The Applicability Of The Clausewitzian Trinity Politics Essay

Once considered a vital source of ageless strategic thought, the theories of Carl von Clausewitz have recently come under attack because of the changes in the nature of warfare, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is not disputed that his theories are thought provoking, but it will be argued that his writings can no longer be applicable universally in today’s growing methods of warfare such as insurgent terrorism. Modern theorists such as John Keegan, have discredited the Clausewitz theories of war as invalid and having minor to no value in today’s study of modern warfare when attempts are made to apply them to prevalent groups such as Al Qaeda.1 It is argued that the primary focus is on the Westphalia model of states and as a result Clausewitz’s writings cannot be applied to insurgencies nor can they be applied to identities other than nation-states who wage war. Clausewitz may not have addressed specifically to insurgents’ warfare and non-state actors but looking closely at ‘the war on terror’ indicated that perhaps Carl von Clausewitz’s theories may still be relevant because of the phenomenon of globalization. As is often the case with western civilization’s way of thinking, problems are only looked at from their own points of view. If the international community were to broaden its perspective to engross the opposition’s point of view, it could be seen how Clausewitz’s theories of the trinity and the ‘center of gravity’ remain relevant today and useful in today’s method of so called ‘fourth generation warfare’. This approach can also identify potential vulnerabilities in the current conflicts with non state actors such as Al Qaeda and the general handling of Warfare in the 21st Century.

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Warfare has changed much over the past few centuries, especially since Carl von Clausewitz first wrote his manuscripts, which took the form of the book, On War. The world is now in the time of fourth generation warfare. Fourth Generation warfare is a term that was described William Lind and Thomas Hammes. This developed under the ‘new wars’ thinking. They state that the warfare throughout history has progressed in distinct stages and that the world is currently in its “fourth generation warfare”. In this form of warfare, advanced western armed forces have to face hard to find and technologically inferior opponents who, through guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and campaigns focused at attacking and undermining western public support, are able to pose quite a significant threat to western security and civilization. Hammes and Lind believe that western forces struggle to capitalize on their military potential because they operate under outdated principles and doctrines of earlier modes of warfare that focused on maneuver warfare which was immortalized by the concept of the ‘blitzkrieg’.2

The generations that ran in between are as follows; first generation of warfare, which ran throughout the life of Clausewitz, from 1648 to the 1860’s, was characterized by state-run wars. There were Orderly battlefields and militaries fought in formations of lines and columns against one another. As weapon technology, production and effectiveness improved, the order of battlefield began to break down. War I epitomized the second generation, that of attrition warfare. The next generation of warfare which lasted until the outbreak of World War II was trench warfare which evolved, becoming the third generation of warfare; maneuver warfare as stated above. In this scenario, the battlefield became a non-linear entity.

Opponents of the concept of forth generation warfare such as Lawrence Freedman criticize the theory due to its selective nature in historical sources defined historical periods. Similar to Lawrence Freedman, Michael Evans found that this thinking had stages too neat and linear. Modern warfare is in fact a merger of forms. Perhaps these critics ascribe too much outward variations of warfare as fundamental changes to its nature. This has led to critics to assign demarcated generations where they are not valid. War has most definitely morph and always will yet these are contextual changes instead of fundamental changes.3

Globalization and the 21st Century

It can be argued that Clausewitz’s theories remain relevant today because of how globalization has blurred the definition of a nation-state. Clausewitz theorized in On War that war was only possible between nation-states because nation-states were the only forms of identity capable of conducting policy, and war was a ‘continuation of policy by other means’.4 John Keegan and others have argued that the international community does not recognize groups such as Al Qaeda as a state and Clausewitzian theory cannot apply to such groups, therefore his theories must be irrelevant in the current form of insurgent warfare. Non-state actors can display major characteristics traditionally associated with the Westphalia definition of a state. Clausewitz’s theories were based on the definition of a nation-state as assigned by the treaties of Westphalia.5 these treaties formed the sovereignty of a nation-state in the absolute sense6. These treaties established borders for each nation-state, but gave rise to the international recognition of the right for the nation-state to exist. After the Peace of Westphalia treaties, scholars and theorists categorized conflicts as internal civil wars or as wars between states.

