Strategy before Clausewitz: Linking Warfare and Statecraft

  • Published

Strategy before Clausewitz: Linking Warfare and Statecraft, 1400–1830, 1st ed., by Beatrice Heuser, Routledge, 2018, 239 pp.

This book by Prof. Beatrice Heuser is an attempt to look at the conceptualization, practice, and study of strategy before the word “strategy” was introduced in the European languages and the military policies of states before the French Revolution. It is a historical and political analysis of the works of early thinkers before Carl von Clausewitz, who was regarded as one of the original proponents of strategic theory and practice. Heuser is an expert on security studies and strategy who has worked extensively as an academic and also as a consultant with various European states. The book uses three case studies to weave in the narrative of strategic study and practice in the state policies of Edward III of England, Philip II of Spain, and Louis XIV of France. The book further delves into individual scholars who were from different backgrounds and had varied experience in designing and formulating strategy for state-making. These theorists are divided into three specific groups: civilians, persons having military experience, and senior military commanders.

Clausewitz in his work On War defined strategy as “the use of engagements for the object of the war.” Here, warfare is regarded as an instrument of statecraft. However, it is considered to be quite a narrow understanding of the term. The second chapter of the book discusses how in the late fourteenth century, Christine De Pizan, who was a civilian, was one of the earliest of strategic thinkers who is believed to have written the first war manual named Book of the Deeds of Arms. She believed in a just war and also a just cause for going to war, while defining the reasons for internal rebellion and an external war among states, and also advocated for using mediation to bring about peace. The fifth chapter looks into the work of Matthew Sutcliffe, a civilian strategist who worked comprehensively to develop a strategic theory for England. Sutcliffe’s idea was attempted to be operationalized by his patron, the second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, in the Cadiz expedition.

Lazarus Schwendi and Raimondo Montecuccoli, as is discussed in chapter seven, both lived during Europe’s religious wars while countering the Turkish incursions. Being men from military backgrounds, both wrote on military practices, training, and finances. While Schwendi believed that they could maintain peace through practicing appeasement and harmonious coexistence with the Turks, Montecuccoli sought to use the tactic of surprise and mobility to drive back the Turkish army. This method, in fact, proved to be widely successful in liberating many sections of Europe. Count Guibert’s works influenced Napoleon’s warfare strategies, especially during the French Revolution period. His writings, which are discussed in chapter eight, could be put into two phases, first when the young Guibert made a case for complete mobilization of the citizen soldiers and all resources to defend one’s own side, but was averse to the idea of a total eradication of the enemy’s state. But the older Guibert was not in favor of the mobilization of total resources for the purpose of even defense.

Technological advancement in military affairs with the inventions beginning with gunpowder to nuclear and space weapons have brought in modernization to the concept of war fighting among states, along with an increase in human savagery. Chapter three examines the trajectory of change that has modified with introduction of the revolution in military affairs along with the beginning of the industrial revolution. These advancements also stretched to the development of naval and maritime strategies to assist the land wars gradually (chapters four and six). The Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604 was the first theater to test the maritime and naval strategies that were written till that period. Certain strategies that were practiced by both sides in this war were fortification near the coastal regions, maintaining a standing fleet, seizing ports to protect lines of communication, blockading, and indirectly by supporting rebellions against one’s adversary. In the later part of the nineteenth century, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Stafford Corbett through their works defined the primary objective of naval warfare, which was to either secure the command of the sea or prevent the adversary from succeeding in securing it. Even Thucydides in his work on the Peloponnesian War maintained the significance of securing the command of the sea, in the term “thalassokratia.” This augmented the English claim over the sea could be traced through medieval times. Hugo Grotius in 1609 in his work titled Mare Liberum mentions that because of the ever-changing nature of the sea, it cannot be possessed. A section of historians believed that even the English claim of overlordship to be merely limited to territorial waters. Sutcliffe also stressed the importance of the navy to counter the Spanish colonial dreams as against the aspirations of the British Empire. However, as the twentieth century dawned, his belief of securing the command of the sea was seen to have evaporated universally.

The book gives immense evidence on the tradition of strategic theory and practice, which might have inspired and enriched Clausewitz’s work, most significantly his masterpiece On War. It also provides the student of strategic studies a background to the study of strategy itself. In the last chapter Heuser observes the influence of Count Guibert who had most majorly impacted Clausewitz. Clausewitz likewise deemed war to be business of the people, which called for the next logical step, which was to call for the formation of the army of citizen-soldiers consisting of the male population. He also wrote on the methodology of imparting military education to the soldiers and officers.

This extensive work, however, is not without certain limitations. It is in its entirety a Eurocentric understanding of the ideas of strategy. The case studies are also located in Western Europe. The author could also have included examples of the evolution of the practice and study of strategy through the non-European perspective to provide a more balanced analysis. As the book traces the historical evolution of strategy in detail through the inclusion of certain military ideas that buffered the narrative, it tends to ignore certain strands that might seem obvious to a non-European reader, though its historical accuracy within its own setting is hard to fault.

The book benefits students of security studies, political science, and history immensely. Besides the academic arena, Heuser’s book also serves as an informative and interesting read for practitioners of diplomacy. The book greatly assists in understanding the beginning of modern maritime strategies and the idea of sea power. It also gives an earlier take on the idea of just war as Pizan has mentioned in her works. The significance of the book lies in the extensive study that can be seen in the detailed narrative of the book.


Shayesta Nishat Ahmed


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."