Published On: Wed, Jun 13th, 2018

Exploiting a Timeless Wisdom: Insights From Sun-Tzu for US Nuclear Strategy


By Louis René Beres

Special to Jewish Business News

“Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the way to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.

Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, written sometime in the fifth century BCE, brings together a still-useful compilation of core strategic principles. To avoid any randomly ad hoc or seat-of-the-pants nuclear crisis management in Washington, especially in regard to ongoing North Korea negotiations (nothing was positively changed or improved for the United States by the recent Singapore summit), this timeless work should  be studied by US President Donald Trump’s pertinent military advisors. In the final analysis, any such examination (or more ideally, perhaps, a re-examination) should focus upon (1) maximizing the credible range of America’s nuclear deterrent; and. as a manifestly evident corollary (2) shaping the Pentagon’s corresponding “order of battle.”

In any such foreseeably complex and at least partially deductive calculations, all variable factors will present themselves as many-sided and finely nuanced. Nonetheless, deliberately ignoring this daunting analytic complexity (because it is intellectually bewildering and/or potentially contrary to certain already-preferred political outcomes) could produce grave policy errors. In the utterly worst case, such grievous mistakes could even include an unexpected nuclear war.

Prima facie, of course, any conceivable nuclear war outcome, even one that had not been unexpected, would be intolerable.

Moreover, by definition, any nuclear war would be unprecedented. The August 1945 US bombings of Japan were not instances of an authentic nuclear war, but rather singular and wholly non-replicable atomic attacks in an otherwise conventional war. Because there has never been any actual nuclear war, absolutely nothing can be said about reliably determining such a conflict’s expected probability.

In science and mathematics, any proper assessments of event probability must be based solidly upon the determinable frequency of relevant past events.

For Mr. Trump and his advisors, especially as they must proceed reluctantly with North Korea negotiations, there is much to learn. To begin, this unprepared American president, once he had been aptly informed by the insights of Sun-Tzu, might better be persuaded not to confuse empty bluster and incessant bravado with real US national power. Regarding such potential US policy confusions, the president’s senior  counselors would do well to begin with Sun-Tzu’s Chapter 6: “Vacuity and Substance.”

Appropriately, the key point of this still-classic argument is to highlight the meaningfully stark differences between ritualistically shallow verbal threats and reassuringly tangible policy options.

More generally, the American president could learn from Sun-Tzu’s “Tao of Warfare” that the military world, like the world in general, “is what it is.” Ipso facto, it follows that any contrived analytic reductions of analytic complexity designed to render an overall intellectual effort less perplexing or demanding could easily produce a too-risky distortion of available strategic choices. These distortions could represent, in essence, the reductio ad absurdum of required strategic thinking; a perilous and in this case distinctively American “reduction to absurdity.”

There is more. In any such unwanted reduction, this president must finally learn to understand that decision making about a nation’s life or death strategic issues is not the same as negotiating for a distressed piece of delinquent property in Manhattan or The Bronx. In matters of international diplomacy, seeking strategic analogues to commonplace fiscal transactions in commercial real estate will inevitably be inappropriate. In these many-sided matters, to be sure, it will never be just about getting the “best deal.”

For now, the de facto US strategic relationship with North Korea must ultimately be about dissuasion from future war, conventional as well as nuclear. Furthermore, the prevention of any “merely” conventional conflict with Pyongyang is important not only because such an engagement could itself prove vastly injurious to US forces and nationals in South Korea, and to US area allies, but also because it could escalate to an expressly nuclear threshold. In such markedly unstable circumstances, US President Trump’s military planners would have no plausible way to ascertain the true probabilities of any such perilous escalation.

Whatever the specific predilections or debilities of this particular US president, America’s general strategy will remain embedded in various (more or less explicit) forms of deterrence, including nuclear deterrence. Always, this basic strategy is properly rooted in one or several of six indispensable national security functions: (1) deterrence of large-scale conventional attacks by enemy-states; (2) deterrence of all levels of unconventional attack by enemy-states; (3) preemption of enemy-state nuclear attacks; (4) support of conventional preemptions against enemy-state nuclear assets; (5) support of conventional preemptions against enemy-state nonnuclear assets; and (6) nuclear war-fighting.

