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The United Nations’ Peacekeeping Agenda Through Sun Tzu's vision

Infamous blue helmet UN Peacekeeping

©Fox9113/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons


Sun Tzu said: “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting” (III, 2.); “ The next best [form of generalship] is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces” (III, 3.) (2009).

António Guterres said: “(…) wars can only be ended by the actions of the direct parties and their supporters to forge political solutions and tackle the root causes. (…) This means promptly identifying and responding to early signs of tension, using all tools available” (2017).

Both of these quotes, even if thousands of years apart, share one underlying idea: prevention. Though Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” was written as a military treatise, a lot of parallelisms can be made to the United Nations’ (UN) “Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations” (A4P). In fact, Sun Tzu’s magnum opus has been used in a variety of ways and interpretations since its inception (much like Machiavelli’s The Prince, which saw the author characterized as a plethora of different labels, many of which contradictory), as noted in Historian Sima Qian’s “Records of the Grand Historian” written around 85 BCE; today, it can still be used by “military commanders, computer-strategy game players and Fortune 500 executives alike" (Hanzhang, 1987, cit. by O’Dowd & Waldron, 1991:2). If Guterres’ prevention-tending strategy on peacekeeping (noted in Point 2 of the A4P) is a “war against wars”, as one might say, then the UN and Sun Tzu are aligned in more ways than one might consider: Eastern and Western thought, both old and new, come together as would “the men of Wu and the men of Yueh” – enemies – if caught in the same storm (XI, 30.).

Even if the two millennia gap leads to some differences between the two documents (since the connection between them has not been made before), their comparison will have to be made through metaphors and adaptations – for example, Sun Tzu’s definition of “sovereign”, who oversees and has control over everything, is interpreted in today’s age (and in Point 13 of the A4P) as the UN rules and institutions as guarantors of international law. This (and the fact that some issues that we regard as serious matters, like human rights or war crimes, weren’t regarded as such in Sun Tzu’s time) also means, naturally, that not all of the twenty-four A4P objectives will be addressed.

Point 3.

The “non-use of force” is still the favored method of conducting peacekeeping missions, a principle which dates back to the signing of the UN Charter in 1945 (Olivier, 2013). Peacekeeping is to “play a critical role in preventing, containing and resolving conflicts”, as if to say that there are three fundamental stages of conflict: prevention – “before”; containment – “during”; resolution – “after”. Prevention is the most desirable phase of the conflict, meaning that there is not yet one. Resolution, on the other hand, is the least desirable, as it means that there already was one.

For Sun Tzu, this means that “the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field” (III, 3.). As such, “(…) the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field” (III, 6.). Both for Sun Tzu and for the UN, the main objective is that the conflict is over “without losing a man” (III, 7.), as only that can be considered “triumph”. This is the right way to conduct “the evils of war” (II, 7), even though “offensive peacekeeping” has become more prominent since the Brahimi Report removed the word “self-defense” from peacekeeping mandates (Sloan, 2014; Peter, 2015:5).

Point 6.

The “frank and realistic recommendations” present in A4P can also be found in Sun Tzu’s work, where it is stated that, for example, “if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, [it is expected] to surround him; if five to one, to attack him;(…)”, and so on and so forth (III, 8.; 9.). Frank and realistic recommendations presuppose preparation and strategy, for there is no realistic recommendation without knowledge of the situation therein: “Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all!” (I, 26.) – Sun Tzu would never recommend battle (or intervention) without preparation, and Point 5 of the A4P, which stresses the UN’s desire for “focused, sequenced, prioritized and achievable mandates”, also correlates perfectly to this notion.

Point 7.

The “triangular cooperation” between “uniformed personnel contributing countries”, the Security Council and Secretariat functions as a strategic alliance. As such, joining hands with allies is key on “the ground of intersecting highways” (XI, 12.): the countries’ capabilities and willingness to deploy soldiers, and the UN’s need for blue helmets. This cooperation is again brought forth on Point 18 regarding the UN’s relationship with the European Union and the African Union, for it is wise for the UN to cooperate with these two regional organizations, as they conduct more peacekeeping operations than the UN does (Williams, 2017), as also stated by Point 1 of the A4P, where “collective engagement with UN peacekeeping operations” is expected from “those organizations [international, regional and sub-regional] and arrangements”.

