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Sun Tzu’s Eternal Relevance to Warfare: A Theoretical Interpretation

By Daniele Hadi Irandoost

Despite being written around 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu’s The Art of Waris still one of the most popular treatiseson military strategy; read not only by soldiers and their commanders, but also by thepublic at large. In fact, The Art of War is continuallytaught in major military establishments throughout the world, including China, Russia and the USA.At a glance, therefore,these facts reveal an impression that The Art of War is as relevant today as it was in Ancient China. Indeed, Sir Liddell Hart, one of the most influential strategic thinkers in the last century, believed this to be the case. Amongst all the 15 greatest military thinkers in history, he respected Sun Tzu the most: ‘Sun Tzu has clearer vision, more profound insight, and eternal freshness’. The aim of this article is to demonstrate that Sun Tzu’s The Art of Warisapplicable to war and strategy ‘eternally’, contributing,in turn, to a fresh perspective on military affairs in all regions of the globe; from America, to Europe, to Central Asia.


To that end, it is important (first of all)to clarifywhat Sun Tzu meant by war. Fundamentally, this raised, Sun Tzu viewed war as wholly inclusive of all activities and factors, both violent and non-violent, involved in the making of warfare. In this sense, he beheldpolitics, diplomacy, economics, technology, even morale and public support, amongst other things, as crucial towar-making: alongside itsviolent aspects at various levels. In essence,he believed no factor in war should ever (in any event) be allowed to escape from a war-maker’s attention.This, of course, reflected anAncient Chinese way of thinking,which approached life and philosophy in a holistic manner based on the philosophicaland spiritualdoctrines ofso-called Yin and Yang; or Tao. Certainly, there is little doubtSun Tzuwas influenced by these ideas, which is whyThe Art of War must be read wholly throughthis ‘lens’.

 Unarguably, the consequence in having such a holistic viewis that Sun Tzu’s precepts are not only ambiguous and open to lasting (re)interpretation, but more importantly, applicable at all times – no matter the circumstances. All meaning, even if a revolution in military affairs transforms the conduct of war, Sun Tzu’s holistic outlook, by nature, woulddemand the unfamiliaris taken into account.For Sun Tzu, thuswise, a general who has attained the state of ‘enlightenment’ (or Tao) must inevitably understand what new (or old) factors affect the outcome of wars and how to win accordingly. An enlightened general, in effect,needs to be sufficientlyflexible to change in harmony with circumstances.Naturally, the implication of this core characteristic of Sun Tzu’s theoryis that his teachingsare bound to remainperpetually relevant, as well as completely beyond dispute.

 Nonetheless,one cannot but inquireif there is in fact an ‘absolute’ scenario, theoretically speaking, in whichnone of Sun Tzu’s teachings apply.The only such hypothetical scenario, it appears, is foundwhentwo (or more)opponents are equally skilled atstrategy.In such acase,not only does strategy lose its significance as a determining factor in war, but ‘strength’ as theantithesis of strategy becomes the only decisive factor. Here, to be sure, the principal difference between the two lies in the former’s representation ofthe physical,or material,aspects of war, and the latter’s representation ofthe mental or psychological aspects, which wither in consequence.On that basis, with strength as the sole determining factor, a warmay be won only by annihilating the enemy byapplyingthe effect of maximum force through strength – resembling somehow what Clausewitz,who is usually placed in the same league as Sun Tzu, called an‘absolute’ war.

Yet, the only problem with such an imaginary scenario, as it happens, is that it is never conceivable in real life, as Clausewitz himself equallyadmitted. Primarily, this is because a hypothetical scenario such as this neglects external factors, ‘friction’ (fog of war and war’s unexpected difficulties),whichunavoidably precludean enemy from total and utter annihilation: meaning, war cannot in reality ever become ‘absolute’. This implies, thereby, that strategy – following Sun Tzu’s theory – can never lose its relevance to warfare:The psychological dominance of the enemy will always remain an invariablefactor in war.

There is, however, a counterpoint to this view, which should not be neglected. Specifically, considering that major military powers around the globe mainly focus on increasing strength (through technological, or industrial evolution),one might question whether strategy is in fact a more important factor than overall might?For even if strategy can never become irrelevant, does this global emphasis on strength not make Sun Tzu less relevant?

