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The Occam’s Razor of Strategic Theory: The Relevance of Clausewitz for Political Conduct

To cite this article: Smith, M.L.R., “The Occam’s Razor of Strategic Theory: The Relevance of Clausewitz for Political Conduct,” Military Strategy Magazine, Special Edition, “The Continuing Relevance of Clausewitz”, December 2020, pages 28-32.

Having written some of the initial defences of the enduring legacy of Clausewitz, nearly twenty years ago, against what I considered some highly flawed critiques that emerged from the 1990s onward, [i] I am somewhat reluctant to enter the fray yet again. What I needed to say I said back then. Moreover, those studies that appeared subsequently have, undoubtedly, articulated the case more effectively than I could have done. Volumes by Antulio Echevarria, Hew Strahan, and Chris Coker, amongst others, have examined the contemporary significance of Clausewitz in depth,[ii] while shorter essays, often by younger and emergent scholars, have also offered commendably succinct justifications for his continuing relevance.[iii]

Many of these commentaries have done much to shore up Clausewitz’s reputation as the preeminent philosopher of war and I have no wish to embellish further the admirable points that they have made in his defence. At the same time, I would also acknowledge the strength of some of the more sophisticated criticisms of his work that have manifested in recent years. Two decades ago, I was responding to denunciations of Clausewitz by those like Martin van Creveld, John Keegan and Mary Kaldor, who alleged that his thinking was outmoded.[iv] I still think their interpretations are faulty, based on either partial or inaccurate readings of his work. Nevertheless, while superficial denigrations of Clausewitz still arise from time to time, it is the case that one can raise legitimate questions about the ultimate value of his writings in On War.

The Case Against Clausewitz’s Relevance

William J. Olson has, perhaps, offered one of the most trenchant broadsides against what he considered ‘the continuing irrelevance of Clausewitz’.[v] Olson claims that the incompleteness and abstract nature of his writings render his legacy elusive, giving later generations of analysts something to pointlessly cogitate over for the rest of recorded history. ‘[O]ne might be forgiven’, he maintained, ‘for concluding that Clausewitz did not really exist but is a figment of necessity, conjured up to prove any and all points currently in and out of fashion’. On War was merely a ‘smorgasbord’, and that ‘given this contradictory array that Clausewitz is irrelevant to any discussion of war and peace since any source that can lend aid and comfort to such a range of arguments really argues nothing worthwhile at all’.[vi]

These points against do have some force. It is valid to assert that On War does not constitute a proper theory of war in any philosophically recognisable way. It is true also that one chooses to be a believer or a non-believer in Clausewitz, and that ‘either position is justifiable in that there is no way to prove, beyond one’s own sense of satisfaction, the underlying contention’.[vii] It is, furthermore, undeniable that disputes over Clausewitz’s exact meaning can have a theological quality to them and that debates about what he did or did not miss out are both stale and meaningless.

Choosing the ‘Good’ Bits

It is also very much the case, as Olson discerns, that Clausewitz’s admirers invariably adopt a pick’n choose approach to his writings. We accentuate his ‘good’ bits – Book One along with a few nuggets scattered in the rest of On War – while discarding the rest.[viii] As a strategic theorist interested in exploring the means/ends dynamic in social action, rather than someone with an antiquarian interest in dissecting the minutiae of what Clausewitz may or may not have meant, I would argue that this approach is justifiable. One reads Clausewitz for his observations into the lasting essence of war, how it always seems to move on its own goal and at its own speed, uniquely conditioned by the interplay of passion, chance and reason.[ix] A modern analyst doesn’t read On War for its advice on fortifications, billeting or mountain warfare any more than one would read Thomas Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict for its abstruse mathematical equations.[x]

In other words, one engages with influential thinkers such as Clausewitz for some of their timeless insights on certain facets of human conduct, not because everything they ever said remains relevant or coherent. Few amongst us who have pondered military and strategic affairs will be lucky enough that our writings are read with sympathy in the future as having withstood the test of time, if indeed they are read at all. Thus, we read Clausewitz, in spite of a great deal of things of which he wrote, not because of everything he wrote.

