“Win without fighting” – this is the ideal of the ancient Chinese theorist of the art of war, Sun Tzu. This was obviously also the idea of the Russian military leadership when it attacked Ukraine in an attempt to break the enemy’s resistance before any major fighting took place. This assumption proved to be wrong with regard to Ukraine, as there is still no end in sight. At the very least, the war very quickly took on a more classic character of a war between states.
When it comes to war and warfare, there are two influential theorists whose concepts are still present today: the Prussian “philosopher of war” Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), who is responsible for the work “On War”, and the ancient Chinese military strategist of the “Art of War” Sun Tzu (also Sunzi, around 544 BC – around 496 BC). However, none of the strategies they devised can apply equally to all cases.
How do the two differ?
If you compare the different approaches of Sun Tzu and Clauswitz, Clausewitz’s approach is more comparable to a wrestling match or boxing match, while Sun Tzu’s is more comparable to jiu-jitsu. The aim of a boxing match is to incapacitate the opponent by striking his body, as Clausewitz himself emphasizes, in order to force him to make peace. In contrast, Sun Tzu’s aim is to unbalance the opponent so that even a light blow forces him to the ground because he is brought down by his own efforts.
Of course, both aspects play a major role for both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, but Clausewitz’s strategy relates more to the body, the material means that the opponents have at their disposal, while Sun Tzu’s strategy relates more to the mind, the will to fight. However, the will also plays a major role in Clausewitz’s strategy. In “On War”, he defines war as an act of violence to force the opponent to fulfill his own will.
But how is the opponent forced to do this in Clausewitz’s conception? A few pages further on it says: by destroying the enemy’s armed forces. However, Clausewitz did not primarily understand the term “annihilation” to mean physical destruction, but rather the aim of putting the opponent’s forces in such a state that they can no longer continue the battle.
At first glance, Clausewitz’s position cannot be reconciled with that of Sun Tzu. In his world-famous formula, which sees war as a “continuation of politics by other means”, Clausewitz adopts a hierarchical positioning, with politics determining the overriding purpose of war. Immediately before this formula, however, he writes that politics will permeate the entire act of war, but only insofar as the nature of the forces exploding within it allows this. With this statement, he relativizes the title of the 24th chapter of his work “On War”, which is the only chapter to contain the world-famous formula.
The tension that is only implicit in the formula becomes even clearer in the “whimsical trinity”, Clausewitz’s “result for the theory” of war. Here he writes that war is not only a true chameleon, because it changes its nature slightly in each specific case, but a whimsical trinity. This is composed of the original violence of war, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural instinct, the play of probabilities and chance as well as the subordinate nature of war as an instrument of politics, whereby war falls prey to mere reason.
Violence, hatred and enmity as a blind natural instinct on the one hand, mere reason on the other – this is the decisive contrast in Clausewitz’s whimsical trinity. For Clausewitz, all three dimensions of the whimsical trinity are inherent to every war; their different composition is what makes wars different.
While Clausewitz formulated a clear hierarchy between the purpose, aim and means of war in the initial definition and the world-famous formula that war is the continuation of politics by other means, the paradoxical trinity is characterized by a fundamental equality of the three tendencies of violence, combat and the instrumentality of war. At its core, Clausewitz’s whimsical trinity is a hybrid definition of war, which is why the term “paradoxical trinity” is often used in English versions.
Even though Clausewitz uses the image of a wrestling match at the beginning of his work to illustrate his concept, the example of a boxing match is even more appropriate. Here there is a demarcated space in which the fight takes place (theater of war), certain blows are permitted or prohibited (war conventions are formed), the fight begins with the gong (declaration of war) and ends with a victory on points (conclusion of peace) or the knockdown (surrender).
In each case, politics plays the decisive role before the war, during the war and after the war. In Sun Tzu’s conception, on the other hand, the decisive motive is one’s own survival, the self-preservation of one’s own physical or symbolic identity – by all means, at all times, in all places and at all levels.
Clausewitz’s “On War” – the basis for victory or defeat?
It is often only with hindsight that an explanation for success or failure in a war can be found in the strategies used. Colonel Harry G. Summers, for example, attributed the defeat of the United States of America in the Vietnam War to the failure to take into account the unity of the people, the army and the government, in accordance with Clausewitz’s “strange trinity”. In 1991, in contrast, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General Colin Powell, appeared before the press after the successful campaign against Iraq with Clausewitz’s book “Vom Kriege” (On War), thus signaling that they had learned from the mistakes of the Vietnam War and had won the Iraq War “with Clausewitz”.
