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American Civil-Military Relations: New Issues, Enduring Problems

Authored by Dr. Douglas V. Johnson II, Dr. Steven Metz. | April 1995

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SUMMARY

The debate over proper civil-military relationships began while America was still a collection of British colonies. The relationship was the subject of intense and acrimonious debate during the framing of the Constitution and periodically the debate reemerges. The author feel the relationship exists on two levels. The first is focused on specific issues and key individuals and is transitory in nature. The second level deals with the enduring questionswith essential values. At the latter level individuals merely represent the issues. Two questions are addressed in this study: What is the appropriate level of involvement of the military in national security policymaking? and Within that context, with what or whom does an officer's ultimate loyalty lie?

Most Americans agree that the objective is a competent, professional military able to contribute to national security policymaking but not to dominate it, but there is no consensus on the changes that the evolution of the global security environment will bring, or on the risks of too much military involvement in policymaking.

The issues that will shape the future such as the changing nature of armed conflict and alterations in U.S. national security strategy are clear, but their precise impact on civil-military relations is not. There is no crisis in American civil-military relations now, but what will happen in a decade or so when the psychological legacy of the Cold War fully fades and fundamental assumptions are again open to debate remains to be seen.

Introduction.

For Americans, few tasks are more vexing than establishing the appropriate role of the military in the shaping of national policy. From the beginning of the Republic, this process has assumed transcendental importance, reflecting fundamental debates about the proper distribution of power in a democratic system and following deep fissures in the polity. Because armed forces are simultaneously seen as a bulwark of freedom and potential threat to it, as protector of national values and possible challenger to them, civil-military relations have been characterized by a series of precarious compromises, each with a limited lifespan. Today, the end of the Cold War is forcing another painful reassessment of the appropriate role of the military in national policymaking. This is a crucial process for the military: decisions made now will affect its policymaking role well into the 21st century.

Major adjustments in civil-military relations are never easy. The heart of the problem is an enduring tension: to succeed at warfighting, the military must be distinct in values, attitudes, procedures, and organization but must, at the same time, represent American society.1 "America's armed forces," Colin Powell writes, "are as much a part of the fabric of U.S. valuesfreedom, democracy, human dignity, and the rule of law?as any other institutional, cultural or religious thread."2 The result of this tension is a mixed, even contradictory, attitude toward military involvement in policymaking. To the extent the military is different than the rest of society, there is a rationale for limiting its involvement in framing policy or even excluding it altogether. But to the extent the military reflects and represents society, it should be fully integrated into policymaking. The only solution is a fragile balance, shifting in response to changes in the strategic environment.

Tensions, contradictions, and interludes of crisis and readjustment make American civil-military relations a tumultuous affair. In daily manifestations of this, officers involved in policymaking often become frustrated when dealing with civilian officials. The U.S. military, as Eliot Cohen points out, has a "persistent preference for excessively neat patterns of civilian-military relations."3 Reality seldom obliges. The tendency is to blame personality, to castigate the inability or unwillingness of civilian officials to fully grasp the needs and appropriate uses of the military. Such explanations are myopic. In reality, the basic structure of American civil-military relations is imbued with unsolvable problems, perplexing dilemmas, and deliberate inefficiencies, all reflecting the deeper intricacies of the American political system. The military's frustration is both intentional and necessary. Knowing this?and understanding its historic background?can help officers play a constructive role in the ongoing transformation to a post-Cold War national security policymaking process.

Conclusions.

As with so many political and strategic issues, the future of American civil-military relations can be distilled to assumptions. Most Americans agree that the objective is a competent, professional military able to contribute to national security policymaking but not dominate it, but there is no consensus on the changes that the evolution of the global security environment (including the concept of national security) will bring, or on the risks of too much military involvement in policymaking. Like all assumptions, these must be periodically reexamined and debated in order to preserve a working consensus.

Future historians will consider the Cold War a seminal event in the evolution of American civil-military relations. Today, policymakers and students of national security affairs can sense the extent of change it will require, but do not yet understand the specifics. Many of the perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes that shaped American national security policy during the Cold War still linger?we are in the "post-Cold War" security era, awaiting the birth of a new one. The issues that will shape the future such as the changing nature of armed conflict and alterations in U.S. national security strategy are clear, but their precise impact on civil-military relations is not. The best analysts can do at this time is illuminate the debate, point out the central determinants of future problems, and explain the complex relationship between new issues and perennial problems. Doing this suggests that if there is to be a crisis in American civil-military relations, it is not occurring now, but will happen in a decade or so when the psychological legacy of the Cold War fully fades and fundamental assumptions are again open to debate. The changes undergone by American civil-military relations in the last decades of the 20th century will thus pale in comparison to those of the first few decades of the 21st century.

ENDNOTES

1. David R. Segal, "National Security and Democracy in the United States," Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 20, No. 3, Spring 1994, p. 375; Samuel P. Huntington, "The Soldier and the State in the 1970s," in Andrew J. Goodpaster and Samuel P. Huntington, Civil-Military Relations, Washington, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1977, p. 27.

2. Colin L. Powell, "U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter 1992/93, pp. 32-33.

3. Eliot A. Cohen, "The Strategy of Innocence? The United States, 1920-1945," in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein, eds., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 428.