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What Is War? Defining War, Conflict and Competition

This article was originally published on 5th of March 2020.

Australian soldier looking down his weapon, with full gear on.

With rising great power contestation and increasing strategic risk across the globe, everything seems to be called ‘war’. Examples of war’s colloquial use include the trade war between the United States and China, and the concept of grey-zone war (sometimes known as grey-zone warfare). This style of ‘political war’ is defined as “…political influence, economic coercion, use of cyber, use of information operations, and …use of military posture” to shape an opponent, their allies and partners.[1] Although war means more than its narrow dictionary definition, the question remains: what is war?[2]

Defining war, conflict, and competition is vital, particularly for us as professionals of war. Without understanding what war is, how can we adequately advise policymakers or statespersons? More importantly, how do we guide our subordinates on the relevant use of land power during these times of rising strategic competition and growing risk of conflict and war?

This blog defines war, conflict, and competition as a spectrum of political coercion. The blog explains how violence is the primary means of coercion in war. Meanwhile, conflict and competition use violence, and its threat, in different ways. Before defining war, it is important to recognise the risk war’s colloquial use poses to our understanding of war.

If War Means Everything, It Means Nothing

If we cannot define war, it is difficult to recognise the differences between war, conflict, and competition. In modern parlance, the word ‘war’ is used to describe a range of coercive situations that are military and non-military, violent and non-violent, in nature. Yet, using ‘war’ to describe everything has turned the word into a rhetorical device (or crutch), leading it to mean nothing. Having no definition causes some to think war is defined by technology.[3] Others confuse it with strategic competition and realpolitik, calling it ‘political war’.[4] It does not help that war and conflict can be, and historically have been, blurred.[5]

War—Violence is the Primary Means of Coercion

To define war, we must understand what war is used for. The book World History of Warfare details how the reasons for war—from the Neolithic and Mesolithic periods through to modern times—remain enduring: territory, economics, fear of other people, or fear of threats.[6] These common themes led Clausewitz to recognise that war is “…a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means".[7] These ‘other means' are primarily violent. Although such violence may be lethal (intent to kill or maim) and non-lethal (intent to damage and destroy material and resources), it is always physical and extends beyond the nation-state.

The Clausewitzian view of war is not limited to nation-state actors. The concept of ‘political intercourse’ can occur at community, group, tribal, cultural, national, and super-national levels.[8] Hedley Bull’s interpretation of war reinforces this view, where war is

…organised violence carried on by political units against each other. Violence is not war unless it is carried out in the name of a political unit; what distinguishes killing in war from murder is its vicarious and official character…[.] Equally, violence carried out in the name of a political unit is not war unless it is directed against another political unit; the violence employed by the state in …the suppression of pirates does not qualify because it is directed against individuals.[9]

These common themes of human will, politics, coercion, and physical violence shape the definition of war:

War. the continuation of a group’s; be it a tribal element, community, nation-state or super-state; policy using violence as the primary means of coercion.

By defining war as the continuation of a group’s policy primarily through violence, war is both untangled from, and linked to, conflict and competition.

Conflict—Violence is But One Means of Coercion

War is not the only arena where violence may be used for political coercion. LWD 1 notes:

[a]ll war is conflict, yet not all conflict is termed war, with the spectrum extending from ‘no conflict’ situations – like humanitarian relief – up to and including ‘total war’ between states. This reaffirms that conflict, at any level, is a competition of political and human will that can use violent and non-violent means to influence a diverse group of actors to achieve the political objective.[10]

Army’s capstone document helps clarify the distinction between war, conflict, and competition. Both war and conflict use a range of means to coerce others: direct organised armed violence; economic and diplomatic actions, trade sanctions, espionage, sabotage, terrorism, insurgency, human security, cyber; and other non-traditional military considerations.[11] What differentiates war and conflict is the primacy of violence.[12] Conflict is

the continuation of a group’s policy where violence is one method that either complements another primary means of coercion, or rotates primacy with other non-violent means throughout the conflict.

Conversely, competition favours the threat of violence more than the direct use of violence.

Competition—Coercion and Persuasion Through Non-Violent Means

Although war and conflict are both competition, pure competition (sometimes called strategic competition) rarely includes organised and sanctioned massed violence.[13] Instead, the threat of violence (as seen through deterrence and posture) and other non-violent means are used to both coerce and persuade others.[14] This suggests war, conflict, and competition form a spectrum of political coercion and persuasion (Figure 1).


FIGURE 1 – A spectrum of political coercion.

War, Conflict, and Competition—A Spectrum of Coercion

Figure 1 overlays war, conflict, and competition along a spectrum of coercion. This helps differentiate these three concepts. Such a coercive spectrum is not mutually exclusive. An actor (be it a nation or cultural group) may be experiencing all three within any given situation against a range of actors, or even the same actor.[15] This spectrum can even be extended to include cooperation, where actors pursue common policy outcomes, without precluding elements of competition (or conflict) when policy objectives do not align.[16]

Understanding the distinction between war, conflict, and competition is vital for us. It helps us, as professionals, better advise policymakers. It supports our understanding and study of these three phenomena. Finally, it enables us to think about, plan, and execute operations suitable for competition, conflict, or war. If we cannot recognise the differences, we may believe everything is war. This may lead us to confuse violence’s role within, and subordinate to, politics. Such failures could inflame tensions during this time of great power contestation, causing the very war we seek to prevent.


