While the systems that Tartar bands used to formulate policy might have been less sophisticated than those of Frederick the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte (this is of course debatable), they proved no less decisive in terms of their ability to develop strategies and to direct military force in pursuit of political objectives. As we can see from this example, his use of Politik gave Clausewitz a perspective on war that was both trans-historical and trans-cultural, but one that, at the same time, respected both historical and cultural uniqueness. Thus, the elements that shape policy, according to Clausewitz, are both situational and cultural, objective and subjective (or rational, nonrational and irrational, according to current political-scientific models).*15 "The aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs, will be governed by the particular characteristics of his own [geo-political] position; but they will also conform to the spirit of the age and to its general character."*16
With this more complete understanding of what Clausewitz meant by the term Politik, we can now turn to a more detailed consideration of his tripartite conception of war. This "remarkable or paradoxical trinity," as it is sometimes called, constitutes Clausewitz's framework, or model, for understanding war's changeable and diverse nature. Three forces or tendencies comprise it: blind emotional force, chance, and politics. "These three tendencies," he wrote, "are like three different codes of law, deeply rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another."*17 They in turn correspond to three representative bodies--the character and disposition of the populace, the skill and prowess of the military, and the wisdom and intelligence of the government: Despite revolutionary advances in technology, this trinity will continue to remain relevant to future war. Nor will this relevance require the addition of technology as a fourth component in the remarkable trinity, a "squaring of the triangle," as Michael Handel has called it.*18 Advances in technology will not alter Clausewitz's framework of war because they affect war's grammar, not its logic. In other words, new technologies change only the form, not the nature of war. Clausewitz saw war as multi-dimensional and "chameleon-like," composed of subjective and objective natures. The former consisted of war's means which, since they varied according to time and place, Clausewitz considered subjective. The latter, on the other hand, encompassed the elements of violence, uncertainty, chance, and friction; and, while they embody numerous varieties and intensities, remain a constant part of war regardless of time and place. Moreover, because war was not an autonomous activity, but a social and human event, it possessed two tendencies, escalation and reciprocation, which, without the moderating influence of policy and the debilitating force of friction, tended to push warfighting itself towards a violent extreme. Thus, for Clausewitz, war might change its color like a chameleon, but its essential nature remained constant--violent, unpredictable, and prone to escalation.
Technology, in fact, resides in all three elements of the trinity without altering their basic relationship within it. Military technology, for example, might be defined as that used by a nation's armed forces for military purposes. While items like tanks and missiles fall under the military corner of the trinity, their component technologies (e.g., microchips and motherboards) generally originate within the civilian business community. Indeed, some types of technologies, namely, communications and transportation technologies, have broad application in all branches of the trinity, defying pat labels. The point is that the basic interdependency of the various components of the trinity will remain unchanged, despite revolutionary advances in technology itself. In fact, the RMA's continually evolving information and communication technologies will merely expand the immediacy--shorten the response time and heighten the sensitivity--of each component of the trinity in its interaction with the others.*19
To be sure, information technology will require an increase in the intelligence level of soldiers and civilians alike, or at least demand that they process more information in less time. But it will not change the fact that ruling bodies, whether they be recognized governments, revolutionary cells, terrorist leaders, or drug lords will make (or attempt to make) decisions regarding when, where, how, and why to apply military power. These decisions will in turn be influenced by political forces such as the power relationships provided by alliances and treaties (whether perceived or real), the effectiveness of key institutions involved in the decision-making process, and the general assumptions, beliefs, and expectations of the decision makers. Evidence concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis and that of the October 1973 War shows that even in the modern age misperceptions continue to create and/or exacerbate crisis situations.*20 Technology will speed the arrival of information (already approaching real time), it will even provide information in new forms (e.g., satellite imagery), and it may, depending on the scenario, reduce or expand the time available to make a decision. But decision makers will continue to receive that vast quantity of information through subjective filters; hence, the decisions they make will remain largely a matter of judgment, and that judgment will in turn be shaped by political forces.