Sometime in the future, President Donald Trump may need to “leverage” US nuclear weapons in order to best support certain contemplated forms of an American conventional preemption. To proceed rationally in any such uncharted strategic territory, Mr. Trump would then first need to determine whether any non-nuclear expressions of “anticipatory self-defense” could succeed operationally. In turn, this vital determination would then depend upon a number of critical, inter-penetrating, and possibly synergistic security factors, including: expected probability of North Korean first-strikes; expected costs of North Korean first-strikes; expected schedule of North Korean nuclear weapons deployment; expected efficiencies of North Korean active defenses over time; expected efficiencies of US active defenses over time; expected efficiencies of US hard-target or “counterforce” operations over time; expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and expected U.S. and world community reactions to any considered American preemptions.

“Weighing strength,” reminds Sun-Tzu, “gives birth to victory.” But any such prescribed measurement could be exceedingly difficult to detach from more distinctly subjective calculations. Above all, this means that the American president ought never to assume that he harbors an incomparably great capacity to maintain full control over all related events. In essence, if ever there was an optimal occasion to be suitably modest about one’s own predictive leadership capacities (or for diminished hubris, in classical Greek tragedy terms), this would represent exactly such an occasion.

Similarly, for President Trump and his counselors, other assorted connections will need to be examined. Several of these linkages would concern presumed relationships between nuclear threat functions, primarily deterrence, and pertinent binding law. Contrary to widely prevailing conventional wisdom on law and geopolitics, nuclear deterrence (and also its various associated forms of nuclear posture and infrastructure) do not function outside the ambit of authoritative international law.

In this connection, the president may need to be duly reminded, among other things, that international law is integrally part of US law, an unchallengeable “incorporation” that includes various treaty-based obligations and also certain far-reaching expectations of customary international law. In addition to Art. 6 of the US Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”), relevant US Supreme Court decisions include the Paquete Habana (1900) and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic (1984). All of this supports the primary understanding that virtually any proposed Trump bifurcations of national and international law expectations from his administration would be both contrived and unwarranted.

This particular appraisal is correct even for preemption, which could sometimes  be properly construed as “anticipatory self-defense” under customary international law. Significantly, this judgment of legal correctness includes an 8 July 1996 advisory decision of the International Court of Justice. This “summary” assessment concludes: “…in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”[1]

The adequacy of international law in preventing both nuclear and conventional war in Northeast Asia – a war, incidentally, that could quickly “spill over” to other regions – will inevitably depend upon more than formal treaties, customs, or the so-called “general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.”[2] Among other extant perils, North Korea has continued to send advanced weapons to Syria, including outlawed chemical weapons, thereby strengthening not only the openly criminal Damascus regime (e.g., crimes of war and crimes against humanity), but also the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, and Iran. The injurious consequences of any such arms transfers will assuredly be consequential for Israel, as it seeks to best prepare for an already expanding Iranian military presence within Syria. It will also be contingent upon the discernible success or failure of any competing US and North Korean military strategies in the region.[3]

At first glance, this expectation may seem odd to those who have long been instructed that international law and military strategy are intrinsically opposed to one another (almost by definition), but it is nonetheless a position that was expressly bequeathed at the  Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. As a reminder to those who are not predominantly specialists in international law, this landmark Treaty represents the codified start of our current system of all principal world authority processes. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan notwithstanding (denying the status of law to any political arrangement that lacks a “common power” to keep subjects “in awe”), there does now still exist a substantially self-help or vigilante system of international law.

Sometimes seeing requires distance. If US President Trump’s selected nuclear strategy should serve to reduce the threat and/or seriousness of future war, either because of  successfully implemented forms of nuclear deterrence, or because of presumptively “no alternative” preemptive strikes that are launched against an illegally nuclearizing North Korea, this strategy could then be “counted” as an authentic  component of international law enforcement. Here it should always be borne in mind that although Westphalia (Treaty of 1648) expressly created a decentralized or “horizontal” system of international law enforcement, this perplexing jurisprudential inheritance still qualifies as binding and authoritative.

