It’s Time to Crowd-Source Questions About Civil-Military Relationships


“Ripped from the headlines,” the number of challenges facing military and civilian leaders in the U.S. national security establishment are diverse, global, and run the gamut from tactical to strategic. Iran’s nuclear program and allegations of attacks on civilian shipping in the Gulf of Oman. Russia’s exploitation of gaps in U.S. and state democratic processes. China’s island-engineering and “lawfare” in the South China Sea. Boko Haram in Nigeria. The self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Sahel. North Korea’s uncertain belligerence. The ongoing legal challenges to the ban of transgender persons from military service. Growing numbers of retired general and flag officers publicly condemning the moral authority and competence of the commander-in-chief. A significant number of unconfirmed acting officials in the senior civilian defense department positions. The controversial use of military force(s) to address illegal immigration at the southern border. Politicization of the military. Militarization of politics.

With such a list, the public — and the military (both uniformed and civilian elements) —should be acutely sensitive to the dynamics, frustrations, on-going issues, and open questions defining civil-military relationships. Transparency and citizen involvement, even if they expose pathological and fractured practices or relationships, are hallmarks of a functioning democracy. Transparency and engagement are necessary for both intragovernmental oversight and public accountability (this is what we tell other, less-developed democracies, after all). But, aside from reading tell-all memoirs, subscribing to respected peer-reviewed journals behind paywalls like Armed Forces & Society, or being attentive to civ-mil tags in online resources like Lawfare, Just Security, Council of Foreign Relations, or War on the Rocks, it may be hard for non-experts to get a timely glimpse at the most the salient and difficult challenges currently facing American civil-military relations and relationships. Conversely, it may be a challenge for academics to bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the general public, and see civil-military relations with that wider lens. Perhaps this contributes to the strange “inversion” of trust that scholars like Kori Schake have noted: historical anxiety about a too-powerful military subverting democratic institutions has morphed into high public support for and trust in the judgment of the military while there is a comparatively microscopic trust in civil political forces. There are many ways to improve this exposure. I describe and offer one of these below.

Each year since 1998, the scientific and intellectual think tank turned online magazine, the Edge Foundation, has published a collection of insightful, very short essays by prominent thinkers on a specific subject, called the “annual question.” The simplicity of the title belies the complexity of the subject matter — usually one that mixes the deeply philosophical with the cutting edge in the biological and physical sciences. Hundreds of responses, from people like Steven Pinker (public intellectual and psychologist, and author of Better Angels of Our Nature), to Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple) and Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web), to Harvard astrophysicist Lisa Randall (author of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs) and Brian Eno (composer, and U2’s and Coldplay’s recording producer), fill these pages. Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences awardee and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) called this a “fast-flowing river of ideas from the academic world to the intellectually curious public” in his preface to the latest Edge book.



This latest (“finale”) effort is the most direct of all: “What is the Last Question?” It elicits each respondent’s question for which he or she “will be remembered” or that is representative of the subjects in a lifetime of research and study. Philosopher David Chalmers asks, “How can we design a machine that can correctly answer every question, including this one?” Author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Collapse, Jared Diamond asks, “Why is there such widespread public opposition to science and scientific reasoning in the United States, the world leader in every major branch of science?” A.C. Grayling, author of War: an Enquiry, asks, “What ethical responsibilities will humans owe to AGI [artificial general intelligence] systems?”

In this final contribution to the Edge’s series, editor John Brockman wanted his authors to pose their respective questions without explanation, background, preface, or answer. These are, after all, “deep, elegant, profound unanswered questions about the universe, the mind, the future of civilization, and the meaning of life.” No clear answers have emerged. But the very formulation of their expert questions itself signals our culture’s interests and our most far-reaching intellectual efforts, while reflecting its concerns, worries, and intellectual anxieties. And they very often shape the way answers are sought and formulated themselves. The questions — alone and straightforward — invite more curiosity.