Paradoxically, new military technology both increases and decreases violence, chance, uncertainty, and friction in unforeseen and uneven ways. New weapons systems make it possible for both sides to observe and strike simultaneously throughout the depth of the battlefield, thus eliminating "safe" areas. The five-dimensional battlefield means that commanders must consider defeating an attack or counterattack from any number of directions and at any time. A general "lack of immunity" will prevail as units at all echelons of command and control will endure greater risk.*21 Precision-guided weapons systems and munitions do, indeed, increase the certainty of a hit or a kill, but the weak link in their effectiveness will remain the problem of supplying them with reliable and timely target data.*22 Enemies will continue to take measures and countermeasures to prevent this, and tactics will continue to change as a result. Hence, new technology alone will not prove decisive in future war; it will require a harness of sorts--a flexible and comprehensive doctrine that fully integrates the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. Thus, the objective nature of Clausewitz's concept of war will remain relevant to future war.
Even the development of nuclear weaponry, the so-called absolute weapon, has not meant the death of Clausewitz, as some have claimed.*23 His dictum that "war is the continuation of Politik by other means" remains as valid in nuclear conflict as it does in more conventional-style warfare. The evolution of US nuclear strategy from "massive retaliation" in the 1950s to "flexible response" in the early 1960s, for example, reveals how Politik continued to influence war even in a nuclear environment.*24 Policy makers since 1945 have duly responded to changing political situations, growing strike and counter-strike capabilities, and the general will of the populace by determining that, because of its attendant risks, nuclear war did not suit US political objectives; hence, other more conventional forms of war received greater attention while nuclear weaponry assumed a deterrence role. Policy and politics have clearly conspired to force the avoidance of nuclear war. To be sure, the destructive power of nuclear weaponry, the prospect of runaway escalation, and the concept of "superconductivity"--the elimination of friction by reducing the chain of events that must occur between the decision to launch and the actual launch of a nuclear strike--will reduce or negate entirely the influence that policy makers can have on the conduct of actual nuclear war should it occur.*25 Obviously, until the technology is developed that can harmlessly disarm nuclear weapons while in flight, the possibility of aborting or down-scaling nuclear war once a launch is initiated remains minimal. But these realities are merely products of the times. They constitute what Clausewitz, in his historicist approach, would have called the subjective elements of war--the means selected for its prosecution--in the nuclear age; and they serve to distinguish nuclear war from other forms. It may be going too far to say that such means constitute the ultimate expression of the remarkable trinity in terms of absolute war, but not by much.
Once again, we should bear in mind that Clausewitz's mature thought does not insist that warfare serve either a purely rational or purely political aim. In any case, the definition of a rational political aim is largely subjective. Terrorist groups sometimes launch suicide bombings which they consider completely rational. Indeed, the current "world order" makes it possible to imagine a limited nuclear exchange occurring between states or groups possessing relatively small arsenals.*26 Far from limiting the influence that Politik will exert over war, such an environment will likely increase it, while at the same time admittedly reducing the amount of time policy makers may have available to act once such a strike is initiated.
In fact, nuclear weaponry will not render irrelevant the intelligence of the government, the skill of the military, and the emotive force of the populace, as some believe. Rather, the advent of such weaponry along with its attendant strategies only reveals that each of the components of the trinity has changed over time. Diplomacy has become more aware that military action of any sort might generate unintended consequences and runaway escalation, and has developed systemic checks and precautions to prevent them. The military has gradually altered its age-old warrior ethos to prize, rather than eschew, intelligence and technical expertise. The populace, too, has changed, becoming more educated and more politicized, growing increasingly sensitive to the fact that its future rests in the hands of a few chosen officials. Such developments do not invalidate Clausewitz's trinity, but speak instead to its lasting durability and intrinsic dynamism.
Of course, not all of Clausewitz's military thought has remained relevant. His vision of war did not include its economic, air, sea, and space dimensions, for example. But his conception of war, his remarkable trinity, and his grasp of the relationship between Politik and war will remain valid as long as states, drug lords, warrior clans, and terrorist groups have mind to wage it.
This article originally appeared in Joint Forces Quarterly, Winter 1995-96 No. 10.