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Six strategy lessons from Clausewitz and Sun Tzu

Six strategy lessons from Clausewitz and Sun Tzu

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Published by Matthijs Pars
Article published in the Journal of Public Affairs, 2013
Article published in the Journal of Public Affairs, 2013

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Published by: Matthijs Pars on Jun 13, 2013
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Practitioner Paper 
Six strategy lessons from Clausewitzand Sun Tzu
Matthijs Pars*
 Meines & Partners, Den Haag, Netherlands
A good strategy is crucial for a successful lobby or public affairs campaign. In this article, six strategy lessons fromClausewitz and Sun Tzu
s classical works on military strategy are discussed, which could be useful for lobbyistsand public affairs managers. Although waging war and lobbying are totally different things, there are also manysimilarities:both dealwithaims tobe achieved,opponents, threats andopportunities, (political) victories,anddefeats.Therefore, military strategic thinking might provide the
eld of public affairs with some good and practical insights.First of all, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz stress the importance of meticulous exploration before the action starts.Subsequently, when laying strategy plans, one should beware of Pyrrhic victories and
the fallacies of hope
.Clausewitz, in particular, warns us to expect the unexpected and not to be surprised by the friction between eventhe best plans and their realization. A good way to handle this friction is to lay down the why and the what of comingactions but not how these actions should be carried out. Both thinkers also provide guidance in how to effectivelydeal with opponents; surprise an opponent to achieve the upper hand, and bring yourself in a position which willenable a decisive step forward; divide opponents whilst making yourself as strong as possible; and
nally preventa hard-edged confrontation by offering an alternative. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Agoodstrategyiscrucialforalobbyorpublicaffairscampaign to be successful. Otherwise, unobtainableobjectives would be pursued, the wrong politiciansapproached, and detrimental coalitions forged. Thesame counts for war: the chances of defeat areextremely high without a good strategy. Historygives us many examples of this.In this article I will explore what lobbyists andpublic affairs managers might learn from two classi-cal works on military strategy, Sun Tzu
The Art of War
On War
.TheseworksarewhatGermans call a
, a treasure trove, of strate-gic thought. Most contemporary strategic thinkingstill refers back to these classic works.Needless to say, waging war and lobbying arevery different things, with different rules of thegame. A brilliant trick might be appraised by friendand foe on the battle
eld but for a lobbyist be beyond the pale and lead to a lifelong reputationas a dangerous Machiavellian. But in other ways,war and lobbying are very similar activities. Bothdeal with aims to be achieved, opponents, threatsand opportunities, victories, and defeats.More speci
cally, in this article, I will discuss sixlessons from the two mentioned works. The choiceof these lessons is more random than systematic,not exhaustive, and also based on my own experi-ence in the
eld of public affairs. I hope they will be of practical use.
Sun Tzu lived in China around 500 BC in the timeof Confucius.
The Art of War
is the oldest knowntreatise on military strategy and seems to be thevery
rst attempt to write about the planningand execution of military operations on a rational basis. It is a wonderfully clear and compact book,the distillate of experience and knowledge builtup over many years.Mao Zedong based much of the strategy of hisRed Army on Sun Tzu
The Art of War
( ).It is an obligatory reading for the US MarineCorps, and sales hugely increased after TonySoprano started quoting from the book in televisionseries
The Sopranos
*Correspondence to: Matthijs Pars, Consultant at Meines &Partners, Lobbying, Public Affairs and Strategic Communication,The Hague, Netherlands.E-mail: matthijspars@meinespartners.nl
 Journal of Public Affairs (2013)Published online in Wiley Online Library(www.wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/pa.1460Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
One of the central ideas of Sun Tzu is thatweapons are
disastrous instruments
, which areonly to be used if there is no alternative. To subduethe enemy without
ghting is therefore the acme of skill. This is an interesting idea not only for a soldier but also for a lobbyist. The main thing shouldalways be to achieve a certain (political) objective.The means should be as proportionate andmeasured as possible. Why deploy
the full monty
,if the aim can be achieved in a less far reaching ormore indirect way?
