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An Introduction to Clausewitzian Strategic Theory: General Theory, Strategy, and their Relevance for Today

An Introduction to Clausewitzian Strategic Theory: General Theory, Strategy, and their Relevance for Today An Introduction to Clausewitzian Strategic Theory: General Theory, Strategy, and their Relevance for Today
To cite this article: Guerra, Joseph M., “An Introduction to Clausewitzian Strategic Theory: General Theory, Strategy, and their Relevance for Today,” Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 3, Summer 2012, pages 30-34.

Strategy is generally understood as that which links military means and political ends. We understand this because military force is not seen as an end in itself, but rather as an instrument of power pursuing purpose.[i] Strategic theory is a way of understanding and practicing strategy; but what exactly would make strategic theory Clausewitzian as opposed to a different approach? What does this approach consist of? This paper will provide some initial answers to those questions. It will also provide the reader with an overview of a selection of Clausewitzian concepts and how they form a larger system. Finally, it will show how Clausewitz fits within a larger area of political thought: classical realism.

The context

Clausewitzian strategic theory starts with the assumption that all wars in history share certain common characteristics; for example, the nature of war itself does not really change, whereas warfare, the ways in which wars are fought, goes through a constant process of change. The portion of Clausewitzian theory that pertains to all wars is referred to as Clausewitz’s General Theory of war.[ii] Much of Clausewitz’s classic On War also refers to both war and warfare in the context of his time, thus forming in effect a theory of early 19th Century warfare distinct from the General Theory. Yet clearly, warfare has changed greatly since Clausewitz’s time. Therefore, one of the confusing things about reading On War is that the various types of theory Clausewitz develops are somewhat mixed together; that is, his dialectical approach includes not only an exploration of the extremes of his concepts, but also combination of different types of theory.[iii]

Before proceeding a couple of points need to be made. First, a strategist or practitioner does not need to understand or use strategic theory at all. A military or strategic genius would create strategic effect without the need of theory. Action, or praxis, can exist without theory. Thus, strategic theory can be seen as a set of concepts that allow us to organize our thoughts and perceive a specific phenomenon or task more clearly, that is theory and praxis working together.

Second, Clausewitzian strategic theory provides us with a description of how to approach a task, not what we should do in every case, nor what will in fact happen during a sequence of events. The possible events/sequences initiated by war are simply too complex to predict with any regularity. Strategic theory is thus a way of thinking, not an instruction manual for action.

The theory

With those points in mind, let us get to the nature of the theory itself. Clausewitzian strategic theory has two principle applications, namely for a military historical analysis, and as a framework for war planning. Future prediction is not really part of the deal, seeking as it does to explain how military historical events in specific instances develop and lead to strategic and political effects. Yet despite this, sometimes the relation between the stated political purpose and the military aim/means available, not to mention the character of the two sides, the personalities of the leadership, and allied powers, can help provide a clear indicator of how events are going to turn out. This attribute can be distinguished in certain cases, such as when the political purpose – for example imposing by force a new political identity on the conquered political community – is so radical that the military resources needed to achieve it are almost incalculable, thus leading to strategic dysfunction. The political purpose has to be in line with the means.

Allowing for such factors, Clausewitzian strategic theory uses a system of interlocking concepts and operating principles which form Clausewitz’s General Theory of war. As mentioned earlier, the General Theory postulates that there exists a system of common attributes to all wars as violent social interactions, and that war belongs to a larger body of human relations and actions known as politics (making all wars a subset of the realm of politics, but not vice versa).[iv] While all wars share these characteristics, warfare, as in how to conduct wars, is very much based on the political relations and characteristics of the various societies at a specific time. War does not change, whereas warfare and political relations go through a process of constant alteration.

Since war is complex, Clausewitz’s General Theory need only be flexible enough to adequately describe it as a human phenomenon, and act at the same time as a basis for war planning, since it covers all wars. The theory need not be perfect, and is not expected to be so. Essentially, it need only provide a flexible framework for planning better than the next best theory, and so far Clausewitzians are still waiting for this second-best option to appear.

