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The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (I)

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

[By T. Greer]

We’re honored and delighted to announce that blog-friend and commenter T Greer has accepted Zen’s invitation to join us as a member of the Zenpundit team, and trust the following post in two parts will stir fruitful conversation not only here at ZP but across several related blogs.. — Charles Cameron, ZP managing editor


Mao Zedong writing On Protracted Warfare (Yan’an, 1938)
Source: Wikimedia.

This essay was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 26 May, 2015. Because of its length it has been divided into two posts, both lengthy in their own right. This–the first of these two posts–is republished here at Zenpundit with little alteration. The second half of the essay shall be posted here later this week.


Last fall I wrote a popular series of posts outlining the history of the eight decade war waged between the Chinese Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu (old style: Hsiung-nu) nomadic empire. My posts were a response to a prominent American strategic theorist who misunderstood the history of the Han-Xiongnu relations in his search for enduring patterns in China’s military and diplomatic history relevant to China’s foreign relations today. Unfortunately, this experience was not a singular event. It seems that every month some new book or article is published pushing a misleading version of Chinese history or a strained interpretation of classical Chinese political thought to shore up a new theory of what makes China tick. I could devote this blog solely to refuting these poorly sourced theories and never run out of things to write about.

Despite these errors, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who pen them. They face a nearly insurmountable problem: many of the thinkers, strategists, and conflicts most important to the Chinese strategic tradition have next to nothing in English written about them. Critical works have yet to be translated, translated works have yet to be analyzed, histories of important wars and figures have yet to be written, and what has been written is often scattered in obscure books and journals accessible only to experienced Sinologists. English speakers simply do not have access to the information they need to study the Chinese strategic tradition.

This needs to change. It needs to change both for the sake of strategic theory as a discipline, which has essentially ignored the insights and observations gleaned from 3,000 years of study and experience, and for understanding the intentions of our rivals and allies in East Asia, who draw upon this tradition to decide their own political and strategic priorities. But in order to make these necessary changes we need a clear picture of where we are now. This essay attempts to provide this picture. It is not a bibliographic essay per say, for I will freely admit that I have not read all of the books and research articles I will mention below. Some titles I have only read in part; others I have not read at all. However, the goal of this post is not to review the results and conclusions of all these works, but to outline where research has been done and where more research is needed. For this purpose awareness suffices when more intimate knowledge is lacking.

Mastering 3,000 years of intellectual and military history is a gargantuan task. But in order to find the answers to some of the questions inherent in the study the Chinese strategic tradition, it must be done. I make no such claim of mastery. My expertise is uneven; I am most familiar with both the strategic thought and the actual events of the China’s classical period (Warring States through the Three Kingdoms era, c. 475 BC-280 AD), and am probably weakest when discussing the first two decades of the 20th century, a time critical to the development of the tradition but difficult to master because of the number of political actors involved, the complexity of their relations, and the great intellectual variety of the era. Despite these weaknesses I know enough to chart out the broad outlines of current scholarship, a charge most specialists in strategic theory cannot attempt and most Sinologists would not desire. These biases and proclivities have kept the two disciplines far apart; there is an urgent need for these two scholarly bodies to draw together. If this essay–which is addressed primarily to the first group but should be accessible to second–helps in some small way to bring this to pass I shall consider it a grand success.

This essay shall have three parts divided over two posts. The final section is a list of recommendations on how to establish and develop the study of the Chinese strategic tradition as an academic sub-field, as well as some thoughts on where individual Anglophone scholars might focus their research. The two earlier sections will review what has been published in English about the Chinese strategic tradition already. The term “the Chinese strategic tradition” is usually used in reference to the thinkers and the theorists of Chinese history, not the commanders and ministers who actually implemented policy. In the West this is almost always how the topic is discussed. Texts like Sun-tzu’s Art of War (hereafter, the Sunzi) are dissected with little reference to the way its thought was consciously implemented by those who studied it most carefully. This is a mistake. Most of the pressing questions in this field can only be answered by looking at how Chinese soldiers and statesmen actually behaved, and most of the errors common to Western punditry can be sourced to this tendency to ignore actual events in favor of theory. [1] In the case of ancient histories–whose account of events were highly stylized and moralizing–this distinction blurs. However, for the sake of organization I shall maintain the distinction between strategic thought (a subset of intellectual history) and strategic practice (a subset of diplomatic, political, and military history), covering each in turn.


