Biden Inherits a Challenging Civil-Military Legacy


Joseph Biden will be the most experienced first-time president in nearly 30 years when he enters office, but he and his team will inherit a civil-military relationship as tenuous as any in recent memory. Not only will they have to deal with the fallout of President Donald Trump’s unusual legacy as commander-in-chief, they will need to try to avoid some of the unhealthy civil-military dynamics left over from the Obama administration. Biden and his team will grapple with all of this through a national security establishment that has changed in some important ways since Democrats last were at the helm. This would be a daunting assignment even in a stable time, but — given the potential threats on the horizon and the other crises Biden inherits — restoring a healthier civil-military balance will be especially challenging. Civilians may have the right to be wrong, but the margin for error in this environment is slim.



Trump’s Civil-Military Legacy

By any measure, Trump’s tenure was a difficult one for civil-military relations. This problematic legacy can be grouped into the “4 P’s”: the president, people, processes, and politicization. The problems started at the top, with the president suffering from a civil-military tin ear — one not attuned to, and perhaps openly disrespectful of, the norms and traditions that shore up best-practices in the making and implementation of national security policy. Trump was the least-prepared occupant of the Oval Office in American history, particularly with regard to his role at the top of the national security chain of command. He also is the president who grew the least while in office, ending his four-year term with egregious examples of the same sort of deviant practices that marred his earliest days.

To be sure, Trump had some genuine avenues of appeal to the military. He obviously admired certain aspects of military tradition — the pomp and circumstance of parades and the macho appeal of battle cries. He earned some credit by insisting on reversing the projected defense cuts of the Obama era. Polls showed that, like previous Republican candidates, more veterans preferred him to the Democratic alternative, although here his advantage was markedly less than that enjoyed by his predecessors. During his first two years in office, Trump granted the military a somewhat freer hand to pursue counter-ISIL operations, openly contrasting this approach with perceptions of Obama-era micromanagement that chafed some in the military.

But these instrumental appeals were matched with a personal style that seemed to demand personal loyalty to him rather than to the Constitution. Time and again, Trump treated his senior military leaders as if they were courtiers, rather than the professional servants of the state that they consider themselves to be. Perhaps no single moment captures this gulf better than the televised first meeting of the full Cabinet on June 12, 2017. As the camera panned the room, secretary after secretary offered up cringe-worthy paeans of personal praise to Trump until it was the turn for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who reversed the tables by speaking of the honor of representing the “men and women of the Department of Defense.” The gulf remained large throughout Trump’s tenure and was reinforced in the final months when, in the midst of the president’s unprecedented efforts to overturn his electoral defeat, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley pointedly emphasized that the military “do[es] not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. … We take an oath to the Constitution.” That this boilerplate statement was deemed newsworthy and treated as an implicit rebuke of the president speaks volumes about the strain that Trump’s personalistic style has caused for civil-military relations.

Trump also struggled to recruit and retain experienced professionals, especially in the national security arena, in part because so many of the Republican civilian national security establishment had signed letters openly refusing to support his candidacy, even after he secured the party’s nomination. As a consequence, Trump created acute civil-military imbalances by over-relying on current and recently retired military officers to fill key political roles usually reserved for civilians. Though serving in civilian political roles, Trump referred to them as “my generals,” and he made it clear that he relied on them for military advice as much as, if not more than, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other service chiefs — the ones identified by statute as the president’s key military advisers. The administration further hollowed out the civilian ranks by filling in lower-level positions with less-qualified or impossible-to-confirm appointees who were kept on in an “acting” status to make them function more like disposable errand boys than like fully empowered executive officers. Trump’s tumultuous personnel policies carried over into even the top political positions. After Mattis departed, the Department of Defense endured a full six months of being led by a series of acting secretaries, unprecedented in the department’s history.

The combination of unfilled civilian positions and weakened oversight processes helped the Joint Staff and the combatant commands become even more powerful as bureaucratic actors, further eclipsing the civilian Office of the Secretary of Defense in the policymaking process within the Department of Defense. Again, the failure of the administration to evolve over time has been evident, with the problems bedeviling the administration in the first six months of Trump’s term becoming even more acute in its last six months. The Trump administration is ending with the weakest civilian staff of any modern president.

The uneven policy processes of the Trump administration exacerbated these difficult civil-military dynamics. On issues where the president did not personally engage, an orderly process emerged roughly akin to what previous administrations developed. But when the president did engage personally, that process was jettisoned and rendered irrelevant. In its stead was an approach of “policy-by-tweet” and “advised-by-cable TV-pundits” through which the president wrong-footed his own team over and over again.

