Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy a massive force on Ukraine’s border while his defense chief oversees large-scale military exercises in nearby Belarus challenges the theory that strategic competition will remain below the threshold of conflict. Autocratic powers might not fit Sun Tzu’s mold of “subduing the enemy without fighting” so easily. Although this 2,500-year-old quote on the utility of political warfare could be a mistranslation, it is typically submitted as evidence that powers such as Russia and China use rational decision criteria in their policy formulation and therefore prefer cold wars to hot ones. But is this true, or is it an example of the same confirmation bias and mirror imaging that has misguided Western strategic thought since the Cold War’s end?

Thucydides’s Trap, coined by Graham Allison, frames the current relationship between the United States and China, using the history of competing powers in Ancient Greece as its model. A rising Athens challenged the dominant Sparta, ultimately resulting in the Peloponnesian War. Sun Tzu, however, laid traps of a different kind. His cunning maxim on winning without fighting has become somewhat of an intellectual catchall for Western analysts rooted in three assumptions: 1) The West’s opponents lack the political will to risk war. 2) The Western world has the political will to wage war if not directly attacked, thus deterring aggression. 3) The utility of force—or as Mao Tse-Tung put it, the gun—is fading. Each of these conclusions warrants further scrutiny, as they will shape the contours of the Biden administration’s forthcoming integrated deterrence strategy.

A Different Kind of Trap

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and after a redirect to strategic competition in US policy, the national discussion on America’s role in the competitive space has intensified. Amid this important conversation on irregular warfare, Sun Tzu has been popularized for his maxim’s supposed influence on illiberal actors in Beijing and Moscow. Yet Sun Tzu fought many regular wars, and China many more since. Similarly, Moscow deployed warships to blockade ports and attack helicopters to target Ukrainian armor in Crimea, which hardly smacks of the subtle approach.

A fatal flaw in Sun Tzu’s trap is that it is axiomatic. Suggesting that powerful states prefer to achieve their strategic objectives without sacrificing thousands of their citizens and crippling their economies should not be a revelation—nor is it culturally singular. Kings who could subdue their opponents through statecraft alone would do so, such as King Philip II of Macedon, who mastered political warfare in the fourth century BCE. If they could not, they built armies and navies capable of deterring aggression, provoking concessions from stronger opponents, or fighting. Russia and China have exercised all these functions recently.

Over the last few months, Putin used his massive troop buildup on Ukraine’s border to secure talks with NATO leaders and President Joe Biden. In China, the People’s Liberation Army is expanding its conventional and nuclear capabilities at a “breathtaking” pace and aggressively probing the airspace and littorals of Japan and Taiwan. Elbridge Colby, lead architect of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, cautions against presuming that the only purpose of such activity is to avoid war. This is especially true if the main deterrents preventing Russia and China from using force are supposed interests that the Western world has foisted upon them.

Who Wants a Hot War?

The first theoretical tool deployed in support of Sun Tzu’s quote is the assertion that autocrats rely on irregular means because it is not in their interest to see a cold war escalate into a hot one. Yet war is equally not in the interest of democracies. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, both world wars had progressed without direct threat to the United States. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt had clear political mandates to avoid war—to win without fighting—yet circumstances demanded they alter these policies. Similarly, President George W. Bush placed little emphasis on the Middle East when he took office in 2001. The interests of America’s opponents have historically not conformed to US policy. Justified or not, NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe since the 1990s and the informal Quad alliance in the Indo-Pacific have placed Moscow and Beijing on alert. Their responses to such developments should be seen more as a means of escalation than a strategy of geopolitical stalemate.

Assertions that strategic competition is somehow representative of a new way of war are usually accompanied by references to Russia’s Gerasimov Doctrine, which is neither a doctrine nor something drafted by Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, despite his public advocacy for hybrid warfare. Other offerings focus on China’s political activity since the end of the Cold War and its unrestricted warfare thesis. Yet China has a long history of fighting wars, and if Stephen Biddle is correct—as this author thinks he is—then longstanding cultural norms have more influence on a nation’s warfighting proclivities than emergent concepts or sophisticated technologies.