T. Greer on Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyah

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an exemplary post comparing the philosophy of English social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes with medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who described a critical component of a functional polity – asabiyah.  You should read Greer’s post in its entirety, but here is the take away as far as strategy is concerned:

….Asabiyah, then, amounts to the feeling among those dying that they are dying for their own. As soon as they begin to feel that they are not dying for their own, but are dying for the king, or for someone else’s clan, or for some obscure institution that is not them — well, that is when asabiyah is gone and the kingdom is in danger. Civilized life shrinks the asabiyah that once united people of different lineages, tribes, and occupations until the people of a kingdom only feel a sense of loyalty to themselves, of if you are lucky, those in their immediate neighborhood or caste. But at this point the feeling they have is not reallyasabiyah at all, but the narrow self interest Hobbes would appreciate. This leaves the kingdom open to attack from the next round of nomadic tribesmen united by charismatic leaders into one indivisible asabiyah driven force. 

Although it was not his intent, I think Ibn Khaldun here answers another puzzle apparent to the careful observer of human affairs. It has oft been held that a strong enemy unites a divided people. When faced with with a foe that threatens liberty and the integrity of the realm, private disagreements ought to be put aside until victory has been declared. But it is not apparent that history actually works this way. If one must compare the rising and declining eras of history’s great empires–here I think of the Romans, the Abbasids, the Ming, the great empires of Castille and the Hapsburgs, or the Russian Empire of Tsarist fame (no doubt other examples can be found with if more thought were put to the question)–it does not seem the enemies they faced in their early days were any less powerful or cunning than the enemies that pushed them to extinction. The difference was in the empires themselves; where the wars of their birth forged nations strong and martial, the wars of their decline only opened and made raw violent internal divisions. Even destruction cannot unite a people who have lost all feeling of asabiyah. 

Ibn Khaldun believed that asabiyah declined over time. He used the analogy of the transition from fierce desert life of equality, mutual glory and conquest to the effeminacy of sedentary decadence and servility of luxurious despotism and the fall of the dynasty in four generations to explain the effect of a decayed asabiyah. Greer continues:

The concept of asabiyah is applied most easily to the distant past. One cannot read histories of the early Islamic conquests and the slow hardening of state authority in Umayyad and Abbasid times without seeing Ibn Khaldun’s cycles within it. I have alluded to many examples of these same themes in East and Central Asian history, for I have found that his theories map well to state-formation among pastoral nomads across the world, including those places Ibn Khaldun had barely heard of. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun’s “independent science” can be applied to almost any pre-modern society or conflict without undue violence to his ideas. I recently wrote that in the pre-modern world, “internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in the vast majority of military campaigns” [23]. Ibn Khaldun provides a convincing explanation for where such cohesion came from and why it so often failed when kings and princes needed it most dearly.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to see the hand of asabiyah in the rise and decline of modern great powers. Military science has progressed in the centuries since Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah; the drills and training seen in the militaries of our day are capable of creating a strong sense of solidarity and cohesion even when such feelings are absent in the populace at large. In that populace the nationalist fervor that accompanies mass politics has eclipsed (or perhaps, if we take asabiyah as the nucleus of nationalist feeling, perfected) asabiyah as the moving force of modern conflict. This sort of nationalism, dependent as it is on mass media and technologies unknown to Ibn Khaldun,  has a dynamic of its own that he could not have foreseen.

