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Past, Present and Future Ways of Bounding Hard Power and War: An Eight-Part Blog

Photo: Steve Drolet

This week and the next, the ISN website will be concentrating on the problem of future forecasting. If the international system today is indeed undergoing core-level changes, then trying to understand where these changes might be taking us becomes important – not just in general, but in the case of how future belligerents might use what has become popularly known as hard power.

We know, however, that a robust contemplation of the future must be grounded in the past. Effective futurology, in other words, requires context. That is why before I contemplate the future of organized violence I’d like to perform a little history – i.e., I’d like to begin with a proposition that will also serve as my core theme over the next eight blog posts.

It goes as follows: Up through the late 20th century, concepts of military or hard power were inescapably entangled with the two characterizations of war that have dominated the modern era – 1) the “rational” pseudo-scientific approach of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, and 2) the “irrational,” 19th century approach of military romantics. Both approaches are not totally “reality inclusive,” and because they first – and naturally – focused on the collision of hostile armies over disputed territory, they eventually trapped those who thought about the utility (or not) of war within a prison house of language. That trap lasted at least until the 1990s, at which point new ways of characterizing hard power appeared. These new ways, however, represented (and still do) a way back to the future, if anything else.

To play out this broad theme in greater detail, here is what I will focus on over the next eight blogs.

  • Today: Hard power and the “Rational” Approach of Pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Thinkers.
  • Tuesday: Hard Power and the “Rational” Approach of Enlightenment Era Thinkers.
  • Wednesday: Hard Power and the “Irrational” Approach of Clausewitz and the Germans.
  • Thursday: The Triumph of the Rationalists.
  • Friday: The Not-So-Obvious Breakdown of the Dominant Rationalist View of Hard Power.
  • Monday: The Great Paradigm Shift: Denial and then Acceptance (Part 1).
  • Tuesday: The Great Paradigm Shift: Denial and then Acceptance (Part 2).
  • Wednesday: Hard Power Today and Tomorrow – Back to the Future?

O.K., with this past AND forward-looking roadmap in hand, let’s begin this investigation by considering the relationship between hard power and the “rational” approach used to define it by Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers.

In the modern era, the “scientific” language of Western military theory and strategy had its roots in a key text that did manage to survive the ravages of time – Flavius Vegetius Renatus’ Epitoma rei militari (c.384-389). Vegetius’ last-gasp treatise was both a plea and a plan to revitalize the tottering Eastern Roman Army after its disastrous defeat by Fridigern’s Gothic horsemen at the Battle of Adrianople. (This battle, which occurred in 378 A.D., isn’t a yawner by any measure. Military historians such as J.F.C. Fuller have long argued that the battle marked the rise of the cavalry as the dominant arm on the battlefields of Europe – a dominance, incidentally, that would last roughly 1,000 years.) Unfortunately, Vegetius’ military do’s and don’ts were too narrow in scope to save an already tottering empire.

His text, however, did manage to flourish as a practical and authoritative guide to medieval warfare in Europe. (European scribes copied it so frequently that over 320 manuscripts survive even today.) The reason for its popularity was simple – it was a user-friendly compendium of ancient thinking on war. The De re militari included pithy extracts from the works of 30 largely forgotten military commentators, including Arrian, Frontinus, Polybius, Vitruvius, and others. It was, in short, the late Roman Empire’s contribution to Warfare for Dummies.

Now, as a “how to” guide to war, Vegetius’ compilation proved irresistible to warrior-leaders such as the French Counts of Anjou and English Plantagenet kings such as Henry II and Richard the Lionheart. These spillers of blood carefully studied all five books of the De re militari, but they particularly concentrated on the 26 chapters on strategy, tactics, and the principles of war (or military procedure) contained in Book III. This book then became even more important to Italian students of war after the success of the French king Charles VIII against the Italian city-states in 1494. In particular, the sorry performance of Italian mercenary armies in what is often acknowledged as the first military campaign of the modern era, piqued the interest of Nicolo Machiavelli, who served as an official of the city-state of Florence from 1498-1512.

Machiavelli used Vegetius as a foundation for his own treatise, The Art of War (1521). Not only did the structure of Machiavelli’s work mimic De re militari, but portions of the latter text, including the principles of war found at the end of Book III, were outright plagiarized by Machiavelli. To be fair, though, the Florentine philosopher and man of action was not interested in merely restating received wisdom. Machiavelli sought instead to adapt the old laws of Roman warfare to the new realities of 16th century Italy. He argued this was possible because human history was immutable rather than fresh or unique. The classical military legacy of Rome represented a continuous historical experience that provided infallible and general rules of war that – if applied properly – reduced the relative impact of chance. In other words, military history was an educational tool; it provided formulaic lessons that inevitably rationalized war.

Based on the recovered wisdom of the ancients and the updated prescriptions of Machiavelli, a rational or neoclassical language of war started to coalesce in Europe. It certainly appeared in Raimondo Montecuccoli’s On the War against the Turks in Hungary, now more popularly known as Aphorism[s] on the Art of War (1670) and arguably the first attempt to formulate a comprehensive theory of modern warfare in the West. (Significantly, the Austrian general drew upon 15 ancient, five late-medieval and Renaissance, and 22 early modern authors.)

Although Montecuccoli acknowledged the inductive and incalculable elements of organized violence, his prevailing approach was rational. He saw that portions of war were becoming increasingly “scientific.” Weapons fire, for example, was a form of ballistics. Siege warfare was a symptom of poliorcetics, i.e., the mathematical assault or defense of fortifications. As a result of these trends, Montecuccoli sought to develop a universal, proto-scientific paradigm of war and then support it with constant principles, axioms, and laws. The paradigm, based on Justus Lipsius’ Six Books of Politics (1589), firmly put war “within a political framework, derived from political motives and directed towards political aims.” (Azar Gat makes this point on Page 16 of his The Origins of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to Clausewitz, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.)

As a tool of nation-states, Montecuccoli further argued, war occurred within basic parameters, i.e., it was a scientific process that led to predictable ends. The fundamental requirement for a successful commander was basically to decide when and where a particular axiom applied. Well, for better or for worse the march from Vegetius through Machiavelli through Montecuccoli has gotten us to this point. Hard power, by the late 17th century was being “domesticated” by some of its premiere analysts. It was beginning to feature immutable principles; it was a “scientific” activity serving rational political ends, or so some thought. This bent, however, had only just begun, as we will discuss in tomorrow’s blog.