Similarly, after the First World War there was a discussion in Germany that the German generals would not have lost the war if they had read Clausewitz correctly. This conclusion was based on the victory of the German armed forces in the Franco-Prussian War (1870/71) and the assessment of the then Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, that he had been able to wage this war successfully by studying Clausewitz’s “On War”. Since then, this work has been used to search for the right strategies for victory and reasons for defeat.
While Clausewitz’s status appeared to be unchallenged in the Western armed forces after the Iraq War in 1991, it has been gradually called into question since the turn of the millennium and has often been replaced by Sun Tzu’s approaches in both military and public discourse.
Two reasons played a role here – on the one hand, the new forms of non-state violence and, on the other, the new technological possibilities, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which is still far from complete. In particular, robotic and hybrid warfare as well as the inclusion of artificial intelligence, space and the development of quantum computers should be mentioned here. The trigger for the shift in military theory away from Clausewitz and towards Sun Tzu was the emergence of a seemingly new form of war, the so-called new wars. From a historical perspective, these are not a completely new phenomenon, but rather civil wars or military conflicts involving non-state groups.
According to the influential theorist of “new wars” Mary Kaldor, non-state wars are replacing inter-state conflict. These are also referred to as “irregular” because there is no longer a clear distinction between soldiers and civilians. They would be characterized by a particular cruelty of the belligerents, including child soldiers, warlords, drug lords, archaic fighters, terrorists and common criminals who have been stylized as freedom fighters.
As Sun Tzu lived in China in the 6th century BC and thus in a time of perpetual civil wars, his work “Art of War” seemed to be more applicable to intra-state war for military strategists, while Clausewitz’s concept, which had emerged in the 19th century, was attributed to inter-state war.
In the fight against the new, non-state weapon carriers and the “markets of violence”, civil war economies and “spaces open to violence” associated with them, Napoleon’s guiding principle was applied: “Only partisans help against partisans”. Accordingly, concepts of warfare were developed by John Keegan and Martin van Creveld, for example, which amounted to an archaic type of warrior equipped with the latest technologies. On a practical military level, parts of the Western armed forces, including the Bundeswehr, were gradually transformed from a defense army to an intervention army with their participation in out-of-area operations since the 1990s. From then on, highly professional special forces carried out armed combat in complex conflicts.
The initial success of the United States Army in Afghanistan can be attributed to the deployment of such special forces, which were able to call on the superior United States Air Force for support at any time thanks to modern communications capabilities. In contrast to the United States of America, which concentrated more on the military dimension, the Bundeswehr attached greater importance to civil society in these civil war economies and, ideally, the soldier became a “social worker in uniform”.
The paradigm shift from Clausewitz to Sun Tzu became even clearer in the 2003 Iraq campaign, which, in the view of one commentator (Ralph Peters), was won in just a few weeks because the US United States Army was guided by Sun Tzu’s principles, while Saddam Hussein’s Russian advisors adhered to Clausewitz and the defense of Moscow against Napoleon. Although the boundaries are blurred, the strategy following Sun Tzu involved decapitation of the enemy’s political and military leadership (political and military leadership) and destruction of communications (means of communication), while the defense of Baghdad following Clausewitz involved a protracted people’s war.
Our assumption that neither of the two strategies is applicable to all conceivable cases is based on the fact that a decapitation strike does not necessarily have to be successful in the case of a network-like structure of the enemy (such as the Taliban) or that such a structure is only created by the decapitation (Iraq). Conversely, the much-invoked Clausewitzian center of gravity is not a meaningful military objective if it is of a more ideological nature or is based on old traditions, as Napoleon had to painfully experience in the Spanish war
Sun Tzu – The art of war
Sun Tzu’s approach relates more strongly than Clausewitz’s to the opponent’s thinking. His methodical approach is aimed at a dispassionate assessment of the strategic situation and thus at achieving an inner distance from events as a form of objectivity. This approach is rooted in Taoism, in which the presentation of paradoxes is elevated to a method. This is evident in the following central paradox:
“Fighting and winning in all your battles is not the greatest achievement. The greatest achievement is to break the enemy’s resistance without a fight.”
In clear contradiction to the rest of the book, which deals with warfare on the military battlefield, Sun Tzu here formulates the ideal of victory without fighting and thus comes very close to the ideal of hybrid warfare, in which direct combat is only one of several options. Accordingly, the British strategist Basil Liddell Hart later formulated: “Paralyzing the enemy’s nervous system is a more economical form of operation than striking at the enemy’s body.”
Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” focuses heavily on purely military success, but lacks the political dimension with regard to the situation after the war. This is a consequence of the circumstances under which Sun Tzu lived, because in his time of never-ending civil wars, military victory and his own survival were absolutely paramount.
In order to achieve his ideal, Sun Tzu placed three core elements at the center of his military strategy:
a general deception of the enemy about one’s own intentions and strength,
an indirect strategy that avoids direct confrontation,
and a focus on influencing the will of the enemy.
The three core elements of Sun Tzu’s strategy could not easily be applied in our time: A general deception of the opponent carries the risk of also deceiving one’s own population, which would be problematic for any democracy. An indirect strategy in general would weaken deterrence against an opponent who can act quickly and decisively. Focusing on influencing the will and mind of the adversary may enable him to avoid a fight and merely resume it at a later time under more favorable conditions.
The reason for this is that Sun Tzu was never interested in shaping political conditions after the war, as he lived in a time of seemingly never-ending civil wars. The only imperative for him was to survive, paying the lowest possible price and avoiding fighting, because even a successful battle against one enemy could leave you weaker when the moment came to fight the next enemy.
Success and failure
Finally, one must consider that Sun Tzu’s strategy is likely to be successful with regard to an opponent with a very weak order of armed forces or associated community, such as warlord systems and dictatorships, which were the usual opponents during Sun Tzu’s lifetime. His book is full of cases where relatively simple actions against the order of the opposing army or its community lead to disorder on the part of the opponent until they are disbanded or lose their will to fight altogether. Such an approach can obviously be successful with opponents with weak armed forces and a weak social base, but is likely to prove problematic with opponents with a stronger cohesion of armed forces and society.
The war in Ukraine could be a warning example here. Apparently, the Russian military leadership and the political circle around Putin were convinced that this war would end quickly as a “special operation” like the annexation of Crimea, because neither the resistance of the Ukrainian population nor its army was expected, nor the will of the Western states to support Ukraine militarily.
To put it bluntly, one could say that Sun Tzu triumphed over Clausewitz in the 2003 Iraq campaign, but Clausewitz triumphed over Sun Tzu in the war in Ukraine, at least until the summer of 2023. This also shows that although wars in the 21st century are increasingly taking on a hybrid character, it is much more difficult to successfully practice hybrid warfare. In addition, the war in Ukraine can be seen as proof of the greater strength of defense, as postulated by Clausewitz and the core of by far the most comprehensive book on defense within “On War”. It must be conceded that Clausewitz is probably inferior to Sun Tzu in practical terms with regard to the “art of warfare”, because in parts of his work he advocated a one-sided absolutization of Napoleon’s warfare, while he only developed a more differentiated strategy in the book on defence.
If we return to the beginning, Clausewitz is the (practical) philosopher of war, while Sun Tzu concentrates on the “art of warfare”. As is evident in contemporary wars, due to technological developments and the process I have elsewhere called “hybrid globalization”, every war is hybrid.
Hybrid globalization is characterized by ongoing globalization on the one hand and local and regional resistance to it on the other. This resistance is therefore a reaction to globalization and thus one of its contradictory manifestations.
However, as the current war in Ukraine shows, the definition of a war as hybrid differs from successful hybrid warfare. This is because hybrid warfare necessarily involves mutually incompatible.
Despite this ideal-typical construction, every war is characterized by a combination of these apparent opposites. The question is therefore neither an “either-or” nor a pure “both-and”, but rather which strategy is the appropriate one in a specific situation.
Based on this, the question arises as to which of the two, Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, will be referred to more in the strategic debates of the future. In my view, the answer to this question depends on what role artificial intelligence, drones, quantum computers and the development of autonomous, robotic systems will play in the future – in other words, what role thinking and the “soul” will play in relation to material conditions in a globalized world.
Because the war between states has returned to the forefront with the war in Ukraine, Clausewitz could become more relevant again in the coming years. However, if the controversial concepts of hybrid warfare continue to gain influence, this would allow Sun Tzu to be further strengthened, as these are essentially based on warfare by non-state actors in the interests of the state, among others.
In the war in Ukraine, Russia is probably overestimating its own ability to influence the mind and soul (identity) of a community such as Ukraine. With regard to autocratic states such as Russia and China, however, it is possible that the possibilities of manipulating the population through new technologies have been underestimated, at least temporarily.
Regardless of the outcome of the war, the debate about Clausewitz and/or Sun Tzu will continue as an endless story – but this should not proceed as a mere repetition of dogmatic arguments, but rather answer the question of which of the two is the better approach to take in which situation in order to better understand wars.