The most important difference between Ibn Khaldun’s world and our own, however, concern the fundamental structure of the societies in which we live. Ibn Khaldun’s was a static age where wealth was easier to seize than make. This is not the case today. For the past two centuries military power has been intertwined with economic growth and industrial capacity. No more can poor ‘Bedouins’ living beyond the pale of civilized society dethrone kings and reshape empires. In the more developed nations of the earth there is so little fear of war that both asabiyah and nationalism are sloughed off with few misgivings. 

 Despite all these differences, Ibn Khaldun did articulate principles that remain relevant despite their age.  The first and most important of these is that social cohesion should be understood as a vital element of national power. Wars are rarely won and strategies rarely made without it. A nation need not be engaged in existential conflict to benefit from strong asabiyah. Absent solidarity, internal controversies absorb the attention of statesmen and internal divisions derail all attempts to craft coherent policy. Strategic malaise is one byproduct of a community deficient in asabiyah. 

Agreed.  In particular, it is difficult for foreigners to provide another society with an asabiyah that it lacks in order to fight and win counterinsurgency wars. You go to war with the asabiyah that you have and that has been a problem for Americans in places like South Vietnam and Afghanistan.

I’m not sure though that it is impossible to regenerate decaying or dying asabiyah if it can be built upon new myths that are harmonious with old ones, disguising innovations as fidelity to cherished values. The Meiji Restoration is the classic successful example of national revolution being presented as a reactionary movement to return to tradition, toppling the worn-out Shogunate and”restoring” a High Priest- Emperor whose ceremonial figurehead predecessors had not ruled Japan in eight hundred years, if ever at all.  There are also darker historical examples and we are seeing one play out now in the Mideast in the form of the ISIS “Caliphate”.

This kind of attempt to breathe new life into an eroding asabiyah operates at the moral level above strategy that John Boyd termed a “Theme of Vitality and Growth” and it can unlock atavistic passions and be extremely attractive. Simultaneously creative and destructive, society is suddenly remade – not as a plowshare, but as a sword in a strong hand.

Is Strategy Dead?

Friday, May 1st, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

[Photo credit: Peter Velter]

Is strategy dead?

Strategy seems to be widely admired in Western governmental circles, but no longer practiced in matters of state.

I am not saying strategy has been forgotten. Far from it. Strategy is still debated,  honored nostalgically (“ah, Containment!”), passed on ritualistically in war colleges, frequently demanded by opposition politicians and its value is regularly extolled in white papers. We admire, ruefully, the use of strategy by others (Beijing, Moscow, ISIS) and regret the sting of its lack in our own efforts. We have universities that grant degrees in strategic studies, scholars who write learned tomes on the art of strategy. Americans love business strategies, sports strategies, investment strategies, learning strategies, strategies for your career, strategies for self-improvement or to find the perfect mate.  We call a very wide variety of non-strategy things “strategy” because we love the word so much. The only thing we don’t seem to be able to do with strategy is practice it.

All of this other “strategy” noise is merely the sound of mourning for an art which has been lost.

Why can Westerners no longer “do strategy”? The reasons I suspect are twofold but are interrelated: The Europeans as a whole now lack a military capacity that would render a strategy meaningful. America, by contrast, still has great military capacity but chronically lack a strategy that would make American use of force meaningful in any given conflict.

In both cases, the root problem is political, albeit expressed differently.

Europeans are largely in agreement as to the nature and purpose of their social contract and choosing to dismantle their Cold War defense establishments was a decision financially consistent with the strong European preference for extremely generous welfare statism and free-riding on American military power. Let’s not mince words, the nations of Europe are in retirement and are unwilling to fund even their basic national security needs, much less their NATO obligations. It is a calculated choice to hollow out NATO and the Europeans made it a decade ago.

Americans by contrast, are deeply polarized as to what kind of nation they wish to be at home. These divisions over fundamental cultural values and social mores have created a kind of schizophrenic, Frankenstein monster, “meritocratic” ruling class that shares a bottom-feeder, careerist, anti-democratic, ethos of oligarchy while fighting vicious kabuki partisan battles to keep each side’s exploited grass-roots political tribe energized, angry and divided.

