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The womb of war: Clausewitz and international politics*

  • Hugh Smith


The student of international relations seeks from Clausewitz not a theory of politics but an analysis of war. For some 150 years those who have sought to understand war have turned to Clausewitz—to find inspiration or to condemn him, to borrow or to steal from him, to quote or to misquote him. He has been called upon to support particular wars and strategies, to take sides in the Cold War and to throw light on nuclear deterrence. He has been both venerated and vilified, and frequently misunderstood. Few have ignored him altogether.



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1 The edition used here is the one edited and translated by Howard, Michael and Paret, Peter (Princeton, 1976). Page references to this edition are in brackets in the text. Citations in German are taken from Clausewitz, Carl von, Vom Kriege, ed. Hahlweg, Werner (19th edn, Bonn, 1980).

2 One of the most detailed analyses is Aron, Raymond, Penser la guerre, Clausewitz (henceforth Penser la guerre), 2 volumes (Paris, 1976); both volumes are condensed in the translation by Booker, C. and Stone, N., Clausewitz: Philosopher of War (henceforth Philosopher of War) (London, 1983). See also Howard, M., Clausewitz (Oxford, 1983) and Handel, M. I. (ed.), Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, (London, 1986).

3 On seapower see Arndt, H.-J., ‘Clausewitz und der Einfluß der Seemacht’, in Wagemann, E. and Niemeyer, J. (eds.), Freiheit ohne Krieg? Beiträge zur Strategie-Diskussion der Gegenwart im Spiegel der Theorie von Carl von Clausewitz (henceforth Freiheit ohne Krieg?) (Bonn, 1980), pp. 215217.

3 Creveld, Martin van, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 6871; Howard, , Clausewitz, pp. 101103.

5 Handel, M. I., ‘Clausewitz in the Age of Technology’, in Handel, (ed.), Clausewitz and Modern Strategy; Howard, , Clausewitz, pp. 34.

6 See in particular Aron, Penser la guerre, Gallie, W. B., Philosophers of Peace and War (Cambridge, 1978), ch. 3 and Reynolds, Charles, ‘Carl von Clausewitz and Strategic Theory’, British Journal of International Studies 4(1978).

7 Paret, Peter, ‘Die Politischen Ansichten von Clausewitz’, in Wagemann, and Niemeyer, (eds.), Freiheit ohne Krieg?, p. 333.

8 The German word Politik can mean policy or politics; Clausewitz uses the term variously to mean either or both.

9 Reynolds, , ‘Clausewitz and Strategic Theory’, p. 189.

10 For a detailed study of Clausewitz's intellectual development, see Paret, Peter, Clausewitz and the State (Oxford, 1976).

11 One of his earliest essays—written in French around 1805—examined the difficulties of putting together a successful coalition against France. ‘Considérations sur la manière de faire la guerre à la France’, in Hahlweg, W. (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz: Schriften-Aufsätze-Studien-Briefe (henceforth Schriften-Aufsätze), vol. 1 (Gottingen, 1966), pp. 5863.

12 Paret, , Clausewitz and the State, p. 3.

13 Schmitt, C., ‘Clausewitz als politischer Denker, Bemerkungen und Hinweise’, in Dill, G. (ed.). Clausewitz in Perspektive (Frankfurt/Main, 1980), p. 442.

14 See, for example, ‘Die Deutschen und die Franzosen’ (1807), in Rothfels, H. (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz: Politische Schriften und Briefe (henceforth Politische Schrifteri) (Munich, 1922), pp. 3551.

15 Rothfels, Hans, Carl von Clausewitz: Politik und Krieg (henceforth Politik und Krieg) (Berlin, 1920; reprinted Bonn, 1980), p. 75.

16 ‘Umtriebe’ (1820–23), in Rothfels, (ed.), Schriften, Politische, p. 171; Paret, , Clausewitz and the State, p. 300.

17 ‘Bemerkungen und Einfälle’ (1807), in Rothfels, Politik und Krieg, p. 225.

