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.