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As Europe rediscovers war, Pierre Le Vigan says it might be time to revisit Clausewitz’s seminal work On War. An introduction to a pivotal book.

This is a translation. The original was published here.

Some observers might have believed, with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, that war would cease to be a major issue, at least for Europe. Admittedly, conflicts would persist (as we have seen in Mali, Syria, Afghanistan, etc.), but these would be distant from us and of minimal consequence to us. It was the dream of a more tranquil world. At least for countries fortunate enough to have leaders from the ‘circle of reason’. That is to say, liberals advocating the continuation and acceleration of globalisation. Forward towards an increasingly uniform and smooth world, despite some inevitable hitches. Such was the outlook.

We are rediscovering a constant in the history of peoples and civilisations: the world is fraught with conflict.

One has to wonder if this was not a complete miscalculation. In other words, was the Cold War not precisely what prevented hot wars? The outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2022 indicates that Europe is not immune to wars. Moreover, we quickly forgot about the Yugoslav wars and the NATO bombing of Serbia, an action too hastily likened to a mere slap on the wrist given to a country appeasing nationalists ‘from a bygone era’. We are familiar with the saying championed by the ruling class when confronting all those opposing the new global order, both geopolitically and morally: ‘We’re not in the Middle Ages anymore!’ Which means, ‘You’re mistaken in believing in the existence of anthropological constants.’

And yet, deny reality, and it comes rushing back. And so, war has returned, in Ukraine, and its economic repercussions – detrimental to Europe – make this reality more palpable than ever. But since 2015 (with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Bataclan, Nice, and so forth), war has taken on new, non-state forms. It is the war of the partisans, terrorism, and also informational, technological, and industrial warfare. These are wars that are not always declared, but are very real nonetheless. One side seeks to weaken the other and bring it to its knees. By all means, even legal ones, the creation of laws, particularly in the international domain, can also be a form of warfare. For instance, war, or at least sanctions, against a ‘non-democratic’ country, not ‘LGBT friendly’, and so on.

We are rediscovering a constant in the history of peoples and civilisations: the world is fraught with conflict. How could we have forgotten this? How can our leaders still remain blind to this fact? How can Macron’s discussions on foreign policy appear so dishearteningly insubstantial, and his actions so alarming or counterproductive? Unless the simultaneously soothing and unsettling rhetoric is yet another way of waging a war against the people, hiding the true existence of an oligarchic global governance agenda – an agenda fully acknowledged and in line with an ideology that can be contested, but which has a genuine universalist consistency – and that there is not just one single feasible international policy.

Clausewitz’s ‘Formula’

The shadow of war looms over Europeans. A war hotspot can always expand. A localised conflict is never guaranteed to stay that way. It is time to reflect once more on what Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) told us about war. Firstly, we must not misunderstand Clausewitz’s objective. He did not provide a ‘doctrine to win wars’. Not even those of his era. Clausewitz offered a series of observational lessons. It is not the same thing. Lessons to understand various situations. His goal is to show us what distinguishes a war from other socio-historical phenomena. What makes war unique amongst human activities? How can we understand war, and what is there to understand about it? Therefore, beyond the diversity of wars, the goal is to determine what is common to all wars. It is as vital an endeavour as seeking to understand the essence of economics or the essence of politics.

A significant part of the discussions revolves around what Raymond Aron termed Clausewitz’s ‘formula’: ‘War is merely a continuation of politics by other means.’ Seen as too brutal by some political scientists, some have suggested inverting or amending it. Risking diluting its potency or resorting to clever spins. But perhaps the question is not about invalidating this formula, but rather reading it properly and grasping its full explanatory power? War, an expression of politics? Of course, but which politics? War, according to Clausewitz, is both a tool of politics and a form of politics. A continuation of politics by other means. A tool and a new guise. Furthermore, should we interpret the formula as ‘by other means [than political means]’? Or ‘by other means [than peaceful means]’? This raises a question: do all non-directly political means to shift a balance of power constitute war? The same question applies to all non-directly peaceful means, i.e., based on coercion (financial, moral, etc.), technology, mass mobilisation, propaganda, misinformation, destabilisation… We see that even Clausewitz’s basic definition already allows for various interpretations.

