A War By Other Means?

November 18, 2019
A War By Other Means?
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
A War By Other Means?
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
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“How, when, and why was it noticed or imagined that what is going on beneath and in power relations is a war? When, how and why did someone come up with the idea that it is a sort of uninterrupted battle that shapes peace, and that the civil order...is basically an order of battle?...Who saw war just beneath the surface of peace; who sought in the noise and confusion of war, in the mud of battles, the principle that allows us to understand order, the State, its institutions, and its history?”
—Michel Foucault[1]

What if, just for the sake of argument, we were to reverse Clausewitz’s famous maxim? What if, say, we considered that war is not the continuation of politics by other means, but instead that politics is really the continuation of war? What would this say about war? Or politics? One of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, Michel Foucault, speculated in just this way, simultaneously turning Clausewitz on his head and questioning the very nature of the relationship between war and peace. What does it mean, then, for war to be the default strategy?

Among military thinkers across the globe, Clausewitz’s observation has become an incontestable maxim, but it’s important to remember this thinking developed out of his own particular historical context. The Prussian general understood that conflict would be decided by a decisive battle, a contest of wills would result in a vanquished and a victor, and there would be peace, at least for a time. Inherent in this thinking was the assumption that the state enjoyed peace except when it was interrupted by conflict. Of course, notions of peace and war have historical antecedents long before Clausewitz. They became more institutionalised—and more binary—following the Peace of Westphalia and the rise of nation states. The end of the Thirty Years’ War did not necessarily bring peace to Europe, but the backing of professional standing armies funded through taxation and the mechanisms of sovereignty that arose out of this period helped make protocols for states’ behaviour towards one another more concrete. This was particularly true for declarations, formal treaties, and the rules of war. In so doing, the Treaty made states the arbiters of peace and war.

Foucault had a penchant for the disruptive, and his observation that politics is simply war by another means was a provocation. His early philosophy was concerned with power relationships within societies and between states and individuals. But in his 1976 lectures called “Society Must Be Defended” at the Collège de France, Foucault focused some of his ideas about history, power, and knowledge, which he had published the year before in Discipline and Punish, towards conflict and strategy. For Foucault, power is not a linear force but a relationship, a discursive practice with multiple functions. Power is exercised through a range of discourses—think of utterances, media, policies, behaviours, architecture, a multitude of signs and symbols, even thoughts—through which power might be inscribed. Discourses operate socially, juridically, linguistically, institutionally, governmentally, and, above all, economically; knowledge of such discourses is a practice of that power, as power is a practice of the knowledge.

However, techniques of power may also be subverted, resisted, and delegitimised. At the risk of simplifying what Foucault goes to great lengths to problematise, power is experienced as a complex interplay of relationships that are never unitary, always diffuse and open to resistance, and circulate within and through society. And, importantly for this discussion, power operates through the discursive practices of politics and war. It is with this understanding of power that Foucault proclaims “we can invert Clausewitz’s proposition and say that politics is the continuation of war by other means...the role of political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe its institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals. This is the initial meaning of our inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism—politics is the continuation of war by other means.”[2]

Foucault’s understanding of power informs a conception of strategy as fluid interactions between interdependent entities—states, classes, commercial interests, social forces, etc. Theorist Julian Reid suggests, “Foucault can be read as using the term strategy to describe the processes by which discourses are assembled, exercised, rendered functional as well as institutionalised into coherent bodies of power/knowledge.”[3] In understanding strategy, Foucault argues “the force relationships which for a long time had found expression in war, in every form of warfare, gradually became invested in the order of power.”[4] Strategy, in a Foucauldian sense, describes the exercise of power through the assembly of discourses, including but not wholly, peace and war.

Foucault’s understanding of power informs a conception of strategy as fluid interactions between interdependent entities—states, classes, commercial interests, social forces, etc.

