Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 7, Issue 3  /  

An Object Suspended Between Three Magnets? A Closer Look at Clausewitz’s Trinity

An Object Suspended Between Three Magnets? A Closer Look at Clausewitz’s Trinity An Object Suspended Between Three Magnets? A Closer Look at Clausewitz’s Trinity
U.S. Air Force and Modern War Institute
To cite this article: Gardner, Nikolas, “An Object Suspended Between Three Magnets? A Closer Look at Clausewitz’s Trinity,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 3, summer 2021, pages 26-31.
Gardner, Nikolas, “An Object Suspended Between Three Magnets? A Closer Look at Clausewitz’s Trinity,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 3, summer 2021, pages 26-31.

Of the many concepts in Clausewitz’s On War, the trinity stands apart in its explanatory scope. While terms such as friction and the culminating point of victory are apt descriptions of specific phenomena or situations, the trinity offers a succinct characterization of the nature of war itself. Our understanding of the trinity and its implications for the development and implementation of military strategy has evolved significantly since 1982, when Harry Summers first used Clausewitz’s simplified “secondary” trinity of people, army, and government as a tool to explain America’s defeat in Vietnam. Numerous scholars have elucidated the fundamental tendencies that comprise the trinity and the relationship between them.[i] Drawing on the pioneering work of Alan Beyerchen, they have demonstrated that the trinity is a metaphor for war as a complex system. The behavior of this system is nonlinear, in that outputs are not necessarily proportionate to inputs, and the whole of the system is not simply the sum of its parts. In other words, a small shift in the relationship between the tendencies of reason, passion and uncertainty can produce disproportionately large consequences, or vice versa. Moreover, the interaction between tendencies produces results that cannot be understood by considering each in isolation.[ii] In order to reflect this nonlinearity, Clausewitz argues that any theory seeking to explain war must behave like “an object suspended between three magnets,” referring to the tendency of an object released equidistant from three points of attraction to move toward each point in an unpredictable pattern.[iii] As Beyerchen explains, this image “implicitly confronts us with the chaos inherent in a nonlinear system sensitive to initial conditions.”[iv]

Thomas Waldman has pointed out that the tendencies that comprise the trinity, “are not always in competition with one another, but can be mutually supportive.”[v] Moreover, Antulio Echevarria has cited numerous historical examples of coherence between them.[vi] Neither Clausewitz. nor scholars who study On War, however, have offered a sustained analysis of how and why they cohere. On the contrary, his vivid imagery encourages us to view the interaction of reason, passion, and uncertainty as a largely random and mysterious process. This is not entirely unhelpful. By expressing the inherent unpredictability of war, the trinity serves as an important reminder of the hazards associated with overly prescriptive military strategies. But in accepting this unpredictability, we overlook a growing body of research by international relations scholars, which focuses specifically on the interaction of reason and emotion in the context of uncertainty, at the individual and societal levels. This literature does not invalidate Clausewitz’s portrayal of war as a complex system, but it does identify patterns in the interaction of the tendencies that comprise the trinity. Understanding these patterns can only enhance its value as an explanatory tool for both scholars and practitioners.

Since Thucydides wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War, students of war and statecraft have recognized that emotions affect international relations. Modern western scholars, however, have traditionally treated them as “natural opposites”, with emotions impeding rational behavior.[vii] When scholars began studying the impact of emotion on national security decision making in the 1970s, they tended to portray emotions as “interferences with or derivations from rationality.”[viii] But the twenty-first century has seen increasing recognition that emotion and reason are difficult, if not impossible to disaggregate. Emotion, Jonathan Mercer has argued, “is part of reasoning and not a distraction upsetting a coldly rational process.”[ix] The impact of emotion is evident even in decisions based on extensive and ostensibly dispassionate analysis. Based on an examination of conflicts since 1648, Richard Ned Lebow has argued that the primary motivation for war has been “the universal human drive for self-esteem”, an impulse with which Clausewitz was personally familiar.[x] This drive leads individuals to seek honor and standing among their peers. An increase in standing generates satisfaction, while an affront to it generates anger or fear. Citing the outbreak of the First World War as one among many examples, Lebow argues that these emotions encourage leaders to minimize the costs and risks of going to war if they can potentially increase their standing by doing so. Even if leaders are unaware of its impact, emotion has a significant effect on their calculations.[xi]