For instance, the administration produced two major strategies — the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy — that were well received and well integrated with each other, as intended by statute. But they were largely irrelevant to any issue on which the president himself personally engaged. Thus, the National Security Strategy emphasized the importance of allies and America’s treaty commitments, while Trump’s personal involvement entailed denouncing allies and calling into question America’s treaty commitments. It identified Russia as a principal geopolitical foe, while Trump expressed undisguised admiration for Putin and bent over backwards to excuse Russian meddling in American elections.

This dysfunction further weakened civilians vis-à-vis the military. Traditionally, civilians at lower levels in the national security policymaking process derive their influence from the extent to which they reflect the power of the president himself. But if the president rules by capricious tweet, the civilian policy adviser becomes mostly irrelevant and little of consequence stands between the commander-in-chief and the uniformed military officials who implement the orders.

These approaches fed into an overall politicization of civil-military relations, accelerating a trend that predated Trump but that became dramatically worse during his tenure. Trump spoke of the military as his natural political base — or what, in his mind, should be his base, if it had not been corrupted by “deep state” enemies determined to undermine his presidency. Thus, in a stroke, everyone in the establishment became partisan friend or foe.

If a friend — or, more accurately, while a friend, since, for Trump, loyalty down the chain of command was ephemeral — then no favor was too great. Trump gave the most extreme blanket pardon ever given by a president to retired three-star general Mike Flynn, who had pled guilty to felony charges of lying to hide suspicious contacts with Russian interlocutors. Trump likewise overruled the chain of command and intervened in a precedent-breaking way to grant pardons and commutations to servicemembers charged with war crimes. These individuals repaid the president by attending campaign fundraisers for his reelection and by denouncing Trump’s political enemies as if they were enemies of the United States. But if deemed a partisan foe, then no slur was too great. When the president was stung by multiple reports that he had been heard denigrating dead and wounded American veterans as “suckers and losers,” Trump lashed out at senior generals and admirals as political opponents “because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”

As the 2020 campaign season intensified, Trump fed concerns that he would reject any electoral outcome that did not result in him getting a second term, which, in turn, led otherwise responsible observers to speculate about a possible role for the military in enforcing the electoral results on a recalcitrant incumbent. Milley sought to distance the military from this kind of speculation by underscoring the military oath to the Constitution and by emphasizing that the Constitution identified no such role for the military. Trump’s stubborn refusal to allay doubts even led to the widely publicized transgression of a taboo: Senior former officials from Democratic and Republican administrations war-gamed a previously impossible-to-imagine contingency: open partisan contestation after the election that escalated to armed conflict. That war game in turn led former senior Trump officials to call for pro-Trump “counter coup” planning. Some reports even suggest that Trump recently asked the pardoned Flynn about wild conspiracy theories the latter has been spreading in the media stating that Trump has the authority to deploy the military to seize voting machines in swing states and “basically rerun an election in each of those states.” The military will not follow illegal orders if Trump gives them. However even this speculation in the Oval Office is causing damage that may change expectations about the military’s role in politics after Trump departs.

This legacy is disturbing, but it remains to be seen how enduring the harm will be. The nomination of retired general Lloyd Austin, only four years after Trump ignored the norm against appointing a retired general as secretary of defense, suggests some of Trump’s actions may have fundamentally transformed the civil-military playing field. But it is worth distinguishing between a civil-military violation — which can range from minor to severe — and the lingering consequences of that violation — which can range from transient to enduring. To be sure, the more severe the violation, the more likely it is that the damage will take some time to undo. But not always. It is also worth noting that some parts of the civil-military system may recover from the same harm sooner than other parts.

Austin’s nomination may complicate the return to regular order in the Pentagon, especially if he is not attentive to the civil-military challenges he inherits. Even so, the effects of Trump’s norm-breaking behavior may be less likely to persist as long within the Defense Department and the civil-military processes that involve it as they are in the broader political and cultural milieus that feed into and underlay the policymaking process. In breaking so many taboos for short-term political advantage, seemingly without paying an immediate price for doing so, Trump may have shaped the incentives for future presidents and other public officials to seek similar short-term political expediency. If so, the harm to civil-military relations could linger longer than a return to a semblance of regular order within the Department of Defense might suggest.

