Sun Tzu on War

When going into war, or when fighting one, Sun Tzu says we should always take into account the five ‘Heads of War’ in our deliberations, so as to seek to determine the conditions obtaining in the field:

1. The Moral Law: these are our guiding values and moral principles. You need to be on the right side of them.

2. Heaven: night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons. I always think of my mountain climbing (including guiding) experiences here: one must constantly evaluate the snow and weather conditions and respect them. Sometimes they work against you, and then you just have to patiently wait.

3. Earth: distances, danger and security, open ground or narrow passes, the chances of life and death. I think of this as ‘situational awareness’ – tactics (as opposed to the more strategic evaluation of the factors of Heaven).

4. Our Commanders  and their virtues: wisdom, sincerity and good faith, benevolence and humanity, courage, and strictness (self-respect, self-control or ‘proper feeling’).

5. Method and Discipline. That needs no further explanation. It is related to practice. Wisdom and knowledge are good (otherwise you do not know where you are or where you want to be next), but only practice gets you what you want and to the place where you need to go next.


I will let the reader judge, but I think the US scores well on method and discipline only. The US scores very poorly on all else – especially on situational awareness: satellites, spy operations and in-country presence (even massive presence, such as in Afghanistan) do not substitute for (human) intelligence.

Also, if even 99-year old Kissinger sees a dangerous lack of strategic purpose in US foreign policy, then you know the US cannot possibly be on the right side of the all-important Moral Law.

Finally, even US generals who once inspired confidence – I am thinking of General Powell and General Petraeus here – have admitted they lied on behalf of their political administration or, in the case of Gen Petraeus, that their job was just to implement serious mistakes made by their political bosses without questioning them. So I do not see much virtue in any of the US commanders.


As for the EU, we score very poorly on all of the five heads which, Sun Tzu reminds us, “determine life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.” No more needs to be said.

We are in a hot war with Russia, and in a cold war with China now. The cold war with China is likely to spiral into a hot war too. Next year or even earlier. For all practical purposes, our side is led by the Sovereign of the US (Mr. Biden) and his Commanders. I would and will not fight for them. I do not trust neither their intention and judgment, nor do I trust their preparation. Also, our Sovereign(s) should embody the Moral Law and inspire. Mr. Biden or Ms. Pelosi do not. EU leaders do not, either. [Of course, I do not trust Russia’s or China’s leaders either, but at least they are more predictable, which is at least one advantage to consider when trying to make sense of the current post-modern dash towards what I refer to as the old new world order: it is effectively pretty much like the 1960s and 1970s (cold war, with some hot proxy and not-so-proxy wars thrown in as well).]

Post scriptum: I am appalled by the black-and-white logic of the vocal minorities who call for total defeat of Russia. What do they mean by that? A roll-back of the 2014 events? A regime change? Total destruction of Russia’s economy? What is the goal? Sun Tzu’s wise council also says this: the goal of war is to defeat the enemy militarily. The goal is not destroy a country or its people. On the contrary, we should try to win hearts and minds. Mao Zedong used that to defeat the much more powerful Kuomintang army, and this principle has also consistently been applied by other guerilla armies against powerful armies. A lot of would-be analysts of what is currently going on and of what is in the works should study history a lot better than they do.

As for the factors of Heaven, my experience and instinct (I have been in war theaters: Afghanistan mainly and, briefly, in Ukraine) tells me they are definitely not on our side now. If they are not, we should not move and get back to safety. If the factors of Heaven are not on your side on a dangerous mountain climb, you should return to base camp. Immediately. Few casual observers appreciate the fact that these things are effectively matters of life and death. All questions regarding war and peace are. We are not discussing some new limit on speed on EU highways or other mundane political issues that our governments have been dealing with over the past 20 or 30 years.


What I do not understand at all is why the US wants to provoke China. A trade, tech, business or – worse – a real war with China is the last thing we need. We must collectively tackle global issues such as climate change, lingering poverty and hunger (especially in Africa, which is all but a forgotten continent now), and, yes, freedom and democracy in many countries, but not necessarily China or Russia. Why not focus on EU-internal issues? There are many issues inside of the EU that need to be addressed when it comes to rights and freedoms. Do we also want to focus away from them by creating our own external enemies, just like the US is doing now? The terrorist threat is out of fashion, so now we are back to demonizing the good old Russians, and the good old Chinese? The reds, and the Yellow Peril.

I cannot believe that humanity has come so far on the road to enlightenment, through science and rational decision-making, but that many of us now suddenly feel a need to collectively engage in plain warmongering and emotionalism. Social, economic, political and historical complexity is reduced to two categories: good versus bad, West versus East, fascist versus democratic or free. I can go on. We are either in or out, pro or against war, or pro or against the Russians or the Chinese. These are extremely simplistic classifications feeding negativity – much worse: plain hatred – between people and countries. That is, quite simply, not what intelligent men and women should stand for. It is what led to the world wars of the 20th century. We should not burden our children with the consequences of another conflagration. The stakes are too high. We should all cool down, calmly take another look at things, and see what we can do to restore normalcy.