On the second topic at hand, Sun Tzu said: “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good” (III, 1.). This teaching is equally valid when it comes to modern institutions of host governments, as “direct engagement” (as a method for obtaining peace) between them and the Security Council is only possible if the host’s institutions are maintained. Sun Tzu’s view is paralleled in Machiavelli’s “The Prince” (2008: 93-94) – in the same way one must maintain the laws and taxes of a principality to keep it, one must also not alter the institutions of the “host” country’s government to build and maintain peace, as to not have “detrimental impact on mandate implementation and performance” (Point 15) while strengthening “national ownership and capacity” (Point 16). The Security Council Resolution 1769, regarding Darfur, Sudan (cit. by Williams, 2017), is a good example of this, as it is stated that the operation is conducted “in full respect of its [Sudan’s] sovereignty” and with a “predominantly African character”, hence Point 9’s mention of primary responsibility falling upon the host states themselves and Point 19’s “national responsibilities related to the safety and security of peacekeepers.”

Point 10.

The desire for “tailored, context specific peacekeeping approaches” is not new to reforms of the A4P, as seen in Paul Diehl’s “International Peacekeeping” (1993, cit. by Druckman et al., 1997), which states that, “for conflict avoidance”, there are “several possibilities” depending on the situation at hand. For this, the authors argue, the peacekeeping missions in Cyprus or Ethiopia, which require different approaches, are a great example – as the “non-use of force”, while a “long established element of peacekeeping operations”, is still “couched in very general terms” (Murphy, 2003:6), and thus, easy to adapt to the situation at hand.

For Sun Tzu, adaptation to circumstances is a “military principle” (III, 15.). Even if there are “not more than five musical notes”, “five primary colors” and “five cardinal tastes”, the endless number of combinations can create as many melodies, as many hues and as many flavors as can be tasted (V, 7., 8., 9.). “Who can exhaust”, Sun Tzu asked, “the possibilities of their combination?” (VI, 11.). With the world being as diverse as it is, the peacekeeping methods should differ depending on their context; if not, the missions are bound to fail. The UN approach, until now standardized, commonly resulted in failure, as stated by Jeremy Weinstein and Roland Paris (cit. by Autusserre, 2019). The adoption of “context specific peacekeeping approaches” will result in further success, as “in warfare there are no constant conditions” (VI, 32.): “He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.” (VI, 33.). Adaptation is key, even in attempting to “address the rise in peacekeeper fatalities and enhance safety and security”, as per Point 12 of the A4P – much like water shapes the river in accordance with the ground in which it flows, “the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing” (VI, 31.).

Point 13.

The people involved in the peacekeeping process are expected to perform their duties and to be held accountable should something go astray, even though the different approaches to peacekeeping prevent the accountability from being standardized. This priority is justified with examples such as Dutch General Patrick Cammaert who, while conducting “effective operations against the militias” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, received mixed statements of “confusion, division and uneasiness” from UN staff for his offensive-minded approach (Terrie, 2009: 4-5).

For Sun Tzu, the general should always receive “his commands from the sovereign” (VIII, 1.), assuming, of course, that “the sovereign” represents, in this day and age, the UN’s rules, institutions, and peace as a fundamental purpose, as “(…) [the general] whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom” (X, 24). Doing good service to the UN’s rules and institutions, as well as striving for peace above all means that, logically, the general is both expected to perform as well as to be held accountable, should the situation justify it.