Observing much of the same history, Clausewitz may well have agreed with Lebow’s assessment. Recent scholarship in the social and cognitive sciences, however, has postulated an even closer and more complex relationship between emotion and reason. Drawing on the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, Todd Hall has argued that some states intentionally pursue a “diplomacy of anger”. Rather than the measured approach associated with coercive diplomacy, Hall contends that leaders can engage in a “team performance of anger” in order to convey to an adversary their emotional investment in a particular issue. While this suggests that leaders employ emotion deliberately and, by implication, rationally, Hall acknowledges that “[m]obilized emotion may not be easy simply to switch off.”[xii] Encouraged to express their anger, state representatives may become more incensed in the process, affecting their subsequent decisions and increasing the danger of escalation if their adversary remains defiant. Once anger becomes part of leaders’ calculations, it becomes difficult to remove.

The same is true of fear. Drawing on neuroscience research, Neta Crawford has explained the lingering effects of fear on human decision making. According to Crawford: “Long-term fear, or even a single traumatic event, may alter our brains at a biochemical level. Repeated stress caused by immediate or anticipated threat can reshape our brains as the stress hormone cortisol etches a chemical traumatic trace; nurture becomes nature.” Experiences that create fear will leave such strong memories that we will interpret subsequent events that trigger the same emotions as similar to the initial traumatic experience, whether or not they are actually alike. As Crawford argues: “This is analogical reasoning triggered by emotions, not a coldly cognitive assessment – suggesting that a past event where we were afraid is like the current situation (regardless of whether the historical event is similar in important respects).”[xiii]

This type of emotion-based pattern recognition is not simply an impediment to rational calculation. In fact, it plays an important role in helping us cope with uncertainty. Like Crawford, Stephen Peter Rosen has argued that memories formed at times of emotional arousal influence our interpretation of new situations. But he argues that they serve a valuable purpose in that they expedite decision making. According to Rosen: “Emotion helps us select data from an enormous amount of information available to us and reduces the cognitive problem to proportions that humans can handle.”[xiv] This is essential in crisis situations, when military and political leaders must make rapid decisions based on large quantities of ambiguous information. By flagging familiar patterns amid masses of new data, emotion can “provide the motivation to act even when there is uncertainty.”[xv]

While Rosen’s work sheds light on the impact of evocative memories on crisis decision making, Jonathan Mercer has shown that the influence of emotion is even more pervasive, shaping the beliefs that guide our decisions on a daily basis. Mercer defines a belief as “a proposition, or collection of propositions, that one thinks is probably true.”[xvi] Emotion helps us form our beliefs in the absence of certainty. For example, we may believe that another individual is trustworthy because their previous behavior has induced our happiness or gratitude, even if we cannot foresee their future actions. Alternatively, we may see that person as threatening because their behavior has induced our fear or disgust. In addition, we choose courses of action based on our beliefs about future scenarios. For example, we may purchase life insurance because we fear the financial consequences for our dependents in the event of our demise. Beliefs shape military and political leaders’ assessments of allies and adversaries, as well as their decisions regarding the use of force, in similar ways. Thus, Mercer argues that a leader pondering air strikes against an adversary must consider: “How will one feel if bombing a target kills many civilians, and how will one feel if not bombing results in the escape of some terrorists?”[xvii] Like Rosen, Mercer emphasizes the role of emotion in facilitating decisions, but he goes further in arguing for its utility. As he explains, people who cannot experience emotion have difficulty making optimal decisions because they cannot assess risk, which requires the ability to imagine future scenarios and associate them with positive or negative feelings.

