By Chelsea Costello
The Art of War, by the Chinese general and military strategist, Sun-Tzu, was one of the first books assigned to me in graduate school. I remember leaning back in a rickety wooden chair begrudgingly eyeballing a ten-page syllabus. My attention was drawn to the front of the room when the professor asked the class: “What was the greatest accomplishment of the 20th century?” A few enthusiastic voices shouted out ideas such as women’s right to vote and sending a man to the moon. The professor laughed, shook his head and declared, “the greatest accomplishment of the 20th century is that human beings were not wiped off the face of the Earth.” My professor was referring to the Cold War and how the U.S. and Soviet Union never had a direct military confrontation despite rapid nuclear advancements and escalating tensions. Not only did the dueling superpowers keep the war cold, but the U.S. emerged as the hegemon. Sun-Tzu, said “the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.” Although his words were written centuries ago, Sun-Tzu’s lessons were relevant throughout the Cold War and remain vital in today’s world where nuclear war is perpetually looming.
As a hegemon, the U.S. is the most influential player shaping the international arena. Because of this, it is easy for the media and world leaders to overanalyze the actions and decisions of the United States. For months now, headlines in every news outlet revolve around U.S. talks with China, tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. While it is paramount for U.S. policymakers to focus on America’s foreign policy, our U.S.-centric vision is blinding us from the relationships forming exclusive of the U.S. The most important of these relationships is between Russia and China. Sun-Tzu stated, “he who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.” Not only must the U.S. understand its enemies’ military capabilities, but it must understand their alliances as well. The U.S. should take lessons from Sun-Tzu and shift its focus from America’s bilateral relationships to the dialogue among our enemies; in particular, the way Russia and China utilize the puppet government of North Korea to facilitate a nuclear playground.
Historically, Russia and China’s relationship has wavered from contentious to convenient, and now advantageous. During the Cold War, the two states were pitted against one another for ideological dominance of the Communist world. However, the international landscape has evolved and what was once a point of friction between Russia and China is now a catalyst for a strategic partnership. Putin and Xi Jinping both harbor geopolitical aspirations stifled by Western democratic ideology. From a strategic standpoint, both states have disregarded international law to meet their geopolitical objectives. Putin wants to reestablish a sphere of influence similar to that of the Cold War. In an effort to begin this process, the Kremlin annexed Crimea in a violation of state sovereignty. Similarly, China declares territorial claims to islands in the South China Sea despite the fact that international law permits military and civilian vessels to operate in these waters. The two states can work together to achieve their political goals without threatening the other’s interests.
Additionally, the Russian-China partnership has another layer that involves North Korea. Currently, Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un are creating a lethal boy band of authoritarian leaders. President Trump, never settling for backup vocals, must choose between being the diva, solo artist or the stage crew, controlling the theater of operations. President Trump must maintain control, but in order to do so, he must fully grasp the dynamics among our enemies.
Despite China and Russia’s appetite for expansion, both states are aware that a direct military confrontation with the U.S. would not be ideal. Compared to China, the U.S. military has recent experience and is constantly prepared to mobilize. In regard to Russia, U.S. has conventional military superiority. Further, U.S. military commanders have learned it’s not about the size of the weapons, but how you use them. The United States military’s ability to conduct complex operations is not something that either state can easily replicate, but these capabilities are ingrained in American military doctrine and culture.
Therefore, Russia and China are using their influence in North Korea as an indirect means to distract, test and engage the U.S. militarily. Although the U.S. has periodically tried to improved relations with China, China refuses to shed its emotional baggage, North Korea. Like most unhealthy relationships, it’s questionable why a growing power like China would want a partnership fraught with temper tantrums and muscle flexing. However, Kim Jung Un’s irrationality advantages China. North Korean threats and unpredictability force American leaders to pivot their attention away from China, the true rival, toward North Korea. Russia, tag teaming, has historically objected to condemning North Korea's missile tests and efforts to contain North Korea are borderline blasé. North Korean threats are a way for the world, enemies and allies alike, to witness and judge President Trump’s ability to handle confrontation in the international arena.
On the other hand, any rational actor would argue neither leader in China or Russia would want an all-out nuclear war. The consequences are potentially too severe, the destruction too devastating. But the leadership in North Korea is not as rational as Putin and Xi Jinping, and even if these leaders do not coerce the U.S. into a war, they serve as tools of distractions causing the U.S. to lose focus on greater challenges. While the U.S. works to form a calculated response to North Korea, leaders cannot lose sight of the larger picture and what the Russia-China partnership would gain if the U.S. engages in nuclear confrontations.
As the hegemon, the U.S. cannot maintain its position through either complacency or uncalculated aggression. As the world grows more unpredictable, our enemy can permeate our weaknesses. It is more critical than ever for the U.S. to get into the mind of the enemy and understand his moves, before acting. American policy-makers should consider the words of Sun-Tzu who stated, “war is a vital matter of state. It is the field on which life or death is determined and the road that leads to either survival or ruin, and must be examined with the greatest care.”