What, then, are the implications of Foucault’s discourse of politics as war? First, one of the ways in which states exercise power is to legitimise behaviours, including war. International conventions, the notion of recognised belligerents, the treatment of prisoners, and the separation of legitimate targets from civilians are all bound up in assumptions, conventions, and understandings of war and, therefore, peace. However, such assumptions, conventions, and understandings were created over time, evolving out of, according to Foucault, a shift in the power structures of nation states following the Middle Ages. While all conflicts—indeed, all human interaction—always involve conventions, they only work if everyone follows them. At its premise, the notion that war is politics by other means requires an implicit agreement that we will all play along according to the rules and assumptions inherent in our notions of war and peace.

Making politics a function of war blurs the boundaries and codes under which war conventionally takes place. That word, convention, is key. It points precisely to the implicit agreement that, in the process of killing, violent conflict, destruction of property, and the defeat or annihilation of states, the very grimmest of activities, we still abide by a set of rules. But such codes are largely arbitrary, manners for the most ill-mannered of behaviours. When Hitler began Operation Barbarossa, for example, he famously flouted the rules, as have others in innumerable conflicts since. Sometimes, the pretext for following the rules is dubious, such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Nowadays, wars are rarely declared, but other conventions remain: a clear delineation between the military and the political, or at least the appearance of one, is maintained, and war and peace remain bifurcated.

Terrorism, of course, doesn’t play by the rules. For nonstate actors, for whom politics is the continuation of war by another means, these rules, conventions, and assumptions are simply used in their favour. The line between combatant and non-combatant is deliberately blurred, conventional operations defer to ambush and concealment, and targets are chosen on the basis of propaganda effect. Eminent military historian, Michael Howard, reflecting on Colin Powell’s declaration that the attack on the World Trade Centers put the United States “at war,” described this as “very natural but a terrible and irrevocable error.” According to Howard, this gave terrorists “the status and dignity that they seek and which they do not deserve. It confers on them a kind of legitimacy.”[5]

Aerial photo of the attacks on 9/11 (Flickr)

Michael Howard’s delineation, here, exemplifies Foucault’s analysis of the discursive techniques of power. Howard demands, as we have come to accept, that war is the prerogative of the state—a state bound by conventions—and those conventions are the discourse through which the state claims legitimacy for its actions; Al Qaeda’s actions don’t deserve to be called war. But this rigidity creates a binary which fails to account for the discursive strategies of power. Power is always a relationship allowing for subversion and resistance. The ostracisation and delegitimisation of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda prior to 9/11 were exactly what allowed it to literally fly beneath the radar. The very assumptions states make in their understanding of the relationship between politics and war were precisely the avenue exploited by Al Qaeda with such a devastating exercise of power against the most powerful state in the world.

Second, Foucault’s reversal gives primacy to a state of war. This turns on its head our accepted assumption that peace is the status quo and war a means to return to that status quo. Foucault’s speculation, however, is not meant to suggest the ongoing use of the military in a conventional conflict ad infinitum. Rather, it is to see the military and conventional conflict as simply one of the ways in which the state enacts power for its interests. That is, Foucault is alert to the discursive strategies of a professional, institutionalised military force at the behest of the state, and also alert to what we might nowadays refer to as political warfare or the grey zone.

Understanding war as a complex system is not new. Propaganda, consciousness-raising, psychological operations, economic leverage, espionage, surveillance, assassination, sabotage, threats, and much more, can all be found in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. Students of guerrilla warfare recognise Mao’s three phases of war, which combined consciousness-raising with civil and military techniques for undermining the state, followed by consolidating power and minimising casualties, before escalating into conventional war. In the Vietnam War, the strategy of dau tranh also blurred lines between civilian and military personnel, war and peace, and insurgency and conventional war. Clearly, dau tranh’s exploitation of many of the assumptions of western understandings of war and politics was significant in the defeat of the United States. George Kennan, a master of political warfare, appreciated the importance of the Soviet Union’s perception of being engaged in a perpetual war, and developed counter-strategies for the United States during the Cold War. In practice, each of these examples exercised power in ways reflecting the primacy of war in all its guises. Each embraced non-binary understandings of war and politics, conflict and peace, and external and domestic interests.