Regarding how Globalization has enabled the rise of the non-state actor to levels of

organization that rival that of the traditional state, T. L. Friedman provides a very credible definition of globalization in his book as, ‘the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states, and technologies to a degree never witnessed before – in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.”7the ability now for people all over this globe to establish communications by voice, text, trade and commodities, recruitment, the ease of sharing of ideas and beliefs, and the influencing of communities and nations swiftly surpassing the emphasis on recognized borders. Globalization has given people the opportunity for to join the pursuit of common goals. Due to communication limitations in the past, movements or events was isolated to their geographic region. With today’s media, those limitations do not apply or do not have to.

On a side note however, it can be argued that globalization was always in existence, the nature of it however has changed. Reza Aslan argues in his book, How to Win a Cosmic War, that Globalization is not a new phenomenon, as we have seen in history. Empires and trade routes tried to tie the world together into a tighter network of culture and economy. The way modern technology has changed the way globalization has occurred is what paints it in a unique light.

Warfare required the organizational ability and capacity of nation states to conduct and wage war prior to the phenomenon of globalization. The advances of the past century have radically changed that. The technology revolution and globalization has enabled non-state actors to be to acquire the knowhow, equipment, and tools required to wage war effectively against a nation state. For example, Al Qaeda, in order to spread its message and recruit, equip and train around the world, they have that ability, and the ability that previously was unavailable to non state actors; influence and resource is now in their reach. Non-state actors compete with the states in the international realm. Given the power and influence the non-state actor can show in today’s international field, Clausewitz may recognize them as actors able to wage war.

The Trinity

Clausewitz claimed that in war exists a paradoxical trinity consisting of a link between the government, the army, and the people. He claimed that there must be a balance maintained between these three identities for the state to be successful in war.8He claimed that these all three are dependent on one another, and change in one affects the others.9 confusion arises from the exact translation of this part of his work and what Clausewitz actually meant when he described the trinity. Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres in 1995 provide a description of the relationship claiming that Clausewitz’s on War is describing three categories; non-rational forces (chance and luck irrational forces (violent emotion), and rationality (War as an instrument of policy). They go into further detail of these categories claiming that the people are paired with irrational forces, i.e. ‘the emotions of primordial violence’, enmity and hatred (perhaps even without as wars can be fought without care on both sides for the reasons).

The army and the commander are assigned the forces of friction, chance, and probability. This is under the ‘creative guidance’ of the commander. Creativity shown by the commander can be based on the talent or genius he/she has. The government is assigned with the rational force of calculation; by reason driven policy.10

With regards to “absolute” and “real” war we find that this concept led 11 led Liddell Hart to claim that Clausewitz was an advocate of ‘unlimited warfare’, and claims by him could be held as responsibility for the devastation that occurred during First World War.12

“The apostle of a revolutionary philosophy of war making” was how John Keegan described Clausewitz claiming that he was a proponent of ‘unconstrained warfare as being in the best interest of the state’.


On War may start off looking as if Clausewitz supports these views, Liddell Hart and Keegan’s criticism may not have that much basis. As Clausewitz defines war as ‘an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will’ and further states that “to introduce the principle of moderation into

The theory of war itself would always lead to logical absurdity;” he then claims “there is no logical limit to the application of that force” this in turn “must lead, in theory, to extremes.”14

We can see that based on these sayings Clausewitz was indeed writing about war in a theoretical sense. Later on in his work Clausewitz points out that if you go from “from the abstract to the real world the whole thing looks quite different.”15

Clausewitz was basically exploring the philosophical nature of war as opposed to advocating absolute and unlimited nature of warfare. He was describing it as something not bound by limitations of reality. When looking at war and the war’s absolute tendencies along with factors that limit it in reality, Clausewitz demonstrates that war is not ruled by a particular logic, but a combination of elements demonstrating diverse characteristics. According to Christopher Bassford, confusion occurs due to Clausewitz’s use of a ‘dialectical method’ of presenting his arguments. Therefore Clausewitz’s talk about war as an abstract phenomenon should be seen as part of a much larger argument.

