Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ is one of the most read books that guide military strategists and leaders on issues that relate to war and how they should be approached. In the book, Tzu insists that leaders should always make appropriate plans to ensure they can deal with different types of situations they are likely to face and which may weaken their power and authority.
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He proposes five main principles which should be made a part of the general military strategy before any war effort is undertaken by a state.
These include moral law, heaven, earth, commander, and methods to be used. The historical application of this text focuses more on the traditionalist application of state formation in the past. Tzu’s ideas describe the realistic application of various ideas that can be used on the battlefield and how an army commander may apply his skills to subdue an opposing army.
Machiavelli’s ‘Art of War’ advises that a leader should be ready to make new plans and adapt whenever he feels that things are not moving in a positive direction. He focuses on historical leadership battles to reinforce his arguments about the efficacy of various political strategies and tactics which leaders can use to maintain their strength.
More importantly, Machiavelli insists that an effective political strategy should serve the needs of a leader and should not focus on making the people being ruled happy. Therefore, he insists that a ruler should seek to achieve only one objective: to acquire power and to maintain his position without showing any weaknesses to his opponents.
Machiavelli’s work looked at the actions of the ruling elite in Europe when many territories were still administered as monarchies in medieval times. His work shows that he favored a monarchy system of government, but it is also a realistic portrayal of the competitive nature of power systems in both ancient and modern history.
During that time, many monarchs ruled by decree and used violence to legitimize their claim on power when other peaceful initiatives failed.
The point of focus between the two authors is the influence of time on their works. The application of Sun Tzu’s work is timeless and was not targeted at any specific political or military system. In his work, Sun Tzu insists that discipline and good organization are essential factors that enable a commander to either excel or fail in his mission on the battlefield.
This shows that he wrote his work during a time when honor, sacrifice, and courage were some of the main principles that were cherished by people in oriental nations, mainly due to the influence of Confucianism. The main idea that comes out of Tzu’s text is that war should be treated as an act of necessity due to its disruptive nature and damaging effects.
This viewpoint seems to differ greatly with Machiavellian arguments where the use of war and violence is justified as long as it helps a leader to achieve a particular objective.
Both authors use different arguments to show their ideas about war and peace. Sun Tzu’s work warns that a commander should not wage war blindly without considering major issues that determine the readiness of his army and state to endure a prolonged war campaign against another military.
In his arguments, he assigns higher responsibilities to the commander by insisting that he needs to focus on his soldiers to ensure that they are well prepared physically and mentally to take part in a battle. For instance, the Roman Empire built mutually beneficial alliances with leaders of other territories, and this helped it to maintain its power for many centuries.
Additionally, Tzu’s arguments can be applied in the two world wars, where unresolved grievances that emanated from the First World War motivated Nazi Germany to wage war against its neighbors. Therefore, the large scale destruction and loss of lives, that resulted from the two wars show that Tzu’s arguments were ahead of their time.
Machiavelli’s treatise advises leaders to use deceitful means to win over the support of their opponents and the people they seek to rule. He insists that a leader should use violence all at once, if necessary, to make his opponents submit to his authority. To keep opponents from understanding his true intentions, a leader must offer them incentives to make them feel they are indebted to him.
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Consequently, Machiavelli did not anticipate a situation where more people would advocate for political freedoms that give them the right to choose their leaders through an election process.
However, his work acknowledges that disregarding the context; politics is shaped by economic and social interests. He uses practical historical examples to assert that leaders weigh the consequences of their actions before engaging in them, and they may pursue peaceful alternatives that do not threaten the status quo.
In their assessments, both Tzu and Machiavelli agree that stability, trust, and discipline are important elements that enable leaders to use their power more effectively. Tzu insists that a state must be ready to incur a loss of lives and property when it chooses to wage war against another state. Therefore, the implied meaning that comes out of his argument is that leaders should rely on diplomatic solutions to resolve conflicts more often.
Moreover, he adds that a great commander must use appropriate tactics in battle to avoid losing more soldiers unnecessarily, in a situation where the opposing army is already weak and willing to surrender.
This illustrates the case with many strong empires in the past, which used their military power to maintain law and order over large territories. For instance, the Soviet Union’s ability to offer an alternative political ideology gave it a stronger voice and together with the U.S., the two nations were able to prevent another world war from occurring.
Therefore, this allows a leader to avoid being associated with negative events, which evoke negative feelings and sentiments in the masses. Indirectly, he admits that a leader must be ready to make some concessions to show his adversaries that he is willing to negotiate to resolve a stalemate. During his time, monarchs used their power to possess the land and other resources because they wielded absolute power.
However, historically, many wars originated from territory claims between various states. In his work, Machiavelli cautions leaders not to be motivated only by their self-interests, because ultimately, this may lead to their ruin.
Therefore, even though Machiavellian principles appear to favor authoritarianism, they reveal that leaders need to exercise self-control in their dealings. For instance, in the Napoleonic era, the failure of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to engage in diplomacy with other European nations led to his downfall.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. Art of War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. ”The Seven Books on the Art of War.” The Constitution Society. Last modified November 5, 2013. http://www.constitution.org/mac/artofwar_.htm
McNelly, Mark. Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Tzu, Sun, and Niccolo Machiavelli. The Art of War: Two Perspectives. London: Wilder Publications, 2007.
Tzu, Sun. “The Art of War.” The Internet Classics Archives. Translated by Lionel Giles. Last modified 2009. http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html