This essay seeks to uncover the meaning of conflict as understood by key political thinkers from the earliest developments of political thought. The motive is to explore the relevance of such early understandings of conflict in today’s fast-changing globalized world where the nature of conflict itself is thought to have changed.

We begin with the understanding of conflict as described by Machiavelli, followed by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu. We move on to give a more comprehensive account of Clausewitz’s purview of conflict, most importantly, his distinction between the nature and character of conflict respectively.

The essay ends with an analysis of how relevant these thinkers are today when it comes to understanding the generic nature of conflict, and how we must keep these political traditions in mind when we struggle to cope in this increasingly confusing and complex idea of conflict in today’s globalized world.

Conflict in Machiavelli’s Republic

Although often misunderstood by scholars as an advocate of brute force and cynical disregard for morality, it is with Machiavelli that the theory of realist approach to politics is known to have begun.

In his vision of a republic, a well functioning republic is one in which a free, open political culture flourishes in which both nobility and the people engage in expression of dissent. Here, conflict is not discouraged but seen as a crucial element of a vibrant society.[i]Infact, Machiavelli has been very clear in his view of conflict as contributing to society’s stability. Conflict, or pursuit of incompatible goals, will always exist in society. As long as we continue viewing conflict as something that is negative, destructive and to be avoided, we will never be able to focus on how to express and handle it constructively. Only once we tap into the constructive potential of conflict can it become a tool for personal, political and social transformation. That is the essence of the nature of conflict that Machiavelli understood.


Machiavelli praises only a regulated kind of civic conflict, that may occur in a well-ordered republic with laws and properly functioning institutions.[ii]Today, the relevance of regulated civic conflict as a legitimate expression of differences in society can be seen in the Arab Spring that started in 2010.


Hardeep Singh Puri, in his book ‘Perilous Interventions’, writes, “The countries of the Middle East, however, lacked the essential institutions, traditions and processes of social inclusion in which dissent and opposition could be assimilated. The absence of institutions that could assimilate the anger led to public demonstrations and protests, disproportionate use of force by the established regimes and the rapid toppling of ‘presidents-for-life’ in Tunisia, Egypt, and later Yemen, as well as the grisly demise of Gaddafi, Libya’s dictator for forty-two years.”[iii]

Machiavelli’s idea of conflict was institutionalized conflict between classes, that is, between the nobility and the populace, which improved the republic.[iv] However,more often than not, conflict is not productive. Machiavelli differentiates between constructive and destructive conflict. A republic might not have effective ways for the masses to check those wielding power, and a conflict between them could result in the complete destruction and dissolution of the city.[v]

The law is entrusted with the responsibility to ensure that the public has a mechanism for expressing and airing its frustrations constructively. Machiavelli suggests, "every city should provide ways and means whereby the ambitions of the populace may find an outlet, especially a city which proposes to avail itself of the populace in important undertakings" (Discourses I.4).[vi]

Sun Tzu- The Art of ‘Getting Odd’ in Conflict

The Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu was of the view that confrontation with the opponent must be always avoided until and unless all alternatives have been exhausted and there is a favourable balance of power. In cases where conflict is unavoidable, Sun Tzu offers guidelinesto minimize the cost of conflict.

in Sun Tzu’s understanding of the term, "conflict" describes all situations where two antagonists continue investing to prevent their rival from winning.[vii]The goal is to seek confrontations that are costly to opponents. Therefore, conflict always seeks to prevent an opponent from continuing by causing enough damage to them. It is action with the intention of destruction for its own sake. Therefore, he teaches that it is always best to avoid conflict.[viii]

Sun Tzu taught that anger, hate, and demonizing our enemies are all strategic traps. Instead of strengthening our positions, these mind-sets weaken them.The logic of conflict itself is short sighted. It focuses on an opponent and their position instead of one’s own. Instead of getting even or bringing others down Sun Tzu teaches us to "get odd," that is, to stand out from others by doing things that are unexpected.[ix] That is where the essence of Art of War lies.

As in the field of conflict resolution, winning positions isn't based on fighting others but in finding common ground. Sun Tzu's strategy requires us to see how others think and feel. And while that may be a strategy to winning a war, it is also the key to conflict resolution.

