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Knowledge Base

Why Nations Go To War

What does "War is politics by other means?" actually mean? And who was Clausewitz?

Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and writer famous in part for his works "On War." One of his central insights is the phrase "War is politics by other means." It gets at the motivating factor behind why nations go to war.

The general idea is that political leaders have goals that they hope to attain, but they often conflict with other parties. Working through the political process is one way to solve disagreements; going to war is another. The best case scenario is to receive something for free, but that rarely if ever happens. The next best scenario is to use the political system to win and get what you desire. No lives are risked and the cost of resources is typically low. The worst case scenario is having to risk lives, resources, and political power through the use of force in order to get what you want.

What are examples of countries miscalculating when deciding to go to war?

Victor Hanson has much more in The Father of Us All (p. 18), but a relevant excerpt is here:

"Margaret Atwood was empirical when she wrote in her poem, “Wars happen because the ones who start them / think they can win.”

Hitler did. So did Mussolini and Tojo – and their assumptions were mostly logical, given the relative disarmament of the Western democracies at the time. In the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein believed, after speaking with an American diplomat, that the territorial integrity of Kuwait was not a concern of the Western governments, at least not to such a degree that would prompt a military response from them."

What are ways to prevent miscalculations on the use of force?

Victor Hanson reminds us that there is wisdom in the advice that generals and other leaders need to fight wars with political objectives in mind. Hanson also warns individuals of falling victim to “presentism,” the notion that the circumstances of this war are mostly unique. In every conflict, there exist intelligence failures, strategic and tactical lapses, periods of technological disadvantages, and poor leadership. Few who envision how conflicts will go estimate that they’ll do things many things incorrectly. Reminders that events will not unfold as planned can prepare individuals to accept and deal with failures, and perhaps prevent conflicts from appearing worthwhile in the future.

To learn more, read Kori Schake here or pick up a copy of Victor Davis Hanson’s book, The Father of Us All.