Sunday, September 18, 2011

Diplomacy and the Art of War


     War has always been a part of the story of nations.   Countries that have never been engaged in war comprise a small minority in the global community.  The rest have gone to war at least once in their lifetime.  The landscape of international relations is littered with the tombstones of those who perished in the wars that nations have always waged against one another.  

     It is, therefore, a must for a diplomat to be acquainted with the art of war.  Even if he is a pacifist at heart, he still must be “war-literate.”    For, like a global soldier, he could be deployed anywhere in the world.  He could one day find himself in a country at war or on the way to war.  Or else, his own country may find itself at war, either as the aggressor or as the object of another country’s aggression.

    Of course, diplomats are generally expected to act as peacemakers in time of war.  In fact, it is the duty of diplomats to prevent war from breaking out in the first place.  But peacemaking itself requires a good knowledge of the nature of war and of the hidden principles that govern it.  Just as the Devil had to be sufficiently versed in the Scriptures to be able to use it while trying to tempt Jesus, so a peacemaker must be familiar enough with the grammar of war to be able to convince warmongers and warriors to lay down their arms. 

     But, proficiency in the art of war will give a diplomat an even more immediate and concrete advantage.

     Like all highly-competitive working environments, the foreign service is a battleground of sorts.  A foreign service officer who is knowledgeable in the art of war has a greater chance of surviving, nay, succeeding in such an environment than his less war-literate counterpart.   Ironic as it may sound, Dallas Galvin was right when she wrote that “the only way to prevent war is to know how to wage and win it better than your enemy.”1

     Fortunately, one does not have to go to a military school or a defense institute to learn the art of war.  It would, of course, be a big advantage for a diplomat to have this kind of special training.  A number of foreign service officers have, in fact, opted to undergo such a training rather than pursue a master’s degree in international relations.  But, one can educate oneself in the art of war.  It is a craft that can be self-taught.   One can learn the ropes of “war-craft” even by merely observing its veteran practitioners (in the foreign service, in politics and in the corporate world) and by immersing oneself in the pool of warfare literature. Needless to say, even his unwanted involvement in “office politics” can be transformed by a diplomat into an on-the-job training in the discipline of war.

     Reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War would be a good way to start.  This small manual written by a Chinese military adviser around 500 BC is recognized as the first military treatise in recorded history. From its pages originate most of the classic tenets of warfare such as the need to know oneself and one’s enemy thoroughly before going to war, the need to determine whether a particular war is indeed worth fighting or whether it is better not to go on with it at all, and the wisdom of taking an opponent by surprise through the use of rapidity and deception. 

     Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War (or, at least, its chapter on the nature of war3) and Niccolo Macchiavelli’s own Art of War4 (written almost two thousand years after Sun Tzu’s) would be equally helpful in a diplomat’s self-education on the subject of war.

     War, of course, need not always be overt and intense.  More often, in fact, the wars that are waged in the corridors of the foreign service are covert and subtle.   They require the kind of skill that John Lennon had in mind when he sang:

There's room at the top I'm telling you still
but first you must learn how to smile as you kill
if you want to be like the folks on the hill
(“Working Class Hero”)

     On this particular type of war, a different shelf of books would be more educative.   Niccolo Macchiavelli’s The Prince5 would be the basic textbook for this course.  Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier6 would be required reading, as would the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom.7 

     Closer to our time, a diplomat may wish to consult Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power8 and The 33 Strategies of War9, as well as the “updated” version of Macchiavelli’s work by erstwhile Clinton adviser Dick Morris (titled The New Prince10).

     Finally, reading the memoirs of highly-admired and hugely successful courtiers and power-players such as Dr. Henry A. Kissinger would be as useful to the student of war as reading actual legal cases is to the student of law.11  
     After learning the principles of war from these masters, however, the serious student of war must know when to employ them and when to turn them on their heads when the situation calls for it. For he may discover in the course of battle that his opponents are equally familiar with the work of these masters.  When he realizes that this is the case, he must forthwith exercise his imagination and try to come up with novel ways of waging war.  Otherwise, his next moves would be as predictable to his opponents as the moves of a chess-player who is evidently playing according to the tips he learned from a chess-magazine everyone else has read.

     Summers recalls that in the movie Patton, George C. Scott (playing the role of General George S. Patton), upon seeing the attacking Germans under the leadership of Rommel, shakes his fist and shouts “You S.O.B., I’ve read your book!”  (Rommel wrote a book titled Infantry Attacks, which Patton had read.)12

     This brings us to our final and most important point about the art of war:  Once one has come up with his own ideas about war, he must  keep them to himself at all costs.   He must resist the temptation of letting others know about his novel ideas with the view to getting recognized as an original thinker in the art of war.   There is no more foolish warrior than he who lets his opponents know how his mind thinks.13  


     1Dallas Galvin, Introduction to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Lionel Giles, trans. (New York:  Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003), xxii.
     2Galvin, xvii.
     3See On the Nature of War by Carl Von Clausewitz, translated by J. Graham (London:  Penguin Books – Great Ideas, 2005).
     4Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince and the Art of War (London:  Collector’s Library, 2004).
     5Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Daniel Donno, trans., Bantam Classic edition (New York:  Bantam Books, 1981).
     6Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, George Bull, trans. (London:  Penguin Books, 1967).
     7Baltasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom (Springfield, IL:  Templegate Publishers, 1996).
     8Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power (New York:  Penguin Books, 2000).
     9Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War (New York:  Viking Penguin, 2006).
     10Dick Morris, The New Prince:  Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century (Los Angeles:  Renaissance Books, 1999).
     11Biographies of Henry Kissinger such as Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger:  A Biography (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1992), Martin Kalb and Bernard Kalb’s Kissinger (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1974) and David Landau’s Kissinger:  The Uses of Power (New York:  Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1972) are equally educative.  In the same vein, John Dean’s Blind AmbitionThe White House Years (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1976) and George Stephanopoulos’ All Too Human:  A Political Education (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1999) provide an insightful glimpse into how the power-game was played in the White House during the Nixon and the Clinton years, respectively.  
     12Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., “Clausewitz:  Eastern and Western Approaches to War,”  Air University Review, March-April 1986, <
mar-apr/summers/html> (16 December 2005).
     13After sharing his thoughts on how one can confound or deceive one’s enemy, Sun Tzu counsels:  “These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand”  (The Art of War, p. 92.)