This method is worth repeating elsewhere. By posing only the question, the thoughtful reader is forced to confront and ask several further questions completely distinct from what the answer or answers could be: the relevance of the question itself, the factual or speculative assumptions that form the unstated premises to that question, the normative conventions and traditions that an answer might change, and the reason why it is being asked. Big questions, like those presented by the Edge’s contributing thinkers, churn around inside the head, collide with other ideas, experiences, and hunches, and inspire creative associations with other subjects and questions in unforeseen ways. The result, while messy, is often path-breaking.

Why is “path-breaking” necessary? Civil-military relations — especially the dynamic between those senior strategic level authorities — has been grounded for nearly three quarters of a century in Samuel Huntington’s theory of “objective civilian control” and his two contradictory “imperatives” from his classic The Soldier and the State. In a nutshell, objective civilian control is the sharp separation between those who wield the nation’s arms and those elected to govern. Huntington’s vision was of a military rigidly subordinate to civilian control and direction, but granted extraordinary license and autonomy within the bounds of what he believed were the three hallmarks of military professionalism: expertise (here, the management of violence), responsibility (to advise correctly, and to execute, for example), and corporateness. “Politics are beyond the scope of military competence,” he wrote. The heart of the civil-military relationship was the balance or uneasy interaction between the “functional imperative” (the need to prepare for and respond to threats to state security) and the “societal imperative” (the actions of a community defined but its “ideologies, and institutions dominant within the society”). Even leading contemporary scholarly studies, like political scientist Peter Feaver’s principal-agent theory and his formulation of the civil-military “problematique,” or Eliot Cohen’s oft-repeated idea of the “unequal dialogue,” can be thought of as evolutions of Huntington’s approach. In Feaver’s view, the relationship is always defined by a fundamental problem: how to provide for a nation’s defense without empowering or permitting those defending it from overtaking and dominating the legitimate civilian authority. In practice, the relationship is like a “game of strategic interaction” between civilian principals, who have ultimate decision-making authority and the “right to be wrong,” and military agents charged with executing those decisions, even if they view those decisions as wrong or unwise. Civilian principals exercise a degree of oversight, or monitoring, to ensure the military does what it is told to do, when it is told to do it, and — if necessary — how it is told to do it. Cohen approaches each relationship in context of personalities, objectives, missions, and constraints, and suggests that the dynamic between civilian and military is not as clear-cut as Huntington and Feaver portray. Rather, civilians in power have certain competencies and concerns that often blur the relative roles. The consequence is that the relationship is more like a limited partnership, in which a civilian — as the senior partner — determines acceptable risk and sets priorities and policies, but engages (sometimes cajoling or negotiating) with the military (the junior partner) in determining and shaping those policies or decisions. This is what he called a “dialogue of unequals.”

Despite their value and historical support, these approaches have nevertheless failed to displace the classic theory as the most prominent solution to the problem of arming a group of citizens to protect a larger group of citizens without allowing those arms to be used as a means of subverting democratic processes and legitimate civil authority. Objective control colors modern public discourse about civil-military relations, shapes scholarship, and is still taught at our academies and war colleges as foundational on the subject of military professionalism — expertise, non-partisanship, and the so-called “military mind,” even though its institutional focus may not account for many modern concerns about professional ethics and the civilian supremacy (even this is not a new phenomenon).

For those of us still on active duty, or with an abiding interest in the shape and direction of American civil-military relations in what some have called a “precarious” time for that feature of our democracy, this asking-without-answering (yet) method could be a useful way of exploring whether current notions are at risk or should be challenged. Knowing what questions are being asked and actively pursued via research programs, or those fundamental questions that implicate enduring practices by actors in the civil-military relationship, is an education in itself. It might inform us, the “armed servants” working as agents for the elected and appointed civilian leadership of our national security institutions, of potential potholes, road blocks, and other obstacles to smooth and effective civilian-military relationships. Likewise, it might arm us to address pathological, failing relationships with our own in-house education and training, or prepare us for more enlightened and productive dialogue with our civilian principals in both the executive and legislative branches.

