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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 , 706).

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 situations.
Outdated Concept

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, 1976.

2. Metz, Steven. “A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy of 21st-Century Warfare.” Parameters vol 24, No. 4, 1994, pp 126-32.

3.  Paret, Peter. Makers of Modern Strategy. Ed. Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

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