Anotherstrategicthinkerwhoseworkshavestoodthetest of time is Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz was aPrussian of 
cer, who lived more than 2000years afterSun Tzu (1780
1831). His book
On War
Vom Kriege
)draws on his extensive military experience duringthe Napoleonic wars (1804
1815). According toClausewitz war is not an independent phenomenon but the continuation of politics by different means.Politics
is the womb in which war develops
.Clausewitz is a more scienti
c and analyticalwriter than Sun Tzu and clearly a child of theEnlightenment. But Clausewitz also develops theromantic notion of the military genius, whichmainly seems to have been intended to get a gripon Napoleon
s incredible, but for a large partunexplainable, success.
Distinction between strategy and tactics
Clausewitz makes a clear distinction betweenstrategy and tactics, terms which are often usedsynonymously (also in public affairs). Tactics is
the formation and conduct of single combats inthemselves
, whereas strategy is
the combinationof combats with one another, with a view to theultimate object of the war
. Taking that de
nition,public affairs tactics would be concerned with the
lobby actions are carried out (e.g., during meet-ings with decision makers), and strategy with theplanning of actions needed to achieve the lobby
s aim(drafting of papers, meetings with politicians, etc.).Clausewitz exempli
es:If we prescribe to a column of soldiers its routeon a particular side of a river or of a branch of amountain, then that is a strategic measure, for itcontains the intention of 
ghting on that side of the hill or river in preference to the other.(Clausewitz 1873: p. 125)But if that column,instead of following the road through a valley,marches along the parallel ridge of heights, or, fortheconvenienceofmarching,dividesitselfintosev-eral columns, then these are tactical arrangements.So in Clausewitz
s de
nition, taking a differencestance during a meeting with a decision maker thanspeci
cally prescribed in the lobby plan is a tacticalmeasure when one has the lobby
s more abstractaim in mind (cf. the soldiers marching in the reversedirection than laid down in the strategic plan).After this introduction on the two great strategicthinkers, we will now go on to the six lessons.
Obtain the data
Sun Tzu opens his treatise on the art of war with achapter on laying plans. Before initiating a battle(/lobby), it should be the subject of a thorough,explorative inquiry,
which on no account should be neglected
. Just as NASA
s robot
wantsto know all about planet Mars, a lobbyist, or publicaffairs manager can bene
t from being curiousabout every aspect of the arena around which alobby operates (parliament, ministries, governmentregulator, etc.).
According to Clausewitz such inquiry shouldconcern the
and plans of opponents, theterrain where the battle is to take place, weatherconditions etcetera. Ina lobby this could be informa-tion about government plans, timelines and proce-dural steps as well as opponents
plans.Collecting insider knowledge from experts or
people in the
is also important, as Sun Tzumakes clear:
We shall be unable to turn naturaladvantage to account unless we make use of localguides
. In a lobby context, this can start with asmall but useful tit bit of information, possiblyobtained a decision maker
s support staff:
He will be in the car tomorrow morning, so call him then
Assess the data
The collected data then need to be sifted, arrangedand interpreted in order to convert it into knowl-edge useful for the lobby. In this respect it is of veryimportant to weigh and estimate what the opponent(s) exact interests are, as Clausewitz makes clear:
If it is A
s interest to attack his opponent not now butfour weeks later, then it is B
s interest to be attacked by him not four weeks later but now; but it does notfollow that it is B
s interest to attack A now, which isclearly a very different thing.
Well, maybe not
aspect. Clausewitz warns us that the
of information should be well tailored to onesplace in the chain of command. Too much information can bedetrimental; we should be able to see the wood from the trees.
According to Clausewitz. That
repower is the product of twofactors, one material and the other immaterial: the availableresources and the power of the opponent
s (political) will.
M. ParsCopyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2013)DOI: 10.1002/pa
. . .
use your imagination
Clausewitzdoesmakeclearthatthereisalimittothecollection and interpretation of data. Usually there isnot enough time or possibility to explore everything.And many things simply cannot be known inadvance. For example, the broad outlines of newpolicy plans might be obtainable, but the detailsunavailable, not even from insiders.Clausewitz says this peculiar dif 
culty can be(partly) overcome by
mental gift of a special kind
lends an easier and
rmer step to onesactions, saves from a certain mental helplessness,and makes less dependent on others.
