The Traditional Understanding of Power and Strategy


To understand how power and strategy work in an age of spectacle, one must first begin with traditional notions of these terms and their interaction. For states in the terrestrial material world, how does one accrue power and how does one apply this power to realize goals and interests? A long history of realist political thought identifies power as material and human resources organized into military capability that can be deployed in a manner to take and hold rival cities and territory. This idea was given its most elaborate modern expression by the Prussian military strategist and soldier Carl Von Clausewitz in his tome On War, where he discusses the use and practice of armed conflict as a means to settle political disputes among states. Beyond the specifics of Clausewitz’s thought, however, is also the contention that though it represents a dominant way of thinking about power and strategy for several centuries, the transformation of world politics into new assemblages of power over the past decades has reduced some its explanatory elegance, perhaps requiring some revisions or the introduction of newer concepts to place alongside it.

Before getting to this last point, let’s go back to Clausewitz’s ideas themselves. The first important distinction to observe about war is that it is a violent and coercive form of power that involves lethal force. As Clausewitz himself states, “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill out will.”[1] States are the actors that are traditionally the belligerents in war at the interstate level in that they bring together the three “trinity” elements of war: violence, chance and politics captured in their corresponding institutions of the people, the army and the government.[2] Stated another way, conflict between two states pits two armies derived from two peoples who act at the command of two governments. Even though Clausewitz does not specifically insist the state is an essential ingredient of war, many who have interpreted him insist that the state is essential to Clausewitz’s notion of war.[3] Clausewitz does talk about “People’s War,” but he more or less discusses it as a variation on the main themes of armed combat in On War.[4] One need not dwell on this point for too long—what is relevant here is the idea that war (and the preparation for war) is an activity that involves coercive violence in pursuit of a particular political goal.

The second category Clausewtiz’s tome provides is in the realm of strategy—namely how does one deploy the power at one’s disposal to realize the combat goal of defeating the enemy and by extension realizing the political goal of attaining a national interest priority? Clausewitz addresses this question deeper in the text:

One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.[5]

The power of the state should thus be directed precisely at the source of the opposition’s power. If this is understood in terms of the battlefield, then the force should be directed at breaking the strongest unit of that opposing army, supply hub, critical infrastructure, command and control capability, and any other assets that are essential for the potential success of the enemy. One should not, in this view, avoid direct confrontation in favor of some sort of “indirect approach” that seeks to weaken or surprise the adversary. Though engaging is this type of direct conflict can be costly in terms of men and material, the advantage is to bring the conflict to as rapid a conclusion as possible. Ultimately, there is greater cost in delaying the inevitable fight in favor of trying to maneuver or finesse a way to victory without having to put in the blood sweat and tears that is almost always necessary.

This very rough discussion of Clausewitz yields two important analytical categories for understanding the larger contest of power and conflict in a society of the spectacle. One is the nature of power—in this case military power that lethal and violent in nature. Though many other forms of power exists (and these other forms, like “soft power,” “smart power,” and “network power,” etc. will be discussed at length in future posts), the kind of coercive power identified here has a certain elemental nature about it that makes it a good starting point for a larger discussion. The second category is that of strategy—the way power is deployed to realize state interests. In this case, the Clausewitzian strategy is to use lethal violent force directed at a specific point of gravity. If sufficient force is deployed at this point to cause imbalance and disjuncture in the adversary, then victory can be achieved and interests can be realized.

For much of (western) history, this has been the default framework for states and empires operating around the world. In the case of great power conflict, states would build up their militaries, position them against one another in theaters of conflict around the world, maneuver around each other in the hopes of protecting or gaining access to key resources, and if necessary, unleashing that power at targets that would push one’s adversary away from the objective. In some cases this was done relatively easily, such as the US attack on the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, and in some cases, the centers of gravity were sufficiently protected and planted that their full destruction never came about, as in the case of World War I, where the two alliances fought to a stalemate—one not completely able to knock the other totally off-balance. In the case of imperial interactions, the attacks were not strictly military in nature, but also included attacks on economic, social and cultural centers of balance. Combat most certainly took place in places like Sudan and Egypt under the flag of Great Britain and Algeria under the flag of France, but the state’s power extended beyond the battlefield to ensure subjected people could not fight back as both an army or as any other collective entity.

Yet is this kind of direct lethal force the only kind of power available to states? Can a state realize its interests in other ways than war? If politics is an ingredient in war, can a state impact these politics in ways other than the massive mobilization of a military? Asked another way, can a state use lethal force without resort to war? The answer, of course, is yes—though this represents a different strategic approach. This space will take up this question in the next post.

     [1] Carl von Clausewitz, One War (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1968), 101

     [2] Ibid., 121-122.

     [3] Anatol Rapoport in Introduction to ibid., 13.

     [4] See Carl von Clausewitz, “People’s War” in Walter Laqueur, The Guerilla Reader: A Historical Anthology (New York: Times Mirror, 1977), 31-36.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 595-596.

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