Today, the use of coercive military force is limited by increasing international economic interdependence and global nuclear deterrence strategies.


As the joint force refocuses U.S. national security strategy to address great power competition, it must update its institutional development approach to incorporate frameworks representative of new security architectures. The majority of military theories that underpin modern U.S. strategy and doctrine are drawn from Napoleonic Era theorists who focused heavily on decisive battlefield conflict. In today’s post-information age, however, armed conflict represents the least likely manifestation of competition. Today, the use of coercive military force is limited by increasing international economic interdependence and global nuclear deterrence strategies. Consequently, the current strategic operating environment demands a deeper understanding of limited warfare tactics, competitive activities below levels of conflict, and information dominance to achieve strategic objectives. Sun Tzu’s seminal work, “The Art of War,” provides context that can help the United States better understand how to win without fighting, how to overcome a proclivity to utilize coercive force, and how to cultivate nonbinary understandings of war, peace, and competition.

While the theories of Carl von Clausewitz, Antoine-Henri Jomini, Napoleon Bonaparte, and other eighteenth and nineteenth century European military strategists are still applicable in planning and conducting large scale ground combat operations, they are inadequate to wholly inform strategies for conflict below the threshold of war. The use of proxy forces, political subversion, economic coercion, information operations, and lawfare, represent the most likely rival courses of action in a global security environment that restricts the utilization of coercive force. Extensive levels of economic interdependence and the proliferation of nuclear weapons have created a systemic restriction on waging total or unrestricted warfare, and thus have limited the usefulness of coercive military force.

 Sun Tzu wrote and fought during the Warring States Period of Chinese history in which “Seven major states vied for control of China… Sandwiched between these were several smaller states but the big seven had by now become so large and consolidated that it became difficult for one to absorb another.” Though nearly 2400 years ago, there are two primary systemic parallels between the Warring States period and the security environment that the United States faces today: 1) a structure in which great powers overtly compete for influence relative to one other and over minor states through which they often operate, and 2) technological advances that make war more lethal and costlier.

Many of the United States’ adversaries have already developed operational strategies to avoid decisive military engagements. If the United States fails to expand its binary approach to security, it will experience competitive disadvantages in the era of great power competition. 

In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu examines alternatives to mass, protracted warfare and proposes strategies based on deception, surprise, alliance balancing, and information dominance that better align with the realities of global competition today. Given the contextual parallels between the Warring States Period and the current era of great power competition and Sun Tzu’s insight into irregular warfare strategies, studying “The Art of War” will help the United States develop the strategies necessary to adapt to and compete in the modern security environment.

The Operational Environment

In 2017, the United States pivoted away from the counter terrorism and nation building policies that defined U.S. international engagement during the global war on terror (2001-2017) and towards state-centric competition. This shift is codified in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) which states, “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned.”

The massive modernization efforts undertaken by the Department of Defense (DOD) were also a pivotal part of this shift in strategy. These efforts, such as the Army’s $187.5 billion “Big Six” and the $400 billion nuclear force/arsenal modernization, focused on improving platform-based technology. The DOD’s initiatives will increase the United States’ comparative military advantages over rival states in direct military conflict. Consequently, they will reinforce systemic deterrents to armed conflict and encourage rivals to compete at levels below armed conflict. If the United States fails to more effectively balance conventional and unconventional military capabilities, it risks developing vulnerabilities in the space between war and peace.

 The Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy articulates this point: “As [the U.S.] seeks to rebuild our own lethality in traditional warfare, our adversaries will become more likely to emphasize irregular approaches in their competitive strategies to negate our advantages and exploit our disadvantages.” 

Sun Tzu’s prescription reveals why the United States is struggling in competition with revisionist actors below levels of armed conflict.

Strategic Priorities

Russia and China, the two principal revisionist actors codified in the 2017 NSS, have both developed an array of unconventional strategies that focus on expanding their international influence to achieve national security objectives.  Russia’s Gerasimov Doctrine and China’s Three Warfares strategy both seek to expand global power and influence through the synchronization and execution of below established threshold activities.  The strategies utilize multiple elements of national power not only to pursue national interests but also to subvert U.S. foreign policy goals without inciting armed conflict.