Lessons from the Obama Era

Biden’s team is surely lamenting the civil-military legacy it is inheriting from the Trump administration, but members of the team should also recall the flawed civil-military legacy the Obama administration left at the end of President Barack Obama’s term in 2016. Although these missteps pale in comparison to the legacy Trump leaves behind, mutual mistrust often colored interactions between civilian and military leaders well before Trump entered the scene.

The Obama team’s civil-military record was uneven, marred by high levels of friction and micromanagement, some real and some perceived. The Defense Department chafed against restrictions imposed by an inexperienced commander-in-chief and enforced by a National Security Council staff that had grown so large that even its own director admitted reform was necessary. Within the Department of Defense, successive changes also created challenges for the recruitment, retention, and management of the civilian professional staff with statutory responsibility for providing oversight on a daily basis. By the end of the Obama era, the secretary of defense already was starting to bypass his own civilian staff, turning instead to their military counterparts for policy advice and operational management.

Some of the responsibility for these problems also falls on senior uniformed leaders who pushed the boundaries of their policy influence by limiting options for civilian decision-makers and embracing the practice of offering what they called “best military advice.” These dual trends had the effect of creating political pressure for elected leaders to accept military recommendations. Even before Trump took office, the balance between the influence of members of the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense was beginning to lean heavily toward the Joint Staff — a pattern that intensified in the Trump years.

Moreover, while Biden has the great advantage of having campaigned as a unity candidate, he brings in other baggage by presiding over a divided party. It is notable that the first high-profile Cabinet post that progressives within his own party chose to contest on ideological grounds was the position of secretary of defense. The divisions within the Democratic Party on defense spending, nuclear modernization, counter-terrorism, China, and even how to respond to climate change are at least as big, and perhaps bigger, than those that separate Biden from many Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Biden may have compounded this problem by nominating a retired general to a post that will require strong political skills to work across a divided party and with a divided Congress while also trying to reestablish atrophied processes in a Defense Department that looks much different than it did four years ago.

Biden’s team may also suffer the negative consequences of the repeated appeals made by Democrats, Never Trump Republicans, and others during the Trump era for the military to function as “the adults in the room” by checking Trump as he sought to implement controversial policies. A military bureaucracy that has been praised for slow-rolling policies it does not like probably will not quickly unlearn those techniques. Indeed, many of these habits were evident even before Trump. It may be only a matter of time before the Biden team encounters some bureaucratic friction of its own. These unhelpful military tendencies may well be exacerbated by the gender and, perhaps, age dynamics that veterans of the Obama administration identified and lamented. It is highly likely that the Biden team will boast placing a record number of women national security professionals in key positions throughout the administration. Some may also be significantly younger than their military counterparts, even though most will have had significant Defense Department experience of their own. The Obama administration discovered that it took time for the military to adjust to these changing social realities: There were far too many episodes of gross unprofessionalism, many by military leaders who failed to show women political appointees the respect they deserved in the process.

To be sure, the new Biden team will not be a carbon copy of the Obama team and even those that return will do so with new perspective and their own lessons learned in the interval. However, they would be wise to recognize that a rapid shift in leadership styles now may create a sort of civil-military whiplash. The Biden team almost certainly will want to reestablish processes that provide greater civilian direction for war plans, budgeting, and global priorities. After four years of relative autonomy for the Joint Staff and combatant commands, combined with reduced daily civilian oversight due to under-filled political positions in the Pentagon, a micromanagement narrative could almost write itself. Biden and his team will need to be attuned to these dynamics and look for early opportunities to establish trust and clarify their expectations about the civil-military relationship while also providing senior military officers a real voice in the policy process that makes them feel respected and heard.

The Institutional Context

Biden’s team will have to manage these challenges with a toolbox that is under severe fiscal constraint and with military leaders who already believe they are strapped thin. Trump did manage to increase defense spending trends and slightly decrease the number of American military personnel deployed abroad, resulting in a meaningful reinvestment in defense capabilities and a moderate decrease in operational tempo. But future defense budgets will be under severe pressure, perhaps rivaling in the aggregate the kinds of cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act, though hopefully with more flexibility and predictability to manage them in more sensible ways than the threat of a sequester straitjacket permitted. Moreover, the decline in foreign deployments was matched, and in some cases exceeded, by a decline in “permanent” foreign basing. The result is that the strains of military deployments on military personnel and their families are as great as in earlier periods, when a larger number and a greater scale of deployments were supported by more robust foreign basing infrastructure. To pick just one example: A shorter NATO rotation to Germany or Poland without family accompanying (and without combat pay as a sweetener) could impose more strain on morale than a longer rotation with family. There are few signs that civilian and military leaders fully understand these challenges or that they are willing to make difficult tradeoffs.

