However, Clausewitz offers a notion of grand strategy not in his theory of war but in his theory of the state.

As the affairs of states continue to evolve into a complex web of interdependence, cooperation, and competition, pressure mounts on states to effectively employ the tools of statecraft to attain their political objects. The contention of this essay is that Carl von Clausewitz implicitly defined grand strategy in his magnum opus, On War, as the sum of the tools of statecraft. Consequently, states should use this definition of grand strategy accommodated to present political conditions.

Carl von Clausewitz defined strategy as “the use of the engagement to attain the object of war” (390). The contemporary reception of the Prussian General’s formulation of strategy varies greatly. Some, such as B.H. Liddell Hart in his work Strategy, have criticized this definition’s narrowness and what he perceived as congenital bellicosity. Others, such as military strategist John Stone, have praised Clausewitz’s definition while adding what they believed to be much-needed qualifications. Still others, such as Hew Strachan in his work, The Direction of War, have of late called for a return to Clausewitz’s pointedness and clarity. Appraisals of his formulation aside, this definition of strategy in itself offers little in the way of conceptualizing a definition of grand strategy. However, Clausewitz offers a notion of grand strategy not in his theory of war but in his theory of the state.

As a theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz is often reduced to his dictum that “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” (pp. 280). This reductive image of the Prussian General obscures the vast insight carried in his work. Namely, that Clausewitz was not only a theorist of war but, implicitly, a philosopher of the modern nation-state. In his biography, Clausewitz and the State, Peter Paret elucidates the centrality of the state in Clausewitz’s thought when he writes, “Clausewitz regarded the growth of the modern state as the most significant process in history,” (pp. 3).

The nation-state permeates the whole of Clausewitz’s work. It is perhaps impossible to discuss his theory of war without mentioning his theory of the state. He analogizes each through a trinity. War, the primary trinity, is composed of enmity, chance and intelligence (On War (1943), pp. 282).      His dictum that war is a continuation of politics is inextricably linked to the secondary trinity, the nation-state of his day, consisting of the people, the military, and the government (On War (1943), pp. 282). For Clausewitz, the nation-state is characterized by its capacity to harness material and the energy of the people and convert it into the activity of war. He had immense faith in the nation-state’s universality and durability, such that it began to take on for him a secular theological import (Clausewitz and the State (1985), pp. 16-17). He surmised that unlike all other forms of political organization, the nation-state was not likely to disappear any time soon (Clausewitz and the State (1985), 3-4). Clausewitz’s theory has endured to the present day as the nation-state remains the primary unit of international politics.

In On War, there is a theory of grand strategy because Clausewitz had conceptualized the nation-state as equipped to participate in perpetual international intercourse. For Clausewitz, “war is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means,” (On War (1943), pp. 280). That is to say, war is one means of political intercourse, characterized by military force, to accomplish political ends. The implication is that the nation-state is equipped with multiple means of political intercourse, which war is but one. Overall, these means can be collectively described as diplomatic, military, and economic means. Therefore, for Clausewitz, grand strategy is the totality of the state’s means of political intercourse directed toward the object(s) of policy.

The nation-state is the foundation of international political intercourse and, more generally, communication. War is merely one means of communication and should not be separated from its political context. Clausewitz writes, “Is not war merely another kind of writing and language for thought? It has, to be sure, its own grammar, but not its own logic,” (On War (1943), pp. 933-934). This notion substantiates Emile Simpson’s formulation of war, presented in his work War From the Ground Up, as a competition to impose meaning (pp. 35.). While war is one form of political intercourse, or grammar, it never exists apart from the guiding intelligence of grand strategy, which is the logic of state policy. However, statecraft includes other means of political intercourse—more forms of grammar—to express the overarching logic of its grand strategy. These include the grammar of diplomacy and the grammar of economics.

As the primary instrument of foreign policy, diplomacy is the highest expression of political intercourse. Diplomacy is international dialogue encompassing negotiations, alliances, treaties, agreements, etc. It is the sum of all means of verbal and written communication. As Henry Kissinger famously stated, “diplomacy is the art of restraining power.” Thus, it appears that diplomacy is in some measure contrary to war, which is nothing other than a violent irruption of power. When the instruments of diplomacy fail to rectify the nation-state’s pressing political imperatives, war is called forth to accomplish the same by different means. However, it would not be correct to say that war and diplomacy are simply at odds or irreconcilable since history has shown that it is often at the negotiation table that military victories are consolidated or degraded. Diplomacy and war flow into one another—where one stutters, the other completes the utterance. Though grammatically distinct, both follow the dictates of a single guiding logic.