Clausewitz after describing what is known as the ‘primary trinity’, he further describes and defines a secondary one, claiming that the ‘first of these three aspects (violence and hatred)aˆ¦concerns the people. The second (chance and luck) the commander and his army; the third (war as a policy) the government.’16 This is where Clausewitz has brought on himself a barrage of criticism and is a focal point to target for authors who are advocates of the ‘new war’ age and 4th generation warfare model.

This second trinity, critics argue, implies that war is waged only among states because these political entities are the only entities to have a clear distinction between the government, the people, and the armed forces. With regards to a post world war 2 era, Clausewitz’s detractors claim that since most modern wars are conducted or waged by non-state actors, this has led to Clausewitz’s theories being mundane and out of date. A state-centric outlook now has become obsolete due to the rise and prevalence of non-state warfare in recent years.17

Bassford in his works has pointed out that Keegan and Kaldor disregard the main point that Clausewitz ascribes to war as a character consisting of violence, chance, and rationality and that these are related to the secondary trinity of people, armed forces, and government primarily as an example, not the rule. There is no sociopolitical nature described in the primary trinity and it is this distinction which is critical to show to critics of Clausewitz’s work.18

Entities such as the state, communist revolution movements, tribal warlord, or any international terrorist organization are all subject to the relationship of the forces of violence, chance, and rationality. It can even be said that Clausewitz devoted a chapter in On War specifically to warfare waged by non-state actors as noted by Herberg-Rothe, 19. Daniel Moran claims that the trinity consists of ‘abstractions’ and that basically viewing it as the 3 distinct arms of the government, army and people is wrong.20

If we are to look at the issue of whether Clausewitz’s ideas of

Rationality disable his work from being permitted in today’s environment of non-state conflicts in which violence itself may be regarded as the only goal, it can be claimed that the primary trinity shows that he assigned to the waging of war no specific rationale. Hatred has as much of a place as reason does and is claimed by Robert Baumann the reasons to push states to declare war are similar to those which motivate tribes or insurgents.”


Clausewitz himself stated that, “policy is nothing in itself; it is simply the trustee for all these interests against other states. That it can err, subs serve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power, is neither here nor there.” 22It can be deduced that Clausewitz did not necessarily enforce the notion that war had to follow a particular noble high and mighty form of rationality.

Clausewitz can be seen as being neither an advocate of unlimited warfare nor is his analysis of warfare fully state-centric. His work can be seen as having use with regards to analyzing conflicts where actors other than states participate. Looking at insurgents and groups such as Al Qaeda, it can be argued that their Goals are working towards a cause they perceive perfectly rational and obvious just as the use of force carried out by a state actor would spark violent emotional reactions. Every player in an armed conflict, whether it be current or past has

Been subject to the nature of chance and luck. His work is therefore just as relevant in canalizing conflicts of the twenty-first century conflicts and rise of multiple insurgencies across the globe just as he remains valid in the studying traditional interstate warfare.


In the primary trinity it is emphasized that the forces governing how warfare is conducted extends beyond the ‘irrational’ to the ‘rational’ influences of human emotion and the ‘non-rational’ effects of chance and luck. It is in the second trinity where a link is formed between the abstract elements of the nature of warfare and warfare in reality by providing an example of how these forces can come together in society as it was at the time of writing. In the modern situation of states being democratic; the demarcation into the government, the people, and the armed forces that the Prussian theorist describes is currently valid and applicable.

Clausewitz proves his validity in the current age when he claims that the ‘general character’ of an era can have a drastic influence on the aims and goals pursued in warfare and importantly the methods used in order to do so. This does not signify a fundamental change in the nature of warfare itself. He stated that “the aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs must be governed by the particular characteristics of his own position; but they will also conform to the spirit of the age and to its general character.” Certainly this provides a good example to which Clausewitz has clung on to validity in the modern age.

