Chapter 9. The Western Approach to Strategy
The long arc of Western supremacy made the Western model the one that nations striving to modernise would emulate. Yet a series of crises in this young 21st century have, understandably, led many to question the pre-eminence of all things Western. The poor outcomes in many Western nations during the CoVid pandemic were in stark contrast to how they thought they’d perform in such a situation (see fig. 15 & 16). This under-performance came on the back of a long decade of austerity that was a response to 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 being asked around the world is whether the Western approach to dealing with complex situations is the best we have.
Fig. 15: In 2019 Western nations considered themselves the best prepared for a pandemic
Fig. 16: Just over a year into the pandemic western nations had amongst the worst outcomes
Western nations reached undeniable supremacy when their economic power eclipsed that of Eastern nations in the mid 19th century (see fig. 17). The ‘big bang’ innovation that propelled this ascendancy was Arkwright’s mill in England (1771), which triggered the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Western competitive advantage was further advanced by successive technological revolutions: The ‘Rocket’ steam engine in England (1829), which ushered 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 unmatched technological superiority enabled it to colonise every inhabitable continent on Earth and led to the rise of the economic and military colossus of the USA, which bestrides the world today. Yet the roots of Western dominance can be found in their response to the events of the early 19th century that shocked all of Europe.
Fig. 17: 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 the orthodox thinking was that war was a chaotic but natural force that, ultimately, could be controlled. It was believed that, 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, it was thought, be calculated away, making it a civilised alternative for resolving disputes when diplomacy broke down. But with the rise of Napoleon and the extreme violence unleashed by his wars this hope of an orderly and gentlemanly pursuit of war was destroyed.
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 of all the Napoleonic wars — a day of such carnage and confusion that it defied mathematical calculation. Clausewitz dedicated his life to trying to explain the complexities of this new type of warfare. One of his major contributions to a new theoretical understanding of war was his “fascinating Trinity” (wunderliche dreifaltigkeit) describing the three interacting forces which were 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. 18: Clausewitz’s ‘Fascinating 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 lean more towards the passions of its people, clamouring for a particular course of action; while another belligerent’s ‘centre of gravity’ may lean towards the rational policies of its government. The ‘centre of gravity’ is a belligerent’s source of strength — but it 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”.
Clausewitz argued that the best way to ‘render an enemy powerless’ was to destroy his fighting force: “The ideal strategy, he indicated, was to identify the enemy’s centre of gravity and then to direct all one’s energies against it; and if the centre of gravity proved to be the opposing army, so much the better”. Domination of this kind would require a mighty military machine with the latest weapons technology, sound tactics, troops with iron discipline, impeccably managed logistics and effective channels of communication to command and control activities. While Clausewitz argued the military machine should be subordinate to the government — so aims could be pursued with rational policies — he also argued that, once a government decided to unleash their military machine, its might should be mobilised to its fullest extent and deployed with maximum force. For Clausewitz there can be no half measures — war must be ‘absolute’.
Although Clausewitz argued that a military machine was necessary for delivering total victory he also 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 prevent one from achieving one’s aims friction: 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 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 an uncontrollable external force causing a ‘fog of war’ (Nebel des Krieges) to descend on proceedings. “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”. Cutting through 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 the new ideas of the time, predominantly 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’ preferring instead to describe it as a “very highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation”. In the military domain the right aptitude (or natural ability) meant possessing two key capabilities — 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, the lesser commander questions himself — increasing the anxiety of those around him, leading 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 him 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 of the 19th century and their stunning victories in the wars of German unification (1866, 1870) seemed to prove the value of these insights. The rest of Europe therefore was forced to come to terms with Clausewitz’s 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 as friction meant that “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces” victory would ultimately depend on the elusive ingredient of genius.
Ironically perhaps, considering he opposed him on the battlefield, Clausewitz’s work ennobled Napoleon as the personification of the modern strategic genius that Western leaders now sought to emulate. A generation of leaders would emerge who tried to emulate the ‘genius of Napoleon’ — using intuition to identify the enemy’s ‘decisive point’ and backing it up with a determination to show an iron “resolution to concentrate everything available against it, stripping forces from secondary fronts and ignoring lesser objectives [as] this had been the secret of Bonaparte’s success”.
The West’s dominance for centuries has been built on an approach to strategy that owes much to Clausewitz: the accumulation of massive power (mainly through the development of advanced technological capabilities) wielded in pursuit of total victory through dominance and control of the enemy. But it was Clausewitz’s recognition that friction ‘distinguishes real war from war on paper’ that has arguably had the most lasting value. In the absence of any certainty — due to the ‘fog of war’ — troops become “apprehensive if not actually physically frightened” on the battlefield. In such conditions it’s not so much ‘logical calculations’ that matter as it is the “vital but incalculable factor of morale”. The commander therefore must seek victory by maintaining the morale of his own forces long enough that he can identify the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’ and launch a ‘decisive battle’ against it to bring about the total collapse of their morale and resistance. Intuition and determination — the hallmarks of genius — became central to the Western approach to strategy.
1 Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. The dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. Carlota Perez (2002)
2 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p13
3 On War, book 8, chapter 3
4 On War, book 1, chapter 1
5 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p40
6 On War, book 1, chapter 7
7 On War, book 1 chapter 1
8 On War, book 1, chapter 3
9 On War, book 1 chapter 1
10 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p27
11 On War, book 1, chapter 3
12 On War, book 1, chapter 3
13 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p62
14 As Helmuth von Moltke — a disciple of Clausewitz and Chief of the German General Staff — later famously declared
15 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p42
16 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p26
17 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p27