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.
Foreign policy is historically the art of discerning 50 shades of grey in a black-and-white image. War, for its part, does not tolerate shades. It is a zero-sum game. To quote Sergei Narovchatov: “It is the enemy’s gun squad that is against our troops. There is no nature, no beauty.” Now, if politicians increasingly perceive the world as a global battlefield, then they inevitably begin seeing it in black and white. Reflection and introspection are no longer an option. Nor is human empathy: “we” are always right and “they” are always wrong; “we” are allowed to do whatever we want and “they” are denied everything.
The aim of foreign policy is to find solutions to international problems, however flawed, temporary and not entirely fair they may be. The aim of war is to cause maximum damage to the adversary. Here, too, we are observing the military mentality advancing on the political mentality. The introduction of various sanctions is a classic example. It is clear to everyone that, more often than not, sanctions do not cause any changes in the behaviour of their target, especially when it comes to unilateral sanctions. Nevertheless, the world continues to resort to them; in fact, sanctions are turning into a universal instrument in the foreign policy toolkit and are largely replacing traditional diplomacy.
Here is one more worrying trend: contemporary society imposes minimal restrictions on ways to conduct warfare. All is fair in love and war, as they say. This includes misinformation, outward lies and acts of provocation. But politics cannot be conducted this way, because politics are about reputation, predictability and reliability. The concept of reputational damage may not apply to war, but it must be taken into account in politics. It appears that the whole world, East and West, is starting to live according to the rules of wartime, in which every method is fair and a good reputation is either an unnecessary luxury or, at the very least, an expendable resource. This trend is blurring the important boundary between politics and special operations. Respect for the opponent, which was present even in the worst hours of the Cold War, is disappearing from global politics.
In a similar vein, war and politics have differing views of dissidents, alternative viewpoints and criticism of the “party line.” During wartime, dissidents are potential traitors and soldiers are not allowed to question their orders. In politics, dissidents are potentially important participants in the decision-making process and criticism is key to increasing the effectiveness of the political course. It is extremely worrying that dissidence and any views that run counter to mainstream politics are becoming increasingly attacked and outlawed everywhere. We are losing important platforms for professional, ideologically unbiased and involved discussions of key foreign political problems.
One more manifestation of military logic dominating political thinking is manifested in the fact that, in recent decades, great powers usually win the wars but lose at peace. Material, political and intellectual resources for waging wars are surprisingly easy to find, whereas peacebuilding resources are universally scarce. Humanity is prepared to bankroll wars but not peace. This was the case in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Libya and many other places. The same fate may befall Syria. We keep falling into the same trap of having no weighted and realistic strategy for extricating ourselves from crisis situations.
Some would say to this: So what? Does the current situation in the world not justify the growing militarization of politics? Indeed, if we are to proceed from the statement that “the class struggle intensifies as we progress to Socialism,” then politics will logically and inevitably turn into a continuation of war. So, let the withered leaves of traditional diplomacy fall to the ground. The coming political winter will be replaced by a new spring sooner or later, and the ancient tree of global politics will nurture the buds of a new diplomacy.
It would be great if this happened. We should not forget, however, that this fatalistic approach is likely to trigger a chain reaction of self-fulfilling prophecies, which are fraught with serious troubles for all of us. This means that the long-awaited spring will take a very long time to arrive.
Speech delivered at the session “Foreign Policy in Uncertain Times: Pursuing Development in a Changing World” at the 15th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club. First published in our partner RIAC