On Strategy and Embarrassment

They just don’t write strategy like they used to.

Consider this offering from Kautilya, the Indian advisor to the king and the Mauryan empire on the subcontinent, around the 4th century BC. If a king is trying to undermine a ruling oligarchy, he

should make chiefs of the ruling council infatuated with women possessed of great beauty and youth. When passion is roused in them, they should start quarrels by creating belief (about their love) in one and by going to another.

Hire women to seduce, divide and embitter men in our enemies’ court?

Its a long way from the newly minted National Security Strategy:

we must provide the appropriate authorities and mechanisms to implement and coordinate assistance programs and grow the civilian expeditionary capacity required to assist governments on a diverse array of issues.

The naughty clearly have more fun.

Now, clearly nations still do mischievous things. They still assassinate, deceive, seduce, steal and lie. As AJP Taylor once quipped, ‘Powers will be Powers.’

But they don’t write it down that much anymore.

The writing of strategy used to be a highly practical and advisory exercise. A seasoned practitioner who could write would put together a document of tips and guidance for the busy king, or for the challenger.

Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Kautilya differed in many ways, but had this in common. Strategy was a hard-headed ‘how to do it’ exercise in pedagogy and patronage. They were free to recommend ruthless measures, to embrace duplicity, to lather themselves in amoral power politics.

Them were the days. At least in the Anglosphere and the EU, strategic texts are now a different creature. They are written as manifestos of good intentions, liberalism and high-mindedness. States may break rules and lie and kill when they want to, but they still feel compelled to proclaim their commitment to a ‘rules based’ global order of enlightened governance, fair dealing and low carbon emissions.

To put it bluntly: we still practice power politics (just ask villagers nervously glancing at the sky for our drones, or the UN officials shocked to discover our bugging devices in their offices, or the intelligence officials caught up in building the case for war). But we are embarrassed by the language of power politics.

We have instead embraced the rhetoric of hypocrisy. Which, ironically, is another kind of deception. It could be a grand design to deceive others about our intentions. Maybe in the State Department or Foreign and Commonwealth Office there is a secret document telling it like it is. More probably, it is an elaborate exercise in self-deception. We think of ourselves as advanced international citizens. In reality, we do grubby statecraft, but dare not speak its name.

This has at least one bad effect. It encourages ideological fundamentalism when conflict happens. It means that our leaders feel bound to present all their conduct and policies in the most elevated terms even while they carry on the dark arts.  When this is exposed, it damages public faith in government, which leads only to more moralism and hypocrisy. Worse, this language might even deceive the leaders themselves, making compromise, bargaining and diplomacy harder to do, and splitting rather than uniting one’s enemies is one of the core parts of grand strategy.

What would an American Machiavelli write now? We can’t know, but it would be a strategy, not a liberal manifesto. And it certainly wouldn’t be formally promulgated on the Web.

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