As new methods of warfare emerge and come in to practice, a new approach to warfare for that epoch’s art of war develops, all of which will be by definition Clausewitzian provided they do not contradict the General Theory. Moreover, new military/strategic geniuses will emerge who can define the new art of war through praxis, operating in effect outside of theory, but also retrospectively expanding not only the art of war of that epoch, but also Clausewitz’s strategic theory. Thus analysis of military history using this theory allows retrospectively for theory’s expansion.

This provides the reason for Clausewitz’s continued relevance. In fact most criticisms of Clausewitz deal to a greater extent with the perceived influence he had than with his actual writing. Since the General Theory encompasses a whole series of different approaches to warfare, subsequent theorists and practitioners (strategists) have been able to add to Clausewitzian thought as well.[v]

The text

The most thorough treatment of the General Theory is in Chapter 1 of Book I of On War.[vi] Here Clausewitz provides various definitions of war; introduces force and coercion, the three interactions to the extreme and their contravening elements in reality, the ideal types of absolute war and war in reality, the concepts of polarity, attack and defense, the subordination to policy, and many more.

These are then synthesized in the last section into the remarkable trinity of:

Primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

Discussion of the General Theory takes place in other parts of the book as well, especially Books II, III, VI and VIII, but the most sustained treatment is in the first chapter.[vii]

Also important to remember is that all these concepts and operating principles fit within the framework, or Gestalt, that comprises the General Theory as a whole.[viii] In order to get an idea of how these concepts fit together into a larger whole I will focus not on this first chapter, but on the second, since it describes Clausewitz’s view of strategy.

Chapter 2 of Book I of On War is entitled Purpose and Means in War. Clausewitz begins Chapter two straightforwardly:

The preceding chapter showed that the nature of war is complex and changeable. I now propose to inquire how its nature influences its purpose and its means.

If for a start we inquire into the objective [Ziel] of any particular war which must guide military action if the political purpose [Zweck] is to be properly served, we find that the object of any war can vary just as much as its political purpose and its actual circumstances.[ix]

The concepts of political purpose, military objective or aim, and means were first mentioned in Section 2 of the first chapter and are described as the initial trinity of On War. Here they are mentioned again, but within the context of the remarkable trinity of passion, chance and subordination to politics, which had been introduced in Section 28 of the proceeding chapter. It is the effective linking of the military Ziel by military means to the political Zweck, which defines strategy.

At this point it is important to bear in mind that Clausewitz is expanding on this particular code of law regarding subordination to political purpose (Section 28). Clausewitz’s discussion in this chapter comes across at times as normative (what should happen), since he is describing the rational element of the remarkable trinity of war, as opposed to the irrational or chance elements.[x] This becomes particularly apparent when he mentions war termination: “Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”

Would this actually happen in reality? If the war in question did not end when the rational political purpose was unattainable, then we are talking of a war which has possibly lost its instrumental usefulness for the side that initiated it, which is Clausewitz’s point following this perspective, the code of law. We also need to consider that the political purpose/military aim can change over the course of the war, sometimes radically.

Again assuming that this chapter introduces Clausewitz’s concept of strategy, he then reminds us that theoretically war is something separate from politics, that is, organized violence to disarm the enemy, thus making him powerless. This is then following the three „tendencies to the extreme“ in regards to the military aim. Yet in reality, not all wars approach this extreme (or absolute) type, requiring the total overthrow of the enemy, and they vary widely due to the range of political purposes sought after/possible. This is what Clausewitz refers to as the dual nature of war: that war can be of two types. These two types include wars aimed at overthrow of the enemy’s state/rulers, and wars conducted for more limited purposes.

The more modest the political purpose the more likely events are going to be calculated not it terms of necessities or even physical existence, but in probabilities of success or failure. As Clausewitz further states in Chapter 2 of Book I: “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of the object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration.” (Clausewitz’s Emphasis)

We, of course, know that war does include elements of passion and chance, but once again Clausewitz is focusing on the rational element – this code of law of his larger General Theory. That is to say, that it is subordination to politics (or strategy), which theoretically guides action in war, and allows it to remain a political instrument.

