Chapter 9. The Western Approach to Strategy
The long arc of Western economic supremacy made it the model for nations striving to modernise in the 20th century to emulate. Yet a series of crises in this young 21st century, coupled with the re-emergence of China, have led many to question the pre-eminence of all things Western. The poor outcomes of many Western nations during the CoVid pandemic were in stark contrast to how they thought they’d perform in such a situation (see fig. 13a-13b). And this under-performance came quickly on the back of a long decade of austerity that followed the global financial meltdown that started in the West in 2008. Added to the disastrous and costly ‘war on terror’ that has occupied the West for most of this century the question increasingly (and understandably) being asked around the world is whether the Western approach to dealing with such situations is the best we have.
Fig 13a. In 2019 Western nations considered themselves the best prepared for an epidemic
Fig 13b. Just over a year into the pandemic western nations had amongst the worst outcomes
Western supremacy became undeniable when its economic power finally eclipsed that of the Eastern world in the mid 19th century (see figure 14). The ‘big bang’ innovation that had propelled this ascendancy was Arkwright’s mill in Cromford, England (1771), which triggered the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Western competitive advantage was further advanced by successive technological revolutions: The ‘Rocket’ steam engine in England (1829) ushering in the age of ‘Steam and Railways’ and the Carnegie Bessemer steel plant in Pittsburgh, USA (1875), which ushered in the age of ‘Steel, Electricity and Heavy Engineering’. The West’s now unmatched technological superiority enabled it to colonise every inhabitable continent on Earth and created the economic and military colossus bestriding the world that the USA is today. Yet Western dominance had also been driven by a response to the events of the early 19th century that had shocked all of Europe.
Fig 14. Share of global GDP (1 AD — 2008)
As in the East, so in the West war shaped an approach to strategy. Until the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon, which violently tore apart the orthodox thinking of the time, war had been seen as a chaotic but natural force that, ultimately, could be controlled. With sufficient “hard, quantifiable data” the conduct of war could be reduced to “a branch of the natural sciences, a rational activity from which the play of chance and uncertainty [could be] entirely eliminated”. The many inconveniences of war — like too much bloodshed — could be calculated away, making it a civilised alternative for resolving disputes when diplomacy broke down. But the extreme violence unleashed by the Napoleonic wars destroyed the hope of an orderly and gentlemanly pursuit of war.
The “Fascinating Trinity”
Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) was a Prussian officer with first-hand experience of how modern warfare “had broken loose in all its elemental fury”. He fought against the French at Borodino — the largest and bloodiest battle in all the Napoleonic wars. It was a day of such carnage and confusion that it defied description and mathematical calculation. Clausewitz therefore dedicated his life to trying to explain complexities of this new type of warfare. One of his major contributions to a new theoretical understanding of it was his “fascinating Trinity” (wunderliche dreifaltigkeit) describing the three interacting forces driving modern warfare:
- Emotion (primordial violence, hatred and enmity) a blind, irrational but natural force
- Reason (rational aims) the subordination of emotion into calculated policies
- Chance (the play of probability) where the creative spirit is free to roam.
Fig 15. Clausewitz’s Trinity
Each point of the Trinity exerts a magnetic pull, creating a ‘centre of gravity’ for every belligerent. The ‘centre of gravity’ for one belligerent may be more towards the passions of its people, clamouring for a particular course of action. Another belligerent’s ‘centre of gravity’ may be towards the rational policies of its government. The ‘centre of gravity’ therefore is a belligerent’s source of strength — but this is also the point against which Clausewitz advised one to launch an attack. Bringing overwhelming force to bear against the enemy’s strength was the best way to defeat them. On this point Clausewitz was clear: “To impose our will on the enemy is [the] object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless; and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare”.
To dominate and ‘render an enemy powerless’ requires a mighty military machine. This should consist of the latest weapons technology, sound tactics, troops with iron discipline, impeccably managed logistics and effective channels of communication to command and control activities. Clausewitz argued the military should be subordinate to the government, so aims could be pursued with rational policies. But, once a government makes the decision to unleash the military machine, its might should be mobilised to its fullest extent and deployed with maximum force. For in war, Clausewitz argued, there can be no half measures — war must be ‘absolute’.
