Politics and Unintended Consequences

Who knew that the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz came up with a brilliant theory about politics that explains why it is shot through with unintended consequences and unusual twists and turns.

His “fascinating Trinity” offers a unique way to think about political life.

One of my good friends is always cautioning me about my bold statements about politics and what will happen next.  He is a devotee of the notion that life is extremely complex and all actions lead to unintended consequences.  It turns out that Clausewitz, who fought in the Prussian and Russian armies against Napoleon, felt the same way.

After Waterloo, he became the Director of the Prussian equivalent of West Point and wrote On War, one of those complex 19th century books that everyone talks about and nobody reads.  However, he still generates plenty of controversy amongst military theorists – the internet is crowded with debates about his ideas.

Clausewitz describes war as a “fascinating Trinity.”  In all wars, he says, both full tilt combat between major powers and guerrilla wars, there are three dimensions. First is the realm of passion and emotion, anger, loyalty, and violence because war is like a heavyweight wrestling match – direct and brutal.  Another realm is the element of chance, intuition, military genius, willpower, and “friction,” his term which is the genesis of the idea we know as the fog of war.  Finally, there is the realm of rational planning, policy making, and strategic decision making.

The course of every war veers around in a non-linear, chaotic fashion between these three elements. Clausewitz says it is like a metal object hanging on a string that is being attracted simultaneously by three magnets set up in a triangle arrangement.  I saw a demonstration of this situation on a video.  What happens is the metal object careens around wildly, being pulled almost randomly this way and that way between the three magnets.  It is a fascinating multi-dimensional demonstration that smashes the cramped linearity of lines and arrows and circles on a piece of paper.

Thus, war is unpredictable and all planned activities generate unforeseen, unintended consequences. Once a war starts, no one can predict its course.  Therefore, a nation must plan carefully for a war, trying to examine a wide array of possible outcomes to events. It must then be flexible and ready to re-evaluate frequently as the war continues.  He also says that politics is like war, except that there is no (or at least little) violence in the passion-emotion element.  That is why he pens the famous statement: “war is an extension of politics by other means.”

I hope to use this multi-dimensional trinity imagery to think more deeply about politics in the future.  For now, I will use Mr. Clausewitz in some future posts about Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe he can help us understand the disasters that occurred in those countries.

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