Admittedly, even though one finds a sense of validity in this sentiment,the argument fails to perceive the nature of strength under the aforesaid context correctly. Instead, one(rightly) ought to clarify that strength is – as a matter of evidence –a form of strategy in itself: one that is based, so to speak, on a war of attrition (disabling capacity), as opposed toexhaustion (disabling will to fight). But, of course, it must be stated here that Sun Tzu, by and large, saw the latter as the ideal victory assumed by a wise general and the former as the poorer method assumed by a less talented general. In this regard, Sun Tzu remarkably characterised his ideal victory by maximum efficiency in terms of minimal costs, and, more importantly, no bloodshed. Pronouncedly, as one may read in The Art of War, he believed such a victory would very likely be attained bystrategy manifested in the form of phenomena likedeception, maximum knowledge of the enemy and self, surprise, stealth, assault on weaknesses, etcetera, etcetera.

Contrarily, as witnessed in recent years against the War on Terror, a war of attrition (in most instances) can never remain successful, enduringly. There will come a day when an alternative strategy might be required to finally triumph. In such occasion, it rests with the belligerent to choose either a strategy around Sun Tzu’s ideal method (exhaustion), or another, if not. Regardless of the choice made, however, Sun Tzu will always remain of utmost relevance to warinasmuch as strategy – which lies at the heart of his theory –governs the principles of war. Hence, in the simplest terms, warsare ultimately governed by psychological dominance(above all) over brute strength: even then, the decision to use strength against an enemy is itself a form of strategy.


As Michael I. Handel stated a bit more than a decade ago, The Art of War is ‘the best short introduction to the study of warfare’.Verily, one wonders whether the short (and perhaps apothegmatic) nature of the treatises is the core reason for Sun Tzu’s everlasting relevance to war and strategy. Stated so, would results be any different if he offered more particular and comprehensive principles? Doubtless, it would be interesting to find an answer to this question. A theoretical investigation of other key military theorists such as Clausewitz, Jomini, Douhet, Mahan and others might certainly be a start. What is almost clear, on the whole,isthat the significant changes that have occurred throughout history, as well as many which are yet to come, will not likely displace Sun Tzu’s eternal relevance to war and strategy either today in the 21st century, or tomorrow for posterity.

Considering that not all nationscontain sufficient resources to meet their ‘strength’ demands, it is nowbeyond essential that strategists within striding military powers consider new, perhaps revolutionary, approaches to supremacy. In all probability, this could be an idea worth bearing in mind for Central Asian nations:notably Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (as the leading Central Asian governments),which altogether are firmly intent on the expansion of their militaries equal, perhaps, to those of other global powers like the USA, China and Russia.Assuredly, a fresh review of Central Asia’s astonishing military victories throughout history (by the likes of demi-gods such as Genghis Khan,or Kublai Khan) might yield invaluable lessons, ultimately in keeping with the teachings of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.



By Neil Pit

The diagram I have chosen for this article (above) shows the KondratievWave Principle. It shows how breakthroughs in technology have created successive periods of economic/technological history. Each watershed discovery is followed by a period of economic growth created by the use we have found for the products we can make out of it. Then, a period of recession, as the market becomes saturated with them and they no longer generate the same level of economic growth.This is then followed by a period of depression before a new breakthrough emerges to move the situation forwardagain.

This is the cycle which the global economy has followed since before the Industrial Revolution. However, concern for most people is really the society we can make out of the technology we possess. That is, politics aside, the difference each breakthrough makes to each of our lives. The current point we are at in the wave cycle is Information Technology, so how is this changing the world? What improvements can we expect to see and what are we going to be able to do differently?People are able to communicate for free and send documents anywhere in the world, mobile phone technology has made it easier to co-ordinate businesses and personal lives.

But, where is it all going? It seems that automation would be the next logical step. Yet, it seems less threatening than the industrial revolution itself, which brought two world wars in its wake. For a start, it seems that progress is a case of the way previous technologies have combined to produce something new. It could even be said that the age of I.T. has been heading into decline since the early 2000s, as the practical use we have been able to find for its products has diminished in relation to the change they are creating. While, at the start, everybody wanted to be able to surf the Internet on a mobile device, not many people really know the difference between an iPhone 6 and 7. It just seems to be another version of exactly the same thing. So, the question is, “what change do we want to occur next?”Driverless cars could now be added to paperless offices, perhaps? Could we imagine whole automated cities, with no need for a large workforce, though? They would still need workers for factories, steelworks, building sites, all the things the public still needs. But, in the city centres, we could see a world which simply works automatically for the super-rich. A world which everyone else aspires to get into.