[1] The definition for grey-zone comes from General Dunford’s address to the House Armed Services Committee in April 2018. The full definition is: ‘…political influence, economic coercion, use of cyber, use of information operations, and …use of military posture. So, there is a military dimension to it, but it is clearly a broader problem than just the military dimension.’ The issues and recent debates on grey-zone are summarised by Mazarr. See: House Armed Services Committee, Department of Defense Posture and Budget Hearing, 12 April 2018; Michael Mazarr to War on the Rocks, 2015,….

[2] The dictionary defines war as: ‘…a conflict carried on by force of arms, as between nations or states, or between parties within a state …as in a series of battles or campaigns.’ See: "War,"  in Macquarie Complete Dictionary, ed. Susan Butler (Sydney, NSW, AUST: Macquarie Dictionary Publishers, 2014).

[3] Roland explains how some practitioners and commentators believe that technology defines war. Roland outlines how previous technology, such as air and nuclear power, may appear prevalent at different points in history, ‘…but it does not rule’ war and warfare. This same point is made by Van Creveld. See: Martin Van Creveld, Technology and War: From 2000BC to the Present, Revised and Expanded Kobo eBook ed. (New York, New York, USA: The Free Press, 1991). C-4 to C-5; Alex Roland to Footnotes, 2009,

[4] Recent thinking and research attempts to define post-Crimea Russian actions as ‘political war/warfare’. Yet, such definitions often relate more to grand strategy, strategic policy, or economic/diplomatic action to further ideological visions rather than ‘war’ itself—demonstrating a conflation in the debate and confusion. An illustrative example of this conflation is seen at: Jeffrey V. Dickey et al., "Russian Political Warfare: Origin, Evolution, and Application" (Naval Postgraduate School, 2015), 9-21.

[5] See Bosio for a discussion on the historical roots of the word ‘war’. See: Willmott and Barrett on how war included a range of conflicts and diplomatic concerns prior to the modern Westphalia state system. H.P. Willmott and Michael B. Barrett, Clausewitz Reconsidered  (Santa Barbara, California, USA: Praeger Security International, 2010). 35; "War,"  in Oxford English Dictionary, ed. Judy Pearsall, Fiona McPherson, and Richard Holden (Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press Oxford, 2014); Nicholas J. Bosio, Understanding War's Theory: what military theory is, where it fits, and who influences it, ed. Australian Army Research Centre, vol. 001, Australian Army Occasional Paper - Conflict Theory and Strategy Series (Canberra, ACT, AUST: Australian Army Research Centre, 2018). 20.

[6] This is also seen in van Creveld’s The Transformation of War, specifically in Chapter V. It is noted that this aligns with Thucydides triangle of Fear-Honour-Greed. Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War  (New York, NY, USA: The Free Press, 1991). 124-49; Christon I. Archer et al., World History of Warfare  (Lincoln, Nebraska, USA: University of Nebraska Press, 2002). 1-4, 42-48, 86, 143-45, 222-23, 486-88.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Indexed eBook ed. (New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press, 1989). 86.

[8] Strachan provides a detailed critic of scholars that simplify Clausewitz’s meaning. He outlines how Clausewitz’s meaning included more than nation-states within the definition. See: Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, "Introduction," in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), 7-10; Hew Strachan, "Clausewitz and the Dialectics of War," in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), 37.

[9] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, Second ed. (London, England, UK: MacMillan Press, 1995). 178.

[10] Australian Army, LWD 1: The Fundamentals of Land Power, ed. Australian Army Research Centre, Land Warfare Doctrine (Canberra, ACT, Australia: Department of Defence, 2017). 9.

[11] Brian Sandberg, War and Conflict in the Early Modern World: 1500-1700, Electronic ed. (Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 2016). 11, 14-15; David Carment and Dani Belo, War's Future: The Risks and Rewards of Grey-Zone Conflict and Hybrid Warfare, PDF ed. (Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Canadian Global Affairs Institute, 2018). 2-5.

[12] An illustrative example is the Arab-Israeli Conflict of 1967 to 1973. This consisted primarily of the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War as discrete periods where violence was the primary means. For the rest of the period a series of economic, diplomatic, and other means were used to coerce each side.

[13] Bull makes this clear in his description of war. Raine notes that violence in the competition arena is normally linked to espionage and political assassination, which is different to sanctioned armed violence. See: Bull, The Anarchical Society: 178; John Raine to International Institute for Strategic Studies Analysis, 03 April, 2019,

[14] Carment and Belo, War's Future: 5-6; Grant Mason to The Forge, 11 September, 2019, 3-5; US Joint Staff, Joint Doctrine Note 1-19: Competition Continuum, ed. US Department of Defense, PDF ed., Joint Doctrine (Arlington County, Virginia, USA: US Joint Staff, 2019). 2-3.

[15] Kelly McCoy to Modern War Institute, 26 January, 2018,…; US Joint Staff, JPN 1-19: 2.

[16] Mason, The Forge. 4-6; US Joint Staff, JPN 1-19: 2-3.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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