It is thepower of 
quickly forming a correct geometricalidea of any portion of country and consequently being able to
nd one
s place in it exactly at anytime. This is plainly an act of the imagination.
Therefore, when exploring the lobby
, twocontrasting functions need to be integrated
c/analytical, as well as the imaginative. Justas a soldier, blessed with such gift, can quicklyassess distances on the battle
eld, a lobbyist coulduse his imaginative powers to make a good andeducated guess about the outlines of governmentpolicyplansorwhatcouldbebeingdiscussedbehindthe closed doors of decision makers.
The collected and analyzed data form the rawmaterials of a strategic (lobby) plan. Drawing upsuch a plan is not easy. As a general in
uenced byClausewitz, put it:
No ready-made works of artcan spring from the brain as did Pallas Athene fromthe head of Zeus
(Manstein 2004: p. 105). And based on new facts and insights, the plan should be regularly updated and revised.
Prevent Pyrrhic victories
When planning, according to Clausewitz, the keyquestion should be: what at any given moment of a (lobby) campaign will be the probable result of all the great and small actions put together?According to Clausewitz, this question is decisiveas to the measures which are to be taken. Will theseactions really contribute to achieving the aim, or willtheyturnout tobedisadvantageousonthe long run?One should try to see through the veil in which fu-ture actions are wrapped (cf. Manstein 2004: p. 409).Clausewitz explains:
If we do not accustom our-selves to look upon war and the single campaigns ina war, as a chain which is all composed of battles[cf. lobby actions] strung together, one of whichalways brings on another; if we adopt the idea thatthe taking of a certain geographical point, theoccupation of an undefended province, is in itself anything; then we are very likely to regard it as anacquisition which we may retain; and if we look atit so, and not as a term in the whole series of events,we do not ask ourselves whether this possessionmay not lead to greater disadvantages hereafter.
Sun Tzu says it in a more compact way:
He whoexercises no forethought but makes light of hisopponents is sure to be captured by them.
Transposed to the world of lobbying, convincingcertain policy makers might seem very useful initself, but when considered with a bird
s eye view,prove to be useless or even detrimental to reachthe objective. Furthermore, a successful lobby isnot always bene
cial on the long run, but can evencause damage to the reputation of a company ororganization, when carried out in an aggressive way.So beware, Clausewitz seems to warn us, to becomelike Goethe
s sorcerer
s apprentice (
),who initiates actions, without having a clue whatpossible implications for the future they might have.In this context, the Battle of Borodino in 1812 betweentheNapoleon
ontheonesideand the Russians and their allies (Clausewitz alsotook part) on the other, is exemplary. Napoleon wonthe battle and it was the
rst pinnacle of his Russiancampaign. But in the long run, Borodino was a suc-cess for the Russians, because Napoleon had won atfar too high cost. He lost 35.000 men, including theelite of his cavalry. It was a so called Pyrrhic victoryand, military historians claim, Napoleon
s sword became blunt as a consequence (Zamoyski, 2004).On a somewhat smaller scale, the same sort of thing happened to the Dutch Christian Democrats(CDA), whose leader Jan Peter Balkenende accusedSocial Democrat leader Wouter Bos during the2006 elections of being
and a
, referring to statements Bos had made,contrary to party
s earlier position. This
wasa success and helped to deliver electoral victory tothe Christian Democrats, but eventually back
redafter they had formed a coalition government withthe Social Democrats. Being accused of 
opping became something Bos wanted to avoid at all costs,leading to an in
exible stance with regard toDutch participation in the war in Afghanistan. As aconsequence, the government fell in 2010 and newelections were announced.
Beware of the fallacies of hope
As Clausewitz warns us about the risk of a victoryat too high a cost, Sun Tzu stresses that we mustnot to believe we can make a
sh walk. Hope is notastrategy.
This type of activity seems to be the opposite of what the brainnormally tends to do. According to Kahnemann, 2011 the brainloves to simplify and jump to conclusions on the basis that
whatyou see is all there is
(the so called WYSIATI syndrome).
The art of lobbyingCopyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Public Affairs (2013)DOI: 10.1002/pa

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