Essays & Reviews

Civil-Military Relations: Huntington’s World, or No?

“It’s an Eliot Cohen world.” This judgment, rendered by former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy at New America’s Future of War Conference, according to Thomas E. Ricks, has to do with the proper understanding of American civil-military relations. The traditional post-World War II understanding was articulated by the late Samuel P. Huntington in The Soldier and the State (1957), one of CSD’s Notable Books. Huntington’s theory of “objective control” was challenged in 2002 by Johns Hopkins University SAIS Professor Eliot A. Cohen in his Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.

In the aftermath of the apparent lack of strategic success in Afghanistan and Iraq (or at best limited success, according to one’s views), we commend these books to your attention. (Whether Flournoy was offering her own view about how civil-military relations should work, or merely observing the way in which things actually work, is an interesting question.)

In The Soldier and the State, Huntington argued that he was prescribing a means for enabling the liberal United States to effectively meet the Soviet threat without forfeiting civilian control of the military. His prescription, which he called “objective civilian control,” has the virtue of simultaneously maximizing military subordination and military fighting power. Objective control guarantees the protection of civilian society from external enemies and from the military themselves.

In Huntington’s prescriptive or normative theory, the key to objective control is “the recognition of autonomous military professionalism,” respect for the independent military sphere of action. Interference or meddling in military affairs undermines military professionalism and so undermines objective control.  This constitutes a bargain between civilians and soldiers. On the one hand, civilian authorities grant a professional officer corps autonomy in the realm of military affairs. On the other, “a highly professional officer corps stands ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state.”

Cohen takes a very different view. He follows Clausewitz, whose oft-cited aphorism “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” is better translated, according to Cohen, as “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” For Clausewitz there is no field of military action — however small — that might not be touched by political factors. Civilian leaders must therefore make every effort to bend military operations to serve the end of politics (even admitting that the “fog” and “friction” of war makes such a relationship difficult to establish in practice). There is no arbitrary line dividing the civilian and military sphere, no neat way to create a unique and separate military dimension.

As to the argument that meddling by civilian amateurs is bound to interfere with the professional conduct of the war, Cohen acknowledges that for a politician to try to dictate military action is almost always folly.  But the entire field of military activity must remain open to civilian oversight. When and where to exercise this oversight is a matter of prudence.

Prudence, of course, is the province of the statesman. Cohen observes that contemporary political scientists unfortunately have lost their sense of the practical. “A belief in the greatness of statesmen,” Cohen writes, “puts in jeopardy theories built on descriptions of social forces or institutions, or systemic explanations such as ‘rational choice.’” In contrast, Cohen “unabashedly accept[s] the notion that there are, occasionally, great statesmen whose skill in the policies of war exceeds those of the average run of political men and women.” This leads him to focus on four great wartime leaders from different times and nations, and with very different backgrounds: Lincoln, Churchill, Clemenceau, and Ben-Gurion, and how they influenced successfully the conduct of military operations.