It is also interesting to note that in his discussion Clausewitz connects ways to ends (i.e. political purpose linked to military aim) rather than to (military) means. This military aim can vary as widely as the political purpose but reflects it in magnitude and duration. Furthermore, the sole means of the military aim/political purpose is fighting or combat.

In terms of military methods to achieve a political purpose Clausewitz mentions the following:

  • Destruction of the enemy’s forces;
  • The conquest of his territory;
  • Temporary occupation (as a bargaining chip in negotiations);
  • Methods aimed to increase the enemy’s expenditure of effort (to extract resources or lay waste to his territory, that is punishment or coercion);
  • Wearing the enemy down by avoiding decisive combat, using the duration of the conflict to one’s advantage;
  • Passively awaiting the enemy’s actions;
  • Projects with an immediate political purpose (favorably affect the political scene); and
  • Actions done to exploit weaknesses/personality characteristics of the enemy leadership.

The last two are not actually military methods, but can form part of the overall strategy. Indeed the military means need not dominate, but ideally must be present; otherwise we would not be talking about war.

Further concepts

Also, this chapter further articulates several Clausewitzian concepts, which are important later in the book. The principle of destruction (“the first born son of war”) states simply that the destruction of the enemy’s fighting power is the surest and most obvious method in war. It also states that if one side wishes for a decisive battle, the defender is forced to fight, presuming the attacker is willing to risk everything on this outcome, and is threatening some object which the defender must physically defend. We see here again the rational element dominating, since in actual war, the two sides interact, each attempting to dominate the other.

Force and coercion also come under examination, with coercion being the more complex and nuanced application.

Attack and defense are mentioned as well, with attack’s essence being possession and defense’s essence being waiting. The defense initiates the war in question when it resists. It is assumed that the defense includes both forms of warfare, since counterattack is the goal of the defender’s waiting for the proper moment to strike. Linked to these forms are the positive and negative purpose/aim. A positive purpose – usually associated with attack – is an actual goal to be achieved by war. A negative purpose – usually associated with defense – is simply denying the attacker his goal. Thus, for Clausewitz the strongest form is the defense, with a negative purpose, since it is easier to deny someone something than it is to actually attain it.[xi] It is important to note that the defender need not ever have a positive purpose, denying the enemy his goal is enough to achieve a defensive goal. Defense offers more than that however, since by gaining and maintaining the counterattack, the defender can seize the instrument from the faltering attacker and impose their own political purpose, turning the war in a completely different direction.

Another concept that leads us back to the heart of the matter is the engagement, which is a single act of combat. Engagement links all the aforementioned concepts together, since it includes all of them. It is the purpose of military planning, command and logistics, i.e. the process of assuring combatants are prepared to fight at a certain place and time. It also provides us with the distinction between tactics and military strategy; tactics direct the use of armed force in the engagement, while strategy deals with the use of engagements for the object of the war.”[xii]

Finally, it refers to military strategy, with political (or grand) strategy’s goal as the accomplishment of the political purpose or end and the return to peace.[xiii] This political strategy uses the military victory as a means in addition to other sources of power (for instance economic/diplomatic assistance) to achieve a final peace.

Taken together Clausewitz provides us with a framework with which to contemplate strategy, the rational application of the means (fighting) by different ways (the military methods mentioned above) augmented with non-military approaches/sources of power to achieve a military aim/objective which allows us to then achieve a political purpose with the possible augmentation of other non-military sources of power to gain the peace settlement. It is the role of the political leadership to make sure the military aim supports the political purpose. In short, they are responsible for strategy/grand strategy, with the assistance of the military commander.[xiv]

To round up the discussion of Chapter 2, it is important to consider some assumptions Clausewitz makes in regard to strategy.

Firstly, there is a clear distinction between war and peace. War is the exception, whereas peace is the norm.

Secondly, the two sides are apparent to each other and form the focus/context of the respective military aims/political purposes. One cannot wage war against a method, such as terror, but only against a political community, which resists by way of organized violence.

Thirdly, Clausewitz assumes that linking political purpose to military aim is universal, done by all cultures at all times in history.

