Clausewitz in the Twenty First-CenturyPrimacy of policy and a new containment

Posted in Other | 09-Oct-07 | Author: Andreas Herberg-Rothe and Antu

Carl von Clausewitz: "War is a continuation of policy"
Carl von Clausewitz: "War is a continuation of policy"
Since the 1990s various influential authors have argued that Clausewitz’s theory is no longer applicable in relation to contemporary conflicts given the revolutionary changes in war and violence. Clausewitz, it is proposed, was only concerned with war between states employing regular armies, whereas conflict today mainly involves non-state actors. This claim, however, is overdrawn, with respect to both the core contents of Clausewitz’s theory and the unique characteristics of today’s ‘New Wars’ as well as the Revolution in Military Affairs. A closer reading of Clausewitz gives rise to the following implications for warfare in the 21st century. First, the “war on terror,” as with all wars, is irreversibly political in nature, and requires a decidedly political approach. Otherwise, military actions are likely to prove counterproductive to the aims of policy. Second, globalization intensifies the role of politics, and indeed reduces reaction time within all three elements of Clausewitz's wondrous trinity, which is quite different from so called trinitarian war and which is Clausewitz's true legacy. Third, policy’s subordinating influence over warfare suggests that the overarching political goal for grand strategy in the 21st century should be the containment of violence, with the intent to diminish armed conflict as precondition for establishing democracies; whereas the reverse, establishing (not fully developed) democracies for the purpose of reducing violence, appears to be having the opposite effect.

Carl von Clausewitz - lessons for the 21st century ?

On March 21, 2005, Hew Strachan (Oxford) opened an illuminating conference entitled, “Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century,” with the statement: “Each generation has its own Clausewitz.” What Strachan made abundantly clear was that the cumulative scholarship on one of military history’s most authoritative authors, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), is both revealing and continually changing. Appropriately, this was the inaugural conference of the Oxford Leverhulme program on “The Changing Character of War,” and the proceedings are now available in a collected volume entitled, Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, edited by the conference organizers Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe (see the links below).

Until recently, Clausewitz’s On War has been regarded as the most important modern work on war. However, since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, an increasing number of critics have argued that On War is not useful for understanding contemporary war. Clausewitz, they maintain, was concerned solely with Napoleonic-style, inter-state warfare and with state-sponsored, professionally trained armies. Accordingly, the conflicts Clausewitz discussed belonged to the nation-state model which allegedly dominated Europe from the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) to the end of the industrial age. Some critics have gone even further, suggesting that Clausewitz’s famous conclusion, that “war is a continuation of policy by other means,” is invalid today, and not accurate historically.

Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century takes a contemporary look at the principal themes underpinning Clausewitz’s writings, and finds them much more inclusive and relevant to contemporary war than his critics allow. Embracing the perspectives of history, philosophy and political science, this volume reconsiders both the text of On War, and its current interpretations. Traditional interpretations of On War are put into fresh light; neglected passages are re-examined; and new insights are derived in light of today’s challenges.

Among other things, Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century strips away the confusion concerning contemporary understandings of On War in at least three important ways. First, Clausewitz’s concept of the state is shown to encompass any kind of warring community. Second, Clausewitz’s proposition that war is a continuation of policy is revealed to mean that war is also an outgrowth of existing political (to include cultural and technological) conditions, and is ultimately and inescapably a form of intercourse (albeit violent) between and among political entities. And finally, the volume provides ample evidence that Clausewitz’s legacy should not be reduced to the mere “formula” that war is but a continuation of policy with other means. Instead, his “wondrous” trinity (hostility, chance, purpose), which is quite different from so called trinitarian war, is the real beginning of his theory.

