Clausewitz’s notion of defensive allies identifies them as potent means, and a philosophical account of friendship helps explain why. Alliances, like friendships, are nonmoral, particular, preferential relationships. In the context of a potential conflict over Taiwan, the United States should cultivate its political friendship while encouraging and furthering military comradery.
In On War, Carl von Clausewitz devotes the most attention to understanding the nature of the defensive form of warfare. His inquiry surveys the specifics of geography, the potential inherent in guerilla warfare, the integration of time and space, and the theoretical interplay between the defense as warding off a blow and the attack as acquisitive. Balancing the material, historical, and political aspects of war, Clausewitz weaves an analysis of the inherent potential strength of the defense. As we look to how the United States and its allies can best defend Taiwan, we should take heed of what Clausewitz has to say.
For this chapter, I will explore one of the lesser appreciated aspects of his analysis of defensive strength: allies and alliances. Unsurprising for those who consider defense and international relations outside the context of On War, allies and alliances are deeply integral to Clausewitz’s entire work. Arguably, it is how he identified the connection between war and politics.1 As the United States looks to best situate itself, politically and militarily, to defend Taiwan, a glance at the nuance Clausewitz detects inherent in defensive alliances is enlightening.
A philosophical account of friendship clarifies Clausewitz’s distinction between ordinary and defensive allies, and the defense of Taiwan serves as a valuable case to see these distinctions in action. What does it mean to conceive of an alliance as a kind of friendship—or to see an ally as a friend? I first unpack Clausewitz’s latent theory of international relations, presented mainly in On War. Next, I establish a preliminary sketch of a philosophical account of friendship by using the triptych of utility, pleasure, and complete friends, as laid out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I then critique some, but not all, of Aristotle’s account, as I follow Alexander Nehamas’s On Friendship to a more robust understanding of friendship, the dynamics of which are found in Clausewitz’s defensive alliances. I then confront the question of the difference between comradery and friendship, before concluding with a final concern for the defense of Taiwan.
Clausewitz, in On War’s Book VI, Chapter 6, “Extent of Means of the Defense,” enumerates the unique means available to the defender—the means that proceed from the nature of the defensive form, to include the landwehr, fortresses, the people, the arming of the people, and allies. Specifically, allies are “the last support of the defensive.”2 They are “live and reactive” means, and alliances are the “dynamic whereby [they] . . . shift their means.”3 But these allies are not what Clausewitz calls “ordinary,” a distinction made to disqualify the allies an aggressor might also have.4 Defensive allies are “essentially interested in maintaining the integrity of the country.”5 (Emphasis in original.) These allies are not accidental to the circumstances; these allies arise from the nature of the defensive form of war.
Clausewitz’s description of allies morphs as one reads further into his view of how states interact with one another. It is both antiquated and prescient. It is antiquated because it is decidedly Eurocentric and focuses on the fear of Europe consolidating into a universal monarchy.6 However narrow its scope, the dynamics he describes maintain today. Clausewitz describes the relationship between states as myriad intersections of “great and small States and interests of nations,” which are knotted and “interwoven with each other in a most diversified and changeable manner.”7
This is what W. B. Gallie, one of the few philosophers who explores Clausewitz, identifies as one of Clausewitz’s most innovative assertions: States are states because of their relationship to other states.8 This can be seen in a physicalist sense, as in the actual border between the United States and Mexico and how the United States government interacts with Mexico over all manner of things. But greater still, Clausewitz maintains that any movement by any actor cascades out to all the other knots, such that “this general connection must be partially overturned by every change.”9
In an 1807 note, Clausewitz distinguishes between two kinds of balance of power. One emerges from “the mere rubbing of forces against each other,” while the other is possible through reason. This “self-conscious balance of power” is maintained by “design and effort” at a time when “these alliances become a real necessity.”10 While he may have dismissed that Europe satisfied a deliberately constructed, “systematically regulated balance of power” at the time of his writing of On War, his earlier, emergent view still accounts for the underlying structure.11 The knotted relations react and interact without demanding a particular sense of agency or direction of the whole, but they do not preclude one either. That motions can appear “in a whole with so little cohesion as an assemblage of great and little States is not to be wondered at, for we see the same in that marvelously organized whole, the natural world.”12 The open possibility of a “reasoned” order, whereby a power orchestrates and manages the whole, is exactly what the United States has been developing and fostering since the end of World War II.13 The United States’s hegemonic power and leadership role in the current international order is a direct manifestation of a particular set of interwoven, knotted interests.