But, just as importantly, this method holds great potential for bridging other gaps, like that between the world of academe and the “real world.” For a general public with concerns for the relative health of our government institutions and those fellow citizens entrusted with their care, exposure to these kinds of questions may force the shedding of long-held assumptions and generate an appetite for deeper public conversation about this subject.

To those ends, I’ve asked some leading civilian-military relations thinkers to provide their own Edge-like “unanswered questions” — those that animate their studies, drive their research, and continue to draw their attention.

Dr. Peter Feaver, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Duke University:

(1) The United States has an enviable record of civilian control over the military but also a long tradition of incoming secretaries of defense worrying that civilian control had eroded under the predecessor, requiring remedial action. What explains this apparent paradox?

(2) In the United States, the public reports remarkably high levels of confidence in the military but remarkably low levels of propensity to join the military. What explains this paradox? What are the determinants and consequences of this public regard coupled with high level of public remove?

Dr. Lindsay Cohn, Associate Professor, National Security Affairs, U.S. Naval War College:

(1) How does the public really think about the costs and benefits of military operations abroad? What elements matter to them and how do they weigh them?

(2) Is it possible to design a professional ethic that defines the point at which one’s professional obligations can/should/must give way to one’s personal moral obligations and vice versa?

(3) How do we tell what the ideal relationship is between the military and the general public? Does it depend on political culture/change across societies, or is there an abstract ideal?

(4) How do we tell if a society is “militarized”? Is it binary, where a society is militarized or it isn’t? Or is it relative, as in, “This society is more/less militarized now than it was before” or “is more/less militarized than this other similar society.” Is there a level of militarization that is benign or even helpful, or is “militarized” always a bad thing?

(5) What does the public “owe” the military? How do we tell when the public is paying the military enough (both in terms of pay and benefits and informal benefits)? How do we tell when it’s too much – when the military is “taking advantage of” society?

(6) Is there really such a thing as an inherently civilian or inherently military role? If so, why?

(7) Should the military be in charge of everything that gets classified as “defense,” or should they be focused narrowly on kinetic interaction? Why or why not?

(8) Why do most Americans seem convinced that it is an ancient principle of democratic governance that militaries are only used for foreign policy, not domestic policy?

Alice Hunt Friend, Senior Fellow, International Security Program, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS):

(1) The military in the United States is a profession, and civilians are the client. Yet the U.S. system of civilian control relies on civilian professionals in defense and national security affairs. What, therefore, distinguishes the civilians in the elite-level civil-military relationship in a professional sense? What attributes, interests, and expertise do they have? Do these descriptors vary by branch of government, bureaucracy, or some other designation?

(2) What does variation (in attributes, interests, and expertise) on the civilian side of the civil-military relationship mean for the quality of policy outcomes influenced by that relationship?

(3) Is Samuel Huntington right that the modern military is basically an interest group and lobbying organization no different from other interest groups? (Note: this is from his 1961 book Common Defense, not his better known The Solider and the State.) If so, so what?

(4) What effects, if any, do low profile, light footprint operations have on the public’s perceptions of the military (and their engagement with it)? On civilian leaders?

Capt. (Promotable) Michael Robinson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, International Relations, United States Military Academy:

(1) When do policy opinions or commentary from retired military elites become normatively problematic? When are they a necessary or desirable expression of expert thought that informs wiser policy? Is this a product of the elite voice, the subject under debate, or some combination of both?

(2) After decades of socialization to democratic norms, can the military read back to civilian leaders the guiding principles of the state in a period of democratic backsliding? Is serving as this democratic norm “time capsule” anathema to the nature and practice of civilian control?

(3) What does it mean for the military or a military member to be “apolitical”? How is this different from being “non-partisan”?

(4) Does the expansion of the military’s portfolio of responsibilities antiquate the Huntingtonian notion of civil-military relations?