18 Clausewitz approaches war in the same way. Actual war is to be understood by comparison with war in the abstract or ‘absolute war’ (581), an analytical concept which serves as a reference point for the analysis of war in the real world. Paret, P., ‘Die Politischen Ansichten von Clausewitz’, in Wagemann, and Niemeyer, (eds.), Freiheit ohne Krieg, p. 347.

19 Paret, P., ‘Education, Politics, and War in the Life of Clausewitz’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1968), p. 395. Paret argues that ‘Clausewitz's preoccupation with the possibilities of educating and improving the individual.. . became the source of his politics and theories’ (p. 395).

20 ‘Umtriebe’, in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, p. 176. On the problems of interpreting this essay, see Paret, , Clausewitz and the State, pp. 298306.

21 Weil, E., ‘Guerre et politique selon Clausewitz’, Revue Frangaise de Science Politique 5 (1955), p. 311. Clausewitz's interpretation of the French Revolution—by no means original but notably objective—focuses on the tension between classes and on the incompetent and wasteful administration of the government. ‘Urntriebe’ (1820–23), Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, p. 164.

22 ‘Umtriebe’ (1820–23), in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, p. 176; translation from Ritter, G., The Sword and the Scepter, vol. I, The Prussian Tradition (Miami, 1969), p. 275, n. 65.

23 Letter of 12 November 1817, cited in Paret, , Clausewitz and the State, p. 262.

24 Ibid. p. 298. For a discussion of the merits of various arrangements, see Clausewitz, , ‘Nachrichten iiber Preußen in seiner Großen Katastrophe’ (1823–4), in Hahlweg, W. (ed.), Verstreute kleine Schriften (Osnabruck, 1979), pp. 305309.

25 Paret, , Clausewitz and the State, pp. 138, 291.

26 ‘Umtriebe’, in Rothfeis, (ed.), Politische Schriften, p. 173.

27 Letter of 9 September 1824, cited in Ritter, , The Sword and the Scepter, I, p. 275, n. 65.

28 Historisch-Politische Aufzeichnungen’, in Rothfeis, (ed.), Politische Schriften, p. 4.

29 ‘Nachrichten über Preußen in seiner großen Katastrophe’, in Hahlweg, (ed.), Verstreute kleine Schriften, p. 320.

30 Gallie considers this concept of policy to be Clausewitz's ‘single brilliant insight’ into the nature of politics, Philosophers of Peace and War, p. 61; see also Schramm, W. von, ‘Clausewitz und die politische Philosophic’, Aussenpolitik 9 (1958), pp. 709710.

31 ‘Historisch-Politische Aufzeichnungen’ (1803), in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, p. 2.

32 Ibid. p. 3.

33 The difficult dilemma of the citizen who believes that his ruler is failing to follow the true interests of the state, however, is not one that Clausewitz chooses to examine, despite his own experience in leaving Prussian service in 1812. Such transfer of service was not an unusual practice for the time but it was a difficult decision for Clausewitz and prompted him to write a lengthy personal statement. ‘Bekenntnisdenkschrift’, in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, pp. 80119.

34 Strachan, H., European Armies and the Conduct of War (London, 1983), p. 97.

35 Scheuner, U., ‘Krieg als Mittel der Politik im Lichte des Völkerrechts’, in Wagemann, and Niemeyer, (eds.), Freiheit ohne Krieg?, p. 161.

36 Note dated 1807 in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, pp. 6364; see also Paret, , Clausewitz and the State, pp. 171172.

37 Penser la guerre, p. 33.

38 All creations of society, including the great religions, Clausewitz wrote in 1807, carry within them the seeds of their own destruction. ‘Historisch-Politische Aufzeichnungen’, in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, pp. 5152.

39 On Coalitions’ (1803), in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften p. 3.

40 ‘Ueber die künftigen Kriegs-operationen Preußens gegen Frankreich’ (18071808), in Hahlweg, W. (ed.), Schriften-Aufsätze, p. 76.

41 ‘Considérations sur la maniére de faire la guerre a la France’, in Hahlweg, (ed.), Schriften-Aufsätze, p. 59.