To that extent, a case can certainly be made, as some have, that the bulk of On War has little utility as a way of thinking about contemporary warfare, and that it should not be taught in military colleges.[xi] In fact, I would suggest that it would be exceedingly foolish to hold out On War as some sort of guide for modern military operations. Much of the text of On War is linguistically difficult, often obscure, and full of arcane notes about early nineteenth century military management, clearly limiting its appeal and applicability in the current context. Contemporary military practitioners can, and should, be forgiven for being sceptical about the value of wading through such a dense tome.

On Politics

However, by way of offering a slightly new twist on an old theme, I wish to put forward the proposition that although Clausewitz may well have limited practical significance for the modern soldier and even a declining utility for thinking about military strategy per se, his thinking does have continuing, and arguably much greater relevance, for policy makers and politicians. If we abstract the ‘good’ bits of Clausewitz then these encompass his understanding of the fundamental relationship between political ends and military means.

When Clausewitz stated that war ‘is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case’ he perceived that all wars are unique in their origins, shape, and practice.[xii] They are sculpted by their particular time and place. What governs any war, its causes, its conduct and its conclusion is going to reflect the contingent circumstances of each case.[xiii] For Clausewitz, the foremost influence in this regard was politics. When he described war as a continuation of politics by violent means, he meant not only that politics gives rise to war, but that it also exerts a continuous influence over the manner in which it is conducted.[xiv] Warfare is not, in other words, a self-contained set of technical practices, but an activity that must be shaped in accordance with the primary political purposes for which it is undertaken.

Politics and Proportionality

Effective strategy, and not just in times of war, must therefore always remain sensitive to the political context and essentially this means that the principle of proportionality should be observed. Proportionality is the vital element that keeps war within the realms of rational action: it is the assumption that in order for any effort to be instrumental it must align with a calculation that determines what price should be paid to achieve a particular end. Attempting to achieve goals with little or minimum effort risks not achieving them at all, while too higher exertion threatens to negate the pursuit of the goal itself: if you achieve your goal but fatally damage yourself in the process you are not acting with proportionality.

Clausewitz helps clarify the connections between ends and means, with the aim of keeping one’s strategy proportional to the goals being sought, and this is fundamentally a political calculation not a military one. The good bits of Clausewitz therefore provide a parsimonious understanding, and point of entry for considering issues of proportionality in political conduct, not just in war but in all goal orientated decision making.[xv] Clausewitz, for this reason, remains the Occam’s Razor of strategic theory.

To illustrate the continuing relevance of Clausewitz for understandings of political conduct, it is possible to highlight how the agendas embedded in some of the modern critiques of Clausewitz have served only to underline both the eternal verities to which his writings allude, and the problems that are created when they are ignored.

Bombing to Make the World a Better Place

Connoisseurs of dark political humour might be familiar with journalist Tucker Carlson’s on-air intellectual mauling of Max Boot, military writer and Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, in July 2017.[xvi] Unimpressed by his credentials as an expert in foreign policy, Carlson derided Boot for exaggerating the threat to American national security from Russia, and calling out his advocacy for further United States military intervention in the Middle East, and the dire consequences that such policies have undoubtedly wrought.

In Ship of Fools (2018), Carlson expanded his uncompromising view of the American foreign policy establishment’s predisposition towards endless wars based on moral imperatives to remove ‘bad’ regimes across the globe: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, Syria and Iran have all at one time or another been on, or remain, candidates on the target list. For Carlson, the post-Cold War penchant for military interventions, aerial bombings, and latterly drone strikes, reflected a bizarre form of kinetic social engineering: bombing countries to ‘make the world a better place’.[xvii]

The force of Carlson’s polemic resided in the foreign policy establishment’s bewildering record of predictive ineptitude, with nations on the receiving end of US military attentions consistently failing to re-make themselves into stable democratic polities, and the phenomenal costs – both human and financial – inflicted upon both the US and the countries of concern themselves. Contrasting an earlier caution towards military involvement in foreign wars, especially on the part of the Democrat Party in the 1960s and 1970s, Carlson cited Senator Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to President Lyndon Johnson’s policies in South Vietnam: ‘I am concerned that the administration seems to have set no limits to the price that it is willing to pay for military victory’.[xviii]

Taking the Temperature of the Population

As Carlson noted, McCarthy’s position was ‘not that the war could not be won but that winning wasn’t worth it’.[xix] The price that a society is willing to pay to achieve any social goal lies at the heart of considerations about proportionality in strategic action. For Carlson the most ‘dangerous force of all’ is an activist establishment convinced of its own moral virtue, and the unremitting record of strategic failure and foreign policy disaster, both for the United States and its coalition allies, that this agenda has occasioned.[xx] It raises the question about how we have ended up here?