Given that Clausewitz is writing in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, he knows too well how these knotted relations can change and how such change can transpire because of a single actor. In his case, it was Napoleonic France; for today, it’s the People’s Republic of China. In an 1803 note, he observes how
the balance of power system only reveals itself when the balance is in danger of being lost. As long as the natural weight of states is sufficient, without noticeable distortion or moral exertion, to keep everything in its place and the whole machine steady— that is, free of violent oscillations—there is no question of a balance of power system; the balance simply exists in itself.14 (Emphasis in original.)
The increased ink spilled in recent years over the liberal international order indicates that the balance is in danger of being lost. But that does not mean it is or will be lost. A feature of the interwoven structure, let alone the one that the United States developed, is the underlying assumption that the status quo is preferable, all things being equal.15 This conservatism is embodied, too, in the fact that the defensive is the stronger form of warfare, a strength for the political defensive. Clausewitz notes, “In this manner the whole relations of all States to each other serve rather to preserve the stability of the whole than to produce changes, that is to say, this tendency to stability exists in general.”16 (Emphasis in the original.) This preference does not exclude progress or evolution, especially if they are based on the consensus of the whole. The point is that seeking to deliberately change the knotted structure creates its own resistance.
Clausewitz reduces the question about how “to preserve the stability of the whole” into a question of efficiency. In some cases, there are “changes in the relations of single States to each other, which promote this efficiency of the whole, and others which obstruct it.” Tendency toward efficiency is created by “universal interests” and the desire to seek to “perfect the political balance.” Tendency away from efficiency of the system comes from “some single States, real maladies.” Reflecting on history, Clausewitz sees that some rogue states succeeded while others failed, but neither type of case undermines the structure that he observes between states. No change is inevitable: “The effort towards an object is a different thing from the motion towards it.”17 It took seven coalitions to finally defeat Napoleon for good.
However perceptive Clausewitz’s latent theory of international relations might be, it does not account for why a state would be essentially interested in the defense of another—that is, why such interest might be recognized as a structural benefit to the defender. The “collective interests of the whole” serve to maintain an equilibrium either at rest or tending toward change that was brought on by previous disturbances. Clausewitz expects that “each single State which has not against it a tension of the whole will have more interest in favor of its defense than opposition to it.”18 This is the closest he gets to fleshing out the idea of “essential interest,” but the statement is wanting. The interwoven knots can account for why the United States is interested in Taiwan, for example, but not why the United States would be essentially so. What would make the United States a defensive ally and not just an ordinary one? What does such a difference entail? To answer these questions, we need to apply a philosophical notion of friendship to our notion of allies and alliances.
Any philosophical account of friendship should start with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. But such a start is even more apt because Aristotle invokes alliances in his discussion of friendship. He observes that, like friendships built on utility, “the alliances of states seem to aim at advantage.”19 Nehamas, whom I will follow later, observes how both Aristotle and Cicero “connected friendship and war.”20 Given that Aristotle has already gestured toward considering alliances in the terms of friendship, let’s complete the movement.21
On Aristotle’s account, there are three kinds of friendships: utility, pleasure, and complete. Utility friends are friends because of the goods they get for themselves from the other. These friendships are transactional. Pleasure friends are friends because of the good they get through, or by way of, interaction with the other. These friendships are contextual. Finally, complete friends are friends because of whom the other is as the other. Goods may arise from or in the pursuit of such friendship, but the primary good is the value of the other as other—what Aristotle calls “another self.”22 Comparing this to Clausewitz’s allies, we can see that ordinary allies tend toward utility, which follows, too, from Aristotle’s observation of Greek intuition. Defensive allies, as Clausewitz has sketched them, and in this Aristotelian framework, tend, then, toward complete friends.
