Carl von Clausewitz today - the primacy of politics in war and conflict

Posted in Other | 19-Jan-09 | Author: Andreas Herberg-Rothe

"During the Cold War and the arms race of the superpowers, the world stood on the brink of a nuclear…
"During the Cold War and the arms race of the superpowers, the world stood on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on several ocasions."
The ending of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991 re-activated regional rivalries and lifted the restraints on latent mercenary entrepreneurs, and forced participants in existing low intensity, privatized or civil conflicts around the world to seek new financial backers. The proliferation of such conflicts has prompted many commentators, recognizing also that states have lost their monopoly on military force, to discover a new type of war with each 'new war'. But, apart from it being too soon to tell if these new wars are only a temporary phenomenon, or restricted to certain parts of the world, what is much more important and even essential is the political and moral framework through which we interpret these developments.

In an attempt to capture the unexpected forms taken by excessive violence since the epochal years 1989-91, Robert Kaplan has argued, that these developments are indicating a coming anarchy, which has of course to be prevented. In Yugoslavia, Kaplan saw the impending collapse of nation states and the rise of a Hobbesian jungle of gang wars, tribal slaughter, and ideological jihads.

His statement is based on the assumption that the level at which wars are being fought has shifted from the level of the state to a "lower" level. It is argued that in most of these conflicts, non-state actors are involved on at least one side. This is seen to lead to the conclusion that the motivation and goals of these non-state actors no longer follow political or ideological imperatives but have other sources which may be ethnic, economic, or the fact that violence has become an autonomous force. This view leads directly to recent concepts such as the idea of a liberal American empire, because this is seen to be the only principle that can guarantee a minimum of order as a defence against the approaching anarchy.

Things would look different, however, if this diffusion onto the level of conflict "below" that of the state were no more than a transitional phase, or if this development (which cannot be disputed in general terms, because there is a lot of evidence for it), were restricted to certain parts of the world - such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the traditional lines of conflict on the fringes of the former empires. Additionally one may take into account the possibility that some aspects of future conflicts will be politically determined even though the parties involved are non-state actors (as Hezbollah, Hamas). The paradigm of these wars would not be determined by the order/anarchy antithesis, but by the antithesis between different conceptions of order in the minds both of the actors themselves as well as of "interested third parties", public opinion, to which the various conflict parties refer and appeal. Ideas of a "liberal empire", which may still be relevant to an antithesis between order and anarchy, would be especially likely to aggravate conflicts over the politics of order.

Unlike a state with a democratic constitution, which rests on both fundamental rights and the state monopoly of the use of force, the idea of a liberal empire is almost a contradiction in terms. It is true that ideally, such an empire can guarantee individual human rights, economic freedom, and legal security, but it is simultaneously associated with a claim to power that cannot be abandoned. The limits placed on this claim are not set by the possibility of participation in political rule and the shaping of order, as in the case of a democratic state, but frequently by their very opposite - violent resistance. One historical example of this problem is the violent export of the code civil by Napoleon Bonaparte and the violent resistance against it.

Robert Kagan argued that the antithesis between thinking in terms of power and of order is congruent with the differences between current American and European thought, but he admits that this has not always been the case. As he himself explains, for a long time these roles were reversed: up to the time of Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, Americans were attached to thinking in terms of order and global idealism, while Europeans remained in thrall to thinking in terms of pure power right up to the Second World War. If we take Kagan's analysis seriously, though, we must ask why he never poses the question of where the Europeans' pure power thinking eventually led them. The answer, of course, is that the reduction of politics to power politics resulted finally into the disasters of the first and second world wars. Hence the conclusion is that politics must not be reduced to either power politics or a kind of politics which could be understood as seeking a compromise by all means, but as Peter Paret emphasized: The readiness to fight and the readiness to compromise lie at the core of politics.

The order of the Cold War and the New Wars

During the Cold War and the arms race between the superpowers, the world stood on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on several occasions, but violence and conflicts seemed to fit into clear categories of interpretation: East versus West, or imperialist aggression and the economic interests of the military-industrial complex (as one side saw it) versus totalitarianism in the form of the evil empire (as the other side saw it). These interpretations conflicted with one another, but because they seemed to offer a rational explanation they were able to limit and contain violence in people's minds as well. Although the world lived on the brink of the nuclear abyss during the East-West conflict and although the world was divided along the lines of this conflict, the conflict was very effective as a way of providing political order in both realms of the opponents, both in terms of Realpolitik and in relation to the real or apparent possibility of explaining violence and wars. The new forms of violence that have made such an impact since the end of the East-West conflict, and which have also to some extent been consciously presented as new by the mass media, seem to have removed war and violence from a sphere in which they could be easily comprehended before any new ordering framework had been found.