However, if you have worked hard building a company, you need a break. The world works fast and every tiny inconvenience can seem like a huge mountain to climb. Everything needs to be functioning exactly on time, the taste of the coffee just right.So, what change people want is for things to happen faster, so we make progress quicker, but this fact is actually driving up the cost of management, because to organise this becomes more difficult.The problem is really the speed at which things are happening at already, to co-ordinate this takes some time and effort. But, it also creates a world where bosses can set their own prices for their own labour. Not everyone can actually run a company, they don’t know the paperwork, many people could not even estimate what the job might involve. However, you can work your way up there, the only problem with that is you must be the person who is continually getting a promotion. Running your own business makes you even less likely to give someone else a break when you reach a point you can retire at.

Changing technology, though, changes the business environment in terms of where companies can expand into. The relationship between Europe and Asia is now more economic than political. More about the activities of people in everyday life than the great plans of the leaders. So, what about the future of society? Things look destined now to keep going the way that they are. The super-rich are happy with all the money. Most people are just trying to make a living. The political system is powerful enough to be able to find a million people to nod and say, yes – they like things the way they are. But, under the surface, we are heading into depression. What comes out of it would appear to depend on the direction of long term trends in technology.

So, once again, people would like to see a way out of it, into the future. But, once again, we have to wait for the ‘big man’ in charge, to announce what the plans are. It will, however, this time depend on accountable methods, ones which are carefully deduced from economic forecasts and cash flows. The influence of Trump grows in terms of our philosophy and pragmatism seems set to govern our attitude towards the next period of history, which is spread out across such a wide range of corporations as to make it feel as if there is no real plan. Or, was that the plan and we are now living in the world they created for us. Nobody complains and nothing will go wrong. Everybody has the incentive to work so what can be the problem? Everything is painted gold around the leaders so they cannot see that something might be wrong somewhere and, definitely, they will be so full of optimism and that nothing will shake the confidence of everyone around them. Self-reflection may be lacking in some areas, but not the ones which concern them – the important thing is that whatever they are overseeing continues to be successful.

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By Neil Pitts

Being the author of ‘Origins of the New World Order’, I always find myself looking at the way the world works. To a certain extent, I feel responsible for commenting on the way it has emerged from previous periods, but also that I must be careful to acknowledge what can be changed and what cannot. In other words, at one point, none of the countries were even created which exist today. Now, we regard certain political doctrines as being set in stone. Capitalism and Communism, for example, are two ideas which go unquestioned depending on where you are. Christianity and Islam are another two, but at the bottom of it all lies the divide between East and West. This divide has become so fundamental to the way people conceive of the world that they do not even question where it comes from.

So, how was it created? In the beginning, modern humans evolved out of Africa. Egypt united first, then Mesopotamia and thus began the periods of the super-sized empires. First Assyria-Babylonia in Mesopotamia, then Persia took it over from the East. The Greek Empire then conquered Persia from the West, but then itself collapsed, so by the time of Rome, lessons were learned. Neither East nor West conquered the other after that.

By the end of the Ancient world, the Roman Empire came to occupy an area equal to Han China, with the Kushan and Parthian empires in-between, thus the balance of power had begun between East and West, which was to continue all the way through the Middle Ages and Modern periods, into the world we have today. Hence a new world order emerged, in one sense creating solutions to the problems of the world which had existed before, but in another, each period generated a new set of problems. As Europe converted to Christianity, Islam appeared in the East to surround it and prevented any further Western expansion. However, due to the westward facing nature of the Islamic Empire, this left the Far East open to the Mongols who created the next super-sized empire, then Europe took over the Americas, creating Capitalism in the West. The world had moved on again: this time creating a new divide between Capitalism and Communism. Now, we are finally addressing the issue of this divide, but it is still causing problems as it is too fundamental to be discussed in terms of politics.

Because, ever since the time of Ancient Greece, the way arguments have been won in political debates has used the techniques of Dialectics: like in chess, people take turns to attack and defend, until the opponent’s argument is reduced to agreement. But, what if there are fundamentally unresolvable conjunctions of arguments relating to the way the world moves forwards? Then we get the arguments for and against conflict involving other countries. Of course, with modern political processes, countries do not simply go to war with each other now over basic necessities like food and water, they all have the ability to generate wealth in abundance. Now, it is far more complex than that. One group wants mass immigration to boost the economy, another one does not. One wants to make an alliance with a neighbouring country, another wants to be on a different side. As such, unresolvable arguments appear within world politics. The point we are at means that we can all agree on the basic issue of what it means to be human, but different groups have different views of the direction events should be going in. As such, we all try to find a direction in a general sense, nobody able to set the direction of the whole and the U.N. can only act as a mediator.

