Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Sun Tzu, The Founding Fathers, The Art of Peace, and America’s Strategic Deficit Disorder

Mon, 11/14/2016 - 4:35pm

Sun Tzu, The Founding Fathers, The Art of Peace, and America’s Strategic Deficit Disorder

David S. Maxwell

The Art of Peace: Engaging in A Complex World

Author: Dr. Juliana Geron Pilon

Transaction Publishers, 2016

If I could recommend one book to the Trump Transition Team it would be Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon’s The Art of Peace: Engaging in Complex World.

Dr. Pilon is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization and a renowned scholar who has taught at the National Defense University, George Washington University and has held post-doctoral fellowships at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the Institute for Humane Letters.   He is the author of a number of acclaimed books and over 200 articles.

I am partial to anyone who can write about Sun Tzu and apply the Art of War to contemporary strategy.  However most such attempts use Sun Tzu as a gimmick to gain attention.  Not so with The Art of Peace.  Dr. Pilon masterfully uses Sun Tzu to illustrate the problems we have with strategic thought and reminds us of the timeless elements of strategy that are arguably more relevant today than at any time in history.  I am even more partial to anyone who can combine Sun Tzu and the Founding Fathers to discuss national security strategy and Dr. Pilon masterfully incorporates American history and political philosophy into her work. 

Dr. Pilon argues that “the basic principles of war and peace are transcendent” throughout history and around the world.  What is really unique about this book is that she shows how Sun Tzu’s concepts were applied (admittedly subconsciously) by our Founding Fathers and most importantly that together Sun Tzu and the Founding Fathers still are applicable to the global geo-strategic environment of the 21st Century.

This book is a critique of American strategy and strategic culture and describes the disease from which we suffer – Strategic Deficit Disorder.  It shows us how standing true to the principles of both Sun Tzu and our Founding Fathers will make us better national security practitioners who strive to practice the “art of peace” as well as the art of war.

Why are Sun Tzu and the Founding Fathers still relevant?  They have one important trait in common.  They understood human nature and they devised strategies and built our republic in such a way that took human nature into account.  Of course human nature has always been important from Thucydides’ description of realism of fear, honor, and interest, to Clausewitz’ paradoxical trinity of passion, reason, and chance to understanding conflicts in the 21st Century that have been described as a fight for legitimacy among relevant populations.  As we seek to be able to protect U.S. interests in the gray zone between war and peace it is as important to understand the art of peace as it is the art of war.   In the post- 9-11 world we have recognized the importance of the human domain but we can look to Sun Tzu and our founding fathers to understand human nature.

Her basic premise is summarized here:

“… America can no longer afford to sit on the proverbial three-legged (”military, diplomacy, development) national security stool where one leg is a lot longer than either of the other two.  We are so much becoming militarized as decivilianized (with apologies to spell-check).”

Why is this important, especially to the Trump Transition Team?  Because according to Congressman Randy Forbes: "I think that with a President Trump, you'll see him coming out literally within the first few days saying that we are going to have an international defense strategy that is driven by the Pentagon and not by the political National Security Council."  If this is the case we will have four or more years of a decivilianized foreign policy and national security strategy.

Dr. Pilon argues that we need effective statecraft and policy makers, strategists, and statesmen who can practice political warfare that George Kennan defined as using all means at a nation’s command to achieve its objectives short of war.  Our nation’s civilian leadership needs to be well versed in political warfare and the U.S. military, and in particular special operations forces, needs to conduct operations in support of political warfare.

Today’s strategic environment is no longer bi-polar but can be described in terms of the following trinity:

  • Revisionist Powers who seek to disrupt and alter the international system to suit their strategic objectives.
  • Revolutionary Powers who seek to destroy the international system and replace it with one in which they can dominate.
  • Status Quo powers who seek to maintain the strength of the international system by respecting and protecting sovereignty and enforce the rule of law.[i]

To operate in this environment the U.S. needs to be able to conduct political warfare.

