July 30, 2012
As the Republican National Convention approaches, the shouts of victory resounding in the tents will easily conceal the broader political forces at work in the party beyond this fall’s hopeful decisive victory.
The strategy of these forces are visible in the past Republican presidential campaign of Congressman Ron Paul. To some, Paul’s stubborn persistence in the campaign has been just that: a stubborn unwillingness to lie down and die despite evidence of sure defeat. But what they have missed is a common misperception of a subtle yet powerful age-old strategy at play.
The strategy of the Paul campaign, explicit or not, is the archetypal shi (pronounced “sure”) strategy expounded and employed by Chinese philosophers and military strategists for thousands of years.
Shi has no single, obvious translation, though the best seem to be strategic- or positional-advantage, or potential energy. We might call it cultivating the influence of the present on the future. Shi has been traced back as far as Laozi and the Daodejing, the fourth century BC political treatise attributed to him, with its counterintuitive processual and indirect approach to conflict. Over the centuries that followed, it gained more military-specific development starting with Sunzi.
The quintessential metaphor for shi is water, flowing ever downward in the most naturally powerful and effective way, ultimately overcoming everything in its path. Paradoxically, it is one of the softest and yet strongest forces in nature.
Shi’s antithesis, li, is the strategy of decisive victory in each present battle, typically a more natural, comfortable, and coherent approach than the greater subtleties of the shi approach. While li is seen as a very western world view, it is that forward-looking strategic-advantage orientation of shi that has been the basis of the advancement of western civilization itself—from capital investment and production to the ceaseless pursuit of innovation and, as in Paul’s case, freedom. Rarely have these advantages been realized immediately, while their costs typically have.