Because American wars are now fought and opposed primarily for domestic partisan advantages that lead to later financial career advancement for politicians, strategy has largely been displaced by politics and by law, an honorable discipline likewise under siege and partially mastered by our political class to warp for their own benefit. Politicians are far more comfortable with politics and law (most are lawyers, after all) than strategy.

Politics, of course, has always played a role in formulating strategy. It is politics which envisions ends and crafts policies that frames and sustains the use of strategy to claim rewards on the battlefield and the conference table. There should be, when things are going well, harmony in the relationship of politics, policy and strategy. The problem arises when politics attempts to substitute for strategy or leaders are willing to pay high strategic costs abroad for transient and trivial political benefits at home.

In my view, that is where we are today, but I realize opinions vary. So I will ask again:

Is strategy dead?

Infinity Journal’s New Issue

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


Our arch-Clausewitzian friends at Infinity Journal have a new issue out, featuring articles by Colin Gray, Antulio Echevarria and Spyridon Plakoudas.  A sample, from Colin Gray:

Strategy and Security

There can be little disagreement with the proposition that security is a basic human need and therefore has to be of fundamental importance to the high business of state. But it can be almost embarrassing to ask seriously what it is. If a simple and straightforward answer to the question about its nature is hard to obtain, one is right to ask sceptical questions in follow-up mode that may reveal a troublesome void in official thinking. In addition to desiring to know just what security is, and therefore also (logically) is not, we would like to know how we buy it; indeed, can we buy it? From whom or what do we buy security? Is there a usable common currency to meet security concerns? And, probably most important of all, how will we know that we have bought it successfully and therefore should judge ourselves to be sufficiently secure?

As scholars we cannot evade the elementary question, ‘how do we study security in order better to understand it’? To be blunt, what do we study with respect to security? You will discover readily enough that this basic question is not answered in the current literature and debate and you may well begin to suspect it is not answerable. This is the quite unremarkable reason why, over many years, I have refused the title of professor of Security Studies, and have resisted as best I could occasional institutional efforts to associate me with a Centre or Institute for Security Studies. The problem is not that the concept of security lacks meaning, but rather that it carries too much meaning that is thoroughly undisciplined. Alas, there is excellent reason for this unhappy condition. What we have in the concept of security is a boundary-free, not merely-‘lite’, idea. And this potent idea is overflowing with meaning to everyone, both individually and collectively. If I want to study security, what does that imply? What either does or might promote insecurity? I suggest that security is a feeling measurable by human and institutional agents on little reliable empirical basis. And even if we can agree on potentially relevant facts, it is very likely that we would disagree on what the verifiable facts mean. This is a reality disturbing to many people; frank recognition that security/insecurity is a feeling and therefore is liable to influence by personality and mood swing chemistry and consideration of circumstances, but scarcely at all reliably by empirical data.

The beginning of wisdom on security is understanding that the concept is so generously inclusive as to be boundary-free. This is both fortunate and unfortunate. It is good news because it is prudent to be inclusive regarding what we should worry about. But it is bad news because the pervasive subjectivity that reigns over and within security debate means in practice that the sponginess of the concept, together with its positive public acceptance, renders it utterly open to abuse by politicians and other would-be opinion influencers. Alas, because security is about everything that does or might worry us, as a consequence it is really about nothing usable with prudence.[i]

Particular geopolitical or other metrics of potential alarm are not hard to invent for any state, but the problem is that they will lack integrity, even when they are developed honestly. Again, what can tell you how secure you really are? Indeed, is security an either/or condition, or is it a matter of more or less? Obviously, indeed unarguably, security is an important, perhaps the most important, concept in statecraft, but it is unmanageable. Can I measure national security and show it in a graph. I may be compelled to admit that at one time, when I was much younger, and therefore more credulous, I used to attempt to do this metric miracle with regard to the strategic nuclear forces of the United States. But, some greater wisdom did come with age. [….]

