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