As the saying goes, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Yet, they now are meeting in ways which would have seemed impossible fifty years ago. Resolving the divide eventually became a necessary part of the nuclear arms talks which emerged out of the Cold War period but, while politicians have been  concerned with creating progress in one direction, this has pushed the problem over to the other side of the world. Like a convection current, as the warm air rises, it draws in cool air to to feed the process. With the Superpowers (as they were after WWII), creating progress in the Northern Hemisphere, this has drawn in the South, in a way which does not appear to be entirely of their choosing. Now the whole world has been drawn into the situation – in the form of the problems in the Middle East, both the problem and the solution manifesting as the Islamic Revolution.

Yet, how has this global picture been so overlooked on a national level? It seems people have not been so informed about the way events are occurring and this has affected the quality of life most people have experienced. While governments have seen the need to perpetuate the way things are going (lest the peace process breaks down into World War III), social systems have become the target for personal ambition, more than being the happy, healthy communities they should be. Positions of power have been used as stepping-stones to the top and jobs have not been done properly. Facts have been hidden, money has been lost, which represents millions of hours of workers’ time. Governments have not been accountable and, living in luxury while people starve, they have broken the rules of national law on the grounds that they are somehow saving the world from the fate which would otherwise befall it.

In other words, the problem of the world order is one which has been addressed on an international level and a whole new level of government has appeared as a result of it. This is the ‘New World Order’ which the modern conspiracy theorists are talking about and, we can see that people on a national level are desperately trying to work out what is really happening. Here we have the new divide, between the rich and poor. So, obviously, what needs addressing nowis governments need to get more education to people about the way events are actually occurring in terms of the bigger picture. But, they do not seem able to see the (Bretton) wood for the trees. The problem, they say, is terrorism represents the problem with the way those nations function. Not how the world works. Therefore, they are creating more of the conspiracy theorists dream as they believe the solution is to create a greater sense of urgency and organisation in terms of solving the problems we already have. Never mind the problems we are creating while we are doing it. Thus, the situation continues to be a mystery for most people and the world continues like ever other period of history ever has done.

What we need to look at is re-organising the way we are doing things, replacing dysfunctional methods with new functional ones, elevating the opposite, refining the distortions. This is how a great team plays (there is no coincidence between the time this article was written and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, by the way!) But, look at how a bad team plays, they are lazy and disorganised, they wait for a problem to occur and blame each other, rather than get on with solving it. They do not work together, they compete with each other in petty, selfish ways. The idea that things have to be this way is now becoming set in stone as the situation rolls on past the point where governments can account for the losses people are suffering, which have become a fundamental part of the way progress is created.

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Eastern Roots, Western Fruits: Transplanting an Asian Treasure in America

By Robert McTeigue

American author Mark Twain noted that, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  With that high standard in mind, I ask:  How would you distinguish between these two terms—“cultural appropriation” and “trans-cultural diffusion”?

In brief, the connotations of “cultural appropriation” might be better expressed by “cultural mis-appropriation.”  That is, a significant and treasured feature of a given culture is yanked from its original context and placed into an alien context in which its history and meaning are distorted.  Honorable people may disagree about what constitutes “cultural appropriation” even while they agree that cultural mis-appropriation is lamentable.

“Trans-cultural diffusion” on the other hand, is the spreading out of cultural features beyond the place of origin, and finding new life  in other contexts.  Forms of art, law, music and religion, for example have both given and received new life by various cultural transplantations.

One function of “Eurasian Perspectives” is to identify, reflect upon and discuss the cultural interactions between (generically speaking) East and West.  Of particular interest to me in this context is the exchange of board games between cultures and across centuries.  In this article, I will look at the game of Go (derived from the Japanese, and the most common name of the game in the West), known as Wei-Qi in Chinese and Baduk in Korean.  Originating in China, Go migrated to Japan, which became the dominant force in the game for centuries.  In the latter part of the 20th century, Korea began to play a significant role in the Go world, producing some of the mostsuccesful players.  In recent years, China has been seeking ascendancy in the Go world.  Taken together, China, Japan and Korea are known as “the Three Kingdoms of Go.”  What about the status of Go in the West, in particular, the United States?

Although I’ve been an avid player of board games all my life, I was only vaguely aware of Go until I stumbled upon the Manga/Anime series, “Hikaru no Go”, a classic coming-of-age/hero’s journey narrative about a feckless boy who discovers a passion and talent for Go, which changes his life.  The popularity of the Hikaru series revitalized the popularity of Go in Japan and brought Go to the attention of many Westerners, myself included.  The Hikaru series has become an instrument of the American Go Foundation to promote Go in American schools and libraries.   The long-term effects of these efforts remain to be seen.

