The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Back to the Basics: Why the West Should Reconsider the Nature of War

  • Published
  • By Maj Michael Scott, USAF

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the world largely expected the execution of a Russian Hybrid-war as outlined by General Gerasimov. While the actual Russian operations have played out more in the conventional realm as of this writing, aspects of the conflict have extended beyond traditional military engagement. Global support for Ukraine has been expressed mainly in economic sanctions against Russia, which Putin has declared acts of economic war.1 Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Fedorov called for the creation of an “IT army” directing the skills of civilian programmers and IT specialists (within and beyond Ukrainian borders) against the Russian government and critical cyber-infrastructure to advance Ukraine’s political objectives.2 While these actions are certainly aspects of the international political jockeying for power and influence, how do they relate to war?

Carl von Clausewitz’s treatise On War theorized that the nature of war, its essence and purpose, is unchanging within the human condition. By contrast, its character, the conduct of warfare, is in constant flux. This changing character of warfare is widely accepted among war theorists and strategists and easily observed by the most elementary student of war. For example, a comparison of warfare techniques even within the recently ended 20-year US-led war in Afghanistan shows significant changes in technology—such as drone utilization and mine-resistant vehicles—which affected the methods of combat operations for the US-led coalition and its adversaries. Technology will continue to drive changes to the tactical and strategic conduct of warfare. However, the nature of war is more difficult to clarify; many modern strategists avoid the discussion, accepting Clausewitz’s conclusion of permanency. This seems especially true among Western war theorists. That conclusion, however, needs to be more carefully considered in the context of non-Western military theory and the realities of modern war in the news today. Specifically, Clausewitz defined the nature of war as “an act of [violent] force to compel our enemy to do our [political] will.”3 If his definition holds, then the nature of war will remain unchanging. However, if the nature of war is changing or its reality is different from what American and Western military theorists have accepted, the US may be blind or underprepared for future strategic conflict.

A brief survey of history from Thucydides to the modern era shows war continually stems from fear, honor, and interest and has been the realm of political discourse by other means. However, the traditional Clausewitzian concept of war as the domain of violent clash of military force for political ends is not ubiquitously held, particularly among the United States’ current adversaries. The United States must consider the changing nature of war in the context of its current adversaries and all instruments of the DIME convention.

Writing the first Western analysis of war, Thucydides argued that war emerges from some combination of fear, honor, and interest.4 These primary motivations for war explain the beginnings of every human conflict. For example, Sparta’s fear of Athens’ growing power, influence, and opposing worldview was the impetus for the war in Thucydides’ record.5 The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand initiated World War I on the principle of honor. Economic and political interests motivated the United States’ involvement in the Persian Gulf War and the United Kingdom’s Falkland War with Argentina. These three premises for war remain unchanged, but they similarly motivate non-military conflict and thus inform more broadly about the nature of man rather than exclusively clarifying the nature of war. For example, criminal ransomware groups seek to compel their targets from an interest in money, and modern nations coerce their adversaries through means other than violent military force—economic, informational, and diplomatic.

In contrast to Thucydides’ consistent motivators of human conflict, Clausewitz’s generally accepted nature of war starts from an assumption of violent force to meet the political end. The German word Gewalt (translated as force) has an implicit connotation of violence, especially when linked to Akt earlier in his sentence, which is not apparent in the Howard-Paret translation.6 Clausewitz argued that war begins when a political entity employs a violent clash of military power as the means to achieve its end. In the context of the preceding military examples—Sparta, WWI, and late 20th Century small scale wars—the violent aspect of war’s nature was evident. However, other means of state-sanctioned force do not fit as nicely into Clausewitz’s definition. For example, direct state employment of economic sanctions or trade war are inherently non-violent. Modern cyber operations further complicate the issue when state attribution can be denied, and the nature of the attack as war or not war is more tied to the attacked nation’s perception than the attacker’s intention.7

Can those actions, then, be considered acts of war? Based on his use of Akt der Gewalt, Clausewitz would conclude that non-violent actions may be pre-cursors to war but are not themselves components of war. Thucydides might be less decided if the actions still stem from fear, honor, or interest. However, his Ancient Greek context limited his ability to comprehend non-violent forms of war, such as global currency manipulation or influence operations against public opinion, which are increasingly available congruent to globalization in the post Exploration Age.8 As the only non-Western contributor to the canon of military theory, Sun Tzu offers a different perspective. While Thucydides’ Chinese contemporary does discuss the military functions of war like his Western counterparts, he argues from the premise that war is the act of attacking an enemy’s strategy, and the most effective commander subdues his enemy without fighting.9 This concept is wholly different from how most Western theorists have historically perceived war—Sun Tzu does not predicate war on the existence of violence. In fact, his comments reveal the perspective that nations can achieve a decisive point in war before, and possibly regardless of, any act of military violence. In this context, the non-violent examples above could be considered acts of war.