The way in which the Cold War functioned as an order affected not only the direct confrontation between the superpowers and their alliance systems, but also the conflicts that were labelled surrogate wars. This has become especially clear in the debate about how new the "new wars" really are. Those who have argued against the view that there has been a fundamental change in the form of war do so on the basis of a longer time period, and include conflicts such as the Chinese civil war of the late 1940s, the Russian civil war which continued into the 1920s, and the first genocide of the 20th century perpetrated against the Armenians, in order to demonstrate that there is nothing genuinely new about "new wars". Those who favour the concept, on the other hand, see a break in 1989-91. They compare the civil wars immediately before this break with those that came immediately after it, and see this as confirmation that a fundamental change has indeed taken place. After the worldwide East-West-conflict came to an end, numerous conflict parties in civil wars found that they were no longer receiving support from the superpowers in the shape of weapons and economic assistance, and to an increasing degree they had to rely on their own efforts to get hold of the necessary resources. This led in many cases to typical civil war economies, involving illegal trafficking in diamonds, drugs, and women, brutal exploitation of the population, extreme violence as a way of drawing in assistance, which could then be plundered, and the violent acquisition of particularly valuable resources. To this extent it was only to be expected that, after the dissolution of the Cold War order, a considerable number of "private" actors and armed groups would initially appear in weak states and in those traditional centres of conflict, the fringes of the former empires (the British, the Ottoman and the Habsburg Empire).

Looking back at developments in warfare since 1989-91, we can already distinguish two separate phases. The 1990s were, as far as public awareness of these issues was concerned, characterized to a great extent by such new wars, as low intensity conflicts, excessive violence in the "markets in violence" that came into existence in Africa, civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, privatized violence, and wars associated with state disintegration. However, since the rise of the Taliban another form of warfare has emerged: the world order war, which is characterized by a fundamental repoliticization of warfare.

The re-politicization in Afghanistan

"One can point to developments in Afghanistan as an example of repolitization"
"One can point to developments in Afghanistan as an example of repolitization"
One can point to developments in Afghanistan as an example of this repoliticization. After the victory over the Soviet army, a civil war between warlords and tribes began at the end of the 1980s in Afghanistan. The conflict was reideologized, and the Taliban seized power. We can see here that civil wars do not always become increasingly privatized until the smallest possible communities wielding Kalashnikovs, communities, which are only held together by the violence itself, and in which fighting is becoming independent from any purpose. There have also been a number of cases in which civil wars have been ended by reideologization and repoliticization. Afghanistan is a good example because one can use it to illustrate the new quality of privatization of war and violence, and at the same time it reveals very clearly the reideologization and repoliticization of the conflict with the rise of the Taliban. Claiming that the privatization of the war in Afghanistan proves the new quality of the "new wars" in general therefore leads to the paradox if the claim has to be restricted to the period up until the Taliban seized power in 1996. This case therefore cannot be used to demonstrate a general shift towards the privatization of war. In fact, what it shows is that this development, though genuine, lasted for only a limited period (at least in this case). A new phase, the phase of world order wars, began in 1996.

The new global players and the Small Wars

The decline of the state and political order is only inevitable (and has historically often been observed) after the breakdown of any preceding empire and any kind of preceding world order, as happened recently following the breakdown of the former USSR and the end of the Cold War. However, my main thesis is that in the long run there will nevertheless be a repoliticization of war and violence, conflicts over the world order and the political shaping of the world. This expectation not only applies for the only superpower at present, but perhaps even much more for the former empires up to the 19th century, such as China, India, Russia, the former Muslim empires in India and Iran, former empires, which have been gaining a lot of new power resources and which are trying to regain their former status and political recognition. Even a state like Iran is trying to be recognized as a regional power, challenging the current superpower by developing missiles, launching satellites and nuclear weapons. In the second half of the 1990s Russia stood on the brink of a civil war and was expected to break apart, just as India was mostly expected to become a failing state. Now both are at least great powers. Although it may be doubtful whether China will become a superpower similar to the United States, it is nevertheless becoming a global player with the ability to pursue its own interest even against the will of the United States. It must be recognized that the tendencies to small conflicts and anarchy in parts of the world is at the same time accompanied by the rise of new great powers and global players.

