This is a draft from a forthcoming book ‘Out-Think, Out-Move: Real-Time Strategy & Execution in an Uncertain World’. It focuses on business in Russia but the insights should be applicable to a much wider audience. Feedback and comments are welcome (email@example.com). Earlier sections are here:
The long era of western politico-economic supremacy made it the model to emulate for nations striving to modernise. Yet a series of crises this century — from the global financial meltdown to the failed ‘war on terror’ — coupled with the re-emergence of China have led many to question the preeminence of all things western. Poor outcomes in western nations during the CoVid pandemic — in stark contrast to how they thought they’d perform (see charts below) — means the West has failed to rise to its third big challenge of this young 21st century. The question now is whether the western approach to dealing with the challenges we all face is the best we have.
For a few hundred years western supremacy was absolute and undeniable. Western economic might first eclipsed the eastern powers of the ancient world in the mid 19th century (see chart). This was driven by great technological advances and a fierce determination to dominate. European empires colonised every inhabitable continent and their successor, the USA, bestrides the world today as an economic and military colossus. The rise of western power can be traced back to a new approach to strategy that took shape in response to the shocking events of the early 19th century.
As in the East, (see previous chapter) war shaped a new approach to strategy in the West. The French revolution and the rise of Napoleon violently tore apart the orthodox thinking of the time. War had, until then, been seen as a chaotic but natural force that ultimately could be controlled. With sufficient “hard, quantifiable data” the conduct of war, it was thought, 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”. One would be able to calculate away the many inconveniences of war — like too much bloodshed — and make it a civilised engagement for whenever diplomacy broke down. But the brutality of the Napoleonic wars destroyed this hope. This explosion of extreme violence would become viewed as a mechanism with which one could impose one’s will on others. And it led to disastrous consequences.
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” during the Napoleonic wars. He fought at the battle of Borodino — the largest and bloodiest of them all — a day of such carnage and confusion that it defied description with mathematical calculations. Clausewitz would dedicate his life to trying to explain the complexities of this new type of warfare. One of his major contributions to western theoretical understanding of modern warfare was the “fascinating Trinity” (wunderliche dreifaltigkeit) describing three interacting forces driving events:
- Emotion (primordial violence, hatred and enmity) a blind, irrational but natural force
- Chance (the play of probability) where the creative spirit is free to roam
- Reason (rational aims) the subordination of emotion and chance into rational policies.
Each point of the Trinity, Clausewitz explained, exerts a magnetic pull — creating a ‘centre of gravity’ for every belligerent. One belligerent’s ‘centre of gravity’ or strength may reside in its government making rational calculations. The ‘centre of gravity’ of another may be grounded on the rising of passion of its people supporting a particular course of action. But the ‘centre of gravity’, by virtue of being a belligerent’s main source of strength, is also the place against which Clausewitz advised one to launch an attack with overwhelming force as the destruction of an enemy’s strength was the surest way to defeat them. “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” Clausewitz wrote.
Rendering the enemy powerless and dominating was most effectively achieved by a mighty military machine Clausewitz advised. 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 the military machine’s activities. Though subordinate to the government the military machine, once the decision had been taken to unleash it, should be mobilised to its fullest extent: deployed with maximum force. In war, Clausewitz argued, there should be no half measures, it must be ‘absolute’. This is what some in the West today call ’shock and awe’.
For Clausewitz the military was a simple machine for delivering victory. Yet 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 friction. This could be a misfiring weapon, troops taking a wrong turn, or unseasonal weather bogging down a cavalry charge in mud. It was friction that made war a non-linear phenomenon, one that defied analysis, plans and predictions made ahead of time.
War’s complexity and unpredictability means “no other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance”. Yet chance — despite being one of the three pillars of his 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 that 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, meaning “guesswork and luck come to play a great part”. His response to this uncertainty was to call for a new type of leader, with “a sensitive and discriminating judgment … a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth”. In short, a military genius.
Genius was “a much used and abused term” of Clausewitz’s time so he “tried to strip [it] of the myths that had accumulated around it”. He was influenced by the new ideas of the time from the British philosophers Berkeley and Hume who argued that man, far from being a passive accumulator of knowledge, was a dynamic creator that could mould a better world. Clausewitz therefore rejected the common concept of genius as a ‘God-given gift’. Instead he described it as a “very highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation” and in the military domain this meant two key aptitudes: intuition and determination.
Clausewitz believed that what distinguished a military genius from a ordinary commander on the battlefield was intuition — what the French called coup d’oeil — the ability to take in everything in an instant. As friction derails his “well-oiled” military machine and “begins to resist” his guidance the lesser commander starts to question himself, which increases uncertainty in those around him, creating anxiety and leading to a loss of morale. But the genius, faced by the same undoing of his plans due to friction, uses intuition to peer through this ‘fog of war’ that’s risen up and immediately sees 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 who have “entrusted him with their thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears” and inspires them into action. With intuition and determination the military genius shapes events with his will-power.
Perhaps ironically considering he fought against him at Borodino Clausewitz’s work would help ennoble Napoleon as the personification of this new type of strategic genius in the West. Victory would now come from developing a formidable military machine led by a genius with the intuition to identify the ‘decisive point’ and 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”.
Clausewitz’s work become the foremost authority in the German army later that century. Victories in the pivotal wars of German unification (1866 and 1870) appeared to prove the value of the Prussian’s insights and forced the rest of Europe to come to terms with his theories. The age of the modern military machine has been born and the belief that “strong discipline, good weapons, appropriate elementary tactics, good march dispositions, railways, practical supply arrangements and communications [would] determine everything in war”. Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff and a disciple of Clausewitz, would also echo his mentor’s thoughts on friction, famously stating that: “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces”. Therefore, the magic ingredient required was genius — someone with the ability to see through the uncertainty and impose one’s will, absolutely, on another.
Yet the proliferation of military machines alongside a new breed of military leaders who, determined to impose their will on others, cultivated a stoicism to endure any losses in their pursuit of the total destruction brought western nations to their knees in the early 20th century. The murderous and senseless brutality of World War I would force many later military leaders to re-evaluate and even vilify Clausewitz. But, by this time, Clausewitz’s ideas had already spread further than the battlefield. They have become part of the modern western approach to strategy and, we will argue, are a cause of much self-harm and even destruction of value in many western organisations today.