Fourthly and finally, politics is a broad concept that refers to power relations within and between political groups. Policy should be rational, but politics can be irrational, as when state policy is superseded by domestic political interests during a war. Politics also includes a deterministic element, since it is for Clausewitz changing political conditions, not new technologies, which usher in new eras of warfare.[xv]


I would like to conclude this paper by putting the General Theory and Clausewitzian strategic theory within a larger intellectual context. Clausewitz based both his General Theory and art of Napoleonic warfare on his experiences and the history of those wars. Alexander Svechin further developed elements of the General Theory while at the same time developing his own art of war based on the history of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Mao, who studied and taught seminars on Clausewitz, based his theories of guerrilla warfare on his own experiences.[xvi] Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence was developed in part from the history of the Korean War, and the Berlin and Cuban Missile crises. More recently, Sir Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force was based on his experiences in Bosnia.

All these are examples of the Clausewitzian school of strategic theory, and all are retrospective developments/refinements of this theory based on either military history or praxis. All are compatible with the General Theory, and expand Clausewitzian strategic theory.

This is both a strength and a weakness. Whereas strategic theory can tell one where a policy/military aim went wrong, it can not tell one what to do to win; the actual nature of war as a social interaction subordinate to politics is simply too complex and contingent to predict accurately. Yet, too many look at On War as a guidebook to action, or as something to support their own doctrinal speculations. Strategic theory is fortunately nothing of the sort.

Clausewitz’s is rightly called the political theory of war and this links his General Theory and his school of strategic theory with a much broader approach: the classical realist perspective. This sees politics as power and political relations as the history of the acquisition, use and retention of power by and within political communities. This is not to be confused with the crude version that goes under this label today, since classical realism is also a tragic perspective where good intentions can turn into a monstrous reality, or where hubris can lead to a complete downfall.[xvii] Clausewitz thus fits within a wider range of political thought going as far back as Thucydides, but including modern thinkers such as Max Weber, Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau.

Clausewitz and those who have followed in his footsteps have much to impart to us today, but it is necessary that we understand the language in which they are speaking, and the basic message with its limitations they are attempting to get across.


[i] John Stone, Military Strategy (London, Continuum, 2011) p 4. Stone’s clear definition of strategy pertains to armed force, while his definition of grand strategy is “the application of the totality of national resources in the pursuit of political goals”, thus indicating a clear distinction.
[ii] See Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Clausewitz’s Puzzle (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005), pp 143-4. Perhaps the first to recognize the existence of the General Theory was Herbert Rosinski in the 1920s.
[iii] I would argue that in addition to the General Theory and Art of War theory, Clausewitz also has a political theory. See Joseph M. Guerra, “The Clausewitzian Concept of Cohesion as a Theory of Political Development”,, -
[iv] This is very much in line with what Hugh Smith presented in his article “Clausewitz as Sociologist”, Infinity Journal Special Edition, Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, February 2012, pages 12-15.
[v] This is an interesting link to Sun Tzu, since essentially the concepts described in On War enjoy the ability of expansion and refinement, much as the commentaries compliment Sun Tzu’s original Art of War.
[vi] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (translated by Peter Paret and Michael Howard, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).
[vii] It is important to remember that Clausewitz is talking about moral elements, that is, human characteristics of organized conflict, and not material ones, which would make each conflict distinct. The General Theory pertains not only to states, but also to all political communities.
[viii] See Michael I. Handel, Masters of War (London, Frank Cass, 2001) Appendix D.
[ix] On War, Book I, Chapter 2.
[x] Christopher Bassford describes the remarkable trinity rightly as the captstone of Clausewitz’s entire work. See
[xi] See Book I, Chapter 1, Sections 16 & 17.
[xii] See Book II, Chapter 1.
[xiii] See Book II, Chapter 2.
[xiv] See Book VIII, Chapter 6B
[xv] See Book VIII, Chapter 3B.
[xvi] See Beatrice Heuser, Reading Clausewitz (London, Pimlico, 2002) p. 19
[xvii] See Richard Ned Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp. 16-25.