While Clausewitz argued that the military was the machine for delivering victory he knew, from first-hand experience, that “everything in war [may be] very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult … [because] countless minor incidents — the kind you can never really foresee — combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal”. He called this accumulation of unpredictable incidences, that can prevent one from achieving one’s aims, friction: This could be a misfiring weapon, troops taking a wrong turn, or unseasonably heavy rain bogging down a cavalry charge in mud. It was friction that made war a non-linear, multi-dimensional phenomenon that defied analysis or predictions made ahead of time and far from the battlefield.
The complexity and unpredictability of war means, “no other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance”. Yet chance — despite being one of the three points of the Trinity — was a force that remained problematical for Clausewitz. In his (unfinished) masterpiece ‘On War’ he provided no definition of chance beyond it being an uncontrollable external force, which forces a ‘fog of war’ (Nebel des Krieges) to descend. “Three quarters of the … action in war is … wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty” he argued, so “guesswork and luck come to play a great part”. Overcoming this fog required a new type of leader, one with “a sensitive and discriminating judgment … a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth”. War required genius.
Even in Clausewitz’s time genius was “a much used and abused term” so he “tried to strip [it] of the myths that had accumulated around it”. He was influenced in this by new ideas of the time, predominanty from the British philosophers Berkeley and Hume. They reasoned that man, far from being a passive accumulator of knowledge, was a dynamic creator who could mould a better world. Clausewitz therefore rejected the concept of genius as a ‘God-given gift’ in favour of describing it as a “very highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation”. Aptitude (or, natural ability) in the military domain meant a leader had a certain level of intuition and determination — and it was this that distinguished the military genius from the ordinary commander.
On the battlefield friction derails the commander’s “well-oiled” military machine, which “begins to resist” his guidance. At this point, a lesser commander questions himself — increasing the anxiety of those around him, which leads to a loss of morale. But the military genius uses intuition — what the French called coup d’oeil — to pierce the fog of war, ‘take in everything in an instant’ and see what needs to be done next. He then displays determination — a “tremendous willpower to overcome this resistance” — that fortifies the “ebbing of moral and physical strength” of those around who have “entrusted him with their thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears”. Thus, with intuition and determination, does the military genius shape events on the battlefield.
Clausewitz’s work became the foremost authority for the Prussian army in the 19th century and their victories in the wars of German unification (1866, 1870) proved the value of the Prussian’s insights. The rest of Europe was eventually forced to come to terms with his theories and an age of competing military machines was born: “Strong discipline, good weapons, appropriate elementary tactics, good march dispositions, railways, practical supply arrangements and communications [would now] determine everything in war”. But friction meant that “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces” hence, the Clausewitzian recipe for success, was dependent on the still magical ingredient of genius.
Ironically, despite resisting him on the battlefield, Clausewitz’s work helped ennoble Napoleon as the personification of the modern strategic genius that Western leaders now sought to emulate. A generation of leader would rely on his intuition to identify the enemy’s ‘decisive point’ and backed it up with the determination to show an iron “resolution to concentrate everything available against it, stripping forces from secondary fronts and ignoring lesser objectives [for] this had been the secret of Bonaparte’s success”. Impose one’s will on an enemy and rendering them powerless became the default Western approach to strategy that underwrote its conquests and rise to global dominance.
When all sides pursue the same strategy of building destructive military capabilities the risk is that, if war breaks out between them, neither side can win. Yet what became recognised as the balancing forces of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) in the second half of the 20th century was absent in the first half of the century. It was instead dominated by leaders convinced they possessed ‘Napoleonic genius’ — the intuition and determination to impose their will on the rest of the continent. ‘The Great War’ (1914–1918) that ensued — a murderous, senseless conflagration where millions met early deaths in the mud of the Western front — brought the entire continent to its knees. The intuition of leaders in this war extended no further than repeatedly throwing companies of men against the enemy’s killing machine; backed up by nothing more than a cultivated stoicism amongst leaders to endure any amount of human losses that they mistook for the determination of a genius.
The mindless destruction of this war and the resulting military stalemate led to a widespread re-evaluation and even vilification of the work of Clausewitz. But the Prussian’s approach to strategy — imposing one’s will on others by superior force directed at a ‘decisive point’ and led by genius — had already become foundational to the Western approach to strategy of conquest and dominance. We’ll now turn, in the final chapter of this first part, to exploring whether this legacy helps or hinders those trying to navigate the threats and challenges of our uncertain world today.