No doubt, trade can confer mutual benefit and produce economic interdependence that increases nation-states’ cost of going to war.

As a continuation of political intercourse, it is no mistake that within war the routes of military supply, reinforcement, and recombination are denoted by the term Lines of Communication. However, the geography and roads that underpin military lines of communications are also those of economic exchange, demonstrating the intimate proximity of war and economics as components of the totality of nation-state intercourse. As Geoffrey Till explains in his book Seapower, Sea Lines of Communication have the peacetime function of transporting commerce. They have always been necessary to sustain the life and prosperity of the nation-state (pp. 11). It is no exaggeration to say that Sea Lines of Communication are the basis of today’s economics, with more than 90% of trade conveyed by sea (Seapower (2019), pp. 8). In his seminal work, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Julian S. Corbett demonstrates how in times of war commerce denial is an effective means of enforcing control of maritime communications (pp. 91). Therefore, the dual military-commercial usage of Sea Lines of Communication tightly integrates military and economic grammars of political intercourse within a single domain of contestation.

While the classical and neoclassical economic notion of commerce as a pacifying force remains popular in the West, the logic of economics has always been contested (Seapower (2019), 233). No doubt, trade can confer mutual benefit and produce economic interdependence that increases nation-states’ cost of going to war. However, Paul Kennedy refutes this in his monumental work The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. He argues that in an age where military might is founded on economic power, trade has clear ramifications for the international balance of power. Trade has become a leading metric of economic strength and national vitality that undergirds the international distribution of political power. Consequently, as Halford Mackinder identified over a century ago, rapid shifts in economic power resulting from equally rapid and uneven economic development inevitably produces destabilizing changes in international political power.

With the relative abeyance of overt military conflict, scholars have readily identified how interstate competition has increasingly played out under the grammar of economics, or what has become known as ‘Geoeconomics.’ In a seminal essay, Edward N. Luttwak defines geoeconomics as “the admixture of the logic of conflict with the methods of commerce—or, as Clausewitz would have written, the logic of war in the grammar of commerce.” Thus, commerce is being weaponized to engender uneven economic and strategic development, accomplishing the object of war by other means. This is a clear example of Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s dictum, when he states, “Political is war by other means.”

Within their grand strategies, peer competitors are forging a tighter integration within the totality of the means of political intercourse such that economics is subsumed by war’s adversarial impulse. Perhaps the most stark example is the “civil-military fusion” being incorporated into China’s grand strategic Belt Road Initiative (BRI). In other words, civil-economic are strategically integrated into the BRI as pretexts for potential military uses. The ASPI report concludes that, “The trend is toward an increasingly Chinese-dominated political, economic, technological, and strategic ecosystem in the Indo-Pacific,” which is doing more to hinder American power projection than overt military measures.

In the final analysis, grand strategy for Clausewitz is the logical complex of instruments of political intercourse, strategically oriented, and consisting of the grammar of diplomacy, economics, and war. Clausewitz’s conception of grand strategy as the totality of the means of political intercourse offers one means of integrating all tools of statecraft into a single view of “state policy in its higher relations,” (On War (1943), pp. 313). This formulation of grand strategy conceives of integrating these tools such that the different forms of grammar may be used in concert to form a single statement of political intercourse. If successful, this short essay will have produced two results. First, it will have convinced the reader that this topic is worthy of more significant study. Second, Clausewitz’s notion of the nation-state as an organ of political intercourse and nation-states’ grand strategy as the direction of the totality of their means is well suited to accommodate the strategic exigencies of today’s international system.

Francis Miyata earned an MA in War Studies from King’s College London in November 2019. His research interests include Chinese military history, maritime strategy, insurgency and political philosophy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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  1. Question:

    Can Clausewitz — and/or the information provided by our author above — be used to explain the phenomenon that I describe below:

    U.S./Western “soft power” is on the wane today; this, because it demands too much of — and thus stands against — traditional society.

    Russian (et. al) “soft power” is on the rise today; this, because it supports traditional society — and, thus, stands against new/modern U.S./Western society and its radically modern demands.

    In this regard read, for example, the March 21st, 2016 The American Interest article “The Reality of Russian Soft Power” by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova:

    From this such perspective, it would seem that further efforts to advance (ugly?) U.S./Western new/modern “soft power;” this likely to result in:

    a. Even further gains by nations such as China and Russia today. And, likewise,

    b. Even further gains by radical conservative elements both here at home and there abroad?

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