Clausewitz’s Nature and Character of War

Carl von Clausewitz’s famous definition of war as "continuation of politics by other means" has earned him much applause as well as criticism.[x]Clausewitz constantly sought to revise his works to include more material on "people's war" apart from inter-state war.

He contrived the idea of ‘Fog of war’, which meant that in the face of dubious, incomplete, high levels of doubt, fear and excitement, commanders make rapid decisions. War is ultimately waged by human beings; and thus, human emotions do shape how the war is conducted.[xi]

Clausewitz’s synthesis of his perusal of the nature of war is a ‘trinity’- the three factors that lead to conflict in society:

  1. Primordial violence and hatred, which perpetuates growing distance, stereotypes and enmity between groups
  2. Chance and probability, leaving room for unforeseeable events and how the actors improvise on their actions
  3. Subordination as an instrument of policy[xii]


He stresses especially the complexity of the nature of war, which belonged fundamentally to the social-political realm as much as the realm of arts and sciences.[xiii]

He emphasized the need for states to involve their entire populations in the conduct of war. This point is especially important, as these wars demonstrated that such energies could be of decisive importance.[xiv] Similarly in conflict resolution, studies have shown the pertinence of involving all levels of the parties in conflict. Conflict Resolution cannot be sustainable if it is practiced only at Track 1- that is between governments, International Government Organizations, diplomats etc. It has to simultaneously involve all levels of the community and civil society right down to the local and individual agency if the root of conflict and hatred is to be driven out.

Clausewitz’s focus was not limited to wars between nation-states with well-defined armies. He wrote a series of “Lectures on Small War” as the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon was full of revolutions, rebellions, and violence by "non-state actors".

The relevance of his understanding of the nature of conflict can be seen today ever since the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, which provide countless instances of insurgenciesterrorism, and other forms of asymmetrical warfare that states are trying to cope with.

Coming to one of the most important distinctions in our understanding of this conflict- We address the distinction between ‘Nature of conflict’, on the one hand, and ‘Character of conflict’ on the other. According to Clausewitz the nature of war or armed conflict is constant, while the character of it changes depending on its social and political context.[xv] The nature of war is the unchanging moral and physical characteristics that war consists of. The inner essence of war, that is its nature, is common in all wars.There is only variation in the character and conduct of war.[xvi]

Change itself is a part of war’s nature, and this kaleidoscopic variable means that the character of war would differ in each case. Uncertainty is another part of the nature of war, as none of the parties in war can predict or control the other’s action with certainty.

Character of war though, is changeable. The most common grounds for categorizing the changing character of wars are:

1. On the basis of the actors of war- The most common categorization is to separate wars between states from civil war.

2. On the basis of the intensity of war- Intensity can be described in terms of numbers killed or according to the classical scale of conflict.

3. On the basis of the methods used in war- such as “conventional war”, “asymmetric war”, “guerrilla war” and “total war”. [xvii]

Analysis and Conclusion

A great deal of political thought that Machiavelli described in ‘The Discourse’ is relevant to contemporary political concerns of conflict and inequality. This essay stresses how important it is to not just handle and manage conflict, but also how we conduct the expression of it. A healthy political system must have effective mechanisms for its population to express dissent and consequently address those concerns. Not having an effective portal for the venting of social cleavages would inevitably result in what we saw in the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Clausewitz's On War may have been disparate in terms of time, geographic conditions, and culture that they were written in. Nonetheless, the commonalities between these two strategic thinkers are appreciable.[xviii]Sun Tzu understood how human emotions affect how a conflict would play out, and that hatred and enmity would only cloud strategic judgement. Clausewitz similarly outlined the ‘fog of war’ that made conflicts unpredictable because of the ‘human factor’.

The greatness of Clausewitz is that he formed theories that seem to be really independent of time. Clausewitz’s theory of the trinity applies totoday’s context as well. In most conflicts there are leaders (the government in Clausewitz’s theory), popular support (the people), and commanders with their military forces.

