War is a mere continuation of politics with other means

In the toolbox of policymakers, war is one among many. When deemed appropriate by the powers that be, war can be chosen as a means of enacting policy – no more or less legitimate than any other – albeit, crucially, not to replace, but to complement other tools of policy.

When the Prussian military General Carl von Clausewitz penned these words in his seminal work On War (“Vom Kriege”) sometime between 1816 and his death in 1831, he was thinking of the Napoleonic wars from the start of the 19th century. Since then, they have been applied and re-applied repeatedly, not least by the German leadership during World War I.

It is hard to argue the truth in his words. War has always been seen as a legitimate tool for governments to resolve conflicts. Even after World War II, the conception of the United Nations and the attempt to outlaw of wars of aggression by its Charta, engaging in state-perpetrated or state-sponsored violence is as pervasive a phenomenon of today as it has always been. Perhaps with slight modifications to how it is framed, or where it is concentrated geographically.

The thing is, I really can’t stand Clausewitz’ quote.

Not because it is not true as a factual description of what war is, from a purely conceptual standpoint. But because its existence makes it so much easier to legitimize acts of violence between states. My problem is not Clausewitz’ words, but how his words are used.

If war is a mere continuation of politics with other means, it is in no way qualitatively different from, say, signing an international treaty or trying to achieve ones aims via diplomatic exchanges. It presents all possible means as qualitatively the same, just expressed differently. As if reaching a business deal through negotiation and mutual agreement was the same as reaching it through extortion or point-blank threats. Why is that not seen as a continuation of negotiations with other means?

Because it would be wrong. Legitimizing such a way of forming business deals would undermine society and the economy in a myriad of ways, so it is simply not accepted. What is more, having acted this way usually de-legitimizes perpetrators as inept. After all, if your opinion or your cause was right, why would you need to resort to violence to get your way?

This is how I would like military aggression between states to be seen as well. So that war is not legitimized as the mere continuation of politics with other means, but as a tacit admittance of inferiority in all other aspects of politics. Aggressive application of military might as the ultimate show of weakness and illegitimacy, so to speak.

Can we achieve this? Maybe the UN Charta can be seen as a step in this direction already. However, as states become better and better at framing military aggression as anything but, or simply hiding it behind contractors and covert ops, I think the paradigm shift must come from us, the people. We must refuse any supposed legitimacy of aggressive military action and reject being associated with governments that try to undermine non-aggressive global cooperation.

Then, maybe, there is a chance that global public opinion swings against the aggressive application of force. As a result, war would do nothing but erode a perpetrating government’s legitimization, and the legitimization of those who fail do disassociate themselves from that government. War would change from a legitimate tool of politics and governance to something that automatically undermines it.

8 thoughts on “War is a mere continuation of politics with other means

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your words – and disagree completely with Clausewitz’ quote. In my opinion, nothing really can justify war and agression, simply because it implies that the agressor is so convinced that they are right, that everything else is not important (and by everything else I mean human lives, culture, respect, etc.) and that they think they are better than somebody else, that their reasons ar emore legitimate. To me this is everything that is wrong with the world and I genuinely think that if people were to treat each other with respect and accept each other, then things would be much better. But then again, you can say that I am way too idealistic 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Public opinion” won’t count for anything unless all 7.9 billion people on the planet have a say! Perhaps Elon Musk can resolve the issue of enabling everyone to have a say! Then, it will be a question of leaders and politicians (who are they and how did they get those positions?) acting on those billions of views! A difficult subject to write about, Markus, and well said! 🙏

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    1. I get where you are coming from with this. At the same time, though, it is important never to underestimate the power of collective action – even on a seemingly small scale! I’ve read a few times now that the crucial threshold for achieving political change in a determined populous is not 50%, but more like 3.5%.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. My favorite quote about war comes from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” which some read as an essay about avoiding war altogether:

    “A government should not mobilize an army out of anger, military leaders should not provoke war out of wrath. Act when it is beneficial, desist if it is not. Anger can revert to joy, wrath can revert to delight, but a nation destroyed cannot be restored to existence, and the dead cannot be restored to life. Therefore, an enlightened government is careful about this, a good military leadership is alert to this. This is the way to secure a nation and keep the armed forces whole.”

    I *think* Clausewitz thought that by approaching war with professionalism and reason, it could be avoided, or its more human costs reduced. But I doubt if he or his contemporaries in government thought it was an illegitimate way to solve political problems. Two hundred years later however, yes, we can do better. How to punish those who engage in warmongering and actually cause them pain without injuring the innocent is a real problem, as we have seen with Russia.

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    1. Yes, quite the timing. The post came online now, but I actually wrote it a couple of months ago. In a way Russia is deligitimizing itself due to its aggressive action, though. So maybe these types of wars are on the decline. I guess we will be able to tell once we see how the public reacts next time a western nation tries to act in an imperialist way.

      I like how Sun Tzu’s quote highlights the importance of removing ego from political decision-making. Thank you for sharing it.

      Liked by 1 person

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