Pragmatic Politics as Condition for Successful Military Strategy

The Case of Great Britain

Clausewitz's exemplary and influential thesis that "war is the continuation of policy by other means" arguably underscores the notion that efficient political processes ultimately determine the success of military strategy. From a contrasting perspective, it can be stated that the situation of war itself is precisely one in which a certain anomie reigns, such that armed conflict denotes the abolishment of the base normativities of the political which thus makes war necessary. Yet the case of the indubitable successes of the British Empire would seem to demarcate an instance where political policy and military strategy and capability are completely harmonious. The geopolitical insignificance of Great Britain clearly contrasts with the successful establishment of the empire upon which the sun never set. The question as to the preconditions for Britain's dominance, therefore, becomes a decisive object of study. Ostensibly, the establishment of the empire demonstrates lucid successes in military strategy. At the same time, the very empiric Weltanschauung of Britain recalls the notion of forces that put such military strategy into play. In this sense, the parliamentary system of government in Britain can be viewed as signifying an ideology and political preference that actuated and buttressed the success of military strategy, as opposed to working against it, insofar as the commitment to rational dialogue within such a system is complicit with the formation of pragmatic and realizable military strategic objectives.

In arguing this thesis it is of course necessary to stress that Great Britain was not alone in the quest for empire and expansion. Certainly, the Early Modern Period is characterized by the rise of the great expansionist powers, such as Spain and France, which employed new technologies and a commitment to the seas as a means by which to increase hegemony. That is, polities in this period began to seek their relevance in the expansionist spirit - this was a certain case of Zeitgeist, wherein Western European powers realized that empiric expansion was crucial to political hegemony.

Such a general Zeitgeist nevertheless does not fully elucidate the reasons for Britain's clear successes and the lasting effect of its empire. Certainly, Spain and, for example, its colonialization of the Americas, is a vivid example of another European power that successfully waged the expansionist war. Yet the case of Spain provides a relevant point of juxtaposition so as to understand and index Britain's successes. For the eventual decline of Spanish hegemony suggests a political ideology radically alien to that of Britain's. What drove Spain, in Hassig's words, was "the zealotry of the Church militant", such that Spain's empire was the result of a certain idealism, according to which the country viewed itself as the unmitigated defender of the Catholic faith. Disastrous Spanish interventions into the Protestant uprisings in the Netherlands and, in consequence, a crushing defeat against Britain, are clear examples of a religiously driven ideology, whereby Spanish policy maintained a certain right to power, one which was unfounded in any realist sense. Religious zealotry as the foundation of policy led to hopeless military situations.

Here Great Britain's political system provides a great advantage in the overall sobriety and pragmatism of its approach. The parliamentary system allowed for a certain dialogue within British policy, thus quelling any plausible appearances of fanaticism, which would irrevocably place military strategy into foolish situations. The British were exemplary in their colonialist pragmatic strategy, for example, playing one ethnic group against another in the case of India, so as to facilitate the empire's grip. Cool-headed practice and a realization of the contingency of power were crucial to Britain's successes, as they approached strategic situations from a resolutely pragmatic perspective, clearly acknowledging their own capabilities and coordinating the latter with their precise aims.

Accordingly, it can be said that the certain decentralization of power which exists in a parliamentary system aided in Britain's empire, preventing the presence of irrational voices which would undermine strategic objectives or create impossible ideological teleologies. A commitment to rational debate and dialogue arguably led to the constitution of a more sound strategy, something that is borne out by the unparalleled success of the empire of Great Britain.