Saying nothing of its older wars, China was heavily involved in World War II, for instance. The precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of Strategic Services, trained Chinese irregulars to fight the Japanese Imperial Army. By 1950, Mao’s forces were fighting United Nations troops in Korea. While the United States was not then the hegemon it is now, it had just played a central role in toppling European fascism and demonstrated its willingness to deploy nuclear weapons against civilian populations not far from Beijing. In many ways, US strategic deterrence was at its most credible apex. Mao’s political calculus to enter Korea was therefore profound. After that war, Mao’s terrifying Cultural Revolution commenced, which reduced the government’s capacity to extend its power externally. Still, the infighting was fierce, and those who survived Mao’s era were hardened by it, such as Chairman Xi Jinping.

Likewise, Vladimir Putin is no stranger to conflict nor are his military leaders proponents of soft power, as evidenced by their recent conduct in places such as Syria. Putin used the threat of conventional force to bring NATO and the United States to the negotiating table in December, then made outlandish demands that neither would entertain so he could paint the West as unwilling to compromise. By the end of January, a growing presence of Russian troops in Belarus led to evacuation directives for the families of US diplomats stationed there.

Optimistic managers are useful. Optimistic strategies get people killed. War has always been costly, but history is filled with ambitious leaders who knew the costs and chose war anyway. The question is less about whether autocracies want to fight, and more about what the free world is willing to fight for. In many aspects, this remains unclear.

Red Lines and Gray Areas

The second component of Sun Tzu’s trap presumes that certain actions would trigger a military response by the West, which deters aggression and maintains the status quo of competition. In actuality, strategic ambiguity toward the defense of Taiwan and a decade of murky US resolve in foreign affairs has made this conclusion less certain. Precedence for this uncertainty was set in Syria and Crimea, and circumstances surrounding America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan did not help.

In 2012, President Barrack Obama warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that use of chemical weapons would constitute a red line and trigger a significant military response. Assad crossed that line in 2013 and a few dozen Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles targeted one of his airbases as punishment. The Syrian government allegedly continued waging chemical warfare on its population every year between 2016 and 2019, proving that the red line drawn by the United States had little deterrence effect even on a smaller state like Syria.

A year after Assad first crossed that line, Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, which remains under Russian occupation to this day. In each instance, America’s opponent calculated the US political situation carefully. Similar calculations are likely taking place in Moscow and Beijing now. Washington’s stance on the defense of Taiwan and Ukraine changes between administrations and within them, but no clear public policy exists for the military defense of either in the event of an invasion. In both cases, Sun Tzu applies more to US strategic thought than that of its competitors.

If states are acting more like irregular forces and irregular forces are acting more like states, as David Kilcullen and Sean McFate have argued, the delineation between regular and irregular is blurring. Yet the common thread that connects them is the application of degrees of force in pursuit of political objectives. Secretary of State George P. Shultz stated in a 1986 lecture that “negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table.” Particularly for authoritarians, the gun is always on the table.

Where Power Comes From

The final component of Tzu’s trap is the belief that brute force has lost its utility in the digital age. Mao Tse-Tung, father of the People’s Republic of China, famously said that all power comes from the barrel of a gun, and Xi Jinping is an ardent Maoist. He quotes Mao frequently and subscribes to his Marxist-Leninist view of the world. Absent from Xi’s speeches are references to Sun Tzu and winning without fighting. Present in his speeches are nods to the inevitability of China-Taiwan “reunification” and the Communist Party leading the world through military supremacy. Yet Sun Tzu’s below-the-threshold framework still supports much of the Western world’s analysis of Eastern strategic thought.