These revisions of contemporary misunderstandings of On War, in turn, give rise to the following implications for warfare in the 21st century. First, the “war on terror,” as with all wars, is irreversibly political in nature, and requires a decidedly political approach. Otherwise, military actions are likely to prove counterproductive to the aims of policy. Second, globalization intensifies the role of politics, and indeed reduces reaction time within all the elements of the trinity. Third, policy’s subordinating influence over warfare suggests that the overarching political goal for grand strategy in the 21st century should be the containment of violence, with the intent to diminish armed conflict as precondition for establishing democracies; whereas the reverse, establishing democracies for the purpose of reducing violence, appears to be having the opposite effect. A strategic approach with this goal in mind would emphasize the following five elements:

  1. The ability to deter and discourage any opponent from fighting a large scale war, and recourse to precise military action only as a last resort;
  2. The use of military force to limit and contain large-scale violence which has the potential to destroy societies;
  3. The willingness to counter phenomena which help to cause violence, such as poverty and oppression; and also the willingness to recognize a pluralism of cultures and life styles;
  4. The motivation to develop a culture of conflict management (concepts which would include global governance) based on the observation that the reliance on military means is too narrow a basis for a global strategy, and eventually will exceed military capabilities;
  5. Restricting the possession and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, as well as of small arms.

Andreas Herberg-Rothe elaborates his concept of “a new containment – limitation of war and violence” in the concluding chapter of “Clausewitz in the Twenty-first Century” and supplements the above article with Antulio Echevarria as follows:

A new containment policy1

Andreas Herberg-Rothe: "Containement of violence in world society is a prerequisite for establishing democracies"
Andreas Herberg-Rothe: "Containement of violence in world society is a prerequisite for establishing democracies"
George Kennan developed the original concept of containment in reaction to what he saw in the former USSR. Any concept of a new form of containment is similarly based on observations made in our own era. We are witnessing a worldwide expansion of war and violence, which should be countered by a new containment, just as George Kennan emphasized as early as 1987: “And for these reasons we are going to have to develop a wider concept of what containment means (…) – a concept, in other words, more responsive to the problems of our own time – than the one I so light-heartedly brought to expression, hacking away at my typewriter there in the northwest corner of the War College building in December of 1946.” Sixty years have already passed, since George Kennan formulated his original vision of containment. Although his original concept would be altered, in application by various administrations of the US-Government, in practice it has been incorporated within the concept and politics of common security, which has been the essential complement to pure militarily containment. These ideas are still valid – and as Kennan himself pointed out, they are in more need of explication and implementation than ever.

The disinhibition of war and a new containment

The triumphant advance of democracy and free markets in the wake of the Soviet collapse seemed to be unstoppable, to the point where it appeared for a time as if the twenty-first century would be an age defined by economics and thus, to a great extent, peace. However, these expectations were quickly disappointed, not only because of the ongoing massacres and genocide in Africa, but also by the return of war to Europe (primarily in the former Yugoslavia), together with the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the USA and the Iraq war with its on-going, violent consequences. A struggle against a new totalitarianism of an Islamic type appears to have started, in which war and violence are commonly perceived as having an unavoidable role. Both are also perceived as having become more “unbounded” than ever before - both in a spatial sense, for terrorist attacks are potentially ever-present, and temporally, since no end to these attacks is in sight. One can also speak of a new dimension to violence with respect to its extent and brutality - as exemplified by the extreme violence of the ongoing civil wars and failed states in The Sahara and Sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally we are facing completely new types of threats, for example the possession of weapons of mass destruction by terrorist organizations or the development of atomic bombs by “problematic” states like Iran and North Korea, which currently pose an extreme risk of escalation. The potential emergence of a new Superpower, China, and perhaps of new “great” powers like India may lead to a new arms race, which presumably will have a nuclear dimension as well. In the consciousness of many, violence appears to be slipping the leash of rational control, an image the media has not hesitated for foster, especially with respect to Africa.

