Over the past few decades, Edward Luttwak has gained a reputation as the bad boy of strategic theory and historical scholarship. This time, he has outdone himself. He has debunked Sun Tsu, the Clausewitz of the East and much beloved by teachers of military theory for decades. It is about time — Sun Tsu has been an overrated icon far too long.
In “The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy,” Mr. Luttwak goes beyond an attack on Sun Tsu. He argues that the dominant strategic and cultural arrogance of the Han people — the largest ethnic group in China — could undermine efforts to lift the Middle Kingdom to the ranks of true superpower status. Mr. Luttwak further argues that this assumption of cultural and intellectual superiority is driving China’s neighbors into a camp of strategic containment similar to what Germany created for itself in the years leading up to World War I.
Like Clausewitz and Machiavelli, Sun Tsu crafted his writings to describe and prescribe action regarding conditions in a certain time and geographical place. Like both, Sun Tsu has had his theories translated into maxims that have been badly misapplied in situations far different from what he was describing. Sun Tsu was writing about political-military power struggles among various factions vying for rule of the Han Empire at a time when Europe was wallowing in the feudal filth of the Dark Ages. Writing for and about wars between Han elites, Sun Tsu wove a strategic theory based on ruse and deception.
Mr. Luttwak argues that this internal belief in the logic of the strategies of its ancients has served China poorly when confronted with outside adversaries who take the application of raw military power seriously. In other words, too often, the Han Chinese brought a strategic stiletto to a tactical gunfight and lost badly. The Han were conquered repeatedly by more adept militaries. Although the foreign conquerors eventually were assimilated and absorbed by Han culture, the humiliations inflicted by these defeats tend to exacerbate Chinese xenophobia and strategic autism.
Mr. Luttwak also argues that another Han legacy dogs the Chinese government today: the diplomatic tradition of treating its neighbors as tributary barbarians rather than as diplomatic equals. This gives the United States, with its Asia-Pacific web of bilateral and mutually beneficial alliances, an advantage in the region because the Han tributary legacy makes the Chinese appear to be cynical and predatory.
Consequently, the shortsighted Chinese tendency to overreact to perceived slights by neighbors appears to be driving them into an eventual alliance of Chinese containment. Mr. Luttwak specifically cites instances in which Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia have been angered unnecessarily by Chinese overreaction to incidents that the Americans would shrug off without much thought. This view is not unique to Mr. Luttwak, but combined with his theory of misapplication of Sun Tsu’s thoughts, it helps to explain some curious dichotomies in Chinese behavior.
Since his brilliant and controversial book “The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire,” Mr. Luttwak has been consistent in his thesis that a nation’s strategic outlook eventually will dominate its economic and political future. This is true even when that strategy runs contrary to its diplomatic and economic self-interest. As he points out, the misapplication of the strategic theories of Clausewitz in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led Germany into an unnecessary and disastrous war.
This book is not for the casual reader. It is serious and weighty. My theory about the unpopularity of Mr. Luttwak among some other historians and strategic thinkers is that he reads the same material that they do, but he sees different patterns. Worse still, some historians may draw similar conclusions, but many lack the moral courage to go against conventional academic wisdom that has so long seen China as inevitably surpassing the United States as the next great superpower. Mr. Luttwak is not alone in his concern. The Economist recently did an entire issue on the challenges facing the emerging Chinese leadership.
Mr. Luttwak is decidedly not anti-Chinese. He seems generally concerned that the Han legacy will lead to a course of unneeded militarism and potentially counterproductive conflict that will lead to destabilization impacting us all. The real target audience for this book is Chinese intellectual and political policymaking elites. It will be interesting to see whether the book is read with interest or banned once it is translated and made available on the Chinese mainland. It is a cautionary tale that deserves Chinese attention.
Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps officer, is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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