Hence, is war solely a clash between two armies, or is it a collective of means – diplomatic, ideological, moral, economic – aimed at bending the opponent to one’s will? Thus, war can be – in its narrower definition – just a confrontation between armies or – in its broader definition – a collection of means, both military and otherwise, to impose our will on an adversary and shift the balance of power in our favour. War can therefore be defined in two interpretations: one restricted, and the other broadened. War is either: a) only when weapons are engaged, or b) when all mechanisms are mobilised to exert force upon the adversary and make him yield, without necessarily engaging armies. War presupposes, in both definitions, a conflict of interest between two powers, an awareness of this conflict – at least by one side – and feelings of hostility, even if unevenly shared. This suggests that war is rooted in politics as a means of managing conflicts.

War as a Mode of Public Relations

One of the difficulties in interpreting Clausewitz is precisely this: although he is both a strategist and a political thinker (as Eric Weil puts it), he does not always define politics in the same way. Politics is the ‘intelligence of the embodied state’ (from On War, book I, chap. 1), Clausewitz says. It is also what represents ‘all the interests of the entire community’ (book VIII, chap. 6). These two definitions are not contradictory. Understanding where interests lie to defend them: Clausewitz’s two propositions complement each other. Let us rephrase this in modern terms: politics is the pursuit of the state’s interests as it represents the nation. So, is war solely the outcome of politics as a rational analysis of the nation’s interests? No. This is what Clausewitz implies. He writes: ‘War is nothing but the continuation of public relations, with the addition of other means’ (from On War, book VIII, chap. 6). This means that war always has a political dimension but does not always result from a historical subject’s political choice. War somewhat evades the dialectic of subject-free choice-action (Descartes’ dialectic). It is an interaction. It is a mode of public relations. That is why, when we study the sequence leading to war, we rarely find the entire responsibility of the conflict lying with just one side. We see that war occurs when both parties want it. If one only accepts war (otherwise, it is capitulation for them), there is still war. But can there be war when neither party wants it? It is the hypothesis of an unintended, fatal sequence. However, Clausewitz considers both scenarios: the anticipated and accepted war, and the war that partly eludes us.

One might occasionally avoid war, but if a country designates you as its enemy, you are its enemy, whether you like it or not.

An example of the rational Clausewitz is the ‘formula’ mentioned earlier. The rational Clausewitz also says, ‘The political intent is the end, whilst war is the means, and one cannot envision the means without the end.’ But the irrational surfaces when Clausewitz writes, ‘Let us not start with a heavy, pedantic definition of war; let us limit ourselves to its essence: the duel. War is nothing but a duel on a grander scale.’ In a way, it is a second ‘formula’, different from ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. This second ‘formula’ veers away from the rational. Everyone knows that duels are often a matter of honour, far more than of interest or rationality. And when the duel is elevated to the level of organised groups – moving from duellum to bellum – it remains an interaction and a relationship, with its share of the irrational. ‘I am not my own master, for he [the adversary] dictates his law to me as I dictate mine to him’, writes Clausewitz. As Freud says, ‘The ego is not master in its own house.’

War is Not an Accident

Thus, war is the application of will to ‘an object that lives and reacts’. Clausewitz summarises, ‘War is a form of human relations.’ The relational nature of war is evident in the necessity for both parties to resort to violence. If one side responds to violence with non-violence – as Denmark did against Germany in 1940 – there is no war (there is, however, an occupation of the country and subjugation of its people. This leads to the nation’s defeat and its potential political disappearance). One might occasionally avoid war, but if a country designates you as its enemy, you are its enemy, whether you like it or not. We see that Clausewitz contemplates rationality and hopes for it. Yet, he also considers the potential for irrationality. Depending on the quotes, the emphasis will shift from one register to another. For Clausewitz, rationality precedes irrationality but does not eliminate it.

Earlier, we pondered if there could be wars that neither party truly desires. This needs clarification. War always results from decisions: those of the aggressor and those of the defender, who decides (or not, as we have seen with Denmark in 1940) to defend themselves. The notion of war as a mere sequence has its limits. In The Responsible Parties of the Second World War, Paul Rassinier posits that there is no proof Hitler wanted war in Europe in 1939. He suggests Hitler believed he could achieve his goals without war. However, this thesis is weak given Hitler’s openly expressed belief in the ‘masculinising’ virtues of war. One cannot argue his desire for peace based on the premise that everyone would capitulate to his demands. Still, the relational nature of war discussed by Clausewitz in chapter 6 of On War suggests that wars as accidents might not be entirely implausible. A misunderstanding could lead to an unforeseen conflict. Nevertheless, the onset of a war still entails clearly identifiable responsibilities, even if decision-makers sometimes act amidst confusing and vague assumptions.