Furthermore, to strengthen their competitive positions, Russia and China are taking advantage of the systemic restrictions inherent in great power competition. China has deployed anti-access area denial platforms and coercive economic practices in order to obstruct U.S. objectives and destabilize U.S. alliance structures. Similarly, Russia has made efforts to degrade the NATO alliance via information operations and destabilized Eastern Ukraine through the annexation of Crimea and deception, information operations, and utilization of proxies.

Sun Tzu writes that the ultimate goal of warfare is to win without fighting: “Hence to fight and concur in all your battles is not supreme excellence, supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy resistance without fighting.” Sun Tzu presents a hierarchy of actions to achieve this goal: “the best approach in war is to first attack the enemy’s strategy. The next best approach is to attack the enemy’s alliances. The next best approach to that is to attack his army. The worst thing to do is to attack his cities.” Sun Tzu’s prescription reveals why the United States is struggling in competition with revisionist actors below levels of armed conflict. The United States centers its entire security strategy around armed conflict and views the world through a binary construct of war and peace. The United States is either targeting enemy forces or not. In order to more effectively compete with actors like China and Russia, the United States ought to apply Sun Tzu’s recommendations and consider his definition of excellence in warfare: “breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,”  

Information and Deception

To remain a global competitor, the United States must also prioritize military strategy in power domains of increasing importance, most notably, the information warfare domain. While often ignored or delegitimized in the writings of Napoleonic era theorists, generating advantages in the information domain is a vital element to achieving success in the modern operating environment. In “On War,” Carl von Clausewitz questions the importance of deception and simply accepts the concept of the “fog of war”as an inevitable reality: “But however much we feel a desire to see the actors in War outdo each other in hidden activity, readiness, and stratagem, still we must admit that these qualities show themselves but little in history, and have rarely been able to work their way to the surface from amongst the mass of relations and circumstances.” Conversely, Sun Tzu emphasizes the critical role that information and information-related-deception plays in achieving the ultimate goal of winning without fighting. In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu writes, “All warfare is based on deception.” Furthermore, Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of deception through the exploitation of known enemy agents by “doing certain things openly for purposes of deception and allowing our spies to know of them and report them to the enemy.”  


Within the era of great power competition, U.S. policymakers must develop alternative concepts of limited warfare and competition executed below established thresholds. As the joint force adopts the competition continuum which describes an operating environment of enduring competition carried out by a mixture of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict, it would do well to heed Sun Tzu’s advice. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” provides important theories that can help policymakers and military professionals develop alternatives to armed conflict. The joint force should not altogether abandon Carl von Clausewitz and other Napoleonic era theorists. Rather, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” ought to complement the foundational theorists and bolster the theoretical underpinnings of U.S. national security across all elements of the competition continuum. Many U.S. rivals understand the limitations inherent in the modern operating environment and are using the limitations to their advantage to challenge and erode U.S. influence. If the joint force continues to focus exclusively on armed conflict, it will find itself at a precarious disadvantage as revisionist states incrementally degrade U.S. advantages, influences, and alliances without physical fighting. “The Art of War” is not a magic bullet for success in the era of great power competition, but it provides important ideas and a foundational framework to help the United States better understand both the modern operating environment and rival states’ unconventional strategies. The text can help the joint force to begin constructing more comprehensive, expansive, and relevant U.S. security strategies to succeed in the new era of great power competition.

MAJ James P. Micciche is an Army Strategist and the G5 at the Security Forces Assistance Command (SFAC). He holds degrees from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Troy University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, in Japan

Photo Credit: 663highland via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Here is the last sentence in third and final paragraph of the “Strategic Priorities” section of our article above:

    “In order to more effectively compete with actors like China and Russia, the United States ought to apply Sun Tzu’s recommendations and consider his definition of excellence in warfare: ‘breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,’ ”

    From that perspective, let us do the logical thing — which would seem to be — to determine exactly what it is that our competitors/our opponents (not just Russia and China but indeed also Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc.) — separately and/or together — are “resisting” today.

