Disruption in the Trinity

How Socio-Political Changes Might Disrupt Our Framework for Understanding War

Of Clausewitz’s theories, his explanation of the nature of war through the construction of the trinity is perhaps the most contested and misunderstood. While some modern scholars such as Martin Van Creveld and Mary Kaldor have questioned the relevance of the theory as a framework for contemporary conflicts, there has been substantial defence of the trinity construct from others.[1]

Most of this argument centres on the linkage of the primary and secondary trinities, the essential attributes of war—passion, reason, and chance—and its practical institutional application. The linkage Clausewitz makes is important, as the secondary trinity of people, government, and the military is a tangible translation which provides a framework for managing the elements of war within a relatable socio-political context.

This article will explore why Clausewitz’s translation of war’s nature onto the people, military, and government is being disrupted by emerging socio-political trends. Further, if the second trinity is disrupted, it may have consequences for the viability of the institutions themselves.

Varying Views of the Trinity

Scholars of Clausewitz have gone to great pains to distinguish and connect the primary trinity of passion, chance, and reason with the secondary trinity of people, military, and government.[2] In repudiating the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine’s focus on only the secondary trinity, Hew Strachan points out the the triad of people, military, and government are the application of the trinity—they are elements of the “state, not of war.”[3] But for Antulio Echevarria, an equally erroneous position would be to ignore the secondary trinity, as he argues Clausewitz was clear in drawing the connection between the intrinsic and the institutional. In taking a position diametrically opposed to van Creveld, Echevarria suggests we risk divorcing Clausewitz from the “practical concerns of the debates of his day.”[4]

...the triad of people, military, and government are the “application” of the trinity—they are elements of the “state, not of war.”

Peter Paret seizes on this point, suggesting the explanation of the primary trinity through the secondary is due to Clausewitz’s “historical posture” as a Prussian who saw “raw emotions must be exploited but also controlled.” To a 19th century Prussian officer, “a government channels psychic energy into rational policy, which the army helps carry out."[5] Echevarria argues it was not until Prussia achieved the alignment of its institutions with the changed nature of war that they achieved success through 1813-15.[6] However, Paret calls the translation between trinities “highly subjective” and probably made in the interests of “theoretical neatness”.[7]

Colin Gray comes to a compromise suggesting that “although Clausewitz’s trinity is firm in its assertion that reason is associated primarily with government, his qualification of the the claim is vitally significant.” The trinitarian framework is designed to be flexible, as Clausewitz did not draw a direct enough connection between the trinities so as to not “assume the formal structure of authority in war.”[8]

I sympathise with Gray’s approach, not because the fence is a convenient place to sit, but because from there you can observe a teachable moment. The great strength of Clausewitz is that he does not tell us what to think, but provides a framework in which you can consistently assess war.[9] Echevarria is right in suggesting the linkage between the primary and secondary trinities gives us the means to think about how our socio-political structure can manage the forces of the nature of war. Equally, Paret, and Gray are correct to note the association was made within the context of the emerging modern state and is not set in stone.

Applying the Trinities

While passion, chance, and reason will always be the three elements of war, they may not always translate to the people, military, and government. In fact Clausewitz states only that they “mainly” relate to one another.[10] As relationship between these institutions can be disrupted, so can the translation between elements of the trinities. This has consequences for our ability to wage war and the stability of our polities, which are built on the relationship between the state and the people, with the military playing a unique role on behalf of the state.

The Westphalian state emerged contemporaneously with the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who wrote in the shadows of the epochal Thirty Years War and English Civil War. Hobbes saw the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and without a “common power to keep them in awe” humankind were kept in a condition of war with every man for himself.[11] Locke was more optimistic in coming to essentially the same conclusion, as he described the state of nature as being one where people can act as they see fit, “without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.”[12] Locke recognised that when humans do not respect each other, the peaceful state of nature can descend into a condition of war when there is no civil authority to enforce God’s law and nobody to “preserve the innocent and restrain offenders.”[13] The state of nature, which includes the natural state of war unsubordinated to policy, needs to be structured and constrained within a mechanism or relationship that provides security and safety.