If we turn to Clausewitz for enlightenment, his stress on the moral factors in war is instructive. In order for any military operation to succeed the ‘temper of the population’ has to be behind the action.[xxi] ‘If policy is directed only toward minor operations’, he averred, ‘the emotions of the masses will have to be stirred’.[xxii] What we can detect in terms of Clausewitz’s contemporary resonance is that policy makers, especially in democratic nations, have to understand the ‘temper’ of the people and their capacity to have their passions engaged by any particular political cause, especially foreign military adventures.

Reason versus ‘Reasonableness’

If we examine some of the modern critiques of Clausewitz’s relevance we find that they alight on his thinking about the role of ‘reason’ as a factor in war. For Kaldor, her thesis was about so-called ‘new’ wars. These supposedly sprang up all of a sudden after the end of the Cold War and were motivated by identity politics. Identitarian concerns, in her view, were ‘forged through fear and hatred’.[xxiii] Such passions rendered war ‘rational’ only in the sense that war was instrumental and serviced the ends of malign agendas. Such wars, while they may be ‘reasoned’, Kaldor argued, ‘they are not reasonable’, according to ‘universally accepted norms that underpin national and international law’.[xxiv]

In effect, Kaldor sought to re-fashion Clausewitz’s observation that the course of any war is, amongst other things, influenced by the interplay of popular passions moulded by the reason of politics. Instead, she wanted to supercharge Clausewitz’s observation with an ethical assertion that ‘reasoned’ thinking about war in the contemporary era inheres in a morally righteous policy elite committed to abstract, cosmopolitan, ideas of justice that sees the virtue of intervening in foreign wars to ‘make the world a better place’. Kaldor was explicit on this point. The ‘primary task of the military in such situations’, she maintained, was to create ‘spaces’ that would facilitate ‘non-sectarian identities’, in order to ‘construct a politics based on reason and not fear’.[xxv]

The Follies of Substituting Utopianism for Politics

Given the failed attempts to re-mould the political geography of many areas of the globe founded on moral justifications to ‘construct’ a new reasoned form of politics, reveals how relying on a self-selecting foreign policy establishment that advocates armed intervention based on the claim of superior moral insight begins to endanger the principle of proportionality. Removing or discounting ideas of popular passion as anything but inspiring the forces of hatred, leads to the inability to discern the ‘temper of the population’ and its willingness to support military commitments abroad. If notions of upholding utopian ideals of virtue become the basis for war making, then we arrive at the hubris of neo-liberal interventionism that sees the ‘price’ to be paid for such adventures as endless external commitments at open-ended cost.

A rationale for political and military conduct conceived on such lines has little inclination to understand the ‘temper’ of the population because the motivation for action is one of perceived moral necessity, not popular support. Moreover, the abandonment of a key Clausewitzian tenet that facilitates the notion of proportionality, in favour of acting as the vanguard of cosmopolitan norms, unsurprisingly leads to interventions that are not only exorbitant in terms of injury to human and financial resources but, crucially, lack domestic endorsement, especially when such interventions go bad, as they invariably do.

Abandon Politics at Your Peril

Neglecting the intellectual checks on thinking that a careful reading of Clausewitz enables has led to a foreign policy establishment, in both the US and Europe, that is distinguished not only by its record of reckless advocacy and colossal analytical and policy failure, but one that is constantly surprised when the consequences of such failure help produce outcomes in the domestic sphere that it clearly finds repugnant. The 2016 vote by Britain to leave the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as President in the US, and the rise of ‘populist’ leaders elsewhere, appalled the policy elites. Yet their attenuated understanding of the politics of proportionality and the disastrous policies that arose as a result, were to a significant degree responsible for inducing the very popular backlash they so despised.

