Clausewitz in the Twenty First-Century

Posted in Other | 04-Oct-07 | Author: Andreas Herberg-Rothe and Antu

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.

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.

Click here to order Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century: and