Although the current situation and the foreseeable future is not as immediately ominous as in the Cold War, it may be even worse in the long run. On one side, the prospect of planetary self-destruction via nuclear overkill, which loomed over the Cold War-- and what could be worse than that, has been successfully averted. On the other hand, after having been granted a brief respite in the 1990s, mankind now feels itself to be confronting a “coming anarchy” of unknown dimensions.

If the horrific destructive potential threat of the Cold War has been reduced in scale, less cataclysmic possibilities have also become more imminent. Hence my conclusion is that we need a new strategy of containment, which must be different from that of the Cold War, but is based on some similar principles.

As compared to the Cold War, there is no longer an exclusive actor to be contained, as the Soviet Union was. Even if one were to anticipate China’s emergence as a new superpower in the next twenty years, it would not be reasonable, in advance of this actually happening, to develop a strategy of military containment against China similar to that against the Soviet Union in the 50th and 60th of last century. Since doing so might well provoke the kind of crises and conflicts that such a strategy would be intended to avoid. The attempt to built up India as counter-weight to China and facilitating its nuclear ambitions, for instance, might risk undermining the international campaign to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world. Therefore we need quite another concept of containment, which could not perceived as a threat to China.

The second difference is, that current developments in the strategic environment display fundamentally conflicting tendencies: between globalization and struggles over identities, locational advantages, and interests; between high-tech wars and combat with “knives and machetes” or suicide bombers; between symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare; between the privatization of war and violence and their re-politicization and re-ideologization; between the formation of new regional power centres and the dominance of the only Superpower; between international organized crime and the institutionalization of regional and global institutions and communities; between increasing violations of international law and human rights on one side and their expansion on the other. A strategy designed to counter only one of these conflicting tendencies may be problematic with respect to the others. I therefore stress the necessity of striking a balance among competing possibilities.

The third difference is, that the traditional containment was perceived mainly as military deterrence of the Soviet Union, although in it’s original formulation by George Kennan it was quite different from such a reductionism. Our main and decisive assumption is, that a new containment must combine traditional, military containment on one side, and a range of opportunities for cooperation on the other. That’s not only necessary with respect to China, but even to the political Islam, in order to reduce the appeal of militant Islamic movements to millions of Muslim youth.

A new containment and contemporary warfare

"The "war on terror", as with all wars, is irreversibly political in nature"
"The "war on terror", as with all wars, is irreversibly political in nature"
The advantage of my concept could be demonstrated by considering the nature of the end state for which the end the war on terror should be fought. Trying to find terrorists and rooting all of them out, as Donald Rumsfeld stated? The further question is: how to fight organisations, which are not hierarchically structured, but as it is often mentioned, are functioning like networks? Here the conception of limitation could provide some thoughts.

Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, the (former) head of the Military Intelligence of the IDF, the Israel defense forces, emphasized in an interview, that the IDF is able to contain Hamas. I conclude, that the goal of the war on terror should not try to gain victory, because no one could explain, what victory would mean with regard to this special war. Moreover, trying to gain a decisive victory about the terrorists would even produce much more of them. The additional problem is not only, how we ourselves conceive the concept of victory, but even more important, in which ways for example the low-tech enemies define victory and defeat. That is an exercise, that requires cultural and historical knowledge much more than it does gee-whiz technology.

Instead one could argue, that the goal is “to contain terror”, which is of course something quite different from appeasement. An essential limitation of the dangers, posed by terrorist organizations could be based on three aspects: first, a struggle of political ideas for the hearts and minds of the millions of young people; second the attempt to curb the exchanges of knowledge, financial support, communication between the various networks with the aim of isolating them on a local level; and finally, to destroy what the Israelis call the terrorist infrastructure. In my understanding, trying to achieve victory in a traditional military manner would not only fail, but additionally would perhaps lead to much more terrorism in the foreseeable future.

