Monday, September 20, 2010

Discussion: Clausewitz and the Weinberger Doctrine

The Weinberger Doctrine is not Clausewitzian. It is perhaps too much to say that it is anti-Clausewitzian, but it mischaracterizes the use and utility of war. The use of war is not -- and never has been -- merely to ‘fight and win wars.’ It may be true that this theoretical discrepancy has confounded US military strategy and policy over the decades since the end of World War Two.

Some prominent Carter Administration officials had been “traumatized” by the American experience in Vietnam, and regarded the entire Third World as just more Vietnams -- devoid of vital US interests and almost immune to the effects of US military power.[1] Coming in to head the Defense Department when he did, Weinberger had become convinced that use of force in the Third World offered limited gains at high political risks. The Weinberger Doctrine recognized this, and seemed to suggest that the kind of primacy enjoyed by the US in the 1950s was no longer attainable in the post-Vietnam international system.[2] Weinberger, along with many other public officials in the early 1980s, held strong beliefs shaped by Summers’ arguments concerning why the US military lost the Vietnam War. Stemming from errors of interpretation made by Summers in On Strategy, Weinberger developed his doctrine for the employment of US military power by turning Clausewitz inside out, so to speak. “Weinberger essentially rejected force as an arm of diplomacy; he saw it rather as a substitute for diplomacy -- to be used only when diplomacy failed. In so doing, he implicitly rejected the Clausewitzian dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means and denied the continuum of agreement, negotiation, threat, coercive diplomacy, and war.”[3] In Weinberger’s thinking the means came to rule over the ends. In the process Weinberger made policy serve war.

In 1984 the Weinberger Doctrine was announced. Although the Weinberger Doctrine undoubtedly influenced some US strategists and policy makers, it was never in fact official doctrine for the military in the same manner that FM 3-0 and FM 3-24 are doctrine. What was dubbed the Weinberger Doctrine reflected Summers’ interpretation of what went wrong in Vietnam.[4] The doctrine represented a return to a more conservative policy of force employment following what was widely seen as the strategic ambiguity of the Vietnam War. Weinberger’s more restrictive approach, established as a set of conditions to be met before the US resorted to force, cannot be fully understood without recognizing the ‘no more humiliations’ -- as happened with the Iran hostage crisis -- and the ‘no more Vietnams’ current that was present in policy making at the time.

Weinberger produced the first well-defined programmatic description of when and how the US would use force in the post-Vietnam period, and as such, it couldn’t help but be shaped by the post-Vietnam zeitgeist. Can the use of force really be tamed by such a fixed policy such as the Weinberger Doctrine? To be clear, Clausewitz did point out that the commander in any particular instance may require that policy not be out of proportion to the means put at his disposal. This would suggest that the Weinberger Doctrine is Clausewitzian. However, Clausewitz argued that it is the task of strategy to resolve the disparity between means and ends. While the Weinberger Doctrine was strongly prescriptive, some authors maintained that it was flexible enough that it did not unnecessarily shackle American policy makers in the employment of military power.[5] “The Weinberger Doctrine is less about the use of force than it is about establishing requirements for national leadership to clarify policies and objectives before resorting to force.”[6] This allowance is not entirely convincing since the Weinberger Doctrine has been used as a checklist in actual application.

There was a direct link between Weinberger’s actions and policy approach as Secretary of Defense and Summers’ popular analysis of the Vietnam War that was circulating in political circles at the time. Unfortunately Weinberger’s doctrine suffered from Summers’ flawed conception of Clausewitz’s trinity. Looking at the people, the government, and the army as fixed components of a durable system -- a system that could be predictably manipulated -- the Weinberger Doctrine was designed to ensure that the nation would never be involved in another Vietnam quagmire. According to the Weinberger Doctrine, the military would only apply overwhelming force quickly in campaigns with clear objectives and overwhelming public support.

The Weinberger Doctrine was explicitly associated with what Christopher Paparone called the “Clausewitz-based, Trinitarian balance” between the government, the military, and the people.[7] This balance that Clausewitz mentioned but did not necessarily clarify as a policy goal -- a balance portrayed more by Summers -- became part of the bedrock of the Weinberger Doctrine. At another point in Paparone’s Army War College paper on the Weinberger Doctrine, he utilized Clausewitz’s trinity as if it were a fixed law, of three specific entities with a predictable relationship.[8] This is a practice -- which goes beyond what Clausewitz actually wrote -- that has been repeated since the publication of On Strategy. Clausewitz did not assert that support of the people was necessary -- which flies in the face of one of Summers’ most important and persistent arguments. The people may be the expression of one component of the trinity Clausewitz illustrated, but the powers operating behind the use of force and war relate dynamically, not in a fixed way.[9] The specific relationship between the forces must be deduced from each strategic situation. This is a point that strategists must understand.