However, emotion does not always enhance the quality of our decisions. Rosen explains that emotion-based pattern recognition can lead to decisions “very early in the decision-making process, before there is a need to decide, before much relevant information has arrived, and before alternative strategies have been evaluated or even formulated.”[xviii] He argues that during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, John F. Kennedy’s negative memories of the previous year’s summit with Soviet President Khrushchev quickly led him to adopt a confrontational strategy that risked military confrontation. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 decision to commit American ground forces to combat in Vietnam may have been shaped by his senatorial campaign in 1948, in which his opposition to communism figured prominently.[xix] While Kennedy’s approach has generally been vindicated and Johnson’s has not, Rosen argues that neither decision resulted from a process “in which a full range of information is received and used in a meaningful way to evaluate the expected outcomes of alternative policies.”[xx] Thus, while evocative memories play an important role in helping us to sift through voluminous data more quickly, they can also limit our analysis of this data, sometimes unnecessarily.

Our reliance on emotion to facilitate information processing can also leave us vulnerable to manipulation. Drawing on the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Herbert Lin has explained that human beings employ two general types of cognitive processing. System 1 is “an intuitive, reflexive, and emotionally-driven mode of thought”, while System 2 is a “more deliberate, analytical mode of thought.”[xxi] While System 2 is less prone to error, it is also slower and consumes more of our finite cognitive resources. For most routine tasks, therefore, humans tend to rely on System 1 processes, which use mental shortcuts, or heuristics, to assess information and make decisions. Emotion acts as a heuristic, influencing and expediting our processing of data. In recent decades, however, Lin argues that “new information technologies have led to an increase in the volume and velocity of information available on earth by many orders of magnitude….”[xxii] Faced with an overabundance of information, humans are increasingly reliant on System 1 processes to digest it.

This dependence on System 1 thinking leaves us vulnerable to actors who employ emotional messages to shape our opinions. As Lin explains: “By exploiting cognitive limitations, the perpetrators of cyber-enabled information warfare have learned to exacerbate prejudices, biases, and ideological differences; to add heat but no light to political discourse; and to spread widely believed ‘alternative facts’ in advancing their political positions.”[xxiii] Appealing to emotion is an especially potent means of achieving these aims. A recent study of Russian propaganda notes that information that creates “emotional arousal” in its intended recipients is more likely to be passed on to others, whether it is true or not.[xxiv] It is therefore not surprising that Russian disinformation operations seek to “appeal to readers’ emotions rather than their rationality.”[xxv]

Thus, recent scholarship shows that individuals process information and make decisions based on a complex blend of emotion and reason, particularly in the context of uncertainty, with emotion having both beneficial and harmful effects. But how do the tendencies of the trinity affect groups, societies, or states? While Clausewitz understood that emotion, reason and uncertainty interact in the minds of human beings, he was clearly interested in how they manifest themselves at the institutional and societal levels. Explaining the relationship between individual and collective emotions has been a significant challenge for scholars who seek to establish the role of emotion in international relations.[xxvi] While the nature of this relationship remains subject to debate, recent studies have offered insights into how emotion spreads among individuals, the interaction between individual and group emotions, and how societal emotion can affect policy decisions.

In explaining its spread, Jonathan Mercer has argued that “emotion is contagious. As most people know and as psychologists confirm, other people’s emotion influences one’s emotion.”[xxvii] Clausewitz offers an example of this contagion in his discussion of danger in war. Describing a soldier’s first experience in battle, he refers repeatedly to the demeanor of senior officers. In his words: “You notice that some of the officers act a little oddly; you yourself are not as steady and collected as you were…. Forward to the brigadier, a soldier of acknowledged bravery, but he is careful to take cover behind a rise, a house or a clump of trees.”[xxviii] While the hazards of the battlefield contribute to the soldier’s growing unease, so too do his superiors, whose experience gives their behavior added significance. This process resembles what contemporary scholars label an “information cascade.” According to Rosen: “Information cascades take place when individuals make decisions on the basis of their own private information, but also on the basis of what they see others doing, and when such decision making is sequential.”[xxix] Social media facilitates this process, as individuals can observe the statements and actions of a broad range of people with whom they are not personally acquainted. In 2011, for example, the online expression of dissent by the leaders of the Tunisian protest movement convinced a sympathetic but normally passive general public to voice its dissatisfaction with the government.[xxx]