The concept of the “centre of gravity” in warfare can provide another illustration of the way in which my conception makes a difference. Clausewitz defines war as an act of violence to compel our enemy to do our will. This definition suits our understanding of war between equal opponents, between opponents in which one side doesn’t want to annihilate the other or his political, ethnic or tribal body. But in conflicts between opponents with a different culture or ethnic background, the imposition of ones will on the other is often perceived as an attempt to annihilate the other’s community and identity. Hence, for democratic societies, the alternative is only to perceive war as an act of violence where, rather than compelling our own will to the opponent, your opponent is rendered unable any more to pursue his own will violently, unable to use his full power to impose his will on us or others. Consequently the abilities of his power must be limited, that he is no more able to threaten or fight us in order to compel us to do his will.

The purpose of containing war and violence, therefore, is, to remove from the belligerent adversary his physical and moral freedom of action, but without attacking the sources of his power and the order of his society. The key to "mastering violence" is to control certain operational domains, territory, mass movement, and armaments, but also information and humanitarian operations. But this task of mastering violence should no longer be perceived as being directed against the center of gravity, but to the “lines” of the field of gravitation. Instead of an expansion of imposing one’s own will on the adversary up to the point of controlling his mind, as the protagonists of Strategic Information Warfare put it, the only way of ending conflict in the globalized 21st century is to set limits for action, but at the same time to give room for action and even resistance, which of course has the effect of legitimising action within those limits. The expectation of a just peace after the war, ius post bellum, has a more pacifying function than any attempt to shape enemy’s warlike spirit. The latter must necessarily be circumscribed and will therefore have an uncertain outcome, if it is not totally effective.

The concept of containing war and violence in world society I am developing here is the common element shared by humanitarian intervention and the development of a culture of civil conflict management. One needs to add to this measures to counter the causes of war and violence, such as poverty, oppression, and ignorance, and the search for solutions to regional conflicts as the “task of the century” facing both the community of states and civil society. „However, the U.S. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism also includes an essential, but rather ambitious goal of diminishing the conditions that terrorists typically exploit, such as poverty, social and political disenfranchisement, and long-standing political, religious, and ethnic grievances; reducing these conditions requires, among other things, fostering political, social, and economic development, good governance, the rule of law, and consistent participation in the “war of ideas.“

Taking into account, that Kennan’s concept would not have succeeded, if it had been directed against the actions of the international community or the United States, it should be to some extend only brings to expression, what the international community is already doing anyway. “Other states are instrumental in interrupting the flow of finances from one institution to another, in restricting the movements of terrorists, in eliminating their save havens, in tracking down and arresting their principal leaders and in driving a wedge between the terrorist groups and the various populations they purport to champion.” (Echevarria) Which strategy these states are already pursuing? Nothing else than a strategy of containment!

A concept that realized these demands of a political concept for contemporary needs was that of “common security”, developed in the 1970s. In the special situation of the cold war and of mutual deterrence this concept didn’t imply a common security shared among states with similar values and policies. On contrary, this concept, perhaps developed for the first time by Klaus von Schubert, emphasized a quite different meaning. Traditionally, opponents have understood security as security from each other. The new approach laid down by Klaus von Schubert derived from the assumption, that in a world of multiple capacities of annihilating the planet, security could only be defined as common security. This small difference between security from each other and common security -- shared security against a universal threat -- was nothing less than a paradigm change in the Cold war. A worldwide new containment policy – limiting war and violence – is intended to have similar effects. Lasting and ongoing containment of violence in world society is a prerequisite for establishing democracies, upholding the civility of societies and maintaining democratic states.

For further reading on this interpretation see:
Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Clausewitz's Puzzle. The Political Theory of War. Oxford 2007. (

For further reading on Clausewitz’s continued usefulness in understanding contemporary war see:
Antulio J. Echevarria II, Clausewitz and Contemporary War. Oxford 2007. (

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1 This passage is composed out of Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Clausewitz and a new containment, in: Strachan, Hew and Herberg-Rothe, Andreas (eds.), Clausewitz in the twenty-first century. Oxford University Press 2007 and is here reproduced with the permission of OUP.