The clearest evidence ofGo taking hold in American soil is the successful efforts of the American Go Association to develop a professional ranking system of Go players, similar to the ranks of professionals in China, Japan and Korea.  (There have already been American-born Go players who have become ranked professionals in Asian nations.  Michael Redmond ranked in the Japanese system, and Janice Kim ranked in the Korean system, are perhaps the most well known.) The culmination of those efforts was realized in the production of the first two “homegrown” professionals certified by the American Go Association in 2012, Andy Liu and Gansheng Shi.  As of this date, the AGA has certified five professional players.

The history of the slow and uncertain growth of Go in the United States since the founding of the AGA in the 1930s, and the more recent drama leading up to the first American-grown professional players, have been detailed in a recent and well-acclaimed documentary “The Surrounding Game.”The movie oscillates between past and present, East and West, as it follows the fortunes of a group of young American friends striving to become the first AGA-certified Go professionals.  The movie itself merits multiple viewings, and may aptly be described as beautiful, inspiring, poignant and even humorous.  My purpose here is to consider the documentary in light of our present discussion regarding trans-cultural diffusion.  What will become of Go, a game laden with Asian history, images and terminology, once it sinks deep roots into American soil?  How will it look, feel, sound, be spoken of, should it over time become fully translated into an American idiom?  The former U.S. Chess League morphed into the PRO Chess League a few years ago, joined by teams from around the world.  One can see that by design, this new worldwide chess league looks and sounds like an American sports phenomenon.  Could something like that happen to the game of Go in America?  And would that be to the game’s benefit, or to its detriment?

Americans, it is said, tend not to have the grasp of history and tradition that Europeans and Asians reputedly have. I remember pointing out Georgetown University to a friend visiting from Belgium, proudly noting that it is the oldest Catholic university in America—dating all the way back to 1789!  She paused, smiled, and finally said, “Well, that is somewhat old…”  Will Americans, can Americans approach the game of Go with the sense of appreciation, awe and even reverence that is so well documented in Asian cultures?  “The Surrounding Game” shows Americans speaking of Go with wonder, while playing and studying the game with great passion and determination.  But will there be a distinctively American style of Go?

When discussing board games and the differences between Eastern and Western cultures, a comparison of chess and Go is often made.  (See for example, “A Comparison of Chess and Go” by the British Go Association.)  William Pinckard’s classic, “Go and the Three Games” offers an account of why Go flourished in Asian cultures, chess in Western cultures, and backgammon in Near and Middle Eastern cultures.  A much longer and more scholarly account can be found in Peter Shotwell’s “Why the West Plays Chess and the East Plays Go.”  For our purposes, we can take a simpler approach.  In considering “Eastern Roots/Western Fruits” in relation to trans-cultural diffusion and the game of Go, I think it may be easier to consider the role of computers and the internet on the game of Go, rather than speculate on the long-term question of whether there will be a distinctively American contribution to the game.

Computer programmers have been studying chess and artificial intelligence for decades.  The computer program “Deep Blue” defeating chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 was a major milestone in chess history.  Nowadays, it is impossible to become a serious player, much less a successful professional chess player, without computer tools and assistance.

It was taken for granted that computers could not play Go at a serious level because the board was so much bigger (19×19) than the board of chess (8×8).  A different approach was taken, and in 2016, “AlphaGo” defeated world champion Lee Sedol.  The full import of passing that milestone has not yet been discerned.

In both the world of Go and the world of chess, the globe-spanning connectedness of the internet may be of greater significance for trans-cultural diffusion than, say, the development of a professional ranking system of Go in the United States.  While the internet has had a depressing effect on local chess clubs, it has had an explosive effect for those who want to play chess or Go 24/7.  One doesn’t have to wait for a local club meeting to play a game, or recalling that bygone era when people without access to local clubs played games by mail; now one can play games, observe tournaments, receive instruction, and immerse oneself in the culture of the game of choice at any time, from almost anywhere in the world.  The more urgent question, then, concerns the effects of a worldwide trans-cultural diffusion of Go via the internet, rather than, say, the development of a professional system in one Western nation.

For example, American chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, one of the strongest players in the world, is known to have developed an “unconventional” approach to the game because he grew up playing countless games online, rather than following the more traditional path of studying the history and literature of chess play.  Likewise, first U.S.-certified professional Go player Andy Liu, as described in “The Surrounding Game”, also developed an unconventional approach to Go after playing countless games online.  These two illustrations raise a challenging point:  What happens to a game like Go, steeped in history and tradition, when the trans-cultural diffusion transplants it into a rootless and unstable culture that exists only in cyberspace?  At what point will the computer be no longer a tool of the game, but a “game-changer”?


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