Lest I be misunderstood, I am not calling for appeasement with Russia. I am calling for engagement. As I explained in previous posts, any comparison to Chamberlain’s policy vis-à-vis Germany is unfounded. The US responded militarily (thereby turning the original David-versus-Goliath geometry between Russia and Ukraine on its head), and the EU applied sanctions (some sensible, others not so sensible or outright counterproductive). As I wrote in my previous post, the frontlines have stabilized, and Russia’s military has been weakened considerably. Now is a time to negotiate a settlement: not peace (that is not possible anymore because of the escalation) but a ceasefire and practical arrangements to stop the bleeding and start reconstruction.

The conflict will then just become one of the many frozen conflicts of Eurasia, and we can all focus again on what we should be focusing on: work, family, fun. We should do it now because we are in a position of strength vis-à-vis Russia. The winter will weaken our position. Russians are used to surviving long winters. We are not, and surely not, ready to go into five or ten cold winters, which is what the Belgian prime minister is telling us Belgians to prepare for. The average Belgian is sensible and will, quite simply, vote him and all of his coalition partners out when they can, which is in 2024 at the latest. He should return to base camp as soon as possible. I recognize too many symptoms of altitude sickness, including emotional speech and non-rational behavior. Other politicians seem to suffer from the same.

Energy and the stupidity of sanctions

The invoices for gas and electricity have tripled or quadrupled, and may rise to ten times what household and industries in Europe used to pay for energy a year ago. The price differential of the gas price in the US and Europe – also a factor ten – is likely to anger voters in the coming years: are these smart sanctions? Why would Europe pay more for economic warfare with Russia than the US?

The truth is: not importing gas from Russia is ineffective and counterproductive. First, a military agression should be countered with military action. Sanctions on a country – on its economy and its people – should be used as a last resort. Sun Tzu wrote about that in his ‘Art of War‘: the objective is not to destroy a country or its people but to defeat its army if and when it threatens your sovereignty.

Second, if sanctions are deemed to be necessary, they should not hurt your own economy too much, but the economy of the enemy. Sanctions on this or that country on finished products (say, electronics, cars or consumer goods) are logical: you can, quite simply, procure these from another source. Let us suppose we would be at war with Japan, for example: we would just stop buying Japanese cars and electronics and switch to American, European or Chinese products. That is an effective or smart sanction: it hurts Japan but it does not diminish our purchasing power, resources or wealth.

With energy or raw materials, one cannot switch easily: these are inputs. Demand for them is inelastic, supply cannot be increased in the short run, and, therefore, the shortage or mismatch between supply and demand will drive prices up very quickly (with factors ten or even a hundredfold, as we are seeing for the raw gas price now). It will hurt your economy more than the country you want to punish and may, therefore, be labeled as pure and simple masochism.

I remember talk in the newspapers here in Brussels about how not importing Russian gas would not hurt the Belgian economy because Russian gas had only a very small share in our gas imports. That misses the point completely: even for such small share, we have to find other suppliers, and these other suppliers do get very large demand from countries which were very dependent on Russian gas, such as Germany. Hence, even small customers suffer from extraordinary price rises as supply gets cut on a market that was already tense.

The only way out is to roll back our self-imposed ban on Russian gas, but Europe’s political leaders lack the guts to (1) admit their mistake and (2) to do something about it. Why it is so difficult? Most EU countries reversed their stance on nuclear energy over the past few months. Why not take this logical step too? We can, quite simply, just decide to import gas from Russia again. It will fix the root cause of the huge problem we are facing. Will this disappoint people more than the decision to go for nuclear energy again? I do not see why that should be the case. It is a very necessary step: it is the only way to prevent the total meltdown of the European economy that we are currently witnessing (make no mistake here: it is a lot worse than the 1970s energy crisis, so we have to act).

It will also prevent a swing to extremist right-wing or left-wing political parties (such as Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) in France). These may have extremist views on migration and other topics but they have far less extremist views on Russia than the current political parties at the center. The center is, therefore, no longer a center when it comes to what concerns most voters now: the war with Russia, and the prospect of deepening and worsening it by also entering into a cold war with China.

President Macron scraped through for the second-term (10 and 24 April 2022) presidential elections: the voting in two rounds (typical of France) saved him. I do not think he and other moderate leaders will be so lucky next time. It’s the economy, stupid! Policies that destroy industry and reduce lower- and middle-class families to poverty are sure to get you where you do not want to be in politics.