Even in most actual "small"-conflicts, it is not difficult to recognize the political, and even the very traditionally political. Take for instance the Palestinian Intifida, which was the key inspiration for van Creveld's predictions about future war: but what was the Intifada other than the violent expression of a Palestinian state-building project. Even Al Qaeda has its leaders, fighters and popular base. How could one not call the process of leading and motivating the fighters and building and appealing to a support base, political?And the same applies, certainly with hindsight, to the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which inspired Mary Kaldor and so many other adherents of the 'barbarisation of war' thesis. Who could disagree now, with the current claims to statehood in Kosovo, that the 'Yugoslav war of dissolution' involved, at its root, competing state-building projects. Even such an egregious act of violence as the Srebrenica genocide possessed a politico-strategic meaning that did not require a non-Clausewitzian explanation.

As long as communities can be mobilized and organized to use violence, there will be war. For communities to fight and sustain conflict, requires organization. This, in turn, requires purpose and meaning. Politics negotiates that gap between meaning (whether it is ultimately religious, existential, Nietszchean or whatever) and organization by assigning purpose or, to use a different expression, by creating policy. In war, communities 'stand against' each other - war doesn't deal at all with a fight of individuals, however great their number might be. Clausewitz stressed that combat in war 'is not a fight (Kampf) of individuals' against individuals, but rather of armed forces, 'that is [, an] armed people': 'Everything that occurs in war results from the existence of armed forces'. Due to the special disposition of weapons as instruments for killing other human beings, 'armed forces' must have a minimum of organizing structures and principles, in order to distinguish between 'friend and foe' (Carl Schmitt) and therefore by themselves they create or belong to a community, which is 'superior' to the armed forces themselves. These fighting communities can exist in various forms: religious, ethnic or cultural units, clans, heterogeneous communities under warlords, or states. Affiliation to one of these communities decides not only the fight's goal and purpose, but also the way and means of warfare. Thomas Hobbes' famous reference to a 'war of all against all' is in actual fact not really war, but rather the rule of naked, pure violence. Thus politics may not be controlled by the state as organizer and 'policy-maker', but that does not make the wars any less political.

The re-politicization of war and globalization

Since the end of the East-West conflict terms like risk society, reflexive modernization, and globalization have been used in both academic and more general debates as part of an intensifying debate about how the accelerating transformation of social and national identities are affecting societies. Social, political, and economic developments devalue knowledge that has been handed down and traditional models of interpretation, and give rise to a need for new orientations. Cultural and religious conceptions of order, in their special historical and contemporary contexts, were re-actualised for providing orientation for people in a dramatically changing world. As processes of change and transformations of their life-worlds affect people, they reconstruct these conceptions of order and organize them in a new way, in order to be able to comprehend and explain the world. In the way the people are building communities in order to defend and promote these different kinds of order against other orders, these aspirations become automatically politically in essence. In a globalized world these communities are increasingly becoming political, regardless of whether they exist for a long or short time or whether they seem to be determined by religion, culture, national aspirations or a tribal background. What is of sole importance is that they are defending their identity and spreading their order and values as a community against or together with others.

With these propositions I don't want to draw into doubt some tendencies to a privatisation of war and violence neither in general (because they are appropriate for particular cases), but 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 as well as wars over "world order"; between the formation of new regional power centres and the imperial-hegemonic 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. Liberal progress even produces illiberal counter-reactions, and strong political forces are pursuing a liberal order with elements, which could be regarded as essentially illiberal. But the main distinction is, whether we fight disorder and privatised violence resp. or whether different kinds of order are in a conflicting competition.