While the concept of an information cascade sheds light on the process by which information and emotion spread from person to person, it does not explain why members of the same social group experience similar emotions in response to specific information. Why, for example, did Americans feel a collective sense of anger and humiliation following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC? To address this issue, Brent Sasley has borrowed the concept of intergroup emotion theory from the discipline of social psychology. He argues that in addition to their own self-identity, individuals develop a social identity based on their membership in a particular group. This social identity leads them to appraise events “not for how they impact on themselves as individuals, but for how they affect the group itself.”[xxxi] Individuals will thus have emotional responses to events in which they are not directly involved. Because they are shared with others, these responses may be stronger than the emotions one feels in response to an event affecting oneself directly. As Mercer has argued: “Group-level emotion can be more powerful than the individual experience of emotion because one experiences it as objectively true and externally driven, rather than as subjective and individually constructed….”[xxxii]

Group emotions can affect ostensibly rational policy in several ways. Sasley contends that as members of a state, decision makers will share the emotions experienced by the rest of society, and these will influence their foreign policy decisions.[xxxiii] This may not always be the case, especially in non-democratic societies. But even if their emotional response is different from the rest of society, leaders’ sensitivity to public opinion will encourage them to adopt policies that reflect the emotions of the broader group. More broadly, Neta Crawford has argued that within the different institutions that comprise any state, group emotions “structure the organization of knowledge (e.g. intelligence gathering and threat assessment) and the development of standard operating procedures and routines for handling challenges.”[xxxiv] Thus, the collective emotional response of a society to a particular event can influence a diverse range of issues such as military doctrine, weapons procurement and even immigration policy, in addition to the decisions of senior leaders.


Given the esteem in which On War is held, especially by many readers of this journal, it may seem impertinent to revisit one of its core concepts. In no academic discipline, however, do we disregard the insights of recent research in favor of explanations nearly two centuries old. In fact, Clausewitz’s conception of his theory as “capable of growth” suggests that he would have been amenable to updating his ideas in light of new knowledge.[xxxv] Recent international relations scholarship does not invalidate the trinity as a metaphor for the nature of war. But as this brief discussion has demonstrated, it does illuminate the interaction of the tendencies that comprise it. On an individual level, it is evident that emotion and reason are inextricably intertwined, and that emotion can influence ostensibly rational analysis in ways that decision makers do not realize. Emotion plays an essential role in helping individuals cope with the play of chance and uncertainty, but it can also curtail the dispassionate assessment of information. Given the exponential growth in the volume of information available to us, this leaves decision makers and the general public increasingly vulnerable to emotional manipulation. In addition, emotion and reason are intimately connected at the group as well as the individual level. Just like individuals, institutions and nations can be said to experience emotions that affect their policy choices. This does not diminish the significance of reason in the trinity. Clausewitz viewed reason as essential in determining how violence should be employed in pursuit of political objectives. The fact that it remains essential for this purpose compels us to understand as much as possible how and when it may be distorted. By shedding light on the interaction of all of the elements of the trinity, recent scholarship helps us to do so.

More broadly, this scholarship reaffirms Hew Strachan’s observation that the trinity, “like the Christian trinity, really is three elements united into one.”[xxxvi] But Clausewitz’s image of an object suspended between three magnets may not be the most effective way of imagining the relationship between these elements or a theory that seeks to comprehend it. Rather than pulling in different directions, the tendencies sometimes act in sequence, or even support one another. Moreover, the way in which they interact is not entirely chaotic, even if it defies precise predictions. Conceptualizing an alternative to Clausewitz’s image would require a much more detailed analysis. This discussion aims only to suggest that we can identify patterns in the interaction of the three tendencies. Clausewitz may have discerned these patterns, but he did not have the benefit of nearly two centuries of research that now enable us to describe them in concrete terms. Connecting the trinity with this research can only enhance its value in explaining the conduct of war.