To Locke, people “unite into one political society” through “the original compact,” which is an “obligation to everyone in that society to submit to the decisions of the majority, and to be bound by it.”[14] Not conforming to the decisions of majority (or government) would be tantamount to returning to the state of nature. Hobbes also recognised that sovereignty was required to curb the state of nature. For Hobbes, “Security depends upon the existence of a government having the power to keep the peace and to apply the sanctions needed to curb man’s innately social inclinations.”[15] This social contract monopolises the use of force in the sovereign both internally to preserve order and externally to preserve security from other sovereigns or collectives. It is the sovereign's responsibility to organise people to serve in the armies they raise, and it is the sovereign who decides when and how to wage war.[16]

The relationship of the institutions within the social contract is homogeneous with the operation of the secondary trinity. The social contract is the mechanism constructed for a polity to control the state of nature, much in the same way Clausewitz designed the secondary trinity as a way for 19th century Prussia to frame the elements of war’s nature. Under the contract, the state is to provide for the armed forces and to enact law, creating order and security. In return, the military has a mutual obligation to provide these services to the state and its people, while ensuring it does not act against the people’s broader interests.[17]

The social contract is the mechanism constructed for a polity to control the state of nature...

If the military cannot demonstrate they represent and defend the interests of the people, the state can no longer claim to be the most capable agent for curbing the state of nature, and therefore lose their mandate on the monopolisation of armed violence.[18] In such a case, the alignment of the secondary trinity with the primary trinity is disrupted.

Equally, if the people no longer believe the government “will yield a larger individual advantage than their opposites,” there is no need for the state or its monopolised armed violence capability—the military.[19] Such a situation would be a breakdown in the interdependent trinties, and while the nature of war would still consist of ”primordial violence, hatred and enmity” and “the play of courage and talent…in the realm of probability and chance,” its subordination to policy would not be that of governments, but presumably some other social or institutional construct.

Put simply, a modern state cannot fight a war and hope to win within our current theoretical understanding if one the three legs of the trinitarian tripod is removed or imbalanced. And even if it could win, the war would not be a continuation of policy as it may not support the interests of the entity where sovereignty resides.

The Trinity in Contemporary Western Institutions

Reflecting on the nature of the relationship between the government and the governed and the current state of civil-military relations, the consequences for trinitarian misalignment or broader disruption become more stark.

Whether or not you agree with Phillip Bobbit that we are in the midst of a transition in constitutional order, subscribe to Strauss and Howe’s generational theory, believe in Naim’s decay of power, or suggest we are living through a Platonic transition into tyranny, there is definitely societal and political change afoot that will have an effect on war. As Echevarria suggests, the trinity tells us “war’s nature is inseparable from the historical and sociopolitical contexts in which it arises, and that no tendency is a priori more influential than any other.”[20] So, to understand war in the future, we need to understand the emerging dynamics.

Bobbit points to five delegitimising challenges to modern western institutions:

  • The global system of communications that makes it impossible for any nation-state to isolate or even insulate its national culture, penetrating every society and replacing the festivals of national cultural establishments with social networking technologies.
  • A legal system of international human rights that supersedes any nation-state's own laws and has provided the legal basis for armed attacks on states that pose no threat to the attacking state.
  • An international system where markets have the control over national economies, with the consequence of dramatic increases in inequality and an ever-widening expectation of material entitlements from consumers rather than citizens that nation-states will be unable to provide as national populations age.
  • Transnational threats like pandemics, climate change, and global, non-national terrorist networks that cannot be dealt with by a single state or bloc structure.
  • Emerging commodification of weapon systems, previously the privy of nation states, that can either be sold or bartered in the international marketplace or simply downloaded.[21]

For Bobbit, the evidence of these changes “is the backlash against it, a reaction that is reshaping the political parties and traditional structures of democracies,” and, as the “constitutional premise of governing changes,” adherents to the new and old order are creating the new ideological divide.[22] This divide is characterised by Francis Fukuyama as the “displacement of class politics by identity politics.”[23]

In Australia, a survey found 9 out of 10 respondents regarded themselves as having no influence over the federal level of government, while citizens would be more engaged if a “different politics was on offer.”[24] Globally, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reports government is now distrusted in 75 percent of the 28 countries surveyed with only 15 percent of the general population believing the present system is working.[25]

In countries such as the United States and Australia, the popular sentiment towards the military is overwhelmingly positive, however there is evidence of problems on this side of the secondary trinity. In Warriors and Citizens, the research reveals that although support for those in uniform was strong in the U.S., many gaps exist between the American public and the military. “The public sees policy elites incapable of winning our ill-defined wars, implausibly expecting military force to produce sophisticated political, economic, and cultural outcomes.”[26] The research found that due to Americans’ lack of experience with the military or warfare, the public was uncomfortable with achieving political aims through a military tool capable of causing human suffering.