    This, I suggest, is easily done; this, for example, by considering that what ALL of our “competitors” and/or “opponents” seem to be “resisting” today, this is our efforts to transform their states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and/or value lines — which, of late, has been understood as transforming them more as per the requirements of “neoliberalism.”

    As to this such suggestion, consider the following from the December 2, 2020, Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS) paper “Ideological Security as National Security” by Jude Blanchette. Note that much of this (to include my quoted items below) are a translation of a May 2019 article “Ideological Security in the Framework of the Overall National Security Outlook” by Tang Aijun, Associate Professor, School of Marxism, Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party, Socialism Studies:

    “One such trap is the myth of neoliberalism. Neoliberal thought originated in developed capitalist countries of the West. Since the 1980s, and especially after the drastic changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it has spread throughout the world through the “Washington Consensus.” Neoliberalism’s core value and concept is “freedom.” Neoliberalism holds that “individual freedom” is the highest-value demand and advocates freedom as a “universal value.” Individual freedom constitutes the fundamental yardstick for measuring all social activities, and individual freedom and personal interests become the reasons used to explain all individual or social behaviors and historical events. Taking individual freedom as its ultimate value, neoliberalism’s position in the economic field is embodied in the “three changes” [三化]: privatization, marketization, and liberalization. First, neoliberal economists advocate the “myth of private property rights.” They promote privatization for two main reasons: (1) private ownership can guarantee individual freedom, and individual ownership of the means of production gives individuals the opportunity to accumulate wealth and have the conditions for free choice, and (2) private ownership can stimulate individual proactivity, initiative, and creativity in economic activities, thereby increasing efficiency. …

    The neoliberal trend of thought has severely affected China’s dominant ideology and has had a serious impact on China’s Reform and Opening policy and economic foundation. [Neoliberalism] not only endangers China’s ideological security but also endangers the state’s economic security. The values of the supremacy of the individual and freedom have a negative impact on dominant Chinese values such as collectivism, equity, and justice. The theory of privatization challenges the current Chinese concept of socialist ownership and impacts the economic foundation of public ownership. Both the theory of market omnipotence and trade liberalization are in fact opposed to the role of the government and government supervision and advocate ‘de-nationalization.’ These principles have had a [negative] impact on the Party’s leadership and the socialist state system.”

    Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:

    If — due to the political, economic, social, and value “changes” (or should I more properly say, the power, influence and control “changes?”) that “neoliberalism” requires — if THIS is what our competitors/our opponents are “resisting” today,

    Then how do we — and specifically in this such context and as per Sun Tzu’s requirements above — “break” our such competitors’/opponents’ “resistance to neoliberalism;” this, “without fighting?”

  2. If we consider that our opponents/our competitors today (Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc.); if we consider that these folks, also, may be excellent students of Sun Tzu (and excellent students of recent history also; more on that below), then it follows that these such opponents/competitors would also be exceptionally familiar with one of Sun Tzu’s other most quoted items; this being, that “the best approach in war is to first attack the enemy’s strategy.”

    From this such perspective, then, THE VERY FIRST THING that our opponents/our competitors would do, this would be to determine exactly what was the U.S./the West’s strategy of the post-Cold War.

    The answer to that question — which was obvious to all concerned very soon — was (a) “transformation” of outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines and, thereby, (b) “expansion” of U.S./Western power, influence and control more throughout the world.

    “For the past three decades, as the United States stood at the pinnacle of global power, U.S. leaders framed their foreign policy around a single question: What should the United States seek to achieve in the world? Buoyed by their victory in the Cold War and freed of powerful adversaries abroad, successive U.S. administrations forged an ambitious agenda: spreading liberalism and Western influence around the world, integrating China into the global economy, and transforming the politics of the Middle East.”

    (See the Mar/Apr 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs and, therein, the article entitled “Reality Check: American Power in an Age of Constraints, by Jennifer Lind and Daryl G. Press.)

    The next question for our opponents and competitors, then obviously, would be: How does one (as per Sun Tzu) “attack” such “transformational”/”expansionist” strategies?

