Closing the Civil-Military Trust Gap

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U.S. government political appointees wield considerable power, including in the Department of Defense. A president needs these appointees to ensure the department is acting in a manner consistent with his direction as commander-in-chief and to help him exercise control over it. Interestingly, though, once in place, except for the most senior officials, little is known about how most appointees fulfill their responsibilities, even though their performance is critical to the department’s overall effectiveness. The scholarly literature on civil-military relations reinforces this tendency to overlook appointees below the most senior level. It pays more attention to debates over civilian and military authorities — who’s in charge, who makes decisions, and on what issues — than over how appointees perform their duties. Typically, these debates take on either a legalistic or an academic tone. The former involves close scrutiny of Title 10 of the U.S. Code to discern specific civilian and military legal authorities. The latter places academic analysis of civilian control at the heart of the debates. While both approaches are important, indeed core, to understanding civil-military relations, neither focuses on enhancing the Department of Defense’s overall effectiveness. In fact, they can foster mistrust by dwelling on perceived violations of various civilian or military prerogatives.



Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Professors Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn recently highlighted the implications of such a trust gap. This trust deficit helps explain why civil-military relations, in practice, might tend toward the transactional, even acrimonious, rather than collaborative. Civilian defense leaders, especially those serving at the deputy assistant secretary of defense level and above (including military department equivalents), need to be grounded in the law and in civil-military theory. However, if they want to improve departmental effectiveness, they also need to find a way to partner with the military that respects boundaries, while understanding that the best solutions to vexing problems usually come from working together in an atmosphere of trust. Despite this need for trust, how to improve it is barely addressed in the civil-military literature, much less in the Department of Defense.

Who’s Responsible for Building Trust?

Even when one accepts that trust improves civil-military collaboration and enhances departmental effectiveness, in practice, it is difficult to discern who sets the conditions to foster it. Feaver and Kohn, for example, argue that the responsibilities for building trust rest with the military, noting that

Although the military is clearly the subordinate in this relationship, it must be the initiator and not wait for superiors to take the first step … As with other professional occupations (e.g., lawyers, doctors, teachers, and the clergy), it is up to the experts, not their bosses or clients, to mold the relationship and influence the interactions as much as they can to provide the most functional and effective outcomes.

What this approach does not account for, however, is the different nature of these power relationships. As Andrew Abbott points out in The System of Professions, lawyers, doctors, clergy, etc. control the power dynamic when acting in their professional capacity. Arguably, this is not the case in actual civil-military relationships, where foundational documents like the U.S. Constitution and the Federalist Papers make it clear that power rests with civilians. Moreover, in my experience, when military subordinates initiated informal conversations or honored civilians at official events, frequently they were perceived as being manipulative or currying favor, rather than strengthening relationships.

Senior defense official and scholar Mara Karlin offers a somewhat different perspective. She argues that, although the military is subordinate in this relationship, civilian leaders should bring relevant expertise, including deep knowledge of the military, to add value. Karlin also notes that chronic vacancies and frequent turnover in the senior civilian positions further complicate practical efforts to build trust and improve civil-military dialogue.

In both cases, however, Feaver and Kohn, as well as Karlin, agree that the military is the subordinate partner and that greater civilian expertise about the military is essential to improving civil-military trust, and by extension, departmental effectiveness.

This does not mean the military is absolved from responsibility for the relationship — far from it. But it does mean that civilian political appointees, as the de jure departmental leaders, set the conditions for the relationship and need to be better prepared to take on this role. Specifically, beyond their functional or regional areas of expertise, civilian leaders at the deputy assistant secretary-level and above need to appreciate their critical role in running their organizations, and recognize that some of their effectiveness is contingent on being able to place their issues in a broader defense context. Regional deputy assistant secretaries, for example, should understand the strategic and readiness implications of their policy initiatives rather than focusing exclusively on their region.

Ironically, though, based on both personal experience and several informal conversations over the years, I would argue that most political appointees are drawn to their positions precisely because they want to serve a particular president and shape defense policy in their areas of expertise. By virtue of their backgrounds working on Capitol Hill or campaign staffs, or researching at think tanks or academic institutions, many are drawn to the Department of Defense to work on issues of interest to them. Leadership is not part of their backgrounds so leading a defense organization holds little appeal, or is considered unimportant — or, conversely, is overwhelming. The notion that a well-led organization might foster trust among its staff; lead to franker, fuller internal discussions; subsequently produce better external conversations; and ultimately result in better policy outcomes simply does not occur.

This organizational neglect can have cascading impacts. On a political appointee’s own staff, it might mean poor morale and stunted careers due to inattention to administrative tasks such as performance reports and follow-on assignments. When working with military-led organizations such as the Joint Staff, at a minimum, it increases the likelihood that some options will not be considered. At worst, it encourages beliefs that organizational disagreements automatically reflect a more profound civil-military divide. Given the pre-existing civil-military trust deficit, unsurprisingly, some senior political appointees default to the latter, and, as they adopt this position, the trust deficit grows.