...due to Americans’ lack of experience with the military or warfare, the public was uncomfortable with achieving political aims through a military tool capable of causing human suffering.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, with the Hoover Institution when he co-edited Warriors and Citizens with Kori Schake, noted, “To many in the military, we seem to be not a country at war, but a military at war.” He put the distance between society and the military down to three factors:

  • The transition from conscription to an all volunteer force after the Vietnam War.
  • Professionalisation of service that sees military members asked to keep serving due to the complexity of modern military capabilities and operations.
  • The small size of the military relative to the US population.[27]

Similar reflections can be seen in Australia, with military issues rarely viewed as important to the population while support for the services remains high.[28] Australia ended conscription to create a professional volunteer force at the end of its commitment to Vietnam in 1972, and according to Andrew Carr, Vietnam left a “folkloric image” of “unwilling diggers overseas and angry crowds at home” resulting in “a deep fear of division and debate in the minds of many in our political and military establishments.”[29] Carr argues the bipartisanship over defence in Australia restricts policy creativity and accountability, reduces public buy-in and interest and diminishes national unity. He cites James Brown’s work in demonstrating there has been more political and public attention in commemorating wars rather than discussing current conflicts.[30]

These trends do not neatly fit with the theoretical constructs of Clausewitz’s two trinities, nor within the framework for the military, people, and government as devised by Hobbes and Locke. To address this, we need to consider whether the elements of the secondary trinity can reacquire the corresponding elements of the primary trinity, or whether new institutions need to take the place of the old within the trinity and social contract.


Clausewitz tried to explain the nature of war through familiar institutions that made the metaphysical primary trinity an instrument that the state could control. Wars nature could be harnessed by the reasoned policy of government, directing the power of the people’s passion with an army able to exploit the opportunities that appear on the battlefield. In choosing the institutions, he chose the fundamental elements that made up the Westphalian state. Just as Hobbes and Locke, he saw the relationship between these actors as being complementary and interconnected.



Through his dialect on the trinity, though, Clausewitz tells us not to assume structure in war as public opinion can change the course of reasoned policy as much as policy will be moulded by what is achievable militarily.[31] Indeed, Paret noted the equivalency between elements of the trinities certainly was not constant, even in Clausewitz’s day. The passion and violence of Napoleon eclipsed whatever hostility the French might have felt toward the rest of Europe, and rationality rested more with the war-weary population than it did with the emperor.[32]

But the issue goes further than the interchangeability between the parts of each trinity. While Echevarria is right to argue the secondary trinity is important, it is only important as a structure that relates to the primary trinity and not because of its contents. As changes occur in the world and the roles of the state and its citizenry disrupt, the role of the military may change within the context of the social contract and its place within the trinitarian structure. Clausewitz uses the analogy of a chameleon to describe wars nature, the chameleon always remains a chameleon (primary trinity) but it changes colour to blend in with its new surrounds (secondary trinity).

Militaries cannot win wars without properly functioning institutions. Therefore, they need to base their understanding of war in their own socio-political context before considering whether or not their society’s secondary trinity is healthy and aligned enough to successfully prosecute a war. But as this construct is also based within the social contract, failing to understand the modern structure of the trinities may also lead to deterioration within the foundations of the state.

Craig Beutel joined the Australian Department of Defence in 2006. He has deployed to Afghanistan and is a graduate of Australian Command and Staff College. His views do not represent the Department, or the Australian Government.

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Header Image: People hold Catalan separatist flags, known as "Esteladas", during a gathering to protest against legal challenges made by Spain's government against pro-independence Catalan politicians, in Barcelona, Spain, November 13, 2016. (Albert Gea | Reuters)...and Carl von Clausewitz.


[1] For an outline of these arguments, see Hew Strachan, The Direction of War, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 48-51.

[2] See Christopher Bassford and Edward Villacres, 'Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity.' Parameters 25 (Autumn 1995): 9-19 available at http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/parameters/articles/1995/1995%20villacres%20and%20bassford.pdf

[3] Strachan, The Direction of War, 46

[4] Antulio J.Echevarria, “War's Changing Character and Varying Nature: A Closer Look at Clausewitz's Trinity,” Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue 4, Summer 2017, pages 15-20.

