16 February 2017

Deconstructing Society: Clausewitz vs. Machiavelli

by D. Stiegman

In their attempt to understand conflict, soldiers and law enforcement typically grasp the minimalist understanding of “Bad Guys do Bad Things.” As many warfighters have learned over the last couple decades, the old “line-on-line warfare” of the past hasn’t exactly evolved into something completely new; it’s the greater quantity of the “small action” conflict we should burden our minds with. There have been many conversations about insurgencies and the way that asymmetrical and hybrid warfare have a role in it; but where the construct of these types of conflict stemmed from is a much older problem set: Understanding society and how it relates to war and instability.

Author Note: I wrote this article 4 years ago, but I didn’t want to be misunderstood in my intent. This is for those in the profession of security, to learn more about the socio-political aspect of conflict; not for divisive political types. Please do not believe this is siding with the current situation in American politics, although … observation is encouraged.

The transformation of a society is reliant on many factors, but the greatest contributor comes from some form of distrust with the current system; either within or from an outside actor. This change can have good or bad intentions, but the method in which it comes tells a lot about the stability of the society in which it occurs.

At our most basic understanding of conflict, an unstable society is a precondition. Seeing the conditions that breed an unstable society is best observed through the concepts of Carl von Clausewitz and Niccol├▓ Machiavelli. One a Prussian general and influential military theorist, and the other an official from the Florentine Republic Their theories explain how society and governance is structured and the evolution of both throughout conflict.

First, let’s look at the Clausewitzian Trinity, otherwise known as the “Remarkable Trinity”. This representation (Figure 1) shows what a normal society looks like within most modern forms of self-governance. This concept is best fits to the Republic form of Government. [1]



Figure 1

In this concept, People control the Government; Government controls the Security; Security controls the People. If one of these entities gets out of control, the other two direct more focus back towards the unstable or corrupt entity, in an attempt to bring it back in line with its proper function within the society (Figure 2). There are many different controls that a society uses to maintain this Trinity (laws, constitutions, etc.), but just understanding the concept can significantly help identify the “Why” in many conflicts, big or small.


Figure 2

In conflict, certain objectives are met when it comes to dealing with the Trinity of an opposition. Those objectives are dependent on the type of warfare being conducted, but typically fall into the primary purposes listed in Figure 3 below.


Figure 3

The level of governance, either regional or local, can still be relevant in how the Trinity works. If you place “village elder” in place of the “Government” or “Chief of Police” in place of the “Security” it still works as it applies to those sections of society’s functions. It also works in the manner of outside influences affecting the Trinity. Two opposing forces form their efforts against each other and begin to direct a plan of contention (Figure 4). [2]


Figure 4


Figure 5

The point of war is to either take away or destroy one or all of the parts of the Trinity, in hopes of one’s forces gaining that entity. The way in which an opposition obtains control over that entity is by selecting the most vulnerable of the three and imposing four major components against it: Fear, Creating Chaos, Propaganda and Operational Reach (Figure 5). After the entity has fallen under the support or rule of the opposing force, it is difficult to bring that entity back to its proper setting (Figure 6).


Figure 6

This game is a constant struggle that many see in conflict today. This type of restructuring through conflict has happened over and over again throughout time and will remain a standard for the foreseeable future. It is in the best interest of members of a nation’s security, (even down to tactical levels) to know how this chess game works, if they wish to be proactive and logical.

In the course of history, many kingdoms and great societies have fell victim to their own perceived greatness. Many rulers have sought more land, larger armies, more resources, grander statues, and greater riches. What they lose in these pursuits are the sole ideals that brought their countries their greatness. Machiavelli was what many societies call of the class of “Intellectuals”; the people who don’t necessarily hold an office, but holds more influence over the policies and direction of a country than some rulers. 

In the second concept, Machiavelli laid out the evolution of governance in his book Discourses. There are always exceptions to the rule; that being said, this theory follows the normal path of human behavior in civilized societies (Figure 7) and gives a basic outline of how many nation/ states have come and gone. There are three stages within each form of rule: The “Functional State”, the “Point of Destabilization”, and the “Point of Transformation”. These stages are a form of cause and effect.

Each form of governance changes into the next, typically in sequential order, from Autocratic, Republic, Democracy, Anarchy and eventually back to Autocratic. The listed elements of each stage are common place in each form of governance. If one looks at almost every country that has transitioned its form of rule, they will see a form of these elements occurring. The updated model below makes it more realistic. Machiavelli stated there were six forms of government, three good and three bad. The “good” were so close to the “bad” that “each of them is so like the one associated with it that it easily passes from one form to the other.”[3] The “good” forms are Principality, Aristocracy, and Democracy. The “bad” forms are Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Anarchy. The Principality is updated as a Republic, defined as a position or responsibility of a principal of a state, not a princedom or a monarch. The form of democracy doesn’t show a poor example, not in its intent, but in its exploitation.


Figure 7

The base of a leader’s knowledge is essential to their success in their mission: keeping bad guys dead and keeping the good guys alive. The origins of why people choose certain behavior or make specific decisions, is the most important element of that warfighter’s toolbox. These base understandings are not commonplace in the training of most professionals.

If technical reliance continues forsaking common sense and behavioral and operational knowledge, then the quality of mentors of security professionals will be significantly lacking. This kind of pitfall existed when the Intelligence Community tried to pick up the ball on understanding Radical Islam in the early 2000s. The technical reliance created a greater gap in understanding, cohesion and trust between the Advisor and the Warfighter.

The two concepts from Clausewitz and Machiavelli presented are just small examples of social knowledge security professionals should gain. They build a strong cognitive base for the Advisor and saves precious time and energy needed in tactical, operational and strategic missions. Thinking, learning, understanding, and remembering of these skills will build the mentors and leaders needed for a more peaceful existence and resilient defense.

End Notes

[1] Clausewitz, Carl Von, and J. J. Graham. "The Consequences for Theory." On War. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 199. 89. Print.

[2] Clausewitz, Carl Von, and Michael Howard. On War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1976. 136. Print.

[3] Machiavelli, N. The Discourses. London, England: The Penguin Group, 1970. 106. Print

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