The three elements can account for an unlimited number of variations of conflicts which shows how the trinity rejects the concept of demarcated historical periods by showing how the variable relationship gives warfare a particular character based on specifics in context. This notion provides us with historical consistency when it comes to the study of war and shows us that we must remain critical of claims that assign a certain development as a ‘new’ phenomenon. M. L. R. Smith poignantly wrote; “Call it what you will; new war, ethnic war, guerrilla war, low intensity war, terrorism, or the war on terrorismaˆ¦in the end, there is only one meaningful category of war, and that is war itself.”24

The primary trinity can enable modern scholarship to go beyond the violent aspect of terrorism and focus on the rational motives behind their actions. The second trinity can enable research to be able to point out and analyze the sociopolitical relationships within the movements such as terrorist groups or insurgencies and look at the wider social context i.e. the dynamics that determine the relationship between the combatants and the people who provide their popular base and strength. Studying such aspects is vital when it is the popular base of insurgencies and terrorist groups that are identified as the main aspect to target in order to win a modern conflict.

Targeting terrorist groups’ legitimacy would also demonstrate how brute force with highly advanced weaponry alone is not sufficient to defeat terrorism. As stated before, the central aspect of a terrorist group’s strength is with the population behind them which they depend on

for legitimacy and recruits. If the terrorism in modern day conflicts is to be defeated, then western leaders will have to focus on the public support that is so vital to insurgents and terrorist groups worldwide.

On closer examination of the war on terror now gone and president Obama’s current fight against terrorism, it can be demonstrated that the theories of Carl von Clausewitz remain as relevant today in a climate of asymmetrical warfare as they did in the Napoleonic era. His theories provide a theoretical framework with which modern warfare and its aspects can be studied. When the western political and military leader scrutinize the trinity from the point of view of those they are up against, weaknesses in its own approach in the military and political aspects of the conflict can be addressed. Clausewitz’s concepts, allowing for the multiple and evolving forms of conflict, remains valid today for the study and evaluation of most forms of warfare.


1John Keegan, History of Warfare (New Yorke: Vintage Books 1996), 2.

2 William S. Lind, Keith Nightengale, Joseph W. Sutton, and Gary I. Wilson, “Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” in Terry Terriff, Aaron Karp, and Regina Karp, eds., Global Insurgency and the Future of Armed Conflict: Debating Fourth-Generation Warfare (New York: Routledge, 2008)

3 Lawrence Freedman, “War Evolves into the Fourth Generation: A Comment on Thomas X. Hammes,” in Terriff, Karp, and Karp, 82

4 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. and trans, Michael Howard and Peter Paret.

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 81.

5 “Peace of Westphalia,” available from


6 Ibid.

7 T.L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999 (New York: Anchor, 1999), 7-8;

available from; Internet; accessed

12 January 2008.

8 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. and trans, Michael Howard and Peter Paret.

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 88


10 Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, “Reclaiming the Trinity,” Parameters

(Autumn 1995); available from;

Internet accessed 22 September 2007.

11 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. and trans, Michael Howard and Peter Paret.

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 100

12 Christopher Bassford, “John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz: A Polemic,” War

in History, 1 (November 1994), 319-36.

13 John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 17-18.

14 Clausewitz, 82-84.

15 Ibid., 86.

16 Clausewitz, 104.

17 Martin van Creveld, On Future War (London: Brassey’s, 1991) ix

18 Villacres and Bassford, 9-19.

19 Herberg-Rothe, 165.

20 Daniel Moran, “Strategic Theory and the History of War” (Paper, US Naval Postgraduate School, 2001), 6-7.

21 Robert F. Baumann, “Historical Perspectives on Future War,” Military Review, 77 (March/April 1997),40-46.

22 Clausewitz, 729.

23 Van Creveld, 60-66, 97; Kaldor, “A Cosmopolitan Response to New Wars,” 505-14.

24 M. L. R. Smith, “Strategy in the Age of ‘Low Intensity’ Warfare: Why Clausewitz Is Still More Relevant

than His Critics,” in Duyvesteyn and Angstrom, 41-53