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Political Control over the Use of Force: A Clausewitzian Perspective

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Suzanne C. Nielsen. | April 2001

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There are several points concerning civil-military relations and the use of force on which Clausewitz is extremely clear. The first is that, since war is an act of policy, political considerations must dominate the conduct of war. The purpose of war is to achieve some political aim, therefore military objectives must be chosen on this basis. Because politics do not cease to function when war begins, political considerations will exert a continuous influence on the conduct of military operations. In order to carry out the state?s policies, it is vital that the commander at the highest level be not only a good general with a thorough understanding of military means, but also a statesman with a strong grasp of national policy and the political context.

A second clear expectation is that political leaders will themselves be very engaged in the conduct of military operations. Clausewitz?s working assumption is that, from the initiation of war through the subsequent peace, the political leader?s decisions are based on the sum total of the interests of his political community. (At a minimum, Clausewitz seems to be arguing that this is the most useful perspective for the military leader to take regarding the political leader?s purposes.) Possibly in conjunction with the military commander, the political leader will determine the means he is willing to devote to a war, taking care to ensure that these means are proportionate to the ends being sought. In planning as well as during operations, it would be ideal if the military commander could sit in the cabinet so that political leaders could be involved in his activities. If a political leader does not have a strong background in military affairs, he can still maintain direction of operations by seeking military advice.

Third, though Clausewitz expects there to be operational details that are beyond the scope of political leaders, he does not draw an immutable line separating the realms proper to political control and military operational expertise. It seems consistent with his depiction of the great potential diversity of war to argue that this division would be particular to each specific case. When conflict is extremely intense or the purposes are total, it seems unlikely that tensions over minor operational details would arise. The great concerns of both political and military leaders for national survival may make minor operational details less of an issue in this case.

Where Clausewitz is of less assistance is in thinking through any difficulties that may arise between military and political figures at the highest levels. One of the reasons for this is his assumption that ?policy knows the instrument it means to use.?133 It is not clear what action Clausewitz expects the military commander to take in a case in which the political leader does not, in fact, know the instrument he or she is attempting to use and gives potentially self-defeating orders. Clausewitz also does not discuss any exigencies in which the military commander must have autonomy in the conduct of military operations.

In the end, Clausewitz issues challenges to both statesmen and commanders. Political leaders should think like strategists, being clear at the outset about purposes and means?recognizing that these may change in the course of events.134 Political leaders are expected to be the authority on domestic strengths and weaknesses, as well as the international environment. Clausewitz also seems to charge political leaders with the responsibility of being familiar with military means; at a minimum, this means being intelligent consumers of military advice.135 At the same time, military leaders are also challenged. Not only are they called upon to be the experts in the ?grammar? of war, they must always remain aware that war?s purposes come from outside itself and that these political purposes must ultimately govern. The reader may decide which of these challenges is the most demanding.


130. Clausewitz, On War, p. 607.

131.Ibid., p. 579. 132. Ibid., p.608