Also, it is the first time in my life that I would like Belgium to dissociate from the EU’s foreign policy: a von der Leyen and a Borrell are non-elected, and the mandate of EU institutions for foreign policy and defense is very limited. They surely do not have the right to declare war on behalf of the sovereign nation-states within Europe. Also, Russia blew up its dialogue with the EU as a multilateral forum almost two years ago (I wrote about that at the time, anticipating a lot of events and trends that we see happening now). If Finland or the Baltic states want to go much further in sanctioning the Russian people, let them go ahead. Belgium’s leaders and people should not be seen to be part of what is, clearly, just plain warmongering for no good reason.

The frontlines have stabilized, and Russia’s military has been weakened considerably. Now is a time to negotiate a settlement: not peace (that is not possible anymore because of the escalation) but a ceasefire and practical arrangements to stop the bleeding and start reconstruction. The conflict will then just become one of the many frozen conflicts of Eurasia, and we can all focus again on what we should be focusing on: work, family, fun. We should do it now because we are in a position of strength vis-à-vis Russia. The winter will weaken our position. Russians are used to surviving long winters. We are not.

Not deepening or dragging out war – especially because the energy crisis is causing a rapid disintegration of our industrial base (not to mention pushing lower-class households into poverty) – should be a priority now. A matter of life and death, so to speak (sorry that sounds so bitter in this context), rather than about a selection of one single country where the values of freedom or democracy abroad matter more to us than, say, in Syria or in Afghanistan. Also, I repeat we should stay clear of demonizing the Russian people with measures such as visa bans, labelling every Russian resident in the EU as a potential spy (and, worse, calls for systematic checks on them) rather than target Mr. Putin, his regime and the Russian military directly. That is a lesson we Europeans should have learnt from the world wars.

However, let me get back to the point here: when considering economic sanctions, cold economic and political analysis should be used to evaluate and decide whether to implement them and continue them. If the analysis shows they produce the opposite effect (polls show that Mr. Putin’s popularity as a war leader popularity keeps increasing), they should be rolled back. Blindly sticking to things that do not work and hurt ourselves more than the enemy is not wise: if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging, right?

Again, most countries reversed their decision – taken decades ago – to phase out nuclear energy, and this measure to tackle the energy crisis has not met with popular resistance. On the contrary, polls show support in Belgium. Why is it that leaders show no willingness to roll back the decision to no longer import Russian gas? If it is about human rights or whatever, then we should scrutinize our energy imports from countries like, say, Saudi Arabia as well. But banning such imports would not be effective either, right? Gas, oil, rare earth minerals and all the other things that are routinely imported to produce consumer or industrial goods tend to be produced in countries that we do not necessarily like. A consistency check is always a good lens to look at whatever it is that you are trying to decide.

Post scriptum: I have been quite vocal on my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and I got a lot of flak for it. At one point, I even got censured on LinkedIn, and I was very surprised about that because my pro-peace comments were everything but inflammatory. I looked at the identities and origin of the angry reactions and I note that a lot of them come from nationals from EU countries that have traditionally different views on Russia and, I must assume, other geopolitical questions too (think of China here) only because of their recent history.

Again, I am surprised that reasonable people act so emotionally on what should be analyzed rather coldly. When talking economic sanctions, cold economic and political analysis should be used to evaluate and decide whether to continue or, in the opposite case, roll them back. That is the point of view that I am defending in this post and on social media. In any case, to get away from personal attacks and emotional one-to-one tits-for-that, I should present something objective on public opinion on these questions. So I quickly googled and found this survey: It is a bit dated (June) but it shows how divided public opinion in the EU actually is on the question. It also shows – I am happy about that in light of all the flak I have been getting for being pro-peace – that my views are actually not a minority view. On the contrary, in many of the older EU countries (except the UK, perhaps, but they walked out of the EU so we should not take them into account), people are clearly more rational about this and do consider our current stance to be way out of whack. When the EU Commission and our government leaders start ignoring majority opinion, and when vocal minorities shut down debate on peace and war questions, we are in very deep trouble as a democracy. Not only US democracy but Europe’s democracy as well has become a bit of an international joke. :-/

To end on a happy note, I am a fan of American culture (do not be surprised: I like culture in general). Especially music (I like action hero movies too but the apocalyptic element in many of these looks frightening real now). Two songs that come to my mind right now is Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise and Where Is The Love from the Black Eyed Peas. A quote from the latter song: “The truth is kept secret, it’s swept under the rug; If you never know truth then you never know love.” And just one line from the first: “Tell me why are we so blind to see that the ones we hurt, are you and me?” :-/ I am now going to focus on life and fun again. Politics – both national as well as international – are too depressing to follow lately. 🙂