Mao has something to say about this, too. In Guerrilla Warfare (Yu Chi Chan) Mao cautions against the tendency to “exaggerate the functions of guerrillas and minimize that of regular armies.” He was unambiguous about the relationship between resistance forces and conventional power, defining guerrilla activities as a supporting function of the orthodox force that deals the decisive blow.

As one of the wealthiest nations, the United States places immense value on economic power, but Beijing is closing that gap, reducing American leverage. Some studies have shown that defense spending can be an insufficient metric for gauging military power, considering the average US servicemember takes home sixteen times the paycheck of a People’s Liberation Army soldier. There is a long history of economic inequality reflecting poorly on military outcomes. Ancient Macedonia possessed a fraction of the Persian Empire’s wealth when Alexander invaded King Darius’s lands in 334 BCE. Yet Alexander’s relentless campaign, paired with his willingness to assume a remarkable degree of risk, robbed Persia of its riches, and unseated its great king despite superior Persian numbers.

Other factors are at play as well. Short-term military solutions to strategic goals could become more attractive if Russia’s dwindling economy or China’s plummeting birth rates propose unacceptable challenges to either nation’s long game. Make no mistake, if China or Russia—or both—make their move in 2022, there will be fighting because resistance forces in both Taiwan and Ukraine intend to impose those conditions on their invaders. If the United States defines winning as preventing autocracies from achieving their stated objectives of pushing back NATO and absorbing Taiwan, it needs a comprehensive strategy that exploits the deterrence spectrum while also recognizing its limitations.

Gun Control

Using Sun Tzu as evidence that Beijing’s leaders seek to avoid war should include two addendums. First, that China might seek to avoid war with the United States—as does the United States with China—but not necessarily with Taiwan or even Japan. Xi could use a combination of conventional and irregular means to chip away at his neighbors like Putin did and is doing with Ukraine, thereby forcing the West to scramble. The second caveat is that even if Russia and China avoid war now, that may not be the case in the near future. Putin’s actions have established a new framework of military escalation regardless of how he chooses to proceed. United States strategy and force design must account for the possibility that those actions have inspired others.

The Pentagon should return to its two-wars force construct that recognizes simultaneous or even coordinated land grabs as a potential reality. The Department of Defense abandoned the construct in its 2018 strategy, a move that has already been called into question by the congressionally appointed Commission on the National Defense Strategy. Also critical is the development of a “whole spectrum deterrence” policy, like the one proposed by Dr. Frank Hoffman, capable of achieving unconventional, conventional, and strategic deterrence effects. This would discourage the United States from “responding to an invasion rather than preventing it,” as Representative Seth Moulton characterized US policy toward Ukraine recently.

Trimming the largesse of opulent defense programs such as the F-35 and freeing up funds to improve joint force and multinational irregular activities are also important to shaping more favorable theaters. The services should indeed look to incorporate more irregular lessons into their professional military education but do so within the context of how conventional forces have been, are being, and could be used to consolidate the gains of irregular activities as Mao described. America’s competitors are undoubtedly exploiting the competitive space to blunt Western influence, but this should not be mistaken for an unwillingness to place their forces at risk in pursuit of their interests—or even a lack of will within their populations to fight. If irregular means fail to get the job done, or perhaps if they succeed in setting the right conditions, autocracies could resort to brute force even if it stokes anger in the West.

Sun Tzu’s wisdom on clean victories might reflect certain policies emanating from Moscow and Beijing, but it is of little comfort to the people of Taiwan, Lithuania, or Ukraine when the fight is on their doorstep. Putin and Xi are enterprising autocrats with large armies at their disposal and long-standing strategic objectives within their grasps. In the serious world they occupy, the gun is always an option.

Michael P. Ferguson is a US Army officer with operational experience throughout Europe, Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He has written for The Hill, Strategic Studies Quarterly, PRISM, Joint Force Quarterly, the Strategy Bridge, Military Review, War Room, Small Wars Journal, and the Washington Examiner, among others. He is coauthor of a forthcoming book from Routledge on the life and legacy of Alexander the Great.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: kremlin.ru