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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

War as an instrument of state policy

By: Ahmad Syah Ejaz Bin Hj. Ismail


In the context of learning how state system works – one need to emphasize the evolution of European diplomacy especially in determining the framework of International Relations. One of the main contributing factors in expediting the evolutions of International Relations between state actors is war. As such, academician tries to understand whether war was an instrument of state policy or was an effect of an ambitious leader to achieve personal glory/ objective.

Most of the modern war (post-Thirty Years War) was fought based on the interest of a state. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), started as a religious war but gradually developed into a general, political war involving many European small states which later moulded the concept of a larger state system which preclude states interest in waging a war. Perhaps the history of modern warfare was started [1]in the seventeenth century France under Cardinal Richelieu that introduced a modern approach to international relations, based on the nation-state and motivated by national interest as its ultimate purpose. Later this time consuming diplomatic evolution of European states evolved in the eighteenth century where Great Britain elaborated the concept of the balance of power that dominated European diplomacy for the next 200 years and later transpired into the concept of world politics post World War II period.

Looking back at the history of the reasoning of war, in the nineteenth century, Metternich’s Austria reconstructed the Concert of Europe and Bismarck’s Germany dismantled it, reshaping European diplomacy into a cold-blooded of power politics through numerous of war which drag the whole world into the European conflict.[2]

War as an instrument of policy

Perhaps the first scholars who introduce the concept of war as an instrument of state policy were Carl von Clausewitz. He emphasized the link between the political context and the resulting aims of the belligerents and war through his renowned works in On War. According to his works:

The executive had become completely unified and represented the state in its foreign relations. Political and military institutions had developed into an effective instrument, with which an independent will at the centre could now wage war in a form that matched its theoretical concept.[3]

          Moreover, the management of modern military bodies and war efforts such as standing armies must be sponsored by the government treasury which also must have a clear reason mostly state interest of utilizing government monies. 

Armies were paid for from the treasury, which rulers treated almost as their privy purse or at least as the property of the government, not of the people. Apart from a few commercial matters, relations with other states did not concern the people but only the treasury or the government.[4] 

            As such, the individual interest in waging a proper war were constricted and all together demolished with the introduction of the modern concept of state interest. Clausewitz further elaborates the objectives of future war post Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in his books: 

The only influence the people continued to exert on war was an indirect one – through its general’s virtues or shortcomings. War thus became the concern of the government to the extent that governments parted company with their peoples and behaved as if they were themselves the state.[5] 

            This view of war as an instrument of state policy wasn’t came from Clausewitz only. It developed among the European scholars such as Clausewitz’s classmate in the Academy and later fellow-teacher at the War School in Berlin, Johann Jakob Otto August Ruhle von Lilienstern (1780-1847). Ruhle was the first to spell out this link between politics and war in his revision of Scharnhorst’s Field Manual published in 1817/18 (which otherwise followed Scharnhorst’s structure in the classical Vegetian tradition described above). Ruhle wrote: 

There is a Why? And a What For?, a purpose and a cause, at the bottom of every war and every [military] operation. These will determine the character and the direction of all activity. The individual operations have military purposes; the war as a whole always has a final political purpose, that means that war is undertaken and conducted in order to realise the political purpose upon which the State’s [leading] powers have decided in View of the nation’s internal and external conditions.[6] 

Clausewitz’s theory however derives not from his identification of war as a political instrument, but rather from his insistence that politics permeates all levels of military action. In itself the notion that war is a function of politics was already commonplace, as symbolized by the practice, popularized by Cardinal Richelieu (1585 – 1642), of casting the words Ultima Ratio – ‘the final argument’ – into the barrels of cannon. This view which stipulated that war as the final argument of kings has predominated throughout the modern era.[7] 

To Richelieu, the statesman and the concept of adhering to certain despotic leader to venture into military agenda are irrelevant. “Man is immortal; his salvation is now or never.” In other words, states do not receive credit in any world for doing what is right; they are only rewarded for being strong enough to do what is necessary.[8] Thus the end say of venturing into a large military scale expedition based on the orders of the Kings were extraneous in the context of state systems and its interest. 

The concept of war as an instrument of policy which were introduced by Clausewitz were also influenced by Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ in German translation, where war is one of many tools the prince uses for his political ends, and the work of an outstanding French author on war, who like Clausewitz had broken the mould of the Vegetian tradition of writing on the subject. 