[i] See for example, Brian Cole, “Clausewitz’s Wondrous Yet Paradoxical Trinity: The Nature of War as a Complex Adaptive System”, JFQ 96:1 (2020), 42-49; Thomas Waldman, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity, (Farnham UK: 2013); Colin Fleming, Clausewitz’s Timeless Trinity: A Framework for Modern War, (London: Routledge, 2013); John Stone, “Clausewitz’s Trinity and Contemporary Conflict”, Civil Wars 9:3 (2007), 282-296; Edward Villacres and Christopher Bassford, “Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity”, Parameters 25: (Autumn 1995), 9-11.
[ii] Alan Beyerchen “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War”, International Security 17:3 (Winter 1992-93) 62.
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, ed. and trans., (Princeton: 1976), 89.
[iv] Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War”, 69.
[v] Waldman, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity, 174.
[vi] Antulio Echevarria, “When the Clausewitzian Trinity is Not Paradoxical”, Infinity Journal 6:4 (2019), 19-22.
[vii] Ibid., 19.
[viii] Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker, “Theorizing Emotions in World Politics”, International Theory 6:3 (2014), 494-95.
[ix] Jonathan Mercer, “Emotional Beliefs”, International Organization 64:1 (2010), 5.
[x] Richard Ned Lebow, “The Past and Future of War”, International Relations 24:3 (2010), 243. On Clausewitz’s own desire for esteem in the eyes of his peers, see Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (Oxford: 2014), and Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War (Oxford: 2016).
[xi] Lebow, “The Past and Future of War”, 264.
[xii] Todd Hall, “We Will Not Swallow This Bitter Fruit: Theorizing a Diplomacy of Anger”, Security Studies 20:4 (2011), 534.
[xiii] Neta Crawford, “Institutionalizing Passion in World Politics: Fear and Empathy”, International Theory International Theory 6:3 (2014), 539-40.
[xiv] Stephen Peter Rosen, War and Human Nature (Princeton: 2005), 28.
[xv] Ibid., 28.
[xvi] Mercer, “Emotional Beliefs”, 3.
[xvii] Ibid., 10.
[xviii] Rosen, War and Human Nature, 31.
[xix] Ibid.,
[xx] Ibid., 69.
[xxi] Herbert Lin, “The Existential Threat from Cyber-Enabled Information Warfare”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74:4 (2019), 190-91.
[xxii] Ibid., 190.
[xxiii] Ibid., 191-92.
[xxiv] Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might work and Options to Counter It”, (Santa Monica: 2016), 6.
[xxv] Council on Foreign Relations, “Countering Russian Information Operations in the Age of Social Media”, 21 November 2017,, Accessed 31 August 2020.
[xxvi] Hutchison and Bleiker, “Theorizing Emotions”, 492.
[xxvii] Jonathan Mercer, “Feeling Like a State: Social Emotion and Identity”, International Theory, 6:3 (2014), 524.
[xxviii] Clausewitz, On War, 113.
[xxix] Rosen, War and Human Nature, 125.
[xxx] Marc Lynch, “After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State”, Perspectives on Politics 9:2 (2011), 304.
[xxxi] Brent Sasley, “Theorizing States’ Emotions”, International Studies Review 13:3 (2011), 461.
[xxxii] Mercer, “Feeling Like a State”, 526.
[xxxiii] Sasley, “Theorizing States’ Emotions”, 465.
[xxxiv] Crawford, “Institutionalizing Passion in World Politics”, 547.
[xxxv] Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times, (Princeton: 1985), 155. Quoted in Waldman, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity, 12.
[xxxvi] Hew Strachan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography, (New York: 2007), 177.

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