Sun Tzu’s Art of War is being misread and lied about

The notoriety and readership of Sun Tzu’s ancient military treatise, The Art of War, is increasing in the United States. But as this happens, his treatise is now, alas, meeting the same fate as other great works, including the Bible and Clausewitz’s On War: some people quote some short passages out of context, misinterpret them, and use them to advance their own agenda. This is utterly unacceptable.

A classic example of such behavior is a recent screed by Tom Watkins, a board advisor of the University of Michigan’s Confucius Institute. Titled The “Art of War” in the 21st century, it quotes just two very short verses from the Art of War, totally misinterprets them, and uses them to advance an extremely liberal agenda. Watkins cites the following verses:

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.” (Actually, it says “To win 100 battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is.”) (Chapter III, verse 3)

“The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” (Chapter IV, verse 15)

Watkins uses these two short verses, taken totally out of context, to justify the following 4 utterly false claims:

“A Chinese wave of military expansion has the potential for a build-up that may ultimately swamp America, but perhaps not in the way some expect. According to Pentagon officials, China is not yet capable of competing militarily with the U.S. and is at least a generation or more behind the United States in military technology.

Perhaps the real threat is what former World War II hero, general and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower foresaw in his farewell presidential speech nearly 50 years ago. Eisenhower warned the nation to beware of the “Military Industrial Complex” — an “iron triangle” of intertwined relationships between government, the armed forces and the industrial sector that manufactures arms and profits from them.

Americans must be careful that we do not allow recent China saber rattling, evidenced by a testing of their first stealth jet and the construction of their first aircraft carrier as well as excursions into the South China Sea, to draw the US into an extended arms race that we can ill afford.” (…)

China has used its evolving economic strength to gain enormous strategic geopolitical advantage in a number of areas, spending the better part of its stellar economic rise to build its country: roads, bridges, air and seaports, bullet trains, schools, universities — not to mention its internal domestic security apparatus. All the while, the U.S. has disinvested in our people and domestic priorities, allowed our infrastructure to decay and building up our military only to police the world, spending trillions overseas. It shows, too, as we struggle economically — we are also crumbling, literally, from within.

Clearly, China is also spending militarily as well as on domestic needs. If we try to keep pace with an arms race with China could we, like the USSR, go broke? The Soviet Union spent its focus and economy on an arms race with the West (primarily the U.S.). Economically, communism was part of the problem but the spending on arms ultimately brought down the former USSR.

Can we afford our new “pivot to Asia” when we have a deficit in excess of $14 trillion, borrowing 40 cents for every dollar spent and owing China a trillion dollars? (…)

Will China drag the U.S. into greater military spending, borrowing money from China to do so, enabling them to stoke both their domestic and military spending thus accelerating the economic see-saw, with America occupying the declining position? Our national leaders need to watch this building storm, protect our interests, and be careful that our own preparation for the coming waves does not become our undoing.”

What utter garbage!

Firstly, the US is NOT overspending on defense, and military spending is NOT harming the US economy (actually, it helps it enormously) and is NOT the cause of America’s fiscal woes. It currently amounts to less than 4.2% of GDP, with the base defense budget, $469 bn (under sequestration), amounting to less than 3.5% of GDP. A 4% portion of the economy is hardly any threat to, or burden on, it! Moreover, since the early 1990s, the US has never spent more than 5% of GDP on the military; throughout most of the 1990s and early 2000s, it spent less than 4%. This is the lowest level of defense spending (as a share of GDP) since FY1948! How can the economy, or the nation’s finances, collapse under such a meagre level of military spending?

Military spending is NOT destroying or harming the US economy. By contrast, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union spent 25% of its entire GDP on its military, like North Korea does today, and the USSR collapsed because of economic problems brought about by its socialist system, not because of the arms race, although the arms race clearly cost the Soviets additional monies and aggravated their situation.

Furthermore, the total military budget accounts for only 18% of total federal spending. This is, again, one of the lowest levels of military spending – and pathetically low considering that under the Constitution defense is to be the federal government’s #1 duty and is the only significant authorized expenditure.

(As Ann Coulter rightly says, numbers don’t lie; liberals do.)

Watkins falsely claims further that responding to China’s military buildup militarily will destroy the US economy and “drag the US into an arms race we can ill afford.” This is also utter garbage – like his entire screed.

This is both because of the currently low levels of US military spending (4% of GDP, 18% of the budget) and because countering China’s military buildup would only require the prioritization of current military spending – not any significant increase (other than cancelling sequestration). Indeed, China and North Korea are the two biggest threats to US security outside Russia, and it is countering THEM that the bulk of America’s military budget- no matter its size – must be devoted to.

At the same time, the US should downgrade other regions and begin terminating obsolete commitments, deployments, and alliances. For example, Europe should be forced to provide for its own conventional defense, without any US involvement. The world’s center of gravity is now in Asia, NOT in Europe.

The claim that the US borrows money from China to finance its military is a blatant lie. The US borrows money from China to finance its bloated, constantly growing entitlement and domestic discretionary programs (which only promote government dependency), NOT its military. As my analysis shows, only 25% of annual federal spending is constitutional. If the federal government were spending money ONLY on constitutional objects, it would’ve had a sizeable annual budget surplus.

