By Andreas Herberg-Rothe
The three core elements of Sun Tzu’s strategy, thought to originate in late-sixth century BC China, could not easily be applied in our times: a general attitude to deception of the enemy runs the risk of deceiving one’s own population, which would be problematic for any democracy. An indirect strategy in general would weaken deterrence against an adversary who could act quickly and with determination. Concentration on influencing the will and mind of the enemy may merely enable him to avoid fighting at a disadvantageous time and place and make it possible for him to choose a better opportunity as long as he is in possession of the necessary means – weapons and armed forces.
One might win battles and even campaigns with Sun Tzu, but it is difficult to win a war by following his principles. The mixture of the revolution in military affairs, which promised fairly easy victory over any opponent, the desire of shaping the world by the neo-conservatives and the applying of some principles of Sun Tzu were responsible for the successes of the wars the US Army fought, but likewise for their obvious failure.
I would like to highlight these problems by concentrating on the two protagonists, which seems to provide the paradigms, the lenses, through which we trying to understand warfare in the 21 first century.
It seems as if Sun Tzu was not so much interested in shaping the political conditions, because he lived in an era of seemingly never-ending civil wars. The only imperative for him was to survive while paying the lowest possible price and avoiding fighting, because even a successful battle against one foe might leave one weaker when the moment came to fight the next one.
But the main problem is that Sun Tzu is neglecting the strategic perspective of shaping the political-social conditions after the war and their impact ”by calculation” on the conduct of war. As mentioned before, this was not a serious matter for Sun Tzu and his contemporaries, but it is one of the most important aspects of warfare of our own times.
Finally, one has to take into account the fact that Sun Tzu’s strategy is presumably successful against adversaries with a very weak order of the armed forces or the related community, such as warlord-systems and dictatorships, which were the usual adversaries in his times. His book is full of cases in which relatively simple actions against the order of the adversary’s army or its community lead to disorder on the side of the adversary, to the point where these are dissolved or lose their will to fight entirely.
Such an approach can obviously be successful against adversaries with weak armed forces and a tenuous social base, but they are likely to prove problematic against more firmly situated adversaries. Apparently this was the miscalculation of the Israeli general staff in relation to Hezbollah in the last Lebanon war.
A fresh Clausewitz interpretation
Nearly all previous interpretations have drawn attention to the importance of Napoleon’s successful campaigns for Clausewitz’s thinking as a military theorist. In contrast, I wish to argue that not only Napoleon’s successes but also the limitations of his strategy, as revealed in Russia and in his final defeat at Waterloo, enabled Clausewitz (1780-1831) to develop a general theory of war.
Clausewitz’s main problem in his lifelong preoccupation with the analysis of war was that the same principles and strategies that were the decisive foundation of Napoleon’s initial successes proved inadequate in the special situation of the Russian campaign and eventually contributed to his final defeat at Waterloo.
Although Clausewitz was an admirer of Napoleon for most of his life, in his final years he recognized the theoretical significance of different historical outcomes that followed from the application of a consistent, but nevertheless single military strategy. He finally tried desperately to find a resolution that could reconcile the extremes symbolized by Napoleon’s success at Jena and Auerstedt, the limitations of the primacy of force revealed by the Russian campaign, and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.
The different outcomes of the similar military strategies forced him to emphasize the role of policy and politics as overarching end, from which one the right strategy could chosen. Thus Clausewitz didn’t recommend dogmatically one single strategy, but to find the right one as a combination of different opposites: there can be found four fundamental contrasts between the early and later Clausewitz that need to be emphasized, because they remain central to contemporary debates about his work:
The primacy of military force versus the primacy of politics. Existential warfare, or rather warfare related to one’s own identity, which engaged Clausewitz most strongly in his early years, as against the instrumental view of war that prevails in his later work. The pursuit of military success through unlimited violence embodying ‘the principle of destruction’, versus the primacy of limited war and the limitation of violence in war, which loom increasingly large in Clausewitz’s later years. The primacy of defense as the stronger form of war, versus the promise of decisive results that was embodied in the seizure of offensive initiative.
Clausewitz’s final approach is condensed in his Trinity, which comes at the end of the first chapter of book I. The Trinity, with all its problems by its own, is the real legacy of Clausewitz and the real beginning of his theory, as he emphasized himself: “At any rate, the (…) concept of war [the Trinity] which we have formulated casts a first ray of light on the basic structure of theory, and enables us to make an initial differentiation and identification of its major components.”
Clausewitz describes the Trinity as follows:
War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical Trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.