(5) How much of “politicization” of the military is the result of civilian causes? Do military leaders have the right to push back on using the military as a partisan implement?

Dr. Carrie Lee, Assistant Professor and Director of National Security Decision-Making, U.S. Air War College:

(1) We are in an era of unprecedented polarization and politicization of the military as an institution, but thus far analyses have largely limited their concern to its effect on public confidence and perhaps strategic assessment. Are there larger, more kinetic consequences? Specifically, what are the implications of a politicized military for national security and/or battlefield outcomes?

(2) Is the military complicit in its own politicization?

(3) The United States is in the midst of a reignited debate that centers on whether the U.S. military should mirror the society it represents or maintain a more “conservative,” separated distance. Why do we keep having this debate?

(4) During the Cold War, most military technological advancements were the product of government-sponsored research and development efforts and those of national laboratories. Today, almost all new technological capabilities come from the private sector. How does this impact the military’s relationship with society?

Dr. Risa Brooks, Associate Professor of Political Science, Marquette University:

(1) In the 1960s there was a significant debate about the merits of the “apolitical” versus

the “soldier-statesmen” model as competing bases of military professionalism. Indeed, some of the most accomplished military officers in the country’s history have embodied the latter. Today, we seem to have reached a consensus that the former is the appropriate model. Is it time to renew that debate?

(2) How do we better measure and assess the degree and effects of partisanship in the military? Do the men and women who serve perceive the military as nonpartisan and apolitical?

(3) Do presidents and policymakers think of the military leaders with whom they

interact and on whom they rely for advice as nonpartisan? When and why? How does their expectation of partisan bias (or lack thereof) affect their actions, and condition relations at the civil-military nexus?

(4) What does the scholarly literature from different fields (e.g., leadership, ethics, organizational behavior) tell us about different models of advice, and what lessons can be learned and applied to the civil-military context?

(5) The societal-military gap is in part a policy outcome that reflects decisions about recruitment, basing, personnel policy, among other factors. What policies (other than a draft) could be adopted to close the societal-military gap?

Dr. David Burbach, Associate Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval War College:

(1) The American public does not appear to blame the U.S. military for disappointing performance results in Afghanistan or Iraq, instead more often blaming civilian political leaders or ascribing the lack of clear success to the nature of such wars (e.g. the unclear responsibility for outcomes in counter-insurgencies). Where would blame fall if the U.S. military were to fare badly, in a clear and visible way, during a conventional conflict?

(2) If the military is seen as politically untouchable, it could become less accountable for lack of external criticism and pressure to change. Yet, on some issues civilian politicians have challenged the military (e.g. sexual assault prevention and prosecution). Have the executive or legislative branch pulled back from oversight they would like to perform, because they fear the military’s popularity? What makes some issues more open to civilian criticism, such as sexual assault, or dealing with improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan?

(3) While the American public trusts the military much more than politicians, in practice the mass public tends to follow cues from partisan elites. If political leaders were to seriously criticize the military in a broad institutional way, would the public follow?

(4) If today’s geopolitical competition increases the importance of “political warfare” and the information domain relative to traditional military factors, what are the implications for U.S. civil-military relations? Does the division of responsibilities and authorities in the current national security organization need adjusting?

(5) What ought to be the military’s role, if any, in addressing (e.g. preventing, responding to) foreign-sourced disinformation and disruption aimed at the American public during a period below the threshold of armed conflict? Should the answer change if foreign-sourced disinformation and disruption occurs during armed conflict?

(6) What is the nature of the “gap” between the U.S. high-technology business sector and the Defense Department? How serious is it? Can the gap be closed?

Col. Heidi Urben, Ph.D., brigade commander, U.S. Army:

(1) Given the military’s consistently high public approval ratings, what are the factors that could erode the American public’s trust and confidence in its military? What does it mean for both the military and the society it’s sworn to defend if such public approval ratings vary based on party affiliation?