[4]5Peter Paret, "Clausewitz," in Peter Paret, Editor, Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 201.

[6] Echevarria, “War's Changing Character and Varying Nature”. Echevarria is a long term advocate for war having a changing nature over time. See also Antulio J. Echevarria, Globalization and the Nature of War, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, March 2003, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/469e/9c217e9c4bfaed2d6d3145229c18a4f6a79b.pdf

[7] Paret, “Clausewitz”, 201..

[8] Colin Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace and Strategy (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2009), 29.

[8] Christopher Coker explores this comprehensively, arguing that On War is a phenomenology that can never provide an answer but helps “grasp something of the complexity of the phenomenon being studied” by providing a toolkit for analysing war. See Christopher Coker, Rebooting Clausewitz: On War in the 21st Century (Hurst and Company: London, 2017), 157, xvi-xx and 148.

[10] Clausewitz, On War, 89.

[11] Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, Ch XIII.

[12] John Locke, The Two Treatise of Government, (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 1980), 8

[13] Ibid, 9.

[14] John Locke, The Two Treatise of Government, Ch VIII, 97, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1963), 376.

[15] George Sabine, A History of Political Theory, (London: Harrup, 1960), 397

[16] D Baumgold, ‘Subjects and Soldiers, Hobbes on Military Service’, History of Political Thought 4, No 1 (1983): 43.

[17] Deane-Peter Baker ‘To Whom Does a Private Military Commander Owe Allegiance? In New Wars and New Soldiers: Military Ethics in the Contemporary World, ed Paolo Tripodi and Jessica Wolfendale (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 186.

[18] Patricia Owens, ‘Distinctions, Distinctions: Public and Private Force?’ International Affairs 84, no5 (2008) 980-81

[19] Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 397

[20] Antulio Echevarria,Globalization and the Nature of War, US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, March 2003, 9. http://strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB215.pdf

[21] https://worldview.stratfor.com/weekly/making-sense-brexit These features are also apparent when considering the strategic environment, as described within the 2017 Australian Independent Intelligence Review

[22] https://worldview.stratfor.com/weekly/making-sense-brexit

[23] Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, (London; Profile, 2014), 438

[24] Also see Alex Oliver "Are Australians Disenchanted with Democracy”, Papers on Parliament No. 62

October 2014 (http://www.aph.gov.au/~/~/link.aspx?_id=01FD7901F7E14E9A86A44F9C217BFEC6&_z=z) and Lowy Institute Poll 2017.

[15] There are 19 countries where the sense that the system is not working has become the prevailing sentiment among the general population. Note that this sentiment is specific to Western-style democracies, with the most intense levels in Western Europe, Latin America, and the United States. In less democratic areas of the world, distrust is being expressed through the emergence of dissent and opposing voices.

[26] https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/08/02/warriors__citizens_109655.html

[27] https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/08/10/american_views_of_our_military__109691.html

[28] Jill Sheppard, Amin Saikal and Katja Theodorakis, Attitudes to National Security: Balancing Security and Privacy, ANU Poll July 2016 Report No. 22: October 2016 (http://politicsir.cass.anu.edu.au/sites/politicsir.anu.edu.au/files/ANUpoll-22-Security.pdf), Ian McAllister, Public Opinion Towards Defence Foreign Affairs, ANU Poll Report No. 4: April 2009 (http://politicsir.cass.anu.edu.au/sites/politicsir.anu.edu.au/files/2009-04-29_ANUpoll_defence_report_0.pdf) and Ian McAllister, Public opinion in Australia towards defence, security and terrorism, ASPI Special Report 16, August 2008 (https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/SR16_Public_opinion.pdf?PdfF4wtEURhWlTQU_M8GaRRq2KcZ4382)

[29] Andrew Carr, I’m here for an argument: Why bipartisanship on security makes Australia less safe, Australia Institute Research Paper, August 2017, 12 (http://www.tai.org.au/sites/defualt/files/P341%20I%27m%20here%20for%20an%20argument%20w%20cover.pdf)

[30] James Brown, ANZAC’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2014)

[31] Gray, Fighting Talk, 29.

[32] Peter Paret, "Clausewitz," 202.