Read the rest here

Mad Dog Mattis – Blogger

Friday, March 6th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

General James N. “Mad Dog ” Mattis, USMC (ret.), the semi-legendary, no-nonsense, fighting general of our recent wars, beloved by his Marines, has accepted a Distinguished Visiting Fellowship at the highly regarded Hoover Institution, where he has been writing an online column. A fancy way of saying that General Mattis has become a blogger.

In fact, he’s quite good at it.

His most recent post can be found here:

Using Military Force Against ISIS

….Following more than a decade of fighting for poorly articulated political goals, the Congress needs to restore clarity to our policy if we are to gain the American people’s confidence and enlist the assistance of potential allies, while sending a chilling note that we mean business to our enemies. With enemy influence expanding rapidly, patience or half-measures cannot replace a coherent strategy for taking measured steps, aligned with allies, to counter the mutating Islamist threat in the Middle East. The AUMF that Congress passes should be constructed as one building block in a coherent, integrated strategy for dealing with a region erupting in crises. Thus the AUMF needs to serve an enabling role for defeating this enemy, and not a restrictive function. Congress’ voice in the AUMF must not reassure our adversary in advance about what we will not do:

  1. We do not enter wars to withdraw; when we must fight, we fight to win. We should not set arbitrary deadlines which would only reveal that our hearts are not really in the game and would unintentionally embolden our enemies with the recognizable goal of outlasting us.
  2. We should not establish geographic limits in a fight against a franchising, trans-national terrorist group and its associates.  Our AUMF must be fit for the purpose of defeating this specific enemy (a non-state entity) and whoever stands with them, but not be hidebound by the rules for how we fought previous wars against nation states.  We must adapt to our time and the threat and not try to fight as we did in the past using rules no longer effective or applicable.
  3. The AUMF should put the enemy on notice that we will deploy all our military capabilities, as well as our diplomatic and economic tools.  If employing our ground forces will help build the international coalition against ISIS, will hasten the enemy’s defeat, will help to suffocate ISIS’ recruiting through humiliating them on the battlefield, or negatively impact their fundraising cachet, then our Commander-in-Chief should have that option immediately available to achieve our war aims.  When fighting a barbaric enemy who strikes fear into the hearts of many, especially those living in close proximity to this foe, we must not reassure that enemy in advance that it will not face the fiercest, most skillful and ethical combat force in the world. 

While I am not enthused about the idea of a large ground deployment back to Iraq – mainly because our national leadership has no idea on how to assemble a constructive political end that a decisive military victory would buy them, nor a willingness to entertain realistic, stabilizing outcomes (like Kurdish statehood) that would mean changing longstanding US policies – I’m very much in tune with Mattis that any warfare should be waged without a set of needless, self-hobbling, anti-strategic restraints. Note what he writes here:

The AUMF must also make clear that prisoners taken from forces declared hostile will be held until hostilities cease. There is no earthly reason for the Congress to acquiesce to funding a war in which we do not hold prisoners until the fight is over, as is our legitimate right under international law. The AUMF should make clear that the same standards that applied to prisoners in Lincoln’s or FDR’s day will be imposed today. This will ensure that we have a sustainable detainee policy instead of the self-inflicted legal quandary we face today, with released detainees returning to the battlefield to fight us.

“Catch and release” by the Bush and Obama administrations – and the latter tightening ROE in Afghanistan into the gray, blurry zone between military force and law enforcement, was self-defeating and probably is responsible for a sizable number of American casualties.

Mattis writes with admirable clarity and focus. More importantly, his military reputation lends invaluable credence toward educating the public and civilian officials about the nature of strategy and the uses and (more importantly) limitations of military force. Hopefully he will gain an even larger platform in time, but for readers at ZP, here are previous posts by the “Mad Dog” :

A New American Grand Strategy

“The Enemy Is Not Waiting”  

The Worsening Situation in the Middle East–and America’s Role   

Pruning the U.S. Military: We Will Do Less But Must Not Do It Less Well

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