I know that the Trump Transition Team will not have time to read strategic doctrine and American history so let me triage the book with a recommendation to focus on Chapters 9 and 10, “American Self-Ignorance” and “Intelligence Deficit” respectively.  Dr. Pilon covers everything from soft, hard, and smart power to counterinsurgency and nation building to the war of ideas.   Here are two quotes that highlight the essence of these two chapters:

“An important component of the strategy against our enemies also serves to solidify and articulate the ties binding us to our allies, involves fighting a war of ideas – or to put it in less belligerent terms, engaging in an effective dialogue about our values, defending truth against lies and distortions.  At the moment Americans are doing a spectacularly miserable job of it.”

“The best equipped army in the world can still lose a war if it doesn’t understand the people it’s fighting.”  Gen. Ray Odierno, Apr. 22 2012

Most importantly, like Dr. Frank Hoffman (who has argued for a new principle of war called understanding), Dr. Pilon urges that policy makers and strategists seek understanding – understanding the adversaries and the geo-strategic conditions and context and also understanding our own governing structures and the national security apparatus and processes.

Finally, I recommend Chapter 17 on Exceptionalism as Realpolitk.  Dr. Pilon does an excellent job of describing what realism is all about and how it is misunderstood.

The trouble with those “realists,” who think they are practicing Realpolitk, is that they haven’t taken a close enough look at the term in its original incarnation.

Instead of either “a theology or a science of statecraft,” Rochau had meant Realpolitik to describe a way of thinking, which involved looking at any situation on three levels: the existing distribution of power within a state (as distinct from who merely claims to do so); the social and economic conditions that underlie the political system, and the prevailing cultural context.  Above all…”for Rochau, ideas mattered” - hardly an earthshattering revelation…”

Hardly earthshattering but I would argue that it is our failure to understand these “levels” that has led to our multiple failures over the last fifteen years and that will continue to lead us to failure unless we alter our ways of thinking about strategy and seek the deep understanding we need.

Please do not take my word for recommending this book.  Any book that is praised by Gen.(R) James N. Mattis, LTG H.R. McMaster, and Morihei Ueshiba is one that should be read, highlighted, tabbed, and re-read by students of strategy and those who aspire to develop and implement policy and national security strategy.  In short, if you want to “do strategy” read this book.

End Note

[i] Credit to Dr. James Dubik, (LTG, U.S. Army, RET) in discussions with the author at Georgetown University.


About the Author(s)

David S. Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Previously he was the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.


My second contribution -- on these important matters -- today:

If we agree that the U.S. government has, since the end of the Old Cold War, gotten out of the habit of waging political warfare,

Then might we also agree that this occurred as per our (now identified as erroneous) beliefs in such things as (a) "universal (Western) values, (b) the "overwhelming appeal of our (Western) way of life" and (c) the "end of history" (the Western version of this such ideas)?

These such beliefs suggesting that political warfare was not needed as a means/method for achieving our post-Cold War political objective; which was, and still is, to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines?

In this regard, the U.S./the West believing that by simply liberating the worldwide "pining for Westernization" populations -- from their variously "Westernization-denying" rulers and regimes -- this would, effectively and efficiently, get our "world transformation" job done?

Thus, might we say that, re: our recent "baptisms of fire" -- wherein, all these such erroneous, but significantly intertwined, "universal (Western) values, etc., notions were disproved -- that these such "baptisms of fire" are the exact matters/the exact factors which have now caused the U.S./the West to consider the immediate need for -- and thus to consider the immediate embrace/re-embrace of -- political warfare?

Bottom Line:

"Universal (Western) values," etc., and "War" undertaken as per these such erroneous beliefs, thus, having failed the U.S./the West -- as a politically, economically and socially viable and acceptable means/method of transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines (this, because such "transformations" now appear to be significantly opposed by the populations concerned) --

Now the U.S./the West looks to a more politically, economically and socially viable and acceptable "non-war" means/methods for achieving our such political objectives?