How then should Washington now proceed? Initially, from Sun-Tzu, President Trump would do well to consider the ancient Chinese strategist’s favored principles concerning diplomacy. To be sure, suitable military preparations should never be neglected, but diplomacy must also preserve its proper and coinciding place. By fusing power and diplomacy, says Sun-Tzu, the objective of every state  to weaken its enemies without actually engaging in armed combat can better be realized. As expressed in his classic work, this overriding objective links the associated ideal of “complete victory” to always reciprocal strategies “for planning offensives.”

Nonetheless, referencing Mr. Trump’s recent personal diplomacy at Singapore, it is evident that its net effect on American power was decidedly negative. This is especially obvious in the overall outcome, which was enhanced legitimization of Chairman Kim’s dictatorial regime, and the considered removal of US “trip wire” troops from South Korea. More specifically, this anticipated removal, almost by definition, will undermine US nuclear deterrence –  all the more so if corollary US concessions should involve its own sort of “denuclearization.”

There is more.  Current US strategic posture will depend heavily upon various implemented forms of ballistic missile defense (BMD). In principle, at least, by placing too much faith in its active defense systems, the US could sometime become willing to accept certain excessive risks, and also to disavow any still-remaining preemption options. Following Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recurrent and unambiguous nuclear threats against American BMD capacities, President Donald Trump will need to become much more modest in rendering any major war policy emendations, especially after his own self-imposed Singapore surrenders.

Even if Donald Trump were to become a more skilled negotiators in matters of high politics, there would still be no good reason to believe that America’s nuclear deterrence could ever remediate all conceivable nuclear threats issuing from North Korea. In spite of this country’s plainly advanced deterrent postures, there could still come a time during which the indispensable power of Washington’s implicit nuclear threat would be immobilized by assorted enemy miscalculations, inadvertence, mechanical accident, false warnings, unauthorized firings (e.g., coup d’état), hacking, or even outright irrationality. Any calculated US willingness to make such threats more conspicuous need not necessarily be matched by  greater likelihoods of operational success. On the contrary, it would be prudent to conclude about any such unprecedented set of circumstances (circumstances that would be described in formal logic as sui generis) that any more evident US bellicosity would expectedly produce manifestly worse security outcomes.

Assuming operational rationality in both the White House and the Pentagon, the single most compelling factor in any US presidential decision on preemption against North Korea would likely be the expected rationality of Kim Jung Un. If, after all, Kim were sometime expected to strike at America or certain US allies with nuclear weapons irrespective of any anticipated US counterstrikes, American deterrence could fail altogether. This means that North Korean nuclear strikes could be expected even if Kim Jung Un had already understood that President Trump was willing and able to respond to Pyongyang aggressions with devastating nuclear reprisals.

A North Korean decision to strike in these frightful circumstances would have been made in spite of US deployment of nuclear weapons in recognizably survivable modes, and despite the fact that these American rockets and bombs were predictably able to penetrate North Korea’s most sophisticated, effective and widespread active defenses. Presently, however, after Singapore, there are no evident reasons to expect North Korean irrationality. On the contrary, only America’s president made consequential decisions at the summit that were at least conceivably irrational.

Sun-Tzu, The Art of War / Wikipedia

          Some might argue, more-or-less persuasively, that the US has already lost any once-residual preemption option with respect to North Korean nuclear weapons. As a result of enemy multiplication, dispersal, and hardening of these infrastructures, goes this argument, President Trump could now only wait until the time comes for an after-the-fact response; that is, for inflicting punishment or retaliation. Inevitably, if this purely retributive argument is correct, any such total US reliance upon deterrence and certain corollary active defenses could represent an altogether fatal indifference to enduring general principles of classic Chinese military strategy.

In time, such de facto inattention to Sun Tzu could even prove to be an existential indifference.

There is another section of the Art of War that could help President Trump compensate for any heretofore reliance upon too-vague nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense. This section concerns Sun-Tzu’s repeated emphasis on the “unorthodox.” Drawn from the conflation of thought that had then crystallized as Taoism, the ancient strategist observes: “…in battle, one engages with the orthodox, and gains victory through the unorthodox.”