"But what was the Intifada other than the violent expression of a Palestinian state-bulding project ?"
"But what was the Intifada other than the violent expression of a Palestinian state-bulding project ?"
This conflict becomes most apparent not only in the way in which 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 about their political order much more than it does gee-whiz technology. Robert Kaplan argued that the rules of war could only be applied against enemies with which we share a similar cultural background or at least a similar concept of rationality, but that in the jungle of the new wars the rules of the jungle must be applied to survive. This is fundamentally wrong, because outside the "developed world" there is not one single jungle, but different areas in which the Hobbesian war of all against all is the predominantly kind of conflict (this has to be acknowledged). However, there are also extensive areas of the world in which a violent conflict about political, cultural, social and even religious order is emerging. I think in the long run that these kinds of conflict will be prevalent.

Conflicts about different kinds of order

After the collapse of the global system of order known as the Cold War, most conflicts initially revolved around the contrast between order and disorder (as symbolized by concepts such as privatized violence, low intensity conflict, failed states). Since 1996, when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, though, different conceptions of order were at stake. The German sociologist Max Weber emphasized that an order that is maintained for goal-oriented reasons is much less stable than one, which is respected "as a matter of custom arising from a settled behavioural orientation". This kind of order, however, is much less stable than "one which enjoys the prestige that follows from being seen as exemplary or binding; let us call this 'legitimacy'". It is very nearly possible to synchronize Max Weber's classification of the different levels of stability of different orders, resting on interests, custom or legitimacy, with the previous developments in warfare, starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, wars related to private enrichment and the pursuit of interests were most visible. These were then gradually replaced by conflicts involving ethnic groups, the formation of small states, and national minorities. These then were replaced by conceptions of "world order" such as Islamism, which doesn't pay contribute to individual interests or ethic rivalries. Huntington's emphasis on cultural and civilizational conflicts between different conceptions of order captured one important aspect of ongoing developments, but he treated these conflicts too mechanically as taking place between civilizations, when in fact they are just as prevalent within civilizations, if not more so. But he was right in assuming that the future conflicts are shaped by those conflicts concerning local, regional or even world order, regardless of whether this particular kind of order is more related to culture or religion or "civilization".

These processes of disintegration and reconstruction of order within communities are in conflict with those of a lot of other communities (very often very violently), as well as with the overall tendencies which are grounded in geopolitics and globalization. The decisive problem here is not the value we attach to our own conception of order, but the fact that the conflict dynamic obeys rules which differ from those operating in a paradigm where conceptions of order and anarchy confront each other directly.

Conclusions and recommendations

  • The primacy of policy

    • Although the actors which are threatening world security may be criminals, fanatics, warlords, pirates, intransigents or anarchists, nevertheless nearly all of violent conflicts in a globalized world are political in essence. In the short run, these actors may have some advantages, because modern societies are extremely vulnerable. But as private actors they are missing a political dimension, an explicit political purpose. This is their week-point and our advantage, because political communities are able to unite their forces in pursuing a particular goal, whereas private actors remain separated from one another.
    • But just out of this reason our task is to assign a clear and consistent political purpose to the actions of the world community, which in my opinion is a new containment of war and violent action in world society (see my previous article in world security network). In a globalized world the military fight against these private actors is political in essence as well as in the interest of each state.
  • Globalization and the danger of a new arms-race

    • Globalization is intensifying conflicts over world order, which leads to the return of geopolitics of different great and even global powers.
    • The main task therefore is to avoid a new arms race between the old and the new global powers (most of them are old empires, striving for their renewed recognition as world powers, which they have lost in the process of colonialization), to avoid an arms race which could eventually lead to new traditional wars taking into account the unstable situation most reasonable in states like Pakistan and Iran, but possibly also in the former empires like India, China and Russia. The military advantages of deploying antimissile systems in Poland for example are counteractive to the integration of Russia into a system of common security.
  • The old concept of power politics and a new concept of policy

    • Politics must not be reduced to power politics within or between states. The negative effect of one-sided power politics could be observed in the Israel-Palestinian conflict as well as in conflicts in failed states, but also in developed countries like France and Greece at the very moment.
    • Although the relation of policy and war, as Clausewitz described it, did not change substantially, a globalized world does need a concept of policy and politics, which is adequate to the ongoing process of globalization. Clausewitz wrote: "It can be taken as agreed that the aim of policy is to unify and reconcile all aspects of internal administration as well as of spiritual values, and whatever else the moral philosopher may care to add. Policy, of course, is nothing in itself; it is simply the trustee for all these interests" - not against other states, as Clausewitz wrote in his time - but against the worldwide expansion of war and violent action within and between states.