In the meantime, the last four years have seen a failure to make the needed investments in the other tools of statecraft, particularly diplomacy and development. While morale in the foreign policy and national security ranks will likely improve, at least initially, with the return of something resembling establishment values, the damage caused by deferred or dysfunctional approaches to human capital will hobble the Biden team for some time to come and will, in particular, make it hard to quickly rebuild the capacity of civilian services to match advances in the uniformed ranks — especially in the face of the prolonged resource fights to come. The Trump team was especially vigorous in burrowing in some of its most partisan and suspect appointments into civil service positions and on bipartisan boards within the national security establishment. An early challenge for the Biden team will be deciding — likely on a case-by-case basis — whether the restoration of the “above-partisan-politics” norm in these areas requires engaging in the seemingly partisan practice of cleaning house, or whether the norm would be made stronger through greater forbearance. None of these choices will be straightforward.

In terms of the institutional environment, legislative changes and four years of weak civilian control mean that Biden will face a much stronger chairman of the Joint Chiefs and associated Joint Staff than he faced barely four years ago. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act granted the chairman additional responsibilities for global integration, technically expanding only his advisory role. In practice, these powers have become more expansive, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff taking on some roles that traditionally had fallen to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Trump administration officials also changed some of the procedures for war plan reviews and political guidance, reducing the number of interactions between military leaders and mid-level political appointees that previously had provided the civilian Office of the Secretary of Defense more opportunities to play an active oversight role. Trump’s unorthodox and tumultuous personnel policies also shifted practical authority to the Joint Staff. Long nomination delays and unfilled civilian posts resulting from Trump administration infighting weakened that office further, leaving Mattis and his successors more beholden to the advice and influence of the better-staffed and more efficient Joint Staff. Trump’s first chairman, Gen. Joe Dunford, enjoyed an unusually close and trusting relationship with Mattis, whom Dunford had served under as a marine. A similar dynamic also existed between Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who had led the Army as chief of staff and secretary, respectively, during the early days of the Trump administration.

The appointment of Austin risks exacerbating this unbalance, unless he takes pains to develop and empower a capable team of civilians in his immediate office and within the larger Office of the Secretary of Defense — a point that has already been emphasized. The initial signs on this front are encouraging. The announcement that the Biden administration will nominate Kathleen Hicks as the first female deputy secretary of defense and Colin Kahl as the undersecretary of defense for policy ensure that strong, experienced civilian leaders who take civil-military issues seriously will hold key roles in the Pentagon assuming the Senate confirms their appointments, as we fully expect. The unofficial reports that Austin will pick Kelly Magsamen as his chief of staff, likewise puts a well-connected civilian with political experience in a key position. We both know all these individuals well, and one of us has worked for Hicks (who oversaw Golby’s work on the “Thank You for Your Service” podcast) and Kahl (who was Golby’s direct supervisor on Vice President Biden’s national security staff).

Even with these capable selections, the civil-military dynamics awaiting the new secretary of defense and his team in the Pentagon will be daunting. Because of the policy and personnel dynamics during the Trump administration, the Joint Staff and the combatant commanders have become accustomed to a greater degree of autonomy and influence. Biden’s political appointees, sitting at the head of the table and asking detailed questions, will immediately cause some friction between these groups. They also will find themselves with smaller staffs, fewer resources, and a shorter institutional memory than their military counterparts. Some of the savviest members of the Biden team will recognize in these challenges echoes of the challenges political appointees faced late in the Obama years. But their intensity in combined form will stretch Biden and members of his team in new ways. They must not let their well-intentioned — and much needed — desire to reestablish processes of civilian oversight undermine the trust necessary for effective civil-military cooperation.

At the same time, senior military officers on the Joint Staff and at the combatant commands should prepare their staffs for increased expectations of public transparency, civilian interaction, and intrusive questioning than that to which they have become accustomed in recent years. A culture that pronounces micromanagement at the first sign of tough questioning can also undermine the trust required for effective civil-military communication. Iterative discussion and questioning are an essential part of the process of aligning military ways and means with political ends. More developed process and predictability can benefit the military, too, but there will be conflict and misunderstanding as these institutional muscles learn to flex again. However, the Biden team will bear the primary burden of demonstrating that its goal is not civilian control for the sake of control, but rather civil-military trust and cooperation geared toward the shared goal of effective national security policies.