Logistical matters are, of course, of extreme importance to the UN, as the missions can be “complex peacekeeping challenges” (UN, 2015: 2). As such, the United Nations Peacekeeping Missions Military Logistics Unit Manual (Ibidem) is divided into six chapters across the 62 pages, each of which dealing with a different area like Military Support or Organization. Both the UN and Sun Tzu understand that there can be no Logistics without preparation, hence why Point 6 and Point 13 complement each other: “The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy, neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice” (II, 8.); “(…) an army without its baggage-train is lost; without provisions it is lost; without bases of supply it is lost” (VII,11.).

Point 14.

The last chapter of the aforementioned United Nations Peacekeeping Missions Military Logistics Unit Manual tackles the intent, responsibilities, expectations, and requirements for the training of the personnel. This is made as to ensure “the highest level of peacekeeping performance” mentioned in Point 13 and to make sure that nothing is to go wrong during the peacekeeping operations, guaranteeing their success – for Sun Tzu, this is an obvious prerequisite, as “He [the fighter] wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory (…)” (IV, 13.); “Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible (…)” (IV, 14.). Guaranteeing that the peacekeeping units are well-prepared and well-trained will ensure the triumph of peace over war, in turn guaranteeing that the battle is only fought after victory has been achieved (IV, 15.) through preparation. For this, Point 20 of the A4P mentions that the UN “commit to better prepare, train and equip uniformed personnel”, which is a prerequisite addressed by Sun Tzu, who determines that a 100.000 men army is to be composed of “a thousand swift chariots, as many heavy chariots, and a hundred thousand mail-clad soldiers, with provisions enough to carry them a thousand li (…)” (II, 1.).

Point 17.

In the thirteenth and final chapter of “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu talks about the use of spies – which will be henceforth interpreted as those who know the particularities and intricacies of another State. In the sixth point (XIII, 6.) he states that “Knowledge of the enemy’s [in this case, the State which is being targeted in the peacekeeping operations] dispositions can only be obtained from other men”. As such, the “local spies”, drafted from “the inhabitants of a district” (XIII, 9.), are used to support the “peacekeeping mandate implementation”, and so are the “inward spies”, “officials of the enemy [see definition above].” (XIII.10). With both of these spies (who in this case are, of course, local officials who help with the mandate), the peacekeeping operation will succeed due to the “tailored, context specific” peacekeeping approach mentioned in Point 10, as guaranteeing local solutions to local problems – as opposed to the standardized UN solution – is key to success. If we are to use the local and inward spies (“local population” and “the host government”, respectively) for “every kind of business” (XIII, 18), the peacekeeping operation works from the inside out and, as stated in Point 7, is more likely to resolve the conflict.


Of the twenty-four A4P Objectives, only seven do not have any connection whatsoever to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”:

Points 4 and 22 on human rights;

Point 8 on women and equal rights;

Point 11 on war crimes;

Point 21, mostly about sexual abuse problems regarding the peacekeeping forces;

Point 23 on environmental concerns;

Point 24, which serves as the conclusion of the document.

Each of the aforementioned points concern topics that weren’t necessarily a priority in Sun Tzu’s era, and as such it is only natural that the connection between “The Art of War” and A4P is not present therein. The seventeen in which that connection exists, however, fit perfectly into António Guterres’ vision for his reform of the UN and his Common Agenda (through strategic foresight), in which prevention is the biggest factor in the Peacekeeping and Peace-building operations.

While times do certainly change, and as so do some priorities of ours (as seen with the seven A4P Objectives which have no connection to Sun Tzu), prevention, adaptability, cooperation, localized and specific approaches, alliances, among others, are essential to understand both the matters that concern “The Art of War” and the peacekeeping agenda proposed by the A4P document. Just like stated in the introduction, eastern and western thought, both old and new, were able to get together.

And as such, Simão Santiago Madeira said: “This is the connection between these two works.”

Simão Santiago Madeira is 20 years old and currently pursuing a Master's Degree Student of Political Science and International Relations at the Catholic University of Portugal. Passionate about China and Chinese Culture and has been for a while - "it is just so different from what I am used to in Europe that it makes me want to study it more and more. To me, understanding China means you can better understand the world that revolves around you, and understanding Chinese history means you can better understand world history". You can find him on Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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