Even with a strong military and a civil-military record that would be the envy of any great power in history, Americans still find things to be concerned about in the field of civil-military relations. The five articles assembled for this special edition demonstrate these ironic facts yet again, as an interesting mix of scholars and military-practitioners assemble to debate issues that would be familiar in broad outline to civil-military specialists of several decades ago – if not to the Framers of the Constitution themselves.
Senior military leaders are charged with providing professional military advice to the civilian leadership. Throughout the American experience, military officers have provided civilian leaders with their best professional judgments on raising, sustaining, equipping, and employing military forces. The provision of what is known as “Best Military Advice” is part process, part professional knowledge and skill, and a healthy dose of art surrounded by the entire national security policymaking process.
Although military expertise is imperfect and only one input policy makers should consider, a forthright, candid civil-military dialogue decreases the likelihood of strategic miscalculation and increases the odds of effective policy making. To complement scholarly discussions that discourage political activity by military officers, this article develops a Clausewitzian framework for introducing military advice into what is always a political context. It offers practical suggestions for military officers and hopes to stimulate further debate about what positive norms could shape the civil-military dialogue.
Recent debates in the United States have pitted the fiscal imperative of rationalizing the budget against the social narrative that society has an obligation to take care of its service members and veterans. This civil-military disconnect is a result of the structural necessity in so-called liberal market economies (LME) to focus significant portions of their military compensation on benefits, in addition to pay. These benefits—for example, health care, childcare, education, and retirement—are not broadly provided to all citizens in LMEs and constitute attractive recruiting incentives. However, it is difficult to control their costs and difficult to limit or remove them once implemented. Thus, the United States is caught in a benefits trap with challenging civil-military and policy implications.
Civil-military relations between the president and his key military leaders carry significant implications for strategy making and war outcomes. Presidents and their national security team must prioritize how to develop that relationship. Civilian leaders must understand the various biases military leaders may harbor in different scenarios, while military leaders must present the president with genuine options, serving as professional advisors in the unequal dialogue. It is essential the next president bridge the civil-military gap—thereby facilitating greater understanding and trust. Stronger bonds of confidence between principals and agents result in more effective organizations, as does the ability to figure out what works, why it works, and how to implement it.
The US military should refrain from seeking political power and avoid partisan politics. However, to insist that officers should remain apolitical ignores the fact that in the American system—policy making and the development of strategy on the one hand and the political process on the other—cannot be easily separated. Yet such a separation is what many scholars suggest. For officers to avoid the world of politics would mean removing them from the debates about policy and strategy that require their input. Military leaders must contribute to the policy process and navigate the shoals of politics while maintaining trust between the civilian and military sides of policy formulation.
A successful career for top senior leaders increasingly features employment in the defense industry and offers professional expertise in such a way that it exploits active duty experience to support the private interests of the military-industrial complex. Particularly worrisome are those retired members of the profession who play more than one “national security influencer for profit” role. The choice marks a transition from service to the nation to service for self-interest. Such a choice marks the difference between serving the American people and taking advantage of their relationship to influence the expenditure of tax dollars in ways that favor corporate gain over national security. The implications of this behavior have the potential to create harmful effects on the military profession, civil-military relations, and US national security.