Politics as Continuation of War by Other Means?
This speech was delivered by our Senior Advisor Andrey Kortunov at the session “Foreign Policy in Uncertain Times: Pursuing Development in a Changing World” at the 15th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club
Two hundred years ago, the prominent German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz proposed his famous definition of war as “the continuation of politics by other means.” This definition has not changed in any significant way since, but two world wars have made people think that politics should not actually be continued on the battlefield. Alternative, predominantly diplomatic instruments of politics gradually relegated war to the footnotes of history – or, at the very least, it appeared to many that this was what was happening.
It seems that this situation is beginning to change now. War, with its own internal logic, special mentality, principles and priorities, is beginning to penetrate the fabric of global politics with ever greater intensity. Clausewitz’s formula is beginning to work in reverse, with politics being the continuation of war by other means. This victory of war over politics and diplomacy cannot but cause concern about the direction in which the modern world is going.
On the surface, we can see that the role of the military in formulating and implementing foreign policy is growing throughout the world. Look at the key figures in the Trump administration: never before have there been so many senior military officers in the White House. Even the Brookings Institution, a purely civilian establishment, is headed by a retired general. And which has the more influence over U.S. policy in Syria and Afghanistan, the Department of State or the Pentagon?
Russia is similarly militarizing its foreign policy. I would like to be mistaken, but it appears that when it comes to influence on Russian politics, the balance between military officers and diplomats has been increasingly drifting in favour of the former over the past few years. This does not concern Syria alone, or similar crisis regions, but also many other issues of foreign policy. It is quite possible that one of the causes of the current arms control crisis is this tipping of the historical balance between the military and diplomats.
The fact that the positions of the security agencies are strengthening is not necessarily a cause for concern in and of itself: military commanders, for the most part, are known for their cautious and pragmatic behaviour because they are well aware of the dangers associated with crossing the line that separates peace from war. However, the flip side of this process is exactly what we are observing now: the degradation of the art of diplomacy. There are, of course, professional diplomats both in Russia and abroad who excel at foreign politics. However, classical diplomacy in general is on the wane. It is often the case that the activity of a senior negotiator or envoy, their incessant tweets and posts on social media make one wonder if that person is truly a diplomat and not a blogger, propagandist or TV celebrity.
It is not about a critical shortage of professionalism. Diplomacy has always been a creative art, and creativity requires at least a modicum of autonomy. This equally applies to ambassadors and attaches. If, however, a diplomat’s functions are limited to obeying their seniors’ orders and serving as a mouthpiece for official statements, then there is no room left for creativity. As the saying goes, the only way a typist can demonstrate any creativity is through their typos.
All this, however, is just an outward manifestation of war infringing on the domain of politics. Much more serious is the nascent expansion of a militarized mindset into the civilian aspects of global politics. Let us consider several examples of this process.
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