(2) After 18 years of protracted wars and concomitant unequal burden sharing, to what extent do members of the active duty military harbor feelings of resentment and/or superiority towards the society they’re sworn to defend?

And some of my own:

(1) When the military’s mission is defined broadly, like “provide for national security,” a civilian political leader is a principal relative to senior strategic level military leaders, but is still an agent of the public writ large. A military leader is an agent relative to the civilian political leader, but also a principal relative to subordinate military leaders. Does this affect or alter each party’s expectations of the other? Expectations in terms of what — competencies? Authorities? Discretion? Command?

(2)  When, if ever, is it no longer profitable to describe or explain it as a principal-agent relationship?

(3) Military leaders are themselves subject to the personnel, tactical, and organizational decisions that the civilian is responsible for accepting, rejecting, or overseeing. Does the military agent therefore have a conflict of interest in working on behalf of that civilian principal?

(4) Under what conditions might there be a conflict between a military agent’s duty to civilian leader principals and the agent’s professional “duties” to service members or the military institution? If there is a conflict, what rule or decision principle serves as the arbitrator?

(5) Is it fair to extrapolate pathological, failing, or failed institution or organization-wide civil-military relations from evidence of a pathological, failing, or failed interpersonal relationships?

(6) Define “healthy” civil-military relations. Define a “crisis” in civil-military relations.

(7) Are alternative forms of the American strategic civil-military relations possible given constitutional, historical, and statutory precedent and parameters? What form would those alternatives take? (A different set of responsibilities or menu of express and implied authorities? New functions taken from other executive branch departments? New, required background or experience levels? Changes in how a party is held accountable for breaches of civil-military norms?)

(8) How do we know if a civil-military norm is (a) understood by those that we think would be following it, and (b) still objectively and subjectively a civil-military norm?

(9) Is there such a thing as “culpability” for alleged civil-military relationship breaches or its erosion? If so, is culpability zero-sum or on a range or spectrum of seriousness?

(10) To what extent, if any, can or should the civilian leadership of the Defense Department educate and continually assess systemic, institutional, and interpersonal erosion or breaches of civil-military norms and expectations? (And whom do they educate and assess? Elected officials, military leaders, or both? Or themselves too?)

What Do You Think?

Obviously, a few questions from a few scholars should not be taken as the full range of problems concerning today’s civil-military relations experts (both in academia and in practice). As we can see from the kaleidoscopic character of these scholars’ questions, no single subject is likely to have a unique solution or become the panacea for all current and future civil-military crises. Their contributions above also highlight that there is not even a singular way of formulating and framing the issues — even when aiming for objective non-partisanship. But we hope for two outcomes from this exercise. First, that this short “crowd-sourcing” of some salient questions — many drawn from and inspired by today’s most pressing public debates — offers a rich enough, and representative enough, sample of the demands on a democracy imposed by custom, precedent, mutual expectations, policy, and even a bit of law, resident in the American civil-military relationship experience. Second, that these questions churn around, challenge, and spark interest and even more questions among the curious minds out in the field: students, cadets, serving military personnel, political appointees and career civil servants, and engaged citizens. We certainly have no monopoly on good ideas, and we are confident that there are more ways to frame the problem and identify unexplored crevices, highlight different anxieties, or pose new resolutions. To that end, we encourage you to consider and submit your own “big questions” about the American civil-military relationship.  All of us have a vested interest in healthy, effective, exchanges among those that wield the sword of national defense, those that control that sword, and those whom the sword protects.



Lt. Col. Dan Maurer recently began his assignment as an assistant professor of law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was a 2018-19 non-resident fellow at Modern War Institute, and is the author of Crisis, Agency, and Law in US Civil-Military Relations (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), along with publications in leading law reviews, the Harvard National Security Journal, Lawfare, Military Review, Small Wars Journal. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Maurer. The views discussed here are the authors’ alone and should not be attributed to the institutions and organizations with whom they are affiliated.

Image: White House photo by Stephanie Chasez

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