In another complex passage, Sun-Tzu discusses how the orthodox may be used in unorthodox ways, while an orthodox attack may still be unorthodox, at least when it is unexpected. Taken with appropriate seriousness by American strategic planners, this tricky but purposefully-nuanced passage could then represent a usefully subtle tool for meaningful tactical implementation, one that might most suitably exploit Kim Jung Un’s presumed matrix of identifiable military expectations.

For President Trump, the “unorthodox” should be fashioned not only on the battlefield, but also before the battle. To fully prevent the most dangerous forms of battle, or those military engagements that could subsequently become regrettable expressions of all-out unconventional warfare, Washington should examine and fashion a number of promising new military postures. These advanced postures would focus upon a reasoned shift from “orthodox” rationality to one of “unorthodox” irrationality. This sort of thinking is what the late American nuclear strategist, Herman Kahn, had earlier called the “rationality of pretended irrationality.”

Already, it may have played a decisive role back in October 1962, when US President John F. Kennedy threatened to board any Soviet ship that defied his expressed “quarantine” of Cuba. Back in 1977, when I had first been invited to speak at the US Naval Academy’s annual Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC) by retired Admiral Arleigh Burke, I asked my then host (and roommate) about this possible role (because Kennedy biographer Theodore Sorensen had expressly cited to Burke on this particular matter, claiming that the latter had originally counseled JFK that the odds of any nuclear war resulting from his proposed quarantine were ” between one out of three end even.”) While, in science, any such assignment of probability would have been created ex nihilo, and with no intrinsic statistical worth, all that really mattered here was what Kennedy subjectively believed.

          Accordingly, Admiral Burke advised me at 1977 NAFAC that the Sorensen attribution of “subjective probability” was indeed correct.

On several occasions, Mr. Trump has hinted openly at his likely affection for postures of feigned irrationality. Needless to say, however, any such pretense could quickly become a double-edged sword, and would have to be “played” with considerable care and exquisite finesse. Also worth noting is that any strategy of pretended irrationality is apt to represent the very opposite of Sun-Tzu’s more general counsel. For example, in Chapter one, “Initial Estimations,” he underscores that any final military success must always be based upon “rationality and self-control.”

Conceivably, at least, Kim Jung Un could begin thinking about striking first. In seizing any such obviously momentous belligerent initiative, North Korea would expect to gain some presumptively necessary advantage in “escalation dominance.” This risky sort of expectation would follow from a then-prevailing view in Pyongyang that (1) Washington would never embrace the “unorthodox” on a strategic level;  (2)  US actions would always be confined to reactions, and that (3) these American reactions would always be limited.

There is still more. President Trump requires a pattern of thinking adapted not only by Sun-Tzu, but also by certain of the Chinese strategist’s contemporaries in ancient Greece. For fashioning a needed nuclear doctrine, a proper codification from which particular tactics and strategies could be systematically extrapolated, Mr. Trump will need a genuinely usable “strategic dialectic.” Any such interrogative method would ask and answer various intersecting questions, sequentially, again and again, until all urgent or core security problems had been productively confronted head-on.

Following Sun-Tzu’s prescriptions on the “unorthodox,” US strategists could approach their most challenging North Korea security problem as an interrelated series of thoughts, one where each thought necessarily presents a complication that then moves inquiry onward, directly or indirectly, toward the next calculable thought.

Contained in this strategic dialectic, as Sun-Tzu himself was already no doubt aware, would be a relentless obligation to continue thinking. Logically, this particular imperative could never be satisfied entirely, because of what the philosophers would correctly call an “infinite regress problem,”  but it must still be attempted as completely and competently as possible. Armed with such an explicitly dialectical form of military strategy, President Trump could then choose to focus not only upon assorted discrete threats and situations (most plausibly, North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development), but also upon multiple dynamic interactions between particular threats, complex interactions known commonly and professionally as “synergies.”

