Deconstructing Society: Clausewitz vs. Machiavelli

Deconstructing Society: Clausewitz vs. Machiavelli

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 Niccolò 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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These are all great additions to the work. Thank you for the feedback and depth all of you have added. If you get to see my work, now and in the future, I like to write for everyone. I attempt to be very pragmatic, in addition to being invested in bottom-up refinement. We grow together through our shared knowledge, but the most important input is from the warfighter, LE officer on ground, and those most directly affected by our decisions. That's why I work towards furthest dissemination and understanding. Your comments/ input are great upgrades to the paper. Again, thank you.

D. Stiegman,

First, I am sincerely happy that you are following the comments on your paper. I used to comment a lot in the past, but stopped after it seemed apparent that the author was not reading the comments. So, because of your response, you are now doomed to suffer my wrath (its not as bad as it sounds.)

Three points, the first technical, the second quasi argumentative, and the third a suggestion.

First, the sequence you refer to is referred to in the "Discourses on Livy," but are generally attributed to Polybius and are known by the anacyclosis (

Now that we have established that I am an asshole, I move on to my second comment. You make some assumptions about what are "good" and "bad" political organizations. I would submit that determining what is good or bad is a matter of first determining what political system you are in. If you are in a Democracy, they Tyranny is bad. If you are in a Monarchy than Democracy is bad. It is all a matter of perspective. I know this sounds anti-democratic, but it is not. Republics and democracies can only exist under the right conditions. That is why the sequence described by Polybius holds true millennium after he identified it.

Finally, a suggestion. Like COL Maxwell, I believe you see the "people" in the Trinity in the correct light. They are no simply docile followers. They are active participants. Sometimes, they are the catalyst for actions the government may not want to take. I remember reading a Congressman's description of the mobs during the run up to the Spanish-American War. Yellow Journalism had whipped the public into a frenzy. The Congressman said that it would have been easier to stand up to a twister than to vote against war. This characterization is true in a democracy or a Republic. It is just as true in a Monarchy or a Theocracy. How do you think the English or the French would respond to an insult to their King or Queen; how do you think a Muslim would respond to an apostate? The passion of the people is, as Clausewitz notes, "primordial." Don't discount it.

I hope my ramblings will be taken for the constructive criticism they are meant to be. Then again, I am the Curmudgeon.

Interesting article, thank you for writing it. It is always useful to seek to apply the classics to our current situation, since circumstances evolve but human nature somewhat less so. The reliance on common sense is always worth reiterating. Yes, culture matters in warfare - as in all human action - a fact whose neglect is as mystifying as it is lethal.

That said, Machiavelli's analysis is actually a bit more sophisticated than the author indicates, his admiration for the Florentine sage notwithstanding. Specifically, the article focuses on the mechanics of war and change as the result of competing forces, and as such offers a behavioral approach to understanding conflict. Without doubt, to the extent that Machiavelli was an astute empiricist, he is commended for having pioneered this sort of analysis long before it became fashionable.

But that isn't where matters end. Good and bad are normative concepts, and Machiavelli, whose reputation for cynicism is undeserved, fully understood that. A careful reading of "The Prince" reveals that at bottom, what matters is not only preserving the integrity of the state (or polis) but freedom and self-rule. That is why Principality, Aristocracy, and Democracy and good, while Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Anarchy are bad: the former are three different types of electoral systems that may advance the constituents' interests voluntarily expressed, while the latter profit either one, many, or no one and are thus the opposite of freedom.

Machiavelli ends that much-misunderstood pamphlet by defining a good prince for Italy as one who is "wise and virtuous [who will] introduce a new order of things which would do honor to him and good to the people of this country." The honor will come from liberating his people from foreign rule, and promoting the good of his people will insure that his rule will be a Principality and will not become Tyrannical.

What Americans have to keep in mind is that cultural differences play a large role in determining the nature of the structure that advances a society's freedom. Imposing, say, Democracy on a people that is more comfortable with Principality or, more commonly Aristocracy, is more likely to lead to Oligarchy or Tyranny, not to mention Anarchy. None of these systems of government is good-in-itself; culture matters.

In truth, of the three bad systems Anarchy is actually the most dangerous, for it allows evil to emerge as people yearn for some stability. And evil, as evidenced by Leninism and jihadism alike, parades in righteous garb.

From the concluding paragraphs of our article above:

"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."

This being the case, then let us look at what appears to be two -- possibly very similar -- examples of "why people choose certain behavior or make specific decisions." First, the case of Afghanistan. And, second, the case of the United States.

Case No. One: Afghanistan:

"If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least King Zahir Shah's (Afghanistan's first "modernizer?") reign, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional." (Item in parenthesis here is mine.) (This is from Michael Hoh's 2009 DOS resignation letter. Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at that time, would state that he agreed with much of Michael Hoh's analysis here.)

Case No. Two: The United States:

"This situation represents the latest phase of the long historical conflicts between two Americas -- that is, liberal internationalism of the urban establishment and popular isolationism in predominantly rural white communities."

In both of these (amazingly similar?) cases, the reasons "why people choose certain behavior or make specific decisions;" this appears to relate to whether specific segments of the population believe that "modernization" is in their individual/parochial (not necessarily their country's?) best interests.

In this regard, and as relates to an earlier American case, consider the following:

"In essence, the men and their rank and file voting allies, along with Jackson, fought a rear-guard action against encroaching industrialization and market economy. Although they won the pivotal battles, they lost the war, because their notion of a pre-capitalist agrarian society succumbed to the industrial economy after the Civil War."

Bottom Line Questions -- Based On the Above:

Question No. One: To suggest, thus, then as now, that the above conflicts, and the individual/parochial interests of those embracing and/or opposing both (a) "modernization" and (b) the state and societal "change" demands thereof; that these such exact and enduring factors often form the basis today -- much as they did in the past --

a. For an understanding of "the origins of why people choose certain behavior or make specific decisions?" And, thus, this exact such understanding of (often misguided?) individual/parochial interest becomes:

b. "The most important element in the warfighter’s toolbox?"

Question No. Two: Given the similarity -- in the contemporary "rejection of the demands of modernity" by population segments of both Afghanistan (and the Greater Middle East?) and the United States (and the West as a whole?) today -- how is it, then, that we can:

a. Stand hard against the former? While, at the exact same time it appears,

b. Embrace the latter?

(All of the above, and more, to be understood in the context of COL Maxwell's Clausewitz quote below, to wit: "The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people?")

An argument for the human domain. Yes the human domain is timeless and has always been at the heart of war and warfare (and is the essence of the nature of war - passion, reason, and chance - if passion and reason are not the foundation of of the human domain I do not know what is). But if this is so why can't we get it right and understand it?

I just wish that the author had added a description of what the paradoxical trinity really is - it is not simply governance, people, and security (army?) But this is an interesting read.

To remind us of the actual description of the paradoxical trinity:

War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.
The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets. (On War, p. 89)