ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Sun Tzu’s The Art of War through the Prism of Political Realism

The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s treatise The Art of War has been likened to progenies of political realism such as Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Although political realism as a school of thought in the discipline of international relations developed much later, there are points of similarities between Sun Tzu’s thinking and different strands of realism. This article uses the prism of political realism to view and understand Sun Tzu’s treatise. Such an analysis entails juxtaposing The Art of War with tenets of realism such as confl ictual nature of international relations; political morality as being distinct from personal/religious morality; anarchy as a systemic feature of international politics; preoccupation with power, security, and confl ict; and relative distribution of capabilities.

I would like to thank the reviewer for her/his vital comments. I have sought to address her/ his concerns and made use of the valuable suggestions in the revised manuscript.

Sun Tzu’s treatise called The Art of War has been hailed as the oldest work on military strategy, written over 2,000 years ago in the “warring states” period when seven kingdoms clamoured to gain control in China. Concurring much with ideas of political realism in the modern discipline of international relations, the treatise reaffirms the notion that conflict is a ubiquitous phenomenon of life and pursuit of security and power characterises human collective actions. Interestingly, like similar accounts that had emerged in other parts of the globe in different periods of time, including Kautilya’s Arthashastra in ancient India and Machiavelli’s The Prince in Renaissance Italy, this too is seen to greatly value expediency in politics.

To illustrate, Sun Tzu (also referred to as Sun Zi) argues that an actual combat situation would inevitably require manoeuvring the course of the army according to the need of the hour. Likewise, he offers an array of deception forms and espionage systems—key elements in all warfare. He underlines the need to master both “direct” and “indirect” methods and urges that in order to triumph over the enemy, one should disguise one’s strengths and weaknesses, and acquaint oneself with the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. It could be argued that his notion of political morality, distinct from personal or religious morality, resonates with the idea of “interest defined on the basis of power” of the 20th century realist Hans Morgenthau.

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Updated On : 19th Jan, 2018
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