Conflict Resolution Strategies: Karl Von Clausewitz’s Top Ten Conflict Tips

Karl Von Clausewitz (1780-1831)


Creative Conflict Wisdom is not a blog about war, but we cannot write about conflict without considering the author of the classic: ‘On War’, because as he most famously said:

War is the conduct of policy by other means’.

This could be paraphrased to mean war as the conduct of conflict by more than political means. Many think that his book is the greatest ever written about war. As has been well said in Michael Howard’s excellent ‘Very Short Introduction to Clausewitz‘, few can help us think about war so well, and few have penetrated the ephemeral phenomena of their own times so incisively and considered war as a ‘…great socio-political activity distinguished from all other activities by the reciprocal and legitimized use of powerful violence to attain political objectives.’

So what were his top ten insights? (This is the first of a number of posts about great thinkers of the past and their relation to conflict thinking. I am trying to compress their relevant thinking into ten points as a experiment. Let me know how it works.)

  1. The Aim of War: If you think of conflict as offering a choice between playing unilateral games and trying to collaborate to find a mutually satisfactory solution, then war in Clausewitz’s terms is a sub-set of games: ‘The violent imposition of your will on the other side, either to destroy the enemies ability to resist and his forces or to force a collaborative, but one-sided peace accord at terms favorable to the winner’.
  2. War as a Last Resort. Given all that Clausewitz has to say about how difficult war is, how much friction there is and the sheer complexity of it, there is a possible implication that war should be a last resort, but once entered into you should be strong enough to win and ruthless in trying to. Indeed there is an argument for being strong enough so that no one will want to attack you in the first place, and ensuring war is not a better alternative to a negotiated settlement.
  3. War as a Means to an End.Von Clausewitz was writing from a position of enormously varied experience of war from formal set piece battles to trying to organize popular what we would call guerilla style resistance to invasion. He wrote at a time of growing scientific endeavor, when people were seeking ways to be more scientific about war. Yet his approach is some combination of art and science that would serve us well in our approach to conflict. He did not see war as primarily about maneuver but about fighting: ‘The employment of the available means for the pre-determined end.’
  4. The Uncertainty and Difficulty of War. War represented a combination of the directing policy of the government, the professional qualities of the army and the attitude of the population. In Von Clausewitz’s view, any theory of war had to take account of uncertainty, of the unpredictable reactions of the adversary and the moral factors in fighting. It is harder to guess what an enemy was doing if the enemy themselves do not have a clear goals. That is an interesting reflection on conflict in general: if the other side really is taking positions without much thought as to what they are trying to achieve, you are in trouble and you might even have to help them get clarity before you can solve the conflict. Von Clausewitz was in no doubt of how dangerous war was, how bloody or how complex:‘Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is very difficult (to make happen)’
  5. Theory and Practice in War. One aspect of Von Clausewitz that is useful to us in developing a usable theory of conflict, is his idea of theory as something that involves a two way process of historical knowledge molding theory, and theory illuminating historical judgement. In learning from conflict we should realize his point that the function of criticism is more than the mechanical application of and comparison with theory. Conflict theory like military theory is an aid to judgement not a substitute for it: ‘Theory exists so that one does not have to start afresh every time sorting out the raw material and ploughing through it, but will find it ready to hand and in good order. It is meant to educate the mind of the future commander or more accurately to guide him in his self education; not to accompany him to the battlefield.’
  6. Military Means to Achieve Political Ends. Clausewitz is often seen as advocating war for its own sake, whereas throughout, he is clearly always subordinating it to political direction, and is stressing incessantly that we must keep in mind what we are trying to achieve. He says that war is the achievement of policy by other means, not some damn bloody sport for its own sake. And it is followed through a dialectic of the moral and physical resources of war interacting. It was all about the political ends and the military means to achieve them.
  7. Re-configuring Conflict as More than a Zero Sum Game. You can think of conflict in terms of war. You can think of it as directing your powers at the center of gravity of your enemy. But the real point is to serve your real underlying interests and to reconfigure conflict as more than zero-sum. War is almost by definition a zero-sum or very greatly negative sum game, when you consider the cost in life and economic loss. Moreover, one of the problems of war is that it can so radically transform the landscape that its original goals become meaningless, and one is hard put to keep a clear gyroscopic direction in mind with such changed horizons.
  8. The Foolishness of Starting a War without Clear Aims ‘No one starts a war or rather no one in their right senses should do so, without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.’ That seems a rather profoundly relevant to our situation today. Of course in a nuclear age, the political aim is to keep war limited and impose limitations on its destructiveness. No political objective is sufficiently worthwhile to justify the destruction of your society. Thus in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis neither Curtis Le May Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staffs, nor Fidel Castro, President of Cuba seemed to bear Von Clausewitz’s point in mind. They behaved as if a nuclear exchange could be ‘won’.
  9. Limited Situations where war makes sense. In reading Clausewitz today, we might conclude that if war is the continuation of policy by other means, this should greatly limit when war makes sense, particularly given its track record of failing to meet war aims. A previous posting shows how almost all the nations that started the major wars of the 20th century (and the same applies in earlier centuries too), ended up losing the war. They certainly did not therefore achieve their aims.  For example, Adam Tooz’s book ‘The Wages of Destruction’ shows just how inevitable German and Japanese defeat was in the Second World War. Admiral Yamamoto the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor had exactly that pessimistic view. There is a scene in Kurosawa’s movie classic ‘The Seven Samurai’ of the great swordsman Kuyzo, is challenged to a simulation sword contest which he  clearly wins; but his inexpert opponent claims victory and insists on a real contest and is killed with one sword cut. Maybe Kurosawa was thinking about the recent war that Japan had lost so disastrously
  10. So in summary, to flip round his argument: if a specific war is not the continuation of  policy by other means, but a piece of irrational, ill-thought through, goalless brutality, and irrational macho emotional reaction, then it is not justified.Von Clausewitz can be seen as an advocate for clarity of goals, and restraint in resorting to war because of its complexity, friction and sheer awfulness. As in all forms of conflict, when war is necessary, then clarity of objectives remains critical for sound decision making. War changes so much that when it is likely we should always include a very high uncertainty element in the decision making surrounding it; our best estimate of what we can achieve without negotiating, may be wildly off the mark. But this does not mean that it is not sensible to prepare for war or as Theodore Roosevelt said: ‘Talk softly and carry a big stick’


