Using a Clausewitzian Dictum to Rethink Achieving Victory

“War is thus an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.”
—Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1.

Clausewitz’s off-quoted dictum appears the master key to victory.[1] It all seems so simple: just force others to comply with what you want. The dictum is nevertheless quite wrong.

Wars are fought for a reason. Clausewitz wrote, “When whole communities go to war…the reason always lies in some political situation, and the occasion is always due to some political object.”[2] For Clausewitz then the intent behind making war is to resolve a political disagreement between the communities concerned but he goes beyond that. War is also a “true political instrument.”[3] It is a way states can choose to use their military means to achieve political ends.

In being so used to resolve disagreements, war is “an act of human intercourse,” albeit murderous and bloody.[4] In this clash of political interests, the entities involved continually respond to the actions of the other as they strive for some useful advantage. As the old saying goes, the enemy gets a vote; the adversary is “an animate object that reacts.”[5]

Wellington and Napoleon. For each, an enemy who reacted...and thought ahead. (YouTube)

War accordingly involves countering intelligent and adaptive others. It entails an interdependent relationship where each party continuously modifies its position, intent, and actions based on the perceptions and actions of the others participating. Thomas Schelling observed that these interactions “...are essentially bargaining situations…in which the ability of one participant to gain his ends is dependent…on the choices or decisions the other participant will make.”[6]

War is then a violent activity where we bargain with an adversary to come to a political outcome on which both agree. Until both sides concur, the war continues. We cannot compel belief in others. It is important here to note that this discussion concerns feuding groups or, as Clausewitz might say, whole communities or whole peoples.[7] While he used duelling as an analogy in discussing war, he asserted, “war is not a contest between individuals.”[8]

Violence may force other groups and countries to do under duress what we want in the short term, but this doesn't bring a settled, durable peace. The remarkable military successes of Napoleon inspired Clausewitz to write On War, but Napoleon’s battlefield successes proved ephemeral. Clausewitz’s Prussia was convincingly beaten in 1806 in the Jena campaign, but came back militarily in the 1813 and 1814 campaigns and again at Waterloo in 1815.

Violence may force other groups and countries to do under duress what we want in the short term, but this doesn't bring a settled, durable peace.

The Israelis are a contemporary example; they have won many seemingly decisive battles but are still searching for victory. The Palestinians may be scattered and partly live in occupied lands but Israel is unable to compel them to come to a peaceful resolution of their territorial disagreement. The two side’s political differences remain unresolved, so their political interaction—their human intercourse—continues, sometimes violently and occasionally at times through war.

The aim of war as a true political instrument is therefore to purposefully advance agreement between us and our adversary on our shared future political relationship.[9] In this there are two parties involved; it is not just a unilateral imposition of will by one side. Peace is made relative to the parties involved; it is not some absolute value as Clausewitz’s dictum might suggest. Considering this, the dictum could be redrafted to: “Wars are a way to help change the political relationship between us to one we both consent to.”

There are several issues with this suggestion.

First, to define victory we need to specify the future political relationship we want with the adversary. This is not the job of strategy but rather of grand strategy where the future relationship, the ways possible to achieve this, and the means available are related.[10] In this, recall that grand strategy involves more than just the military means; it rather guides the coherent use of all the instruments of national power together with the development of these instruments. Such aspects are outside the scope of Clausewitz’s book, which as the title On War suggests encompasses the subfield of military strategy and tactics.

An aside for American readers: The U.S. National Security Strategy should not be conflated with the concept of grand strategy. The National Security Strategy addresses certain matters of particular Congressional concern as required under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. Recent National Security Strategy documents have been examples of the relatively rare and problematic milieu type. This type addresses the whole international system whereas the positional type addresses one specific state or a small group of states.[11] Most grand strategies are positional with a well-known example being the U.S. grand strategy of containment during the Cold War era. This grand strategy gradually grew to involve taking actions across the globe however it was consistently focussed on addressing a single bilateral relationship of concern, that between the U.S. and the USSR. Other issues of concern to the U.S. were then addressed using methodologies and techniques appropriate to each problem.[12] States have many different problems so relying on one grand strategy even of the National Security Strategy example is demonstrably inadequate.[13] The National Security Strategy deals with certain congressionally mandated issues but is not the sum total of the grand strategy problem solving methodology.

Second, in developing a grand strategy, the end sought is a better peace as Liddell-Hart observed.[14] It is not to return to the status quo ante because that set of conditions led to the war in the first place. Such a peace would be devised through both parties formally or informally agreeing to the new rules and arrangements that would underpin their future political relationship. In trying to define a better peace, the academic discipline of international relations has been examining interstate political relationships for decades. The discipline’s concepts can provide the structural framework for better peace thinking, although the content will depend on the specific context.