This brings us to the third implication of Foucault’s reversal, and perhaps its most troubling: the role of military, paramilitary, and state apparatuses in controlling the domestic population. Foucault argues the evolution of states enabled them to banish war to outside the state. The state’s normal condition is to be at peace; the state sets the parameters of peace within its borders, and any notion of civil unrest is always particularly fraught for states because it entails the potential for the military to exercise its force within the territory the state’s power should control. The benevolence of the state towards its people is paid for by the acquiescence of the people to the state. That is the fundamental contract between the citizen and the state, and the foundation of Western civilian-military affairs is based upon an understanding that the military is exclusively for external matters. Foucault has one eye on the past—in particular the French Revolution—but his blurring is significant because it alerts us to the discursive power inherent in expressions like (counter)insurgency, terrorism, asymmetric warfare, and nonstate actors. The distinction between war and civil war is used to delegitimise nonstate actors—their political and military objectives, their ethics, their rights as combatants (e.g., the Mujahedeen, the Vietcong, the Taliban, the PKK, the IRA, to mention only a few). Such antagonists are frequently involved in struggles that are part civil war, part interstate conflict.

Carl von Clausewitz and Michel Foucault (Wikimedia)

To be clear, Foucault is not arguing for or against the rights of particular states or nonstate actors. What he is showing in his reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum is that our discourses around peace, war, sovereignty, and rights frame our assumptions and behaviours when it comes to conflict. These discourses operate both domestically and internationally, legitimising or delegitimising certain practices. Immigration controls, which keep the enemy out, have been used extensively to frame the exercise of states to differentiate between us and them. The so-called war on terror has become a vehicle for exceptional laws allowing surveillance and detention. Offshore, the use of rendition and indefinite detention is rationalised by the binary between an enemy (and a war) out there and a domestic population (and peace) at home. Perhaps most significantly, the mantra of a rules-based global order establishes a discourse as if that discourse is free of ideology and creates the image of an internationally value-free playing field. Ironically, they are often the very practices which show the limits to such discourses. The justifications for exceptional measures following 9/11 simultaneously enact political warfare while pretending such exceptionalism sits within the bounds of the rules-based global order—that is, the exercise of politics as war.

Where this becomes important for strategy is when we appreciate that strategy is largely about the exercise of power. Whether we practise the knowledge of strategy—that is, our discursive practice of strategy—purely as the conduct of military ways, or we accept Lawrence Freedman’s view of strategy as the art of creating power, strategy must consider the complexities and contexts through which power and knowledge intersect. Above all, Foucault interrogates the idea that knowledge can be transparent and ideologically free.

One of Foucault’s constant refrains throughout his writing is to qualify what he is saying to avoid the kind of universal maxim to which Clausewitz’s observation has been reduced. Such essentialist certainties are seductive, but they are used in ways that simplify problems, eliding the complex interplay of relations and contexts. In doing so, we fail to see our own assumptions, we set easy limits to our thinking, and we fall into the same errors of judgement we made before. Clausewitz’s thinking is far more nuanced than a discussion of one aphorism allows; so is Foucault’s. The prevailing discourses around peace and war limit our conceptions of strategy, primarily to what seems to me to be a naïve understanding of power.

The ontological status of Clausewitz’s statement in regard to war and politics is undermined by Foucault’s reversal. I am not suggesting that we need to vote either for Clausewitz’s formulation or for Foucault’s. Rather, I’m suggesting that Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s dictum opens a space within which we can rethink the discourses around war and peace which prevail in our society.

Jack Bowers is Director of Studies for the Military and Defence Studies Program at the Australian War College in Canberra. He is also senior lecturer in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, translated by David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 47.

[2] Ibid., 15-16.

[3] Julian Reid, “Foucault on Clausewitz: Conceptualizing the Relationship Between War and Power,” Alternatives 28 (2003), 4.

[4] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1990), 98, quoted in Julian Reid, op cit., 4.

[5] Michael Howard, Mistake to Declare this a “War” (speech delivered to the Royal United Services Institute 31 October 2001), quoted by Andrew Neal, “Goodbye War on Terror? Foucault and Butler on Discourses of Law, War and Exceptionalism,” in Foucault on Politics, Security and War, edited by Michael Dillon and Andrew Neal (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 62.

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