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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4 Responses to Conflict Resolution Strategies: Karl Von Clausewitz’s Top Ten Conflict Tips

  1. Victor says:

    From todays WSJ a WW 2 poem
    “Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is one of the few poems of World War II to have achieved wide renown. It reads in its entirety:
    “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
    And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
    Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
    I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
    When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

    Regarding the Holy Land, I agree with Tony Judt’s 2003 analysis— a one state solution, apartheid followed by the S African solution– the colonization has gone too far for any other solution, 500,000 settlers are not going to relocated behind the green line without a civil war– and the IDF will support the settlers– demographics are destiny on both sides.
    So I think our prior conversation on that matter covers the issues– those who are obsessed with the past are destined to repeat it–like Wolfowitz in Iraq.
    Most religious traditions are based upon tribal loyalty, honor and revenge— a few are based upon original sin, forgiveness and redemption — the Christians and Buddhists—both are minority opinions these days–and neither are perfect, which gives them more credibility.
    Iran will not nuke Israel because there are millions of Muslims who live within 100 miles of Jerusalem, which all Muslims consider the 3rd most holy site.

    The recent scandal at Harvard has undermined Evolutionary Psychology big time

    It would be interesting to discuss the demise of evolutionary psychology as a basis for morality, I could try and get Hitch to contribute before he dies–

  2. Yes I know the Randall Jarrell. Working in the ER department of a large city hospital introduced to a world like that, of road accident victims, though not on a wartime scale.
    All generals should spend some time in their casualty stations.

    I agree that Judt’s analysis looks ever more prescient. And the law of unintended consequences is savage with those who deny reality like Lesser Bush, the Israeli Right or US Israel lobby: they destroy their own interests.

    Thanks for the piece on evolutionary psychology. I had not seen it. I always had my doubts about some of their experiments. And I have some negative memory of Marc Hauser that I cannot quite recall.

    I had one run in with an evolutionary psychologist, who almost dragged his wife by the hair out of coffee shop where I was meeting her (an old friend from work) on return here from overseas. He later wrote an article on ‘mate guarding’. 🙂

    Would be interesting to see what Hitch has to say. My problem is that there is a tendency to say that any human behavior has an evolutionary origin, and is therefore rational, even though the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation is dramatically different from today. Like Popper I distrust things that are true by definition rather than by testing.

    Moreover, our responsiveness to climate changes and migration to new climates, presumably gave us cognitive flexibility that transcends evolutionarily installed hard wiring. We evolved beyond the limitations that evolutionary psychology seeks to insist on. I think Richard Dawkins understands this and suggests that the reason to understand what limitations our genes impose on our behavior is to overcome and do better. That I approve of.

  3. Pingback: Top Ten of our Top Ten Conflict Tips | Creativeconflictwisdom's Blog

  4. Pingback: Top Ten of our Top Ten Conflict Tips | Creativeconflictwisdom's Blog

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