The Weinberger Doctrine dictated that force would only be used to achieve short and decisive victories accomplished with overwhelming forces -- backed by overwhelming popular support -- but what about other wars, conflicts, and limited aims? The Korean War probably would not have passed the test. If fighting until a decisive victory is an expression of Clausewitz’s concept of (theoretical) absolute war, then wars with bargained settlements (negotiated peace agreements) are more akin to Clausewitz’s limited wars, or wars in reality.[10] If this is correct then the Weinberger Doctrine was based on the wrong part of Clausewitz’s dialectical argument about the nature of war. Very real problems may arise -- for strategy formulation -- when deliberately narrow interpretations of the acceptable use of military force, such as the Weinberger Doctrine, clash with the need to attain real-world policy objectives and military end states.[11]

Most obviously, the dissonance between the Weinberger Doctrine and Clausewitzian theory arises because Clausewitz recognized that limited means can be applied to achieve limited aims (ends) as long as it is done with a clear appreciation of the strategy required.[12] Clausewitz would disagree that a state unwilling to commit the forces required to achieve political objectives should not commit forces at all. Clausewitz pointed to another option -- political objectives could be scaled to match forces available. The commitment of forces remains a viable option if an acceptable balance can be reached between forces leaders are willing to commit and political objectives leaders are willing to fight for.[13] This is a point strategists should bear in mind. Weinberger’s pronouncements about vital interests were not in accordance with Clausewitz’s acceptance of the legitimacy of limited wars. Arguments that Clausewitz only accepted the maximum expenditure of means to achieve the ends result from an incomplete study of On War.

Clausewitz’s theory presents two strong objections to the Weinberger Doctrine. First, Clausewitz rejected the utility of discrete instructions or positive doctrines, such as the checklist that developed out of the Weinberger Doctrine. Second, Clausewitz believed the decision to use force should be preceded by the determination of strategy -- the judicious balancing of ends, ways, and means, within acceptable risk. Clausewitz required policy and strategy to fit together whereas Weinberger, in effect, treated them separately.[14] The Weinberger Doctrine, in short, dictated the kind of war before the ends to be achieved. For Clausewitz, policy decides ends, and strategy may dictate much less than the application of all available, overwhelming military force, or even quick wars. While quick wars may always be desirable from a purely military standpoint, proper strategy may not allow such a course of action. Clausewitz saw political ends as too diverse to be simply lumped together under the same category. Where realists tend to see war as rational, and the Weinberger Doctrine is based on classical realist assumptions, Clausewitz can not be termed a realist because he believed the fundamental decisions in war were something other than simply rational.[15]

Questions of the use of military force reside under the domain of policy. This is not straightforward, but actually leaves the most important questions to the contentious realm of interests, rivalries, and human perceptions, but to accept Clausewitz’s theory of war, it cannot be otherwise. Easy models for giving clear-cut answers as to the use of force are illusory and will distort the strategy making process. Jeffrey Record, among others, was quick to “savage” the Weinberger Doctrine as turning Clausewitz’s fundamental relationship between policy and war on its head, and rejecting military force as an instrument of policy.[16] For Weinberger, having clear political goals really meant having goals that were achievable in the near-term and explicable in limited geographical, even territorial, terms.[17] If anything, this was a throwback to the warfare of the ancien regime. The purpose of war is to serve policy and military forces have no rationale save as instruments of state policy.

It is understandable that Weinberger would have wanted to protect the rebuilding of the US military forces following Vietnam and ensure no more dangerous expenditures of national power for unacceptable political gains. However, strategy is difficult and all of the forces that make up the strategic process are dynamic. Record wrote, “The ultimate test of any military strategy is not whether it succeeds in maintaining peace, but whether, in the event of war, it can restore peace on politically favorable terms and at an acceptable cost.”[18] The very essence of strategy is the relationship of ends and means -- that is, the relationship that produces the greatest possible gain in national interests. Trade-offs and priorities are always necessary components of strategy, and there is an inherent danger in professing and promising too much or what is unattainable.


1. Jeffrey Record, “Jousting with Unreality: Reagan’s Military Strategy,” International Security 8 (Winter 1983-1984): 7.

2. Phil Williams, “The Limits of American Power: From Nixon to Reagan,” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs) 63 (Autumn 1987): 585.

3. Jeffrey Record, “Back to the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine?” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Fall 2007): 82.

4. Cori Dauber, “Implications of the Weinberger Doctrine for American Military Intervention in a Post-Desert Storm Age,” Contemporary Security Policy 22 (December 2001): 70.

5. Earl E. K. Abonadi, Weinberger-Powell and Transformation: Perceptions of American Power from the Fall of Saigon to the Fall of Baghdad (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, Thesis, June 2006), 9.

6. Abonadi, 31.

7. Christopher R. Paparone, The ‘Tyranny of Means’: Integrating The Weinberger-Powell And Abrams Doctrines (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategy Research Project, 2000), 10.

8. Paparone, 17.

9. John S. Sellers, The Weinberger Doctrine: Useful Compass or Flawed Checklist? (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, Thesis, June 2001), 31.

10. Alastair Smith and Allan C. Stam, “Bargaining and the Nature of War,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (December 2004): 787.

11. Pierre Lessard, Campaign Design for Winning the War…and the Peace (Toronto, ON: Canadian Forces College, Paper, 16 December 2004), 39-40.

12. See Suzanne C. Nielsen, Political Control Over the Use of Force: A Clausewitzian Perspective (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, May 2001), 43.

13. Sellers, 30.

14. Sellers, 28.

15. Murielle Cozette, “Realistic Realism? American Political Realism, Clausewitz and Raymond Aron on the Problem of Means and Ends in International Politics,” Journal of Strategic Studies 27 (September 2004): 438-39.

16. Conrad C. Crane, Avoiding Vietnam: The U.S. Army’s Response to Defeat in Southeast Asia (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, September 2002), 15.

17. John Garofano, The Intervention Debate: Towards a Posture of Principled Judgment (Carlisle, PA: Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, January 2002), 16.

18. Record, “Jousting”: 4.