Herein, "political warfare" -- with its "all means at a nation’s command to achieve its objectives short of war" concept/construct -- appearing to fit this exact bill?


As Kennan noted in the first page of his famous April 30, 1948, "Organizing Political Warfare" paper: "Lenin so synthesized the teachings of Marx and Clausewitz that the Kremlin's conduct of political warfare became the most refined and effective of any in history."…

Yet, as we know, and in spite of this unsurpassed excellence in political warfare, the Soviets/the communists were not able to transform all the outlying states and societies of the world (in their case, more along communist political, economic, social and value lines),

This, before the Rest of the World effectively and efficiently organized, ordered and oriented themselves (much as the Rest of the World is doing today vis-a-vis our such "world transformation" efforts) so that these such Soviet/communist-desired political, economic, social and value "changes" could not be, and in fact were not, achieved.

This, before the demise of the Soviet Union -- and the significant demise of communism also.

Thus, any lesson for us here?

Should we, thus, and in consideration of the Soviet/the communist's such "political warfare" failures, not get our hopes up too much re: what "political warfare" can actually offer and achieve -- much as we should not have gotten our hopes up too much as to what "universal [Western] values, etc., (should they have actually existed) could and would provide?

Given my New/Reverse Cold War thesis -- and related bi-polar world suggestions at my comment (below) of yesterday -- can Dr. Pilon's central theme (provided immediately below) somehow be explained, and/or be folded into, my such alternative worldview suggestions; this, better than into the tri-polar worldview that is suggested above? I think that it can.


“… America can no longer afford to sit on the proverbial three-legged (”military, diplomacy, development) national security stool where one leg is a lot longer than either of the other two. We are so much becoming militarized as decivilianized (with apologies to spell-check).”



In her quote immediately above, Dr. Pilon has -- critically it would seem -- failed to address both:

a. The "world transformation" (more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines) political objective of the U.S./the West and

b. The "soft power" leg of the proverbial "stool" that (a) the U.S./the West has relied upon until recently re: our state and societal "transformation" initiatives, and which, due to neglect, (b) failed us miserably in this regard.

Thus, only (a) with this U.S./Western "world transformation" political objective/project properly before us and only (b) in this exact "soft power leg of the proverbial stool has failed us in this regard" light, I suggest, might we be able to properly understand why:

a. The U.S./the West has had to move its military forces into the front lines of our such outlying state and societal "transformation" projects. (In this "soft power deficit" light to, thus, see and understand why our military has had to be deployed and employed throughout the world today and, critically, along/near the Russian borderlands, in the Greater Middle East and in and around the South China Sea). And why:

b. Our "soft power" -- properly enhanced, deployed and employed for these such state and societal "transformational" missions -- must, thus, become the centerpiece of our "world transformation"-focused "political warfare" efforts; today and going forward.

Thus, only in this specific "world transformation mission"/"soft power has failed us" light to properly understand why Dr. Pilon suggests that the U.S./the West's development and diplomatic legs of the stool must be "upgraded;" this, so as to take the "world transformation" burden off our military professionals, to wit: those individuals today who are:

a. Carrying nearly the entire weight/load of our such state and societal "transformation" missions on their backs. This,

b. While having virtually (1) no "soft power" weaponry in their kit/in their rucksack to help them achieve these such vital missions and (2) no properly staffed, trained, deployed and employed diplomatic and development corps to rightfully -- and via such tools -- take the majority of this "world transformation" job/burden off their back.

Bottom Line:

Want to get our "political warfare" act together? (Which becomes necessary when one's "soft power" is acknowledged as not being -- presently and due to neglect -- not up to the state and societal "transformation" job/task that one has taken on.)