The first chapter of On War, and the Trinity as Clausewitz’s result for theory at its end, are an attempt to summarize these quite different war experiences, and to analyze and describe a general theory of war on the basis of Napoleon’s successes, the limitations of his strategy, and his final defeat.
Clausewitz’s Trinity is quite different from so-called “trinitarian war”. This concept is not derived from Clausewitz himself but from the work of Harry G Summers Jr.
Although Summers referred to Clausewitz’s concept of the Trinity in his very influential book about the war in Vietnam, he falsified Clausewitz’s idea fundamentally. Clausewitz explains in his paragraph about the Trinity that the first of its three tendencies mainly concerns the people, the second mainly concerns the commander and his army, and the third mainly concerns the government. On the basis of this ‘mehr’ (mainly), we cannot conclude that ‘trinitarian war’ with its three components of people, army, and government is Clausewitz’s categorical conceptualization of how the three underlying elements of his Trinity may be embodied.
Since Summers put forward this conception it has been repeated frequently, most influentially by Martin van Creveld. On the contrary, it must be concluded that these three components of ‘trinitarian war’ are only examples of the use of the more fundamental Trinity for Clausewitz. These examples of its use can be applied meaningfully to some historical and political situations, as Summers demonstrated for the case of the war in Vietnam with the unbridgeable gap between the people, the army and the United States government. Notwithstanding the possibility of applying these examples of use, there can be no doubt that Clausewitz defined the Trinity differently and in a much broader, less contingent and more conceptual sense.
Clausewitz’s concept of the Trinity is explicitly differentiated from his famous formula of war, described as a continuation of politics by other means. Although Clausewitz seems at first glance to repeat his formula in the Trinity, this is here only one of three tendencies which all have to be considered if one does not want to contradict reality immediately, as Clausewitz emphasized (89). Looking more closely at his formula, we can see that he describes war as a continuation of politics, but with other means than those that belong to politics itself (87).
These two parts of his statement constitute two extremes: war described either as a continuation of politics, or as something that mainly belongs to the military sphere. Clausewitz emphasizes that policy uses other, non-political means. This creates an implicit tension, between war’s status as a continuation of policy, and the distinctive nature of its ‘other’ means. Resolving this tension in favor of one side has always led to a primacy of the military, whereas this implicit tension is explicated in the Trinity.
In the present discourse on the new forms of war, Clausewitz stands representatively for the “old form” of war. But if we understand his concept of the state as any kind of warring community (as he himself did when speaking of “state policy”) his trinity is the starting point for a general theory of war and violent conflict.
Whereas Sun Tzu was generalizing strategic principles for use against weak adversaries, which may lead to success in particular circumstances, Clausewitz developed a wide-ranging political theory of war by reflecting on the success, the limitations, and the failure of Napoleon’s way of waging war.
Although he might have reflected merely a single strategy, he was able by taking into account its successes, limits, and failure to develop a general theory of war, which transcended a purely and historically limited military strategy.
Clausewitz didn’t deny the reflexive influence of warfare to policy, just to the reverse. But he insisted that the policy of the community has to decide about going to war and the goals which have to be achieved by it, and not promises to achieve an easy military victory – regardless whether they have been made by the neo-cons, those inspired by the theoreticians of 4th or 5th or whatsoever generation warfare like or finally those who makes an absolute out of Sun Tzu’s nevertheless useful recommendations.
Perhaps we should try to think about war in the 21th century by combining both. In the last decade promises of solving political problems by relying only on military means have proven wrong with devastating results. With Clausewitz being back on the agenda, the primacy of the political area is back.
Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Dr phil habil, is a permanent lecturer at the faculty of social and cultural studies at the University of Applied Sciences, Fulda and was a private lecturer of Political Science at the Institute for Social Sciences, Humboldt-University Berlin (up to 2009). He was an associate of the Oxford Leverhulme Programme “The Changing Character of War” (2004-2005) and convener (together with Hew Strachan) of the conference “Clausewitz in the 21st century” (Oxford 2005). He was a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Centre for International Studies (2005-2006).
He is the author of Clausewitz’s puzzle. The political theory of war. Oxford University Press and edited together with Hew Strachan the anthology Clausewitz in the twenty-first century. Oxford University Press 2007. His articles include: New Containment Policy: Grand Strategy for the Twenty-first Century? In: RUSI-Journal, Whitehall, London Whitehall April 2008, Vol 153, No 2, pp. 50-55; The re-politicisation of war and violent conflict – The world powers are striking back In: Ralph Rotte/Christoph Schwarz (eds): War and Strategy, New York (Nova Science) 2010. His newest book, published together with Jan Willem Honig and Dan Moran is about: Clausewitz: The state and war. Steiner publisher: Stuttgart 2011