Theoretical Geopolitics and the Theory of War

18 November 2011


A Clausewitzean Transformation

Clausewitz had a classical education and benefitted from it. As paradoxical as it may sound, he attempted to bring the spirit of Enlightenment rationalism to the study of war.

of Geopolitics and Warfare

In one of the most famous passages of Clausewitz’s On War is this:

“We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the Art of War in general and the Commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.” (On War, Book I, Chap. I, 24)

In previous posts (e.g., More on Clausewitz) I have cited Anatol Rapaport, who called Clausewitz the greatest representative of the political conception of war. This is certainly Exhibit A of Clausewitzean political war.

Here’s another passage expressing more or less the same thought:

“The War of a community — of whole Nations, and particularly of civilised Nations — always starts from a political condition, and is called forth by a political motive. It is, therefore, a political act.” (On War, Book I, Chap. I, 23)

And these reflections follow Clausewitz’s definition of war:


That war is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will must be seen in the context of war being a political act and instrument, carrying out state policy by other means, just as the carrying out of state policy by other means must be seen in the context of the violence of war intended to force compliance. Political action is an act of violence carried out by other means.

We might well call this this fungibility doctrine, since Clausewitz maintains that politics can be transformed into war and war can be transformed into politics.

Foucault makes this fungibility a theme of his lectures Society Must be Defended, in which he returns to the Clausewitzean aphorism and its inversion repeatedly.

There is another way to state this that brings out the idea with admirable clarity. Joseph Fouche of the Committee of Public Safety has summed it up in four words:

All power is fungible.

Anyone who can sum up an idea like this in four words has performed a certain intellectual service that ought to be recognized. This is from Citizen Fouche’s post Crony Capitalism, the Choice of 1912, and Bully for You. And here is a quote from the same post with a little more detail:

“All power is fungible: one form of power can, with varying degrees of difficulty, be converted into another form of power. Economic power can become political power. Political power can become economic power. This means there is ultimately only one market for all forms of power. Change in the division of economic power within an economic market is always followed by change in the division of political power within a political market. Shifts in the division of political power within a political market always impact the division of power within a political market.”

I do not myself agree with an unrestricted application of Fouche’s fungibility doctrine — there are too many cases of, say, soft power that cannot be transformed into hard power — but it possesses the virtues of simplicity and directness. It is this simplicity and directness that gives abstract and formal theory its power.

In this spirit, I will observe that the three principles I began formulating in my posts on theoretical geopolitics also apply to the theory of war. Here are the three principles I formulated:

Human agency is constrained by geography.

The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

Human agency is essentially a temporal agency.

In so far as these are principles of geopolitics, they are also principles of war. formulated as principles of war they become:

Military agency is constrained by geography.

The scope of military agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which military agency is marginal.

Military agency is essentially a temporal agency.

I suggested that, given the greater constraints of time in comparison to space, that history may be the greater constraint than geography, thus the corollary of the essential temporality of military agency is the greater constraint that history places on military agency than the obvious constraints of geography.

Well, now that I have called these principles of war, we have to ask what becomes of the familiar principles of war. There are many formulations of the principles of war, but I will refer to the principles of war as codified in US military doctrine. The familiar list of objective, offensive, mass, economy of forces, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity are also, by Fouche’s fungibility principles, also principles of politics. And certainly we know that ruthless politicians run their election campaigns like military campaigns, and govern like generals.

What, then, is the relation between the principles of theoretical geopolitics that I have begun to formulate, transformed into principles of war according to the fungibility of power, and the familiar principles of war? I don’t know. I haven’t thought it through yet. That is work for another day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “Theoretical Geopolitics and the Theory of War”

  1. danton40ro said


    I agree with your principles and theorems of geopolitics as long as human agency is understood or perceived as being a state. Geopolitics is by excellence an instrument to understand the politics of power amongst states as international political actors. But in regard to the principles of war I have some doubts that extending the theorems which may apply in the field of geopolitics to war and armed conflict, though it may be a valid construct. At least for the 2nd and 3rd principles.

    Why? Let’s take the example of the 3rd principle: “Military agency is essentially a temporal agency” — since 1648 the military has developed in line with the state but moreover it has been proved that a military instrument can be developed and used successfully outside an official establishment. Consequently a military agency cannot be temporal. If we consider human conflict by nature it is obvious that the military cannot be “temporal” — the human society always used such an instrument to solve the conflicts. As for the second principle, I partially agree with you in the sense that the military is subordinated to politics but for obvious reasons cannot be considered as being marginal; ultimately is one of the instruments of power of any state and if we are thinking in the realism paradigm the military instrument will always serve the politics.

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