Rethinking Political Supremacy in War: A Review Essay of Clausewitz and Huntington

Below is an old paper I wrote as a master’s student four years ago on Clausewitz, Huntington, and political supremacy in war. It was fortunately published a year later in Pointer: Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2009).

Here’s a snippet:

Clausewitz does not say much about civil- military relations in On War. Where he does address the subject, [he] is not talking about not politicians or civilians, per se.

Antulio J. Echevarria

Clausewitz did write a lot about civil- military relations. Even in On War.

Peter Paret

In the realm of modern civil- military relations literature, Samuel P. Huntington, who recently passed away on Christmas Eve 2008, and his book, The Soldier and The State has been said to be the cornerstone of the subject as he advocated military professionalism and “objective” control by civilians. Huntington however, was influenced by Clausewitz’s work on political supremacy in war as a foundation of his own thesis. He claimed that Clausewitz “contributed the first theoretical justification for civilian control”, hence, giving a special privilege to Clausewitz’s argument that war is the “mere continuation of politik by other means”. This most frequently quoted passage from Clausewitz’ s On War, however, should be understood within the shadow of the Cold War. The uneasiness of a nuclear threat and major conventional wars had induced scholars to stress the role of policy in limiting war. Additionally, the liberal-democratic values of Clausewitz’s interpreters had an effect too, as they saw civilian control as a prerequisite to safeguard individual liberties. These notions however indicate that scholars like Huntington might have fallen into the standard mistake of only quoting those chapters or passages to justify their own choices or preferred policies. Obviously, this is ultimately misleading.

Therefore, this review article is meant to unlock the traditional foundation of civil-military relations, i.e. political supremacy, expressed in Huntington’ s work. This would mainly be done by reviewing the thinking of Clausewitz on political supremacy, whom Huntington drew his philosophical foundation from. This article argues that first, Clausewitz’ s Trinitarian concept of war – hostility, chance, political purpose – does not portray policy as more dominant than the other tendencies; instead, it presents them as equals, stressing only each one’ s uniqueness in relation to the others. Second, Huntington’s misinterpretation of On War might have resulted from his use of a  faulty translation of the book, coupled with his political ideology and inclinations to solve the problems facing the US at that time. This article would proceed, first, by telling the story about the theoretician themselves, and will focus on their careers and personal lives, and how that provided the context which propelled both men to produce their magnum opus. The second part would look at the theories that they articulated throughout their work and show how Huntington misinterpreted Clausewitz, while outlining what the latter actually meant. Finally, we would look at some conclusions drawn from the discussion

The full paper can be downloaded here.


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