Earlier this month, Tom Waldman gave a talk at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
The talk was Clausewitz and the Politics of War, and a summary is below.
Two hundred years ago, in early May 1813, a 32 year old Prussian officer was recovering from wounds sustained only days earlier during the chaotic Battle of Lutzen. He had led repeated cavalry charges as part of the allied German and Russian forces confronting Napoleon’s Grand Army. At one point, finding himself surrounded by French soldiers, he had had to fight his way out in desperate hand to hand combat. Also, his face was blackened from frostbite having spent the winter pursuing French forces during their disastrous retreat from Moscow, and he had personally witnessed the dreadful crossing of the Berezina River. This soldier was Carl von Clausewitz. But why is it that still even today, senior figures such as Colin Powell and General McChrystal publicly invoke the ideas of this man? Basically, I tried to shed light on that question during the talk.
My central argument was really quite simple: that the meaning of Clausewitz’s famous dictum – ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’ – embraces a great deal of complexity and depth that is all too often missed. Clausewitz’s aphorism appears almost everywhere, but often only in passing, and it’s often mistakenly represented as the totality of his theorising, or used out of context in a simplistic and vague sense. So, for instance, Martin van Creveld could claim that Clausewitz believed war was ‘a rational instrument for the attainment of rational social ends’.
However, in recent years there has since been something of a renaissance in Clausewitz studies and I think what we are seeing is a general shift from the idea of the primacy of policy to the primacy of politics. Clausewitz stated that, ‘Nothing is more important in life than finding the right standpoint for seeing and judging events, and then addressing them.’ War as a continuation of politics, properly understood, was for him precisely that standpoint.
I outlined what I think are the three key political perspectives of war in Clausewitz’s thought. First, political conditions essentially provide the broad context and give meaning and form to the other two perspectives. For Clausewitz, political conditions represented the ‘womb of war’ from which it emerges; it largely explains the ways group fight, who they fight and, indeed, the objects they fight for. Second, war’s subordination to policy presents a unilateral, subjective perspective, and it is from this perspective that most of the mistaken assumptions of pure rationality derive. Here it is important to distinguish between Clausewitz’s prescriptive insights and those that simply seek to describe the phenomenon. Clausewitz claimed that in war there would be for the actors involved a definite if messy interaction between ends and means, that weaves a thread of reason through the whole, even if the tapestry hangs together only loosely given the many barriers to perfect rationality that exist in war.
Third, there is often there’s a failure in reading Clausewitz to progress from the subjective idea of subordination to the wider implications of ‘continuation’. These two perspectives are interwoven, juxtaposed and at times almost elide in On War. In the crucial Chapter 6B of Book 8 of On War, the transition from one perspective to the other is almost missed. To take just one instance of this, he states, ‘When whole communities go to war the reason always lies in some political situation, and the occasion is always due to some political object. War, therefore, is an act of policy.’ So, essentially for Clausewitz war is both a continuation of the interactive political situation and the instrument employed by the actors that make up that situation. The two perspectives are inseparable and implicated in the meaning of the other. ‘Continuation’ thus embraces all three perspectives that I have identified and serves as holistic means of understanding the relationship between politics and war: war is a continuation of a multidimensional political situation comprised of the competing policies of those involved, both of which are shaped in important ways by preexisting political conditions.
I then explored four theoretical implications emerging from this. First, war can never be understood as autonomous but is always part of a wider whole, which is politics – war is itself a form of political behaviour, only it employs different means. Second, war is ensconced within a complex, perpetually shifting ‘political web of war’ – the multitude of actors and relationships within, between and beyond belligerents. Third, during war there will be a continuous, simultaneous and non-linear reciprocal feedback between the use of force, politics and policy. Fourth, understanding the psychology of the politics of war brings all these perspectives and implications together – the role of perceptions are crucial to understanding the political effects of the use of force. War does not contain in itself the elements for a final settlement, but beyond situations where the enemy is completely destroyed (which is very rare), the enemy must be persuaded to submit. This all underlines the often ambiguous nature of military victory and the way in which politics has an unnerving habit of delivering its own verdict on events.
The complexity of the politics of war is too often ignored by theorists and commanders alike: war is conceived as unilateral, autonomous, linear, material and rationally controllable. It might be said that much of this is obvious, common-sense, maybe even banal. I would argue, in many respects it is. But it is staggering how often these basic points are forgotten or ignored. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Western states have struggled to employ their militaries as effective instruments of policy, and primarily I would argue due to political myopia, rather than to any major military shortcomings.
Force has often been employed as if in a political vacuum; little attempt has been made to understand the enemy, it’s objectives, character or psychology; policy has been incoherent, short-termist and introspective; political actors have failed to properly understand the wars they oversee or provide clear guidance as to objectives; the military has therefore dominated strategic decision-making in what are intensely political situations; and instruments of force have been used for their own sake, simply because they are available. And interestingly, what course corrections have taken place have primarily been of a political nature: the Sunni Awakening; the move towards reconciliation in Afghanistan and so forth. Most regrettably, troops on the ground have been repeatedly let down by strategic ineptitude and their efforts not translated into meaningful political effect.
The incredible complexity Clausewitz’s terse dictum embodies calls for the sophisticated socio-political understanding and psychological intuition of genius – Clausewitz states that even ‘Newton himself would quail before the algebraic problems it could pose’. However, given that war is always an interactive phenomenon, perhaps the only real comfort is that the political genius required only needs be relative, not absolute. That Clausewitz recognised the fundamentally complex political nature of war in an age dominated by the annihilation battle is I think testament to his own remarkable genius.