The contribution of Carl von Clausewitz that is of most relevance to this essay is his proposition that the nature of war was constant, while the character of war changes according to contextual realities. The nature of war today is therefore the same as it was in the past. Conducting war is still like moving in a resistant element, and fear, danger, exhaustion and uncertainty still exist in war, in the same way as it has done in the past. What has changed is its character. characteristics have changed with the advent of multidimensional and Asymmetrical warfare. Asymmetrical warfare is conflict between parties that are not relatively equal in size or power. For example, a majority versus a minority group or an established government versus a rebel group. Today we also see the blatant rise of non-state actors- terrorist actors and businesses that are directly or indirectly party to the conflict. Furthermore, with the use of advanced technology, ideologies seem to spread exponentially faster while states grapple to cope up with these rapid changes in strategy and character of warfare. Future wars can be fought across the whole scale of existing conceptions of war, and military force has to be built up in order to handle this.[xix]


[iii]HardeepSinghPuri, Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos (Harper Collins, 2016), p.48

[iv]NIILM University, Western Political Thought in 20th Century. Available on the Internet at http://niilmuniversity.in/coursepack/humanities/Western_Political_Thought_in_20th_Century.pdf

[v]Christine Dow, “Virtue and Institutionalized Conflict in Machiavellian Politics”, American Dialectic, Vol. 3, No. 2/3, 2013, pp.173-200.

[vi] Joseph Mali, “Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography”, University of Chicago Press, 2003, page 49.

[vii]Christine Dow, “Virtue and Institutionalized Conflict in Machiavellian Politics”, American Dialectic, Vol. 3, No. 2/3, 2013, pp.173-200.

[x] Howard, Michael; Paret, Peter, eds. On War [Vom Krieg] (Indexed ed.). New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 87.

[xii]  Carl von Clausewitz, On War, originally VomKriege (3 vols., Berlin: 1832-34). Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1984, pp.75,87,89,605.

[xiii]Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State, 2007,pp. viii.

[xiv]  Michael I. Handel, Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, Psychology Press, 1986,  p. 71.

[xv]Ove Pappila, The Nature of War Today. Available on the Internet at http://www.kkrva.se/wp-content/uploads/Artiklar/084/kkrvaht_4_2008_5.pdf

[xvi]Ove Pappila, The Nature of War Today. Available on the Internet at http://www.kkrva.se/wp-content/uploads/Artiklar/084/kkrvaht_4_2008_5.pdf

[xvii]Ove Pappila, The Nature of War Today. Available on the Internet at http://www.kkrva.se/wp-content/uploads/Artiklar/084/kkrvaht_4_2008_5.pdf

[xviii]Michael I. Handel, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz: The Art of War and On War Compared, 1991. Available on the Internet at http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a239084.pdf

[xix]Ove Pappila, The Nature of War Today. Available on the Internet at http://www.kkrva.se/wp-content/uploads/Artiklar/084/kkrvaht_4_2008_5.pdf

Previous ArticleNext Article
Rhea Mahanta

Contact at: [email protected]
  • Facebook Comment
  • Post Your Comment
(Case Sensitive)
Article Search
More Articles by Rhea Mah...
# 1802 September 25, 2017
  • Space Security : Emerging Technologies and Trends
    By Puneet Bhalla
    Price Rs.980
    View Detail
  • Securing India's Borders: Challenge and Policy Options
    By Gautam Das
    Price Rs.
    View Detail
  • China, Japan, and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea Amid an American Shadow
    By Dr Monika Chansoria
    Price Rs.980
    View Detail
  • Increasing Efficiency in Defence Acquisitions in the Army: Training, Staffing and Organisational Initiatives
    By Ganapathy Vanchinathan
    Price Rs.340
    View Detail
  • In Quest of Freedom : The War of 1971
    By Maj Gen Ian Cardozo
    Price Rs.399
    View Detail
  • Changing Demographics in India's Northeast and Its Impact on Security
    By Ashwani Gupta
    Price Rs.Rs.340
    View Detail
  • Creating Best Value Options in Defence Procurement
    By Sanjay Sethi
    Price Rs.Rs.480
    View Detail
  • Brave Men of War: Tales of Valour 1965
    By Lt Col Rohit Agarwal (Retd)
    Price Rs.320
    View Detail
  • 1965 Turning The Tide; How India Won The War
    By Nitin A Gokhale
    Price Rs.320
    View Detail
  • Indian Military and Network-Centric Warfare
    By Prakash Katoch
    Price Rs.895
    View Detail