42 Clausewitz uses the term republic of states (Staatenrepubtik) to refer to the totality of relations among the European powers. Aron notes that the term is reminiscent of Montesquieu and Voltaire. Philosopher of War, pp. 102103.

43 ‘Bemerkungen und Einfälle’ (1807) in Rothfels, , Politik und Krieg, p. 227.

44 It will suffice here to note that the advantages of the defence include terrain, fortifications, support of the people, the possibility of surprise and the fact that the passage of time generally degrades the attack. It is on account of such factors that attacking states usually believe it advantageous to carry out their conquests as quickly as possible. On War, p. 598.

45 ‘Die Verhältnisse Europas seit der Teilung Polens’; (1831), in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, p. 226.

46 Note c. 1804 in Rothfels, , Politik und Krieg, p. 201.

47 See also ‘Die Verhaltnisse Europas seit der Teilung Polens’, in Rothfels, (ed.), Politische Schriften, p. 222.

48 Rothfels, , Politik und Krieg, p. 73.

49 Holbraad, C., The Concert of Europe (London, 1970), p. 87.

50 Scarry, E., The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (henceforth Body in Pain) (New York, 1985), p. 101.

51 Clausewitz's distinction between major wars fought to a decision and wars fought for minor advantages was not well developed until 1827 but it permeates much of his work. See the ‘Note of 10 July 1827'. On War, p. 69, and pp. 488, 501. See also ‘Gedanken zur Abwehr’ (1827), in Hahlweg, (ed.), Verstreute kleine Schriften, pp. 498. On War, pp. 8788, 98–9.

52 Gallie, W. B., ‘Power Politics and War Cultures’, Review of International Studies 14 (1988), p. 22.

53 Scarry, , Body in Pain, especially ch. 2.

54 Ibid. pp. 63ff.

55 Rothfels, H., ‘Clausewitz’ in Earle, E. M. (ed.), Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton, 1943), p. 99.

56 See On War, Book VI, ch. 26; also Hahlweg, W., ‘Clausewitz and Guerrilla Warfare', in Handel, (ed.), Clausewitz and Modern Strategy; Haffner, S., ‘Mao und Clausewitz’, in Dill, (ed.), Clausewitz in Perspektive.

57 Rapoport, A. (ed.), Carl von Clausewitz: On War (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 14. According to Rapoport, Clausewitz teaches that war should be rational, national and instrumental.

58 In Paris in 1815, for example, Clausewitz was appalled by those who wanted to exact their revenge on the French by acts such as the destruction of the Pont de lena; he considered such actions unnecessarily provocative towards the French people and government. von Schramm, W., Clausewitz: Leben und Werk (Esslingen, 1981), pp. 472474.

59 Rapoport, , (ed.), Clausewitz: On War, p. 76. Emphasis in original.

60 Ibid. p. 411. Nor is this a new criticism of Clausewitz. In an introduction to the 1908 English translation of On War Colonel F. N. Maude expressed his belief that ‘it is to the spread of Clausewitz's ideas that the present state of more or less readiness for war of all European armies is due’ On War (trans. Graham, Colonel J. J.), 4th impression (London, 1940), p. ix.

61 Walzer, M., Just and Unjust Wars (London, 1978), p. 79.

62 Atkinson, A., Social Order and the General Theory of Strategy (London, 1981), p. 4.

63 Ibid. p. 2.

64 Ibid. p. 189.

65 For discussion of the relevance of Clausewitz in the nuclear age see, for example, Aron, Philosopher of War, esp. chs. 13–15; Moody, P. R. Jr., ‘Clausewitz and the Fading Dialectic of War’, World Politics 31 (1979); Nardulli, B. R., ‘Clausewitz and the Reorientation of Nuclear Strategy’, Journal of Strategic Studies 5 (1982); Handel, (ed.), Clausewitz and Modern Strategy; Howard, , Clausewitz and The Causes of Wars (London, 1984).

* The author wishes to thank the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Department of International Relations, Australian National University, for support while carrying out research for this article.

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Review of International Studies
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