Donald Trump and the art of the warmonger

IT would, perhaps, be too optimistic to suppose that President Donald Trump has ever perused the famous treatise on war written by the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.

Donald Trump and the art of the warmonger

It is highly likely, though, that it has been read and studied by the increasing number of military officers Trump has appointed as White House advisers.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is listed on the US Marine Corps Professional Reading Program and is recommended reading for all US military intelligence personnel.

Writing more than 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu declared that all war is based on deception.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.... He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

In the light of the warmongering between the US and North Korea, the question is does Trump — any more than any American president for the past 50 years — know when to fight and when not to fight?

John F. Kennedy learned the lesson the hard way with the Bay of Pigs disaster, but his subsequent handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was masterly — and textbook Sun Tzu who advised: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

JFK prevented the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 145km from Florida, using little more than guile and bluster. The Soviet Union blinked first when confronted with a military blockade to its delivery of missiles to Cuba. Not a single shot was fired to overcome a potential existential crisis for the US.

It is no exaggeration to say that the US now faces a crisis of similar proportions as North Korea and its clearly unhinged leader, Kim Jong-un, appear poised to launch a missile strike against the US territory of Guam.

Trump’s threat that North Korea will be met with “fire and fury” is eerily similar to Harry Truman’s Hiroshima warning in 1945 that the Japanese “may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”.

North Korea is a puppet state of China and, in some respects, its nuclear programme mirrors that of the Chinese in the 1960s.

The US learned to live with that because China’s nuclear ambitions were strategic, an exercise in calculated restraint designed to break the superpower monopoly rather than threaten the US or the Soviet Union directly.

China is the main player in all this US-North Korea rhetoric and Chinese leader Xi Jinping is probably the only one capable of reigning in Kim Jong-un. The Chinese have already indicated that they will support increased sanctions against North Korea, even though this will cost them economically.

Xi Jinping has his own troubles trying to negotiate China’s Himalayan border standoff with India, but assisting the US to help calm the Pacific region would increase his stature as a world leader.

As a student of history, he, more than most, knows that there are times when, as Sun Tzu put it, you need to “build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.

logo podcast

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on

IE logo

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up