    For opponents/competitors like Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc. — who had been significantly involved either directly or indirectly in the Old Cold War of yesterday for 40-plus years — the answer to this question was amazingly obvious; this being, (a) via “containment” and “roll back” strategies; therein, (b) using the more-conservative/the more-traditional elements of one’s own population, the more-conservative/the more-traditional elements of the population of one’s opponent (the U.S./the West in this case) and, indeed, using the more-conservative/the more-traditional elements of the populations of the world at-large in the pursuit of these such “containment” and “roll back” objectives.

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    With the information provided above, what we come to understand is that — with the roles reversed from the Old Cold War and in the manner that I describe them above — to wit: with the U.S./the West post-Cold War having “transformational” and “expansionist” strategies and with our opponents/our competitors now “attacking” same via “containment” and “roll back” strategies — then:

    a. If we are going to “attack” our opponents’ today, then, as per Sun Tzu, what we must obviously do is:

    b. “Attack” their “containment” and “roll back” strategies. (And, thus, not attack some fictional and/or erroneous strategy labeled “revisionist” or “revisionism?”)

    (Either that or, much like Russia at the end of the Old Cold War, we can simply admit defeat and go home? And have Trump compared to Gorbachev in this regard?)

  3. Here is an additional item from the third and final paragraph of the “Strategic Priorities” section of our article above:

    “Sun Tzu presents a hierarchy of actions to achieve this goal: ‘the best approach in war is to first attack the enemy’s strategy.’ ”

    If such is the case, then should we not, first and foremost, determine exactly what IS the strategy of our opponents/our competitors (for example, Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists) post-the Cold War? This can be accomplished, I suggest, by acknowledging the following two matters:

    First, that the U.S./the West, post-the Cold War, decided that our strategy for this new era would be “expansion” — of our way of life, our way of governance, our values, etc., more throughout the world — and, this, so as to create a “better peace” for the years to come. And:

    Next, by acknowledging that — in order to counter same — our opponents (exs: Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists), quite logically, decided (a) to follow our exceptionally successful Old Cold War “containment” example and, thus, (b) use “containment” strategies in their efforts to thwart now our “expansionist” designs. (Herein, and much as we did versus the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War, attempting to make exceptional use of “natural enemies”/the “kryptonite” of those seeking to effect “modern/ progressive” political, economic, social and/value “change, to wit: the more-conservative/the more-traditional elements of the world’s populations.)

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    Given Sun Tzu’s guidance above — to wit: that “the best approach in war is to first attack the enemy’s strategy” — given this such guidance, certain of our military and civilian professionals (if I have read them right) seem to understand that:

    a. The strategy that our opponents/our competitors are using against us today is “containment” and that, accordingly,

    b. The manner in which one “attacks” “containment” strategies, this is by (a) making better use of one’s (progressive/modern?) way of life, way of governance, values, etc., example, and by (b) making better use of the more-liberal/the more-“pro-change” elements of the world’s population — who desire and aspire to achieve same:

    “Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests.” (See the National Defense University Press paper “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone” by Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin.)

  4. CO
    With regard to the comments above, attacking the CCP strategy of containment engages the US in a continuing Sun Tuzla competition that we cannot win. The Eastern mind views deception as the highest order of good, while the Westerner views truth as the ultimate good. For the US to go one on one with China in a competition of deceptive engagement, with a goal of neoliberalism, we could not be at more of a disadvantage. Like a game of GO, our openness and liberty is exposed against their closed equality and regulation. History since the golden era of Athens balanced liberty against equality, right against left, or supply side against demand side economics.
    I submit, the only peaceful and prosperous strategy requires — indeed cutting of the PLA’s infiltration and subversion of all US institutions — an aggressive policy of total disengagement including Wall Street investments. China’s financial strength came almost entirely from USDs.
    Disengagement is not admitting defeat and walking away, it’s victory by recognizing cultural incompatibility, allowing a conflicting culture to thrive or die on its own merits while relating only in international forums. A strategy of disengagement further demands an end to our own attempted neoliberal expansion. Unrestricted warfare offers little benefit as a US strategy. We can have globalism Chinese style along with Sun Tzu or we can have Democracy American style but not both.
    Globalization or Democracy, Amazon, Oct 2020 Clancy Hughes

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