Fortuitously, these alliance distinctions are captured in Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper’s recent book, An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order. Lissner and Rapp-Hooper advocate for a layered alliance structure for the United States that includes all three types of alliances: utility, pleasure, and complete. Their characterizations are helpful. First, they advocate for “a network of global partners in strategically vital regions,” whose “partnerships will be more issue-specific and opportunistic, predicated on mutual interests [i.e., goods for themselves] rather than open-ended treaty commitments.”23 These are relationships built from utility. Next, they recommend that there should be “a category of relationships that are neither allies nor partners but rather alignments of convenience [i.e., pleasant to themselves] characterized by quiet and episodic cooperation.”24 These are relationships built from Aristotelian pleasure.25 Finally, they want to reinforce more-traditional American alliances “by insisting upon shared values.”26 This comportment leans toward the idea of Aristotle’s complete friendships—“the friendship of men who are good and alike in excellence”—and by extension Clausewitz’s sense of defensive allies, but such relationships are more exacting and extensive than just requiring “shared values.”27
To what extent can we understand Clausewitz’s defensive allies as complete friends? Recall how Clausewitz’s defensive allies are “essentially interested in maintaining the integrity of the country.”28 (Emphasis in the original.) The essential interest mirrors Aristotle’s conception that complete friends build their friendship around neither the utility nor the pleasure they may get from the other but from the other in and of themselves—or, in Clausewitz’s sense, the maintenance of the other country itself. The integrity that a defensive ally seeks to preserve is just like the integrity of the other as the other that makes the good of Aristotle’s complete friend. The defensive ally’s interest, to the extent that it can be seen as self-interest under this framing, is an interest in the other (country) as another self.
This is both a wider and narrower scope than just those who maintain shared values, as Lissner and Rapp-Hooper suggest. The scope is wider because more than just those who maintain shared values may satisfy the criterion of being a country that some state is essentially interested in. The scope is narrower because, as Aristotle notes, there are a limited number of complete friends one can have; complete friendships are hard, and few are good.29 The criterion is not that the other (country) is worth preserving because of shared values but that the other country, as such, is worth preserving. In the case of Taiwan, the United States as a defensive ally is essentially interested in the maintenance of Taiwan not for the goods it receives as a result or by way of association but because the essential interest of the United States is in Taiwan as Taiwan. To the extent that shared values are involved, they are folded into what makes Taiwan Taiwan. Any Chinese invasion, subversion, or fait accompli is a threat to Taiwan as such.
Besides classifying kinds of friends, Aristotle’s view on friendship reminds us that friendship is an activity. Clausewitz, too, sees alliances as dynamic.30 Both take time to develop and take place over time. Second, friendships are not instantaneous; they develop with “time and familiarity.”31 A treaty may instigate an alliance, but the relationship must be a process of interaction.
Moreover, just as individuals vary, so too will friendships. No friendship is the same as any other. Friendship is a process of “living together” with the other.32 It is a particular relationship that develops out of contingent circumstances. Aristotle even makes space for friendships under different power conditions, provided, of course, that the other is not a god.33 All that is necessary is that a kind of justice is established—a fairness in reciprocity—for the friendship to maintain.34
Still, there is a limitation to a purely Aristotelian reading of friendship. Friendship is deeply tied to an individual’s virtue, such that only good people (or entities) can be complete friends. Rather than seeking to account for virtue in defensive alliances, it is more fruitful to follow a modern account that emerges out of this Aristotelian view but then strips it of its moral necessity. Even as we eliminate the exacting requirement of Aristotle’s virtue, Lissner and Rapp-Hooper’s notion of shared values will be preserved, though the sense will modulate. Friendships will still be based on the values one sees in the other, but those values need not mirror an abstract kind of virtue. Friendships—and, for our argument, alliances— will move from a moral consideration to an aesthetic one.
Nehamas’s On Friendship starts with Aristotle’s triptych of utility, pleasure, and complete friends, but then he argues that Aristotle’s view fails to account for our intuitive sense of friendship. Given the demands of virtue, the friends that we think we have will not count under Aristotle’s view. And if few, if any, individuals satisfy these conditions, certainly no state will.
Nehamas’s first concern is that utility and pleasure friends should not be considered friends because “what determines what I will or will not wish for you ultimately depends on my own interests.”35 While this is a valid critique for individual friendships, we can maintain these distinctions for Clausewitz’s ordinary allies. As Clausewitz describes allies of the attacker, “They are only the result of special or accidental relations, not an assistance proceeding from the nature of the aggressive.”36 Ordinary allies can be of the utility or pleasure kind, but they only depend on contingent self-interest. Unlike defensive alliances, ordinary alliances are brittle.37
Nehamas’s second critique of Aristotle is more helpful because it confronts the problem of complete friendships and the need for virtue. If only the virtuous can be friends, then on Aristotle’s account, few, if any, are actually friends. Nehamas’s contention is that if Aristotle’s “virtue-philia,” as he refers to complete friends, are to be like our notion of what makes close friends, then they do not require an objective moral foundation.38 Nehamas contends,
We are more likely to be friends not because we recognize in one another some independently acknowledged virtues but because we take the features we admire in one another, whatever they are, to be virtues, whether or not they are such in the abstract.39
This reversal is crucial because it means that “even the vicious have friends.”40 And for alliances, we need not concern ourselves with the question of whether a state is or can be morally virtuous.41 That one sees value in the other, as such, is sufficient.