Again, a final way for President Trump to learn from Sun-Tzu’s potentially promising emphases on “unorthodox” thinking would be to more actively embrace strategic complexity. In this connection, prospective threats from North Korea may be analogized to biology, that is, to certain associated issues of individual human survival. In dealing therapeutically with cancer, for example, physicians need not only characterize relevant tumors in-depth, but also learn to know as much as possible about (1) these tumors’ “microenvironment;” and (2) the genetic background of the individual patient or “host.”

Similarly, in dealing with the still-emerging nuclear threat from North Korea, President Trump will need to consider a broad variety of smaller or subsidiary intersecting threats. Just as a single biomarker can never truly explain any particular cancer’s behavior, so too can the prospectively “malignant” North Korean nuclear danger never be explained, or adequately predicted, from the standpoint of only one or several readily identifiable threats. In the final analysis, among other things, US strategists seeking to meet the gainful expectations of Sun-Tzu’s “unorthodox” planning will need a more self-consciously dialectical style of military thinking.

All things considered, Sun-Tzu can help supply Donald Trump with the still-timely wisdom that strategy and war planning are fundamentally intellectual or analytic activities. (The ancient Greeks and Macedonians described such planning as contests of “mind over mind.”) More exactly, especially because Kim Jung Un now seemingly already commands a  nuclear arsenal –  and because he could pose a nuclear threat to selected US nationals and to allies by targeting Japanese or South Korean commercial nuclear reactors – America’s emphases must be on using this country’s own cumulative military assets for stable deterrence rather than for any actual war-waging.

Always, the US strategic objective must remain deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.

“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting,” says Sun Tzu in The Art of War, “is the true pinnacle of excellence.” In summarizing his comprehensive insights, the ancient Chinese strategist devotes a good deal of attention to “ruler’s qualifications.” From this illuminating distillation of apt thoughts, President Trump could soon be reminded that “The ruler cannot mobilize the army out of any personal anger.”

Regarding his most senior counselors, they could also learn here from Sun Tzu these indispensable leadership strengths: Wisdom; Knowledge; Benevolence; Unconcern for Fame; Tranquility; and Righteousness. Correspondingly, the evident presidential weaknesses could include: Obsession with Achieving Fame; Easy to Anger; Haste to Act; Inability to Fathom the Enemy; and Personal Arrogance. All told, Sun Tzu’s elements of preparation for future warfare “must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.” For US President Donald Trump, once he were actually engaged in any genuine nuclear crisis management, no form of strategic advice could possibly prove more important.

In military affairs, as in all other core aspects of human knowledge, generality is a trait of all serious meaning. Comprehensive strategic theory, it necessarily follows, represents an indispensable “net” for both planners and policy-makers with which to “catch” whatever is ultimately most vital to US nuclear strategy. To think or propose otherwise, and to approach each and every major military crisis as somehow analytically discrete and unrelated to  broader conceptual issues, is nothing less than an inconspicuous form of surrender. It is also an expression of unwitting indifference to the timeless principles of Sun-Tzu, axioms and derived theorems that clarify the fundamentally intellectual foundations of any successful military strategy.

Even today, as Sun-Tzu would have recognized, any actual battlefield victories must be founded upon vital antecedent triumphs of mind over mind, on a culminating awareness that the systematic discovery of strategic regularities is inevitably the critically underlying basis for ensuring victory. To the extent that any sitting American president might choose to approach each prospective national military crisis as somehow singular or unique or ad hoc, this country would plausibly sacrifice whatever security advantages might once have accrued from a more properly informed US nuclear strategy.


Louis René Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres is the author of twelve books including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. His lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law.

Professor Beres‘ articles have appeared in such places as Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); JURIST; Yale Global Online (Yale University); International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The New York Times;  Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); Strategy Bridge; Jewish Business News; Algemeiner; Israel Defense; and The Atlantic.


[1] See Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996, I.C.J., 226 (Opinion of 8 July 1996).

[2] These authoritative sources of international law are identified sequentially at Art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice.


[3] For important and up-to-date assessments (for Israel) of such complex interconnections, see: AMB. Yoram Ettinger, “The USA-North Korea-Iran Strategic Interconnection,” The Ettinger Report, June 7, 2018.

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