CAPTAIN JASON D. GROSE
NPS, MONTEREY CA
October 22, 2001
What does Clausewitz consider to be the proper relationship
between war and politics? Was Clausewitz correct?
The proper relationship of war and politics, according to Carl
Von Clausewitz, is that war must always be subordinate to policy
and serve as a means to a political end. In his most famous
work, On War, Clausewitz describes this belief and explains
how this relationship must exist in reality. At several
points, Clausewitz seems to give contradictory advice concerning
this relationship but if read carefully, On War explains that
indeed, warfare must not exist in the absence of policy nor
without a political purpose guiding it. Was he correct
and does this relationship still exist in modern warfare and
politics? Given the ramifications of using modern
weaponry, it is of the utmost importance that modern policy
carefully and skillfully guide modern warfare.
Policy Drives War
It is not difficult to ascertain what Clausewitz believed
to be the proper relationship between war and politics because
in his book On War, he clearly states his most famous line that
“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means” (Clausewitz,
87). Published in 1832, the book gives numerous examples
of this belief and shows that he based his theories on experience,
having fought in many battles during his military career.
“He regarded war as an extreme but natural expression of policy,
and never regretted that he himself had fought in seven campaigns”
(Paret, 187). Clearly, he viewed war in a subordinate
position to policy.
But what does it mean to say war and politics should be
so intimately intertwined when it seems politicians should worry
about the politics and the military should do the fighting?
To adhere to this complete separation would not only prove
to be unsuccessful but outright disastrous for the warring nation.
A country’s military without direction would tend to spiral
into meaningless violence and loss. One must look at the
reason warfare is waged and see the only reason to use it is
to achieve a political gain. In Makers of Modern Strategy,
the author states that “Violence should express the political
purpose, and express it in a rational, utilitarian manner; it
should not take the place of the political purpose, nor obliterate
it” (Paret, 200). To simply fight to destroy an opponent
and his will for the sake of the fight would be wasted effort.
As we have seen in history, this relationship is not always
easy to forge nor maintain. A clash develops when politicians
feel compelled to involve themselves with military operations
because future policy decisions are affected by the decisions
of the military commander. On the other hand, the commander
in the field feels interference from politicians is detrimental
to the art of warfare. He has a military job to accomplish
and is “on the scene” where he feels he must have the latitude
to make decisions based on the evolving situation.
As opposite as these views appear, Clausewitz dictated how
the solutions can and must coexist. He states “The political
object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means
can never be considered in isolation from their purpose” (Clausewitz,
87). The problem should not be with what Clausewitz terms
“harmful political influence on the management of war” but with
the policy itself. In other words, if the military leaders
do not agree with the direction they are given, it is not the
relationship that is at fault but the political aim which is
causing the friction. The cure for such friction is not
to dismantle the relationship but to align the correct policy
with the correct military strategy. Clausewitz maintains
that “All wars can be considered acts of policy” (Clausewitz,
88) and therefore the military cannot not operate independent
of the political aims.
To further complicate matters, both policy and military
actions are constantly changing and, in turn, requiring the
other to alter concurrently. For example, a diplomatic
breakthrough might require hostilities to be reduced when the
possibility for peace looks promising. Another scenario
might present itself when an unforeseen military event such
as the introduction of chemical warfare, might drastically change
the policy driving it.
This apparent problem of fluid situations requiring constant
updating of policy and warfare is not a simple matter to resolve
but notice that both involve the policy driving the warfare.
If the policy changes, the military strategy must follow in
order to support it. If there is a military breakthrough
which affects policy, then policy is changed and then drives
the accompanying change in military action. If the military
breakthrough had no affect on policy, it would not in itself
be reason to alter policy and would therefore be irrelevant
to the situation.
Policy and war must be interconnected even after the war
has started. To simply hand the plans to the military
for execution and cut off political intercourse would be ludicrous.
As pointed out above, policy is the driving factor behind the
war and therefore to separate the two once the hostilities commence
is analogous to removing the steering wheel once the car is
in motion. Without the guidance of policy and its reassessment
during the unfolding of military events, how will the military
leaders know when to cease hostilities? A war based on
purely military objectives rarely represents the desired political
end state. Clausewitz warns that this reversed relationship
is unacceptable when he mandates “Under no circumstances can
the art of war be regarded as the preceptor of policy” (Clausewitz
Now that we have demonstrated what Clausewitz believed,
we address the notion of connecting the two seemingly competing
entities of politics and armed conflict.
Should Politics and War Be Connected?
One might argue that politics has no place in war.
After all, Clausewitz states the political arm does not determine
the posting of guards and that policy will not extend its influence
to operational details (Clausewitz, 606). Would it be
wiser to draft up the plans of war in the political arena and
then hand the game plan to military for execution? This
would seem to make maximize the strengths of both entities and
this would be ideal if the politicians foresaw all potential
outcomes and nothing changed from the time the plans were drawn
up and the final battle waged. Obviously, there are flaws
in this argument.
The main point Clausewitz was making is that there are different
levels to planning a war. The policy, while driving the
overall war and the strategy of its evolution, does not and
must not get bogged down to the details of the art of military
operations. The professional matters of the lower levels,
the levels of tactical and operational employment, should not
be dictated by the political leaders.
On the higher levels, when planning a war and making decisions
affecting the direction the war will take, Clausewitz states
“Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument,
and not vice versa” (Clausewitz, 706). It is incumbent
on both military and government leaders to understand this concept.
Planning a war without a political aim is just as dangerous
as allowing the politicians to interfere with the details of
accomplishing it militarily. Both are doomed to fail.
