calculations are based on wrong assumptions you will lose.
If ignorant of both your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.
Sun Tzu chapter 2, paragraph 33
Li Ch´uan. a Chinese scholar of the Tang period when commenting on Sun Tzu, said, Such people are called “mad bandits. What can they expect if not defeat.
Believing that your adversary thinks in the same way as you do yourself “mirror imaging” is a common and dangerous fault. The obsession among European leaders to measure almost everything in economic terms, forgetting pride, nationalism, revenge, history and other moral factors that influence the minds of other leaders, and their subjects, will lead to wrong decisions. If you, apart from that, are more concerned about opinion polls in your own country, than of the long term effects of your policies, then you are very probably heading for disaster.
This European reluctance to accept that military capabilities have an important, sometimes crucial, role to play in preserving peace and stability, and that other countries or organisations may have other priorities than those common in Europe, has led to a situation where real and potential adversaries today have been given extraordinary opportunities to apply Sun Tzu´s teachings in their dealings with Europe – to Europe´s disadvantage.
Here I will just mention some.
In commenting on offensive strategies Sun Tzu said:
Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.
Chapter 3, paragraph 4
As we all know the EU, and also NATO, are alliances that have to reach a consensus on strategy. This makes Sun Tzu’s next best solution an attractive option for anyone who would like to weaken Europe as an international player.
Next best is to disrupt his alliances.
Chapter 3, paragraph 5
Here I would say that Russia, among Europe’s adversaries, or competitors, whatever you like to call it, has been especially successful, when judging from Europe’s reactions to the Georgia war 2008 and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Due to many countries dependence on Russian energy it has been impossible to create a common European energy security strategy. Too many countries are afraid of annoying Russia, thereby risking their energy supplies. Britain, where much of the investments in the City is Russian money, is not prepared to take the consequencies of this money leaving the country. France and other countries are not prepared to take the economic losses of losing trade with Russia, even continuing to sell arms. Self-interest and shortsightedness has been stronger than creating a strategy for the common good.
A tool that Sun Tzu also mentions as a way to influence an opponent’s strategy is agents.
Native agents are those of the enemy’s country people whom we employ.
Chapter 8, paragraph 7
Here we have seen systematic efforts by Russia to recruit influential persons, even at the level of former prime ministers, as leading members in Russian enterprises doing business in Europe. Very predictably these persons have been strong opponents to any actions that could harm Russia, and often their views have influenced public opinion and political decisions.
Someone could of course object that most conflicts today are different from those in Sun Tzu’s time, Russia’s behavior today being an odd example, therefore his teachings are of limited value. That is true, but at the same time not. What we see today are mostly internal conflicts where non state actors overthrow states or use failing states as platforms for their activities. Thereby threatening peace and stability in whole regions and sometimes creating threats on a global scale. Just to mention some examples: Bosnia in the nineties, Afghanistan, piracy and the conflicts in the Middle East today. Many of these problems are best handled by different security and police organisations. Others are not. The Bosnian war didn’t end before the US intervened massively militarily – the Europeans were not able to do it themselves. I very much doubt that today’s crisis in the Middle East will be solved without the use of force.
In this context one can also ask the question what Sun Tzu really meant by war. When he speaks about all embracing protection of the state, paragraph 18 in chapter 3 that I quoted earlier, my interpretation would be that he probably meant all kinds of violence that threatens the state must be countered in one way or another. Uprisings were not uncommon in his time. Also his preoccupation with agents influencing decisions in other states, indicate that he considered a broad spectrum of capabilities necessary. Therefore it would be a mistake to interpret Sun Tzu´s ideas as something applicable only to the use of purely military assets against a conventional enemy.
When it comes to Europe today we clearly see a situation where the ability to implement coherent strategies to meet different contingencies with military, political or economic means is lacking. Europe’s military weakness probably being the most limiting factor. This makes Europe a weak international player with potentially dire consequences for Europe itself, but also making its neighbourhood an unsafe place.
Sun Tzu would not be surprised. Perhaps he would say
“If you break every rule that makes a state strong, and don’t protect yourself against even the most obvious stratagems, what can you else expect?”