Accepting that at least one prominent military theorist acknowledges non-violent actions as potential acts of war, we must next inquire if any modern political actors are conducting war from that perspective. More specifically, if any political actors do, in fact, understand war to include these non-violent actions, then the Western understanding of war’s nature as defined by Clausewitz must be reconsidered. As this essay assumed earlier, the technological developments of the last 100 years have changed the social and political interactions between states, altering the character of warfare at an explosive pace. In particular, the globalization and technologization of humanity have facilitated a realization of Sun Tzu’s argument. China, the ancestral home of Sun Tzu, has shown adeptness for implementing his ideas using modern technology and global connectedness to compel and coerce the United States and other regional powers while avoiding a clash of military force. Chinese Colonels Liang and Xiangsui provide clear evidence of China’s intent. At the turn of the century, they argued that economics had surpassed military power as the most significant threat to national security and a traditional clash of arms was no longer necessary. Further, they claim that many non-military tools are available with greater destructive power than their military analogs.10

In one example, the US indicted two Chinese hackers for intellectual property theft for personal gain, but more critically, the report also asserted that the theft explicitly supported the Chinese government.11 China is also leveraging corporations through massive, state-sponsored foreign investments to implement its strategic Belt and Road Initiative. Success in that effort will give China significant economic and infrastructure influence beyond its borders, enabling the government to compel other nations toward favorable international norms, laws, and trade.12 Liang and Xiangsui conclude that warfare is no longer an activity confined only to the military sphere.13 We can reason, therefore, that China uses its non-military power to compel international action in its favor, and they understand these actions as instruments of war. Though they state that the nature of war is unchanging, they argue that case from a neo-Sun-Tzuian perspective which is at odds with the Western Clausewitzian nature of war predicated on violent conflict.14

Like China, Russia has also demonstrated a transition away from the traditional view of war. General of the Army Gerasimov claimed, “the role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”15 Russia sees the opportunity to utilize its non-military instruments to attack the adversary’s picture of the situation through Reflexive Control, leading the opponent toward conditions advantageous to Russia’s political goals.16 The most striking example is Russia’s attempt to interfere with the 2016 US election, wherein they sought to exploit influence against the American voting populace through an elaborate state-funded media and social media information warfare campaign.17

Unlike historical wars, where fielded military forces acted to shield the populace against foreign aggression, Russia demonstrated that nation-states can now directly attack an enemy’s individual citizens and national consciousness. The Director of National Intelligence’s redacted report concludes that Russia will use the lessons from that information operations campaign for future election interference campaigns against the US and its allies.18 Russia is mastering the manipulation of adversarial nations’ perspective of truth and using confusion to blind the adversary and its population from effective response to Russian aggression in other domains. Gerasimov further asserted that wars are no longer declared—the invasion of Ukraine is a perfect example of this Russian perspective.19 In light of direct attacks against a population’s consciousness, the circumvention of military engagement to effect political ends, and readiness to initiate conventional wars without formal declarations, we can conclude that Russia is likewise fighting an enduring war with “soft power means, on a hard power foundation.”20

Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics and Political Science considers the question of war’s nature from another perspective. She points to the modern military’s primary “cosmopolitan” function as evidence of a changed political purpose. Her argument suggests that, other than great power competition, modern war has become more about peacekeeping operations than violence to achieve the political objective.21 In this sense, nations employ military power as a subordinate tool to the state’s social and cultural power—the ways and means of warfare become anti-violent.

A counterpoint would argue that the non-violent operations conducted by China and Russia are an extension of their military power, well within the auspices of Clausewitz’s Akt der Gewalt. Furthermore, even if the actions are not an extension of military power, the governments can only conduct non-violent warfare because they possess credible military power. Military deterrence acts as the backbone to compel adversaries to confine conflict below the level of military engagement. Likewise, the non-violent cosmopolitan military only exists as the result of conventional violent war. However, the inverse is equally legitimate. Russia and China’s military powers are potent because they employ force in non-military domains. They have not only demonstrated the option of non-violent conflict as a supporting domain of war but have adopted it as a primary means of war on multiple occasions. Further, non-violent, humanitarian employment of military force is not predicated on violence. Fear, honor, and interest still drive nations to conflict and the employment of military power, but Clausewitz’s assumption of violent military engagement is no longer a prerequisite to a clash of national power. From a Western perspective, the nature of war has changed.