The claim that there is a huge, nefarious “military-industrial complex” in the US is also a blatant lie. The defense industry today is much smaller than it was even in the 1990s, military spending amounts to a tiny 4% of the US economy, and the defense industry’s lobbying power and campaign contributions are small. (If there is an influential “military-industrial complex” in the US, why couldn’t it prevent even the sequester’s defense cuts, let alone previous defense cuts?)

When President Eisenhower spoke of the “complex”, military spending amounted to an absolute majority of the US federal budget and almost 10% of the economy – a stark contrast to today’s 4% of GDP and 18% of the federal budget.

Watkins’ claim that “the US has disinvested in our people and domestic priorities, allowed our infrastructure to decay and building up our military only to police the world, spending trillions overseas” is also a blatant lie, like the rest of his pathetic screed.

Entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), i.e. mandatory social spending – on social security and healthcare – are by far the largest part of the federal budget: 63%. No other part comes even close. Total US healthcare spending – public and private – amounts to over 16% of America’s GDP. The US spends more on healthcare than any country in the world BY FAR – in large part due to the bloated welfare state and the entitlement mindset of today’s Americans, but also in large part due to Americans’ unhealthy lifestyles (obesity, junk food, junk drinks, no exercise, watching too much TV, smoking and drinking a lot, etc.), which lead to all sorts of diseases which cost a fortune to treat.

The US also spends more on education than any country in the world by far – both in absolute numbers and per capita. Property owners are heavily taxed to pay for this. Yet, the US has little to show for it – because, as this example shows, throwing more money at a problem won’t solve it.

The US is also one of the world’s biggest spenders on infrastructure, with heavy federal and state spending. But in this case, there are good results: the US has the best infrastructure in the world – road, rail, airport, pipeline, wireless Internet, etc. For example, the US is one of the few countries in the world to have a complete highway network connecting ALL major US cities, and has had it since 1991, while significant gaps exist even in “developed” countries like Italy, Germany, and Britain. (And the US highway network is constantly improving.) Most major US cities (except Atlanta) have at least two airports, and some have three, while most other major cities around the world have only one. Wireless Internet is more accessible in the US than anywhere else in the world. Railroads carry more freight in the US than in almost any other country (40% of all freight).

What Watkins and other liberals really decry is the lack of “high-speed rail” in the US. But high-speed rail is not feasible at all in the US, with its vast space, very dispersed distribution of population, and high construction and maintenance costs. Furthermore, high-speed rail is a very inattractive, inefficient mode of transportation: it has utterly failed to stem the decline of rail transportation’s popularity in Europe and Japan. (This has been documented in great detail by Randal O’Toole of the CATO Institute.)

Even in China, high-speed rail has been a white elephant. Few people use it. For example, on the high-speed train connecting Shanghai to its Pudong Airport, rarely are more than 25% of all seats occupied.

Furthermore, as Chris Edwards has documented in the National Review, America’s infrastructure, including its roads and bridges, is nowhere nearly as decrepit as liberals claim, and it has been steadily improving since the 1980s.

Universities? The US has the best universities by far – as all university rankings in the world will tell you – and it is American universities, not Chinese ones, that students from all around the world – including and especially China – aspire to study at. The children of many highly-ranking Chinese politicians, including Paramount Leader Xi Jinping himself, are currently studying at US universities. The US also leads the world, by far, in Nobel Prizes won. How many scientific Nobel Prizes has China won? Zero. Where are the world’s most innovative companies located? In the US. And the degree of collaboration between America’s universities and industry is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

China may very well surpass the US in GDP and in military power in this decade, but even long after that, the US will still lead in terms of a knowledge-based economy.

Watkins’ claim that the US has “disinvested in its people and domestic priorities ” and is “crumbling from within” is a gigantic, monstrous, blatant lie, and it, by itself, utterly discredits him and the Confucious Institute. Furthermore, the infrastructure, education, healthcare, and so forth are issues reserved by the Constitution exclusively to the states, while defense is the highest constitutional obligation of the federal government.

The claim that “China is not yet capable of competing militarily with the U.S. and is at least a generation or more behind the United States in military technology” is also a blatant lie, gigantic, monstrous lie. It’s a vast understatement of the Chinese military threat.

China is very well capable of competing militarily with, and defeating, the US, and it is not “a generation or more behind the US in military technology” – it has actually caught up with the US in most weapons and other technology types and is working hard to close the few remaining gaps. As my detailed analysis of its military capabilities, done most recently here, as well as the works of many others, prove beyond any doubt. China’s military power and military technology iare VERY close to matching America’s.

Its J-20 and J-31 fighters are superior to every other fighter except the F-22. Its conventional submarines are the quietest in the world and very hard for the US Navy to detect. Its ICBMs are all far younger than America’s Minuteman ICBM fleet, the last missile of which was deployed in 1976. China’s air defense system can easily detect and shootdown all nonstealthy aircraft as well as the “economy-stealth” F-35. Its destroyers and frigates are more modern and more capable than those of the USN. And so forth and so on.

China could actually defeat the US military easily – with conventional weapons as well as unconventional, assymmetric weapons and tactics (A2/AD weapons).

For China’s PLA, the US military would be like a virgin during her prom night… Easy.

By dramatically understating the Chinese military threat, Watkins and DOD officials who understate that threat (and there are many of them; they’re deliberately understating the threat to appease China)  are doing America, its military, and the American public a great DISFAVOR by lulling them into a false sense of security – which can only result in a catastrophic military defeat. For, as Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War:

“If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory achieved you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know neither yourself nor the enemy, you will succumb in every battle.” (Chapter III, verse 18)