Next, Nehamas emphasizes the preference inherent in friendship. “Those to whom one pledged oneself were by necessity few and a vanishingly small segment of the world and were to be treated differently from everybody else.”42 The essence of the relationship is based in valuing differences and not commonalities. Whereas moral values prioritize the collective over the individual and find value in the commonality, aesthetic values emphasize the particular over the whole and find value in the difference.43 In other words, it is this person, as opposed to that person, who is my friend. It is this state, as opposed to that state, that is my ally. Both are contingent, contextual, and deeply particular.
Nehamas quotes C. S. Lewis, who goes so far as to say that friendship is “a sort of secession, even a rebellion . . . a pocket of potential resistance.”44 Solidarity is specific, existential, and confrontational, qualities Clausewitz recognized in defensive allies. While at the individual level “the essential partiality of friendships is the most fundamental obstacle to modeling our social and political relationships,” this element is inherent in the form of the political defensive.45 At the level of war, Clausewitz identified that this obstacle is what enables the defense and the possibility of preservation and existential success.
While Nehamas’s notion of close friends is not based on separate self-interest, such friends still maintain an interest in the other; one might even say they have an essential interest. (Still, “no friendship is completely uninstrumental.”)46 (Emphasis in the original.) This is not interest in the virtue of the other, as Aristotle contends, but it is interest in what makes the other the other—and how that particularity makes them special to us. Nehamas reports,
According to C. S. Lewis, Charles Lamb said somewhere that if one of three friends (A, B, and C) should die, B loses not only A but also “A’s part in C”, while C loses not only A but also “A’s part in B.”47
Friends are not fungible.48 For instance, if Taiwan were lost, then the United States would lose not only its relationship to Taiwan as Taiwan but also the participation of Taiwan in all its relationships to other members of the international community, such as Lithuania.49 While the individual parts are bilateral, the loss is collective; just like in Clausewitz’s interwoven knots, all would be moved. What matters is the participation in the embodiment of the other, such that one is defined, in a way, by the other’s existence.50 Taiwan is worth defending not only because it is a democracy, a major trading partner, a manufacturer of semiconductor chips, and a strategically located country but also because, consisting of all these factors, among others, it is valued. The United States is essentially interested in Taiwan, composed as such.
The United States has been shaped militarily, diplomatically, bureaucratically, politically, and economically by its alliances since World War II. But this has taken time. Like Aristotle, Nehamas emphasizes the temporal element of friendship. Friendships require not only time to develop but, as Nehamas underscores, “a commitment to the future” such that “our place in each other’s life will in some way make life for both of us better than it would be otherwise.”51
This temporal commitment (i.e., permanent alliances) is exactly what George Washington objected to in his Farewell Address, but it is exactly what the United States constructed after World War II.52 Such open-ended, future-oriented stances are inherently risky because one is entrusting a part of oneself, or one’s capability and capacity, to another’s hands. Nehamas concludes:
Our friendships permeate our personality, they structure our perceptions of the world, and in many circumstances enable us to act in a particular way without a second thought: they are part of the background that allows us to perceive directly that we must do something for a friend that we wouldn’t do for someone else.53
The same goes for defensive alliances.
But if we are appealing to individual relationships to understand what makes a defensive ally and what makes a defensive ally separate and distinct from ordinary allies, then why would allies be friends and not comrades? Jesse Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle is the best philosophical complement to Clausewitz’s On War. Whereas Clausewitz is primarily concerned with the macroelements of war and warfare and the militaries, communities, and governments that fight, Gray homes in on the individual fighting and existing in war and warfare. This is not to say that Clausewitz’s work is not concerned, at times, with individuals, but his concern is either the excellence of the preeminent commander genius or the failure of the subordinates to maintain their cohesion, order, and discipline as a whole. Instead, Gray, clearly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, focuses on the interiority of the individual in war. Clausewitz’s concern for the psychology of the soldier is at the highest level of military leadership, while Gray is concerned with the psychology of soldiers writ large. Consequently, in his investigation, Gray differentiates between comradery and friendships.