Take the case of Imperial Germany in 1914: many argue that Kaiser Wilhelm II did not want war. Maybe that is true, a ‘psychological’ reality. But the key is that he still decided to yield to the pressures of the general staff, particularly by choosing to invade Belgium, which had an international neutrality status.

In summary: accidents can influence decisions, but wars do not occur accidentally. Another more contemporary example: Putin believed that, after initiating the ‘Special Operation’, the Ukrainian government would be swiftly overthrown and negotiate with Russia favourably. If this had occurred, there would have been no war. However, this was a mere hypothesis, and in reality, it did not play out: Zelensky’s government, for whatever reasons, did not collapse. Putin, therefore, took a risk, and he is accountable for it. However, he is not solely to blame, since the pro-Russian populations in Donbass had been under attack since 2014, and the Minsk Agreements (2014) were not implemented. In short, there is an element of accident in war, but war itself is not an accident.

The Concept of Total War

Clausewitz’s definition of war as the ‘continuation of political relations’ is enlightening not only in itself, for what it reveals about the dialogic nature of war, but for what it displays about Clausewitz’s understanding of politics. Politics is the exchange between states and nations. Of course, this exchange is not limited to the mere trading of goods and money; it also concerns the exchange of ideas. Politics refers to the relationships between nations as determined by each party’s intentions and their mutual interactions. As for ‘internal’ politics, it concerns relationships between social groups. For Clausewitz, war is indeed the continuation of politics by other means (other than peaceful ones). But precisely because war is an extension of politics, it does not erase or overshadow other political methods. War does not consume all political facets. ‘We state that these new means supplement [peaceful means] to simultaneously assert that war does not halt these political relations; it does not transform them into something completely different. These relations continue in their essence, regardless of the means employed.’ That is why wars do not preclude parallel negotiations. ‘Battles are fought in lieu of sending notes, but one continues to send notes or their equivalent even while battling’, writes Raymond Aron (Thinking War: Clausewitz, Vol. 1, Gallimard, 1989, p. 180). The concept of total war (Erich Ludendorff, 1916) encapsulates the idea that war is more than armed violence. It is the mobilisation of everything, including the imagination (self-idealisation, demonisation of the enemy). It mobilises the entire populace, from the elderly to children. When Nazi Germany raised its citizens’ pensions in 1944, it was not due to underestimating the military’s importance but because they believed the home front must remain steadfast to prevent the battlefront from collapsing. The mobilisation of everyone and everything is why strategy is not just a narrowly military concept but involves managing all economic, demographic, political, and technological aspects that might lead to victory, as General André Beaufre explains (Introduction to Strategy, Pluriel-Fayard, 2012). War encompasses armed violence and its application but also integrates peaceful means. Both peace and war pertain to political relations. These relations constitute power dynamics and asymmetrical perspectives of the world. When Napoleon told Metternich in 1813 that, unlike legitimate monarchs, he could not return defeated to France without losing his throne, it was a subjective truth that became an objective one. Given Napoleon’s assertion that accepting defeat would weaken his position among the French, the Allies (then France’s enemies) were reluctant to negotiate with a weakened leader who could not guarantee lasting peace on their terms. Napoleon’s argument backfired on him. We observe that war and politics’ rational dimension, which pertains to calculation, always intersects with an irrational facet rooted in subjectivities. However, for there to be a war, and not stasis (civil war, violent discord) or terrorism, there must be organised groups, nations or federations of nations, but not fleeting tribes. In this regard, the emerging postmodernity leads to conflicts that will increasingly deviate from traditional wars. Nonetheless, they will be highly violent and will not easily be resolved through conventional negotiations, pointing to a heightened prospect of chaos.

Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831)

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Translated by Constantin von Hoffmeister

Pierre Le Vigan

Born in 1956, Pierre Le Vigan is a French urban planner who has made significant contributions to various journals, including Éléments and Le Spectacle du Monde. He has imparted his expertise by teaching at institutions such as Paris XI-Orsay, Paris XII-Créteil, and the Urban and Health Institute in Bobigny. Moreover, Pierre has also been actively involved in adult education.

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Jason Rogers
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Jason Rogers
7 months ago

Good introduction to von Clausewitz. It seems that as our nations inch ever closer to civil war, at least in some areas, we would do well to study and learn from war.

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