In effect, disconnecting the use of force from a proper understanding of politics, subordinating it to a belief in one’s own analytical and moral rectitude, western foreign policy elites conspired to misunderstand their own nations and the extent to which the national temperaments were willing to tolerate their hubris and the disproportionate costs inflicted on the rest of society as a result their failed advocacies.

If a policy influencing and policy making community cannot be bothered to understand the sentiments of their own populations, then they certainly cannot be trusted to deliver useful strategic advice. Absent a Clausewitzian sensibility that gives serious attention to the relationships between politics, popular sentiments and military operations, then it really can be said that foreign and defence policy is far too important to be left to the self-proclaimed experts.


In conclusion, then, this is why an understanding of Clausewitz remains important: because his thinking provides the point of entry for decision makers – and I would argue for other analysts or advocates of military, economic and all other social action more generally – to consider the necessity for a meaningful strategic dialogue based on a realistic set of political ends that are proportionate to the goals and the means employed to achieve them. For sure, these are matters that rely on the cultivation of ‘good judgement’, an indefinable quality at the best times. One cannot be taught ‘good judgement’ from reading On War, or any other text. A considered reading of Clausewitz, though, does pay off in terms of facilitating critical analysis. In that sense, while it can be claimed that his writings don’t have a great deal of utility for modern military practice, his lasting insights reside in the realm of political conduct. They prompt us not stray too far from his injunctions, lest our hubris and follies be exposed. Above all, his observations remind us of the timeless verities of politics that actions can only be truly effective if they are proportional to the outcome, and that understanding one’s own society is key to that aim, and thus to the construction of ‘good’ strategy.


[i] M.L.R. Smith, ‘Guerrillas in the Mist: Reassessing Strategy and Low Intensity Warfare’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 29, No. (2003), pp. 19-37; M.L.R. Smith, ‘Strategy in an Age of “Low Intensity” Warfare: Why Clausewitz is Still More Relevant Than His Critics’, in Isabelle Duyvesteyn and Jan Angstrom (eds.), Rethinking The Nature of War (London and New York: Frank Cass, 2005), pp. 28-64.
[ii] Antulio J. Echevarria, Clausewitz and Contemporary War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Hew Strachan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography (London: Atlantic, 2011); Christopher Coker, Rebooting Clausewitz: On War in the Twenty-First Century (London: Hurst, 2017).
[iii] See Per Andersson, ‘Von Clausewitz: Still Relevant?’ Defence Viewpoints, 18 December 2008 ; Mareike Oldemeinen, ‘Is Clausewitzian Thought Really Timeless as Some Have Claimed?’, E-IR, 24 January 2012 ; E.A. de Landmeter, ‘The Relevance of On War to Today’s Conflicts’, Militaire Spectator, 21 July 2018 ; Timothy Van Der Venne, ‘Misreading Clausewitz: The Enduring Relevance of On War’, E-IR, 4 February 2020 .
[iv] Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: Free Press, 1991); John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Vintage, 1994); Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).
[v] William J. Olson, ‘The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz’, Small Wars Journal, 27 July 2013.
[vi] Ibid..
[vii] Ibid..
[viii] Ibid..
[ix] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 75 and 87-89.
[x] Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980).
[xi] Jamie Schwandt, ‘Why We Should Stop Teaching Clausewitz’, Task and Purpose, 27 February 2019 .
[xii] Clausewitz, On War, p. 89.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 89.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 87.
[xv] See for example, Willie Pietersen, ‘Von Clausewitz on War: Six Lessons for the Modern Strategist’, Ideas and Insights (Columbia Business School), 12 February 2016 .
[xvi] Tucker Carlson and Max Boot, 12 July 2017 .
[xvii] Tucker Carlson, Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution (New York: Free Press, 2018), p. 102.
[xviii] Press Conference of Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, Senate Caucus Room, Washington, DC, 30 November 1967, .
[xix] Carlson, Ship of Fools, p. 89.
[xx] Ibid.., p. 107.
[xxi] Clausewitz, On War, p. 184.
[xxii] Ibid., p. 88.
[xxiii] Mary Kaldor, ‘Inconclusive Wars: Is Clausewitz Still Relevant in these Global Times?’, Global Policy, Vol. 1, No. 3 (2010), p. 278.
[xxiv] Ibid., pp. 278-279.
[xxv] Ibid., p. 280.