Gray says comradery is a “communal experience” and an “appeal of war.”54 Physical proximity is a minimal condition, and there must be “organization for a common goal.”55 Like Clausewitz, he thinks danger is necessary. Comradery entails individuals who have transcended their individual identity to recognize themselves in the group; “Comradeship at first develops through the consciousness of an obstacle to be overcome through common effort.”56 Gray identifies this intoxication and liberation in how the “‘I’ passes insensibly into a ‘we’, ‘my’ becomes ‘our’, and the individual fate loses its central importance.”57 Based on our understanding of friendship and alliances, this is deeply problematic if actioned at the political level. While Clausewitz sees an “essential interest in maintaining a country’s integrity,” it cannot be at the expense of one’s own existence as such. Self-sacrifice may be noble, but it is rarely pragmatic and politically wise.58 Yet in the context of warfare or the conduct of war, it is still a potent force. As Gray observes, “For the self that dies is little in comparison with that which survives and triumphs.”59 For defensive allies to actualize under a concept of friendship, they must be political friends, but to actualize the defensive alliance in war entails military comradery.
Comradery is unachievable among states politically, but it is necessary militarily. Clausewitz identifies this tension because “we never find that a State joining in the cause of another State takes it up with the same earnestness as its own.” This holds, too, for friendships, unless the relationship has transcended, as Gray notes, into a communal space of comradeship in which the one is the other because they are both part of, and recognize themselves in, a larger whole. Clausewitz laments, mainly reflecting on the condition of alliances in the late 18th century, how allies do not “[hand] over entirely to the State engaged in War” their promised forces. Instead, the “force has its own Commander, who depends only on his own Government, and to whom it prescribes an object such as best suits the shilly-shally measures it has in view.”60 The problem, as Clausewitz sees it, is that states seek to maintain their own agency, even when it is disadvantageous from a purely military perspective. This is, as Gray explains, “the essential difference between comradeship and friendship,” in the sense that there is “a heightened awareness of the self in friendship and in the suppression of self-awareness in comradeship.”61 Military action and coordination demand comradeship, but the politics of alliances demands friendship.
Ideally, as Clausewitz notes in 1805, “all the forces committed to the war [should be] under a single commander.” But too often, he laments, “the ministers involved would use all their cunning” to prevent such consolidated command. Such unification, Clausewitz contends, would “increase the probability of victory.” More important, however, is the existence of “a common strategic plan, based on the natural circumstances and advantages of each of the states involved.”62 Unfortunately, people
hinder the uniform, harmonious operation of forces by bringing conflicting points of view into play and creating divided interests, and they seldom possess sufficient insight and skill to restore unity some other way, through the proper deployment and coordination of these diverse elements.63 (Emphasis in the original.)
This adjudication between the assertion of the self as state and the deference to collective goals is best exemplified in NATO.64 The institution can be seen as a compromise between the need for actualizing military comradery while preserving an individuated sense of the political self. Still, NATO considers an attack on one member to be an attack on all members. As Clausewitz reminds us: “People who complain about the ineffectiveness of coalitions do not know what they want; what better way is there to resist a stronger power?”65
Clausewitz’s notion of defensive allies identifies them as potent means, and a philosophical account of friendship helps explain why. Alliances, like friendships, are nonmoral, particular, preferential relationships. Each is a knot that possesses a kind of inertia and inherent defensive potential, depending on how essential it is perceived to be in the integrated network of relations and interests. In the context of a potential conflict over Taiwan, the United States should cultivate its political friendship while encouraging and furthering military comradery. Both Aristotle and Nehamas underscore the inherent temporality of friendship and, thereby, alliances. This must be more than an act; it must be an activity.
The increased cooperation between the United States’s Special Operations Forces and Taiwan’s military revealed in 2021 is just such an activity. This is how the foundations for military comradery are laid. But the development of political friendship is more difficult, especially given Taiwan’s complicated international status. If we imagine Clausewitz’s knotted relations, Taiwan’s knot is disputed. The People’s Republic of China continues to coerce others to cease recognizing the existence of Taiwan’s knot. In other words, the People’s Republic of China seeks to subvert the potential for actualizing a defensive alliance by convincing the world that there is no such knot to defend, no such knot with which to be friends.
Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States operates with ambiguity. To what degree the vagueness of political friendship may be maintained while military comradery is promoted will depend on the relationship over time and how the United States—its people and institutions—chooses to recognize the value of Taiwan itself. Are we not a better nation for being friends with Taiwan? Nevertheless, should conflict commence, the United States, as a political friend and practiced in military comradery, provides the best means for the defense of Taiwan as Taiwan.