To be clear, important civil-military disagreements will persist, and they should. The U.S. Constitution and Title 10 intentionally foster healthy civil-military tensions. But the civil-military trust gap suggests something other than healthy tensions. It suggests an organizational problem that undermines departmental effectiveness. Thus, bridging this gap becomes an important, practical organizational challenge. And one of the first steps in addressing this challenge is to create more consistent, effective civilian leaders who understand the critical role trust plays in organizational leadership. Again, this does not absolve the military of its role in the relationship. Rather, it highlights the crucial role political appointees play in setting the tone for civil-military interactions and leading their organizations.

The following six ideas are intended to start the conversation on how to more deliberately prepare appointees for their leadership roles, and how to encourage civil-military trust in the process. In many ways, they only begin to hint at possible solutions. The key is to accept that the trust gap exists and that political appointees have an important role to play in bridging it. Indeed, assuming they accept the above analysis, serving and past political appointees are some of the best positioned to address the problem.

Closing the Trust Gap: Building Better Civilian Leaders

First, the president and his transition team should emphasize executive leadership skills, as well as functional or academic expertise when filling senior defense positions. Civilian leaders generally come from different organizational cultures than those of their military partners. Civilian cultures — particularly Capitol Hill staffs, academia, and think tank — tend to stress individual accomplishments, flat hierarchies, and minimal leadership responsibilities. Some appointees are born leaders and need no assistance when thrust into this new role. For those who are not, they should have access to leadership and management literature that can help them understand the scope of their responsibilities and develop their own leadership styles. Myriad candidates exist for this list, but it should include books such as Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive and Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. Both offer straightforward advice and appeal to leaders of all ages and ranks. Drucker makes the case that executive effectiveness can be learned, and Brown’s is devoted to ways to build personal trust.

Second, political appointees should understand the connection between individual and organizational leadership. This can be as simple as supplementing books by Drucker and Brown with organizational leadership books such as Chalmers Brothers et al.’s Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence and Edgar and Peter Schein’s Humble Leadership. The former discusses the leader’s role in shaping organizational culture. The latter argue that organizational effectiveness resides in moving from a transactional culture to a “personized” one based on openness and trust. They contend that individuals from vastly different cultures can find value in each other’s ideas once they overcome a transactional relationship and create a thriving, trusting organization in the process.

Third, complement this study of leadership with executive coaching for political appointees at the deputy assistant secretary level and above. This might seem an expensive luxury, but the organizational payback should more than offset the expense. The Army, for example, believes coaching is important enough to offer it to lieutenant colonels competing for battalion command. Coaching or mentoring is important for effective leaders at all levels. It helps connect theory to practice. Moreover, for those new to the rewards and stresses of leadership, an informal mentor can offer feedback essential to growing as an executive and building trust across an organization.

Fourth, create executive-level, immersive defense orientation programs for prospective political appointees akin to the military’s Capstone and Pinnacle programs, in which general and flag officers study the major issues and organizations affecting national security. If such a program exists for senior military officers, should political appointees not have similar opportunities? Such courses would allow appointees to understand their responsibilities within the context of larger defense issues, organizations, and processes, and to more effectively engage with their military counterparts. The orientation should prepare them well enough that they are neither enthralled, nor stymied, by what they subsequently encounter. Ideally, this orientation should operate independently of any orientations the organizations the appointee will lead create; occur prior to confirmation because of the time demands on their schedules once confirmed; offer different formats based on the experience, seniority, and availability of the political appointee; and include a supplemental reading list and access to external experts for future reference.

Fifth, routinely use experiential learning, such as wargames with military counterparts, to explore important defense issues during political appointees’ tenures in office. These should cover a variety of topics, e.g., great-power competition, next-generation acquisitions, and space warfare. The key is to explore myriad implications of major policy decisions in an informal setting to encourage learning while simultaneously building personal relationships.

Finally, in addition to these developmental initiatives, it might be useful for the Department of Defense to ask a federally funded research and development center to initiate a longitudinal study of political appointees that stretches across administrations and political parties. Except for the occasional analysis, little information is available on past appointees. Such a study, at a minimum, would collect data on appointees’ previous experiences (including leadership and management), formal and informal preparations for their defense positions, and U.S. government service and duration. Certainly, other critical factors impact decisions on political appointments, but this could, at least, shape development programs and provide more context for making or denying such appointments.

These ideas only start the civilian leadership conversation. All are grounded on the assumption that closing the civil-military trust gap will enhance departmental effectiveness. This means developing civilian political appointees who can effectively guide their organizations and lead military men and women, as well as civilians. To this end, a crucial first step is valuing civilian leadership development for these appointees and placing it in a larger departmental context. Absent such a focus, the trust gap will persist, civil-military relations will remain largely transactional, and the Department of Defense overall will continue to reap the unfortunate rewards of suboptimal civil-military interactions.



Paula G. Thornhill is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general who served on multiple Pentagon staffs, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff. She is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) and is the author of Demystifying the American Military.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who wrote an article about civil-military relations in the summer 2021 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly. It was Gen. Martin Dempsey, not Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Image: Defense Department (Photo by Chad J. McNeeley)