This was Count Jacques Antoine Hippolyte de Guibert (1743-90), whose work the intellectually more pedestrian Scharnhorst used in his lectures (if only to illustrate a point about his beloved artillery).[9] In a gripping passage in the brilliant work of his youth, the General Essay on tactics, sarcastically he noted that the effect was that Europe seemed ‘civilized’. 

All the States of Europe govern themselves, more or less, according to the same laws and according to the same principles. As a result, necessarily, the nations take less interest in wars. The quarrel, whatever it is, isn’t theirs. They regard it simply as that of the government. Therefore, the support for this quarrel is left to mercenaries, and the military is regarded as a cumbersome group of people and cannot count itself among the other groups within society.[10] 

In book 8, Clausewitz noted that every age, every culture had had its own style of waging war, and that war aims differed accordingly. But having spelled out the nexus between state politics and war, Clausewitz alerted generations of scholars and analysts to this crucial interface, laying the foundation, one might say, for future strategic or security policy studies.[11] 

The most basic, and the starting point of Clausewitz’s analysis, is violence: war is a violent clash of wills, whose defining features arise from the mutual antagonism of the opponents. While all wars were a clash of wills, the issues at stake might not always justify the maximum use of force. War, it seemed, had a ‘dual’ nature’: most were fought for limited purposes, and employed limited means. A few were fought to overthrow the enemy completely, in which case violence might approach the highest level that the resources of the belligerents would allow. Either way, however, there was no doubt of war’s subordinate status: it was ‘simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means’.[12] 

The statement was supported by the evolution of European diplomacy which had been forged by wars from time to time. Europe was thrown into balance of power politics when its first choice, the medieval dream of universal empire, collapsed and a host of states of more or less equal strength arose from the ashes of that ancient aspiration. When a group of states so constituted are obliged to deal with one another, there are only two possible outcomes: either one state becomes so strong that it dominates all the others and creates an empire, or no state is ever quite powerful enough to achieve that goal. [13] 

With the concept of unity collapsing, the emerging states of Europe needed some principle to justify their heresy and to regulate their relations. They found it in the concepts of raison d’etat and the balance of power. Each depended on the other. Raison d’etat asserted that the well being of the state justified whatever means was employed to further it; the national interest supplanted the medieval notion of a universal morality. The balance of power replaced the nostalgia for universal monarchy with the consolation that each state, in pursuing its own selfish interest, would somehow contribute to the safety and progress of all the others.[14] 

Following the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, ending the Thirty Years’ War, the doctrine of raison d’etat grew into the guiding principle of European diplomacy. The initial phase of Thirty Years’ War can be viewed as a Habsburg attempt to act as the dynastic unifiers of Germany and in the late nineteenth century when Bismarck unified Germany, it was turned into the battleground of most European wars, many of which were initiated by France. When Germany did finally unify, it had so little experience with defining its national interest that it produced many of this century worst tragedies.[15] 

In the world inaugurated by Richelieu, states were no longer restrained by the pretence of moral code. If the good of the state was the highest value, the duty of the ruler was the aggrandizement and promotion of his glory. The stronger would seek to dominate, and the weaker would resist by forming coalitions to augment their individual strength.[16] Thus to achieve the coveted objective for the sake of state interest, war must be waged upon. 


Perhaps the best explanation of war as an instrument of state policy was best described by Guibert in his work – essay general de tactique

Ones goes to war with armies which one can neither [afford to] recruit, nor pay. Victor or vanquished, both are almost equally exhausted [at the end of a war]. The mass of the national debt increases. Credit decreases. Money is lacking. The fleets do not find sailors, armies’ lack soldiers. The ministers, on one side and on the other, feel that it is time to negotiate. Peace is concluded.[17] 

It is not the integrated command which permeates from an individual or a commander that generates unity which might leads to war, but a sense of shared political and security interest. If the coalition or an alliance of states was powerful enough to check the aggressor even a balance of power emerged; if not, some country would achieve hegemony through war either way. 


1.      John Baylis, et all. Strategy in the Contemporary World – an Introduction to Strategic Studies, Oxford University Press, 2005;

2.      Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1994; and

3.      Car von Clausewitz, On War, Oxford University Press, 2007.

[1] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1994, page 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Car von Clausewitz, On War, Oxford University Press, 2007, page 234.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 235

[6] Beatrice Heuser, On War – Abridged Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007, page xv.