Contemporary US adversaries have revealed their changed perception of the nature of war and demonstrated acts of warfare employing non-military instruments of power. The United States must similarly adjust its understanding of war to effectively counter conflict in the non-violent domains. The Department of Defense has shown progress on this concept with its published continuum of conflict. The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning calls for civil-military engagement, which enables coordination of national power means to achieve the political end.22 However, the current document and concepts are military-centric. War under a changed nature, as demonstrated by Russia and China, needs more than a military perspective; it requires a complete societal approach.

However, this creates a conundrum within current thinking regarding laws of armed conflict. If civil agencies are conducting operations to disrupt a national power grid, influencing elections through information war, or conducting economic war to compel adversarial action to the political will, have those civilians become lawful combatants? If so, can they be targeted using kinetic means or only within the domain (cyber, economic, information) of the initial attack? What is lawful escalation? Can a nation ‘attack’ a corporation conducting economic warfare under the influence of an enemy state or non-state actor? The United States and its allies must broaden their perspectives regarding the nature of war to answer these pressing issues and respond to ongoing non-violent wars. One possible solution is to recruit representatives from Other Government Agencies (and possibly Non-Governmental Organizations) to instruct and attend the war colleges to ensure the military, political, and civilian agents of national power are all thinking consistently about war through the full complement of DIME. China and Russia have demonstrated the reality of a post-Clausewitzian, neo-Sun Tzuian nature of war. The United States and our Western partners are self-imposing blinders by adamantly restricting the nature of war to Clausewitz’s violent military acts for political purpose. The debate over war’s nature must move beyond the realm of academic sparring or the United States and its allies may lose a war we do not know we are fighting.

Major Mike Scott

Maj Mike Scott is a career Air Force 17D cyberspace infrastructure officer with Communication Squadron, AOC, NC3, Air Base Squadron, and SAF assignments. Beyond leading exceptional Airmen in diverse situations, Mike enjoys debating new ideas, running, woodworking, and spending time with his wife and kids


1. Reuters, “Putin says Western sanctions are akin to declaration of war,” Reuters, 5 March 2022,

2. Mykhailo Fedorov, Twitter Post, 26 Feb 2022,


3. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75; The German word “Gewalt,” here translated as force has a connotation of violence. This idea will be explored further at a later point in the essay. Clausewitz also clarifies will as political will, see pg 80 of On War.

4. Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides: A comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (New York: Free Press, 1996), 43.

5. Ibid., 49.

6. The Collins German-English, English-German Dictionary: Unabridged. 4th ed., s.v. “Gewalt” and “Gewalt|Akt”; The original German language text is “Der Krieg ist also ein Akt der Gewalt, um den Gegner zur Erf├╝llung unseres Willens zu zwingen.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (Projekt-Gutenberg, 1832), (accessed 2 October 2021)

7. Michael Pavelec, “Cyber: War?” in Technology, Violence, and War: Essays in Honor of Dr. John F. Guilmartin, Jr. ed. Robert S. Wyler’s, Jr., et al (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2019), 323-331.

8. For the purposes of this discussion, the Age of Exploration (or Age of Discovery) is accepted as mid-1400s to late 1600s; Nichola Mulder, The Economic Weapon: The rise of sanctions as a tool of modern war (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022), 13-14.

9. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 77.

10. Col. Qiao Liang and Col. Wang Xiangsui UnRestricted Warfare, ed. Ian Straus (Brattleboro, VT: Echo Point Books & Media, 1999), 95-98 and 108.

11. Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs, “Two Chinese Hackers Working with the Ministry of State Security Charged with Global Computer Intrusion Campaign Targeting Intellectual Property and Confidential Business Information, Including COVID-19 Research,” Department of Justice, 21 July 2020,

12. Eleanor Albert, “China’s Global Port Play,” The Diplomat, 11 May 2019, 2019/05/chinas-global-port-play; Keith B. Alexander and Jamil N. Jaffer, “China Is Waging Economic War on America,” Barrons, 4 August 2020,

13. Liang and Xiangsui, ibid., 163.

14. Ibid, 20.

15. Valery Gerasimov, “The Value of Science is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations” ed. and trans. Robert Coalson, Military Review (January-February 2016): 24

16. Air Command and Staff College Lecture, WT-526: Russian Cyber Operations, 4 October 2021.

17. Director of National Intelligence, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, Intelligence Community Assessment, (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, 6 January 2017,, ii-iii.

18. Ibid.

19. Gerasimov, ibid.

20. Brad Roberts, “On Theories of Victory, Red and Blue,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Center for Global Security Research, Livermore Papers on Global Security, no. 7 (June 2020), 18.

21. Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 3rd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 119-150.

22. Joint Doctrine Note (JDN) 1-19, Competition Continuum, 3 June 2019, 6.

Wild Blue Yonder Home