The Societal Setting

Perhaps the aspect that will take the Biden team the longest to adjust to is the new societal context — the social milieu in which these civil-military dynamics take place. In a nutshell, the Biden administration must adjust to deeper political polarization and changing attitudes about the appropriate role of serving and retired military officers in foreign policy and national security debates.

Two survey comparisons underscore this challenge: a 2014 YouGov survey — the closest thing we have to a comparable survey from  the time Biden was in the White House — and nationally-representative surveys of 4,500 Americans that the National Opinion Research Center conducted on our behalf in 2019 and 2020 (and that are proprietary until we finish a book on this topic) that reflect the environment today. We do not have enough active duty military in these samples to offer statistically meaningful descriptions of the attitudes of the actual personnel who will constitute the “military” in civil-military policymaking, but previous surveys have shown that the attitudes of veterans, particularly of recent veterans, is a satisfactory proxy that can guide our understanding. While some civil-military gaps we explored in both surveys are overstated because they are driven primarily by demographic differences, others have grown and will create sharper civil-military challenges for the Biden administration. We also have found several areas where civilian and veteran respondents largely agree, but in ways that undermine civilian control over policy processes.

Among the most striking findings from the 2014 snapshot was a “familiarity gap” tied to the lack of public knowledge about the military. Despite numerous ongoing American troop deployments, many civilian respondents — often as many as a quarter or a third — would not even venture to answer basic questions about the military. Civilian and veteran respondents also expressed very different views about whether and how to use military force. In general, veterans were more reluctant to express support for the use of military force than civilian respondents, but civilians were more likely to favor troop limits or other restrictions when troops were deployed. Both civilian and veteran respondents expressed growing support for various forms of military resistance to unwise civilian orders. With respect to traditional civil-military norms and best practices, these findings — including that majorities of nearly all subgroups supported the idea of military resignation in protest — were somewhat troubling. In part, these civil-military trends were likely the result of broader societal trends reflecting lost public confidence in elected officials. In 2014, nearly 80 percent of all respondents reported that political leaders do not share the public’s values. In contrast, nearly three-quarters of Americans expressed confidence in the military, with only small differences between civilian and veteran populations. These attitudes extended and intensified long-standing patterns seen in other surveys during the post-Cold War Era.

Today, this dynamic persists and is intensified still further. In 2020, approximately 69 percent of Americans express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, down slightly from 74 percent in 2019 and 2014. Even at 69 percent, esteem for the military is higher than it is for any other national institution, and indeed far higher than it is for Congress, the Supreme Court, or the presidency. The public’s confidence in the military is highly conditioned on partisanship, with 82 percent of Republicans expressing confidence in the military compared to just 60 percent of Democrats, reflecting a five-point larger difference between parties than in 2014. Biden’s slice of the electorate in 2020 also contains large groups that harbor serious concerns about the military. Only 53 percent of self-identified liberals express confidence in the military, with confidence dropping below 49 percent for both women liberals and non-white liberals. Our research suggests even these numbers may overstate the public’s true confidence in the military by as much as 20 percentage points due to social pressure, however. Yet, the fact that many Americans feel this pressure is itself a sign of the military’s influence in American society and politics.

The five-point drop in confidence from 2019 to 2020 may, in part, be due to the military’s involvement in a number of controversies related to the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. Although Trump ultimately decided against invoking the Insurrection Act to use active duty troops in support of law enforcement on domestic soil, members of the National Guard did back up federal law enforcement in Washington, D.C. on June 1, when they cleared Lafayette Square prior to Trump’s photo op at St. John’s church. We did find differences between civilian and military attitudes about the use of the Insurrection Act, however. As many as 57 percent of veterans told us they would support the use of active duty troops if protests continued compared to only 41 percent of civilians. We also primed a subset of respondents with reports suggesting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the use of active duty troops. The views of civilians who received this prompt did not change at all, but support among veterans who received this prompt dropped 8 points to 49 percent. While pundits and national journalists focused on the electoral implications of retired generals’ comments, our survey suggests their statements were likely more influential in shaping the attitudes of veterans and service members on this narrow issue.