Then acknowledge the "world transformation" mission that one is embarked upon, the "soft power" deficit which causes one's military to be overly and improperly deployed and employed as per this specific mission, and the New/Reverse Cold War/the bi-polar world which has, thus, and specifically because of these factors:

a. Now become manifest. And which, thus,

b. Now must be (more intelligently) dealt with.

In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, much as was the case in the Old Cold War of yesterday, the world is/remains bi-polar; this, in the sense that today, much like yesterday:

a. One group of "expansionist" great nations (the U.S./the West now; the Soviets/the communists back then) seeks to transform the entire Rest of the World more along these "expansionist" great nations' alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines. This while:

b. The entire Rest of the World (made up, now as then, of "resisting" both great nations and small and "resisting" both state and non-state actors) organizes and acts (think "containment," "roll back," "hybrid warfare," "terrorism," etc.) so as to prevent these such highly unwanted -- and thus highly destabilizing -- "transformations" from occurring/from being realized.

Bottom Line Thought:

If the status quo is sanctified in the international system -- this, significantly because "stability" is thought to have both a practical and indeed a moral value -- then should not the U.S./the West and re: its "expansionist" efforts of today, much like the Soviets/the communists and re: their similar "expansionist" efforts in the recent past, BOTH be seen an non-status quo powers?

This, and for the exact same reasons? These being that:

a. Both such extremely powerful "expansionist" entities seek to transform, convert and/or "reform" the entire Rest of the World -- this, significantly along what are essentially alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines. And because

b. Both such extremely powerful "expansionist" entities were/are willing to risk everything -- and actually willing to throw the entire globe into great and grave chaos -- this, so as to achieve their such transformational "New World Order" (and, thus, certainly not "status quo") strategic designs.

Bottom Line Suggestion:

If the U.S./the West wishes -- as indeed it must in these New/Reverse Cold War circumstances outlined above -- to effectively conduct "political warfare;" this, so as to effectively overcome the Rest of the World's "resisting western transformation" efforts,

Then, I suggest, the U.S./the West must adopt the bi-polar worldview that I have outlined and explained above, to wit: the only worldview which adequately explains:

a. Why both great nations and small and both state and non-state actors today are (importantly again) organizing and acting so as to prevent their states and societies from being "transformed" more along what they consider to be alien and profane (and thus highly unwanted and highly destabilizing) "foreign" political, economic, social and value lines. And which, likewise, adequately explains:

b. Why these such "Rest of the World" entities are (importantly again) adopting (a) the exact same strategies (for example, "resistance," "containment" and "roll back") and (b) the exact same tactics in relation thereto (think political warfare, UW and hybrid warfare employed in the service of same, and an appeal to conservative values and traditions, etc.) as the Rest of the World used against the Soviets/the communists, and re: their "expansionist" designs for the Rest of the World, in the Old Cold War of yesterday.


Herein, I suggest, my New/Reverse Cold War thesis (and, thus, my bi-polar worldview) explains these important matters adequately/properly; this, while the tri-polar Revisionist Powers/Revolutionary Powers/Status Quo powers thesis may not/may not as well.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 11/15/2016 - 1:09pm

Actually have a copy and find it a very good read ...problem is recommending it for an individual who feels he is the greatest super businessman in the entire world....who has no international relations experience.... no political experience and absolutely no experience in international negotiations BUT thinks he can sell anyone on anything...who did not know Russia was inside Ukraine and who feels Crimea belongs to Putin because they had a referendum.... he would honestly tell you to read the book would be a waste of his time........

IMHO do not think you can find anything Sun Tzu wrote to cover the above...even he would turn over in his grave.....

Secondly, if this is the quality of those advising him I am not sure the book will even help them NOR us......

Bolton: Britain leaving the EU will strengthen Nato because together US and UK will "sort the Europeans out."

Not sure I really follow exactly his thinking here and he is pushing to be DoS.....god help us all for the next four or no book....

Strategic thinking was bad in the Obama will non existent in the Trump WH