[7] John Baylis et all. Strategy in the Contemporary World – An Introduction to Strategic Studies, Oxford University Press, 2005, page 18.

[8] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1994, page, 61

[9] Beatrice Heuser, On War – Abridged Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007, page xvi.

[10] Ibid. xvii

[11] Ibid. xix

[12] John Baylis, et all. Strategy in the Contemporary World – an Introduction to Strategic Studies, Oxford University Press, 2005, page 28.

[13] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1994, page 20.

[14] Ibid. 58

[15] Ibid. 65 - 66

[16] Ibid. 67

[17] Beatrice Heuser, On War – Abridged Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007, page xvii.


hassan amir said...

i have to differ with your suggestion that state-oriented warfare started in Europe, and especially after the 15th century.
the westphalian state system was established in Europe, but even before that all the precursos of the modern states were in place.
the romans developed the concept of the 'city' state, the Greeks had their fortified townships, the Tartars had their tribal lands and their codified customs, and the Moslems had the Caliphate. Persia, Byzantium, Egypt, China, Indian dynasitic kingdoms such as the Cholas, Moghals and the Mauryans all established territorial boundaries, execised diplomacy and used war to suppress dissension, acquire teritory and maintain territorial integrity. your hypothesis seems like an oversimplification and an attempt to gloss over the fact that both statecreaft and warfare are ancient arts which the Europeans inherited and which they tried to fit in to the moral and religious fabric of a society which was just coming out of the dark ages.

warfare as an instrument of policy is perhaps best explained by Sun Tzu who says that the best General is he who prevents his army from having to fight a war, and who wins a victory not through fighting. no sooner is war joined that the reasons for going to war are forgotten, and the inertia of war takes over the state leadership. winning the war becomes the number one priority, and the political objectives are sidelines. this is true even today, as proved by the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. war is like the ancient 'hydra'...cut off one head...three more sprout open...it was this cultural abberration that Clausewitz tried to fit into the highly militarized and chauvinistic mindset of the European noble, with disastrous results.

Tun Teddy said...


this topic is a very hard nut to crack. You have to determine in which period you would like to distinguish that can later transpired into the conclusion u made.

before westphalian system, basicly there is no state. the roman who adopted democracy adhere their power to an autocratic leader on the pretext that authoritarian rule expedite military process and cut off beaureucracy later which can turn into a victory to defend their city state from invaders. what happened next, that leader shunned from giving back power to the senate and rule rome in an autocratic manner for a hundred years.

I think, after westhaphalian, mankind begin to realize that going to war on the pretext of leader personal glory is useless. mankind need to find better excuses to get killed and kill another human being. thus state interest came into being (please do note not even religious belief can be an excuse for european ppl to kill another european after westhaphalian).

and later this evolution of war to a modern warfare came into being. war was not fought between farmers anymore, but mercenaries or army that get paid.

hassan amir said...

i agree with you when you say that the state-warfare-policy nexus is a very complex issue. it is also open to personal introspection and interpolations.

mercenary armies were used by the Persians, (who used Greek hoplites), the Moslems (who instituted the Mameluke regiments) and verious others, long before the Peace of Westphalia. infact, one of the corner stones of the modern state, which is the creation of indigenous forces for the protection of the state interest was a direct result of the Westphalian treaty, when hiring mercenaries fell out of vogue in Europe and levee' en masse' (general conscription) was introduced.
they were still farmers, blacksmiths, clerks, and other mundane laborers, but they recieved training, arms and pay from the state for the duration they were in service. the old Greek tradition of the soldier having to pay for his shield, greaves and helmet was abolished. state provided the means for warfare, it also provide the ideological basis and the moral conviction about the rightesouness of the war being waged.

another important development in progression of the state-oriented warfare was the 'just cause' concept or the casus belli...which spelt out instances when the state was allowed to wage war.

it is a misconception that with the establishment of Westphalia the glory of the ruler, the monarch or the sultan, or the elected president faded away. even after the Treaty of Westphalia, Europe was divided along familial and tribal lines, with powerful dynasties such as the Hapsburgs who waged war, both for their personal glorification and the extension of their empires. the most apt example is the wave of colonization that sprang out from Europe.

Anonymous said...

ευχαριστώ φίλε! μεγάλη θέση!

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