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The Paradox of Leadership and the Art of War

Much of America today is as addicted to bureaucratic, rule based thinking as ancient China.  The uncertainties of life in a thermonuclear world haunt us.  There must, we feel, be infallible techniques for making the economy grow, keeping inflation at bay, understanding international events and managing American foreign policy.  When there is a problem — a financial crash, a revolution in a friendly country, an attack by hostile forces — somebody must have made an obvious mistake.  They must have misapplied or failed to apply an obvious technique.  We would rather believe that our leaders are foolish and incompetent (which they often are) than face the truth that we live in a radically unpredictable world in which no methods and no rules can guarantee safety.

Sun Tzu’s approach is directly opposed to most modern thought about social problems.  He speaks about art and comes to war from a deeply Taoist worldview that highlights chaos, evanescence and change.  We study “IR theory” and “political science” in the hope that some rational explanations exist that will hold all this chaos at bay. We want sure and safe rules: democracies don’t go to war with each other, rational considerations guide the policy of great states, most problems have win-win solutions that everyone can accept, the age of great power war is behind us.  Sun Tzu says we are fooling ourselves by inventing these rules, blinding ourselves to perils on every side.

The Art of War is a handbook for living in an uncertain and dangerous world. It is dominated by paradox: training is necessary to produce a good general, but any general who comes to trust the rules he has learned is headed for defeat. The successful general will have studied The Art of War so profoundly that he ceases to trust it.

In Sun Tzu’s world, war is the most important thing for the ruler to study. Winning is the most important thing in war. Deception is the way to win. Sun Tzu plays the same role in Confucian China that Machiavelli plays in the Christian west: both writers say that the basic institutions and power arrangements of their society depend on qualities and behavior that can and frequently do violate that society’s deepest beliefs and ideals.

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