What did Clausewitz think about the United States?


While reading some of Clausewitz’s writings from the period 1816-1830, I stumbled upon an interesting quote about the United States. It is in the essay called in German Umtriebe and Peter Paret translated it in English as “Agitation.”

Die Northamerikaner haben sich nicht immer des großen Continentes würdig zu zeigen gewußt, den sie repräsentieren.

Or in English:

The North Americans have not always shown themselves worthy of the great continent they represent.

Here is my interpretation about the harsh statement concerning the United States. Umtriebe has been notoriously hard to understand. Written probably between 1819-1820, the essay generally discusses the need for constitution and institutions of popular democracy in Prussia. Besides this being a highly charged topic of the time, in the same period Clausewitz was striving a diplomatic career, while the conservative faction in Berlin suspected him as a secret radical and opposed the nomination. These circumstances might explain the cautious tone and contradictory positions in the essay so confusing for later readers.

Regarding the role of the constitution and democratic institutions, Clausewitz points out that they not always and necessary strengthens the ability of a state to act, especially when it comes to foreign policy. “Often the deliberations in a parliament can reinforce the government’s policy, but often they can also cripple it, and one is as likely as the other.” He gives as examples England where under Elizabeth I and Cromwell people’s rights were curtailed but on the international arena, the autocracy’s freedom of action paid off; or, on the other hand, that Switzerland guarantees personal freedoms but is with almost no global influence. Then Clausewitz makes the unflattering comment concerning the United States.

Because of the time when the essay was written (early 1820s), my belief is that the War of 1812, by then the latest conflict with U.S. participation, had to do with his assessment. As we know, despite the political debates in the Congress and President James Madison’s optimism (or maybe because of them), the country turned out to be unprepared for waging an actual war.

Clausewitz draws attention, however, to the geographic position of the United States (i.e. two oceans separating it from the rest of the world) that gives “certain independence” when dealing with international crisis.

If you want to learn more:

The essay Umtriebe was first published in Karl Schwartz, Das Leben des Generals Carl von Clausewitz und der Frau Marie von Clausewitz geb. Gräfin von Brühl, in Briefen, Tagebüchern, Aufsätzen und anderen Schriftstücken, Buch Zwei (Berlin: F. Dümmler, 1878), 200-244. The English translation in: Carl von Clausewitz, Historical and Political Writings, edited and translated by Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 335-368. Also, Paret discusses quite extensively the essay and the circumstances of it creation in Clausewitz and the State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 298-306.

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