The Biden administration’s commitment to restoring normal processes may give it an initial civil-military honeymoon, but it should not expect that to translate automatically into deference or an easy civil-military relationship. In our 2020 survey, 62 percent of all veterans and 66 percent of post-9/11 veterans agreed with the statement, “Civilians who have not been to war should not question those who have.” In contrast, 42 percent of civilians agreed with the statement while only 30 percent disagreed, suggesting that pressure for civilian leaders to defer to military officers emanates from both groups. Post-9/11 veterans — who volunteered to serve in America’s all-volunteer force during America’s longest military conflicts with no full-time mobilization of society — also expressed some open contempt in our survey for those who did not volunteer. A full 60 percent of post-9/11 veterans “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the eligible Americans who did not volunteer to serve during wartime should feel guilty compared to just 43 percent of older veterans and 22 percent of civilians. Given perceptions that the Biden team will be prone to micromanagement, members of the Joint Staff may find it easy to fall back into those familiar narratives when new political appointees enter the Defense Department prepared to reestablish oversight and processes that have laid somewhat dormant since the Obama years.

The Biden team should also expect some normal points of civil-military friction on policy and missions to emerge. In general, veteran and military respondents in our survey are more likely to believe the military’s most important role is to compete with great powers like China and Russia, especially when compared to Democratic respondents. Veteran respondents are also more hawkish on Iran than civilian respondents. They also tend to be more optimistic, though only slightly so, on the success of military operations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although only 13 percent of all civilians and 10 percent of Democrats agreed that these operations have been “very successful,” 24 percent of post-9/11 veterans said the same. Veterans were also particularly optimistic on progress in Afghanistan, though there are notable generational divides: 44 percent of post-9/11 veterans “agree” or “strongly agree” that the United States has accomplished its goals in Afghanistan while 39 percent “disagree” or “strongly disagree.” Older veterans and civilians break 30-47 and 21-39, respectively. Post-9/11 veterans are also particularly supportive of troop reductions in the context of the deal with the Taliban with 54 percent in support and only 29 percent against. While there is some civilian support among civilians for troop reductions as part of a deal with the Taliban, a 40 percent plurality of civilians chose “no opinion” when asked about both troop reductions and military success in Afghanistan. Most Americans simply are not paying much attention.


Civil-military relationships are not an end in themselves. These relationships exist only to provide effective national security policies in a given geopolitical environment in the context of democratic accountability. Unfortunately, the environment is not benign. As they sort through the civil-military and institutional baggage — the items they bring with them and the items they inherit — Biden’s team must also navigate intensified great-power conflict, persistent instability in the broader Middle East, strained ties with key allies, and little progress on all of the other stubborn problems that have bedeviled leaders in the post-Cold War era, including: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, transnational networks of terrorism, failed states, and ethnic rivalries. And, of course, Biden must still lead the country out of the worst pandemic in a century while recovering from all of the associated economic upheaval. There will be no strategic holiday during which the Biden team can painstakingly sort through its civil-military affairs.

The new commander-in-chief starts with the enormous advantage of being “not Trump.” He will need all of that advantage — and will need to have learned from Obama-era missteps — in order to navigate through the tricky civil-military waters we have described above. Members of the Biden team come in as seasoned professionals, but we hope that leads them to caution and humility rather than unwariness and hubris as they conduct national security policy. If Lloyd Austin wins over the critics and proves himself to be both fully sensitive to these civil-military realities and savvy in how he seeks to overcome them, he may yet emerge as the successful and strong secretary of defense the Department of Defense so desperately needs. The early slate of civilian nominees named for key roles is a welcome sign. The initial weeks after the inauguration will be of particular importance in setting the tone, especially after the tumultuous and stressful transition. Even so, the norm of civilian management of the Defense Department will be more difficult to reestablish, like so many other civil-military norms that have weakened in recent years, if Congress does grant another recently-retired general legal permission to serve as secretary of defense. Biden, and Austin, will need all the top civilian defense talent they can get.

Notwithstanding all of the other urgent priorities vying for his attention, neglect of the civil-military file would likely impose intolerable costs on Biden down the road — a price that would be vividly evident, sooner or later, when an urgent national security crisis takes center stage. The only prudent course is for the Biden team to attend to both policy and process at the same time — to move out quickly on the pandemic and the economy, while also setting the national security establishment on the path to healthier civil-military relations. Problems in the civil-military foundations of an administration must be fixed before a crisis lays bare the rot that may lie just out of view.



Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin and co-host of the CSIS “Thank You For Your Service” podcast.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and director of the American Grand Strategy Program at Duke University.

Image: Defense Department