Third, political interaction does not end when fighting ceases; changes in the relationship continue because of purposeful action or accidental events. The end of the Second World War saw an occupation that through well-considered activities gradually led to a democratic German state.[15] One grand strategy followed another that again sought a better peace. In the case of Japan, agreement was reached to end the war based on the Potsdam Declaration of 26 July 1945, which included a subtle implication the Emperor might be retained.[16] Succeeding the island-hopping Pacific grand strategy, another grand strategy then progressively came into play that with time reintegrated Japan into the liberal world order.[17]

Fourth, defining the better peace sought means the term national interest can be more constrained in its use. The term has long been criticised as meaning different things to different people, having an imprecise meaning, and of being used to justify any policy the term’s user decided to support.[18]

In terms of practical implementation, declarations of national interests have proven difficult to link to strategy through having no defined objective. It is then unknown when it is reached or the time it should be reached by or where it ranks in resource priority order. National interest statements are more expressions of national aspirations than purposeful policy shapers.[19] For example, the latest U.S. National Security Strategy document lists one of four vital national interests as “promote American prosperity.” It’s reasonable to assume all U.S. administrations have had such a desire, rather than the converse. With a better understanding of the better peace sought, national interest declarations can be shifted from being a primary strategy determinant to having a more secondary, rhetorical function.

Fifth, agreeing a better peace might be a reasonable proposal, but some adversaries may be so far beyond the pale, bargaining with them is repugnant. The obvious candidates are terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. The campaign against Islamic State seems to show a possible path for dealing with those with whom we will not negotiate: reducing their scale (through military or other means) and then keeping them to a level where the damage they inflict on others is kept at a broadly tolerable level. This is effectively a risk management approach, roughly similar to policing criminal activities.

An inability to reach an agreement with an adversary can mean a forever war.

With such an approach there is no resolution of the conflict, merely ongoing violence into the indefinite future. Israel is trapped in such an intractable conflict with the Palestinians, popularly termed mowing the grass.[20] Low-level hostility occurs daily with periodic short, sharp wars albeit Israeli losses are kept limited. The downsides are clear though given last year was the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestine West Bank. An inability to reach an agreement with an adversary can mean a forever war.

Finally, as the reader may already have discerned, my implied criticism of Clausewitz is somewhat unfair. He used the dictum that “war is thus an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will” as a Hegelian device to draw attention to what happened if a concept was taken too far towards his abstract absolute war model.[21] Clausewitz knew the real world was very different and said as much in Book 1 Chapter 2 and Book 8 Chapter 6. In the later book, with a forewarning of Liddell-Hart’s better peace, he declares:

“we maintain…that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase “addition of other means” because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. That intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace.”[22]

Kruschev and Kennedy During the Cuban Missile Crisis. (YouTube)

So, let’s renounce the dictum that “war is thus an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.”[23] Instead, let’s focus on understanding wars as involving fighting others to achieve tacitly or formally agreed political outcomes. War is not, in the end, about compulsion, it is all about bargaining violently.

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University and author of Grand Strategy.

Header Image: General Hill invites the last remnants of French Imperial Guard to surrender at Waterloo, painted by Robert Alexander Hillingford. (Wikimedia)

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[1] Victory may be examined at different levels. In this article, discussion is at the strategy level. See: Colonel E.A. de Landmeter, “What constitutes victory in modern war?” Militaire Spectator, Vol. 187, No. 3 (2018): 137.

[2] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 86.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] Ibid., 149.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 5.

[7] Op.cit., Clausewitz, 86.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Peter Layton, Grand Strategy, (Brisbane: Amazon, 2018), 37-92.

[11] G. John Ikenberry, “From Hegemony to the Balance of Power: The Rise of China and American Grand Strategy in East Asia,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2014): 48.

[12] Other methods and techniques states can used are discussed in op.cit., Layton, 217-243

[13] This is the core argument of Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski, The End of Grand Strategy: U.S. Maritime Operations in the 21st Century (Ithaca; Cornell University Press, 2017).

[14] B.H.Liddell-Hart, Strategy, 2nd revised edn (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 338.

[15] Konard H. Jarausch, After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945-1995 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006)

[16] Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War 1941-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 248-264.  

[17] John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat. Japan in the Wake of World War II (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 65-84.

[18] Arnold Wolfers, "'National Security' as an Ambiguous Symbol," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 4 (December 1952): 481.

[19] Scott Burchill, The National Interest in International Relations Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 206.  Alan S. Milward, The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy: The UK and the European Community Volume 1 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 6-7.  The practical utility of the term for contemporary policymakers is further discussed in Simon Williams, "The Role of the National Interest in the National Security Debate" (Seaford House Paper; London: Royal College of Defence Studies, July 2012).

[20] Efraim Inbar & Eitan Shamir (2014) “‘Mowing the Grass’: Israel’s Strategy for Protracted Intractable Conflict,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2014).

[21] Op.cit., Clausewitz, 75.

[22] Ibid., 605.

[23] Ibid., 75.