With that said, the military leaders cannot be expected
to always blindly follow the political aim when it becomes obvious
that a different situation requires altered military action.
Clausewitz thought that while the political aim is not a tyrant
(Clausewitz, 87) the military should at most adapt and modify
in response to emerging situations while always keeping the
policy as the foremost guide.
Initially, the policy must be sorted out and then a military
plan, if needed, must be prepared. This plan is then given
to the military for execution with details of accomplishing
the requirements left up to generals. But because the
political and battle landscapes are constantly shifting, each
must be flexible enough to alter the plan in response to emerging
Some modern thinkers believe the entire concept behind policy
driving war falls apart in light of modern and future motivations
toward war. Steven Metz believes “war will be fought not
to pursue national interests, but to kill enemy leaders, to
convert opponents to one's religion, to obtain booty, or, sometimes,
for simple entertainment” (Metz, 3-4).
While this view appears to negate the Clausewitzian view
of “national interests” (policy) serving as the driving force
of war, it actually strengthens the argument. Nothing
says a nation’s policy needs to be one which civilized humans
regard as just. In the above example, the policy to kill
enemy leaders, to convert opponents to one's religion, or to
obtain booty, is in itself a policy, albeit a warped and unjust
one. These means do not exist in a vacuum without a motivating
force but are driven by the nation’s political aims: terrorism,
forced religion, wealth accumulation, etc. It still holds
true that policy will permeate all military operations (Clausewitz,
131) but because we do not tend to agree with those policies
or the means to achieve them, does not negate the necessary
relationship as outlined by Clausewitz.
The last category listed in the above argument, that wars
will be waged for simple entertainment, is not realistic.
We make the assumption that entities which have evolved to the
point to have an autonomous government would have matured past
the point of waging war for entertainment. Nevertheless,
Clausewitz gives a caveat in his argument when he identifies
these communities as civilized. “When whole communities
go to war – whole peoples, and especially civilized peoples
– the reason always lies in some political situation, and the
occasion is always due to some political object” (Clausewitz,
86-87). We see once again, he maintains his view of the
political object as the focus when addressing war.
But even Clausewitz himself wrote that the political purpose
of war had no connection with war itself (Clausewitz, 90) which
seems to refute the very belief he goes to great pains to develop
elsewhere in his writings. To understand this seemingly
contradictive view, we must understand the style in which he
develops his arguments.
Simply put, Clausewitz introduces the concept of pure war.
In other words, how war to the extreme would be in the absence
of all other factors. He then speaks about the way war
actually exists in practice. By exploring the similarities
and differences of these two concepts, he tries to glean the
true aspects of war and develop his theories on the true nature
of warfare as a human interaction.
If taken out of context, as the reference above was for
this purpose, one might assert that Clausewitz believed the
pure war concept was what he viewed as the true nature of war.
But the essence of his argument claims a pure state cannot exist
because there will always be intervening political and human
factors which alter the concept. Accordingly, we realize
Clausewitz is describing this theoretical pure state when he
mentions the political purpose of war had no connection with
war itself. In fact, this statement is an introduction
to his argument against the existence of pure war, as we continue
his line of thinking: “… for if war is an act of violence
meant to force the enemy to do our will its aim would have always
and solely to be to overcome the enemy and disarm him.” (Clausewitz,
90). Because the aim of modern wars are not always and
solely to overcome the enemy and disarm him, he must be talking
about the theoretical extreme and not how war is actually waged.
Was he correct?
Today, Clausewitz’s view is not only the correct one but
just as valid as it was when he wrote it back in the 19th century.
There must be no question that wars are fought with a political
objective in mind. The application of this theory requires
three very distinct requirements if it is to succeed.
First, the politicians must understand how to use the military
to achieve the political goal they seek. Ideally, someone
with a military background is desirable but not necessary.
At the very least, he must have some formal indoctrination on
the employment of military forces. Next, the politician
must seek out and honor sound military advice from the military
when planning in order to see if the military plan is plausible
for the given policy. Finally, there must exist
a mutual confidence. The military must trust the policy
for this policy is what drives their action. The politician
must trust the military to perform their duties because war
is what will fulfill the aims of the policy.
In conclusion, we see there is little doubt that Clausewitz
believed warfare should be driven by and subordinate to national
policy. The reverse relationship would incur the savage
costs of war without reaping the benefits necessary to require
war in the first place.
The people involved must both strive to support the policy
and be willing to alter their positions in response to evolving
situations. But again, the policy is the key factor from
which each side should defer to even after the warfare begins.
The connection of politics and war is inseparable.
To allow each to exist in isolation is a recipe for failure.
Each side of the relationship must be allowed to execute its
requisite responsibilities while remaining flexible enough to
adapt to emerging situations; as long as these changes preserve
the directional relationship of policy driving war.
These theories, written over 17 decades ago, still ring
true today. Whatever form the motivations for war take
today or in the future, policy will always exist as the underlying
factor. As we approach closer and closer to pure war,
it is more important now than ever to reevaluate our policies
because the results will have global rather than local ramifications.
With political leaders who understand how to properly employ
their military, accept input when planning the warfare portion
of enforcing a policy, and possess reciprocal confidence in
the abilities and judgment of the military leaders, the proper
relationship between policy and war can be maintained.
1. Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Ed./trans. Michael
Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2. Metz, Steven. “A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy
of 21st-Century Warfare.” Parameters vol 24, No. 4, 1994, pp
3. Paret, Peter. Makers of Modern Strategy. Ed. Gordon
A. Craig and Felix Gilbert. Princeton: Princeton University