Civil-Military Relations Theory for the Modern World

After the World War II period, the security environment facing the United States has become increasingly complex, with threats coming more from non-state armed groups or new generation offensive capabilities like cyber-attacks. This shift has made successfully delineating civil-military roles more difficult. In conventional military operations where both combatants are states using traditional military strategies, there is an established body of civil-military theory to explain each side’s role in the conflict, with the civilian authority acting as the principle directing the military as its agent to meet civilian defined objectives. While certain aspects of traditional theory as developed by Huntington are still relevant to modern day “grey area” warfare, it is no longer sufficient to explain civil-military relations. Two theories that directly address these new concerns are R.W. Komer’s work on the Vietnam War and Michael Glennon’s double government theory about the role of national security professionals in policy-making. This essay will begin with an examination of how Huntington’s theory of objective control addresses current concerns, and then turn to the other two theorists exploration of modern civil-military issues.

Huntington’s civil-military relations theory, called objective civilian control, focuses on the importance of maximizing military professionalism. Huntington believed that military officers were part of a professional class, similar to lawyers or doctors, which specialize in the management of violence. Huntington points out three criteria for professionalism: expertise, social responsibility, and the building of a separate, professional, military bond. Objective civilian control separates the civilian, political, sphere from the professional military one. Huntington’s theory of objective civilian control and the separation of political and military interests is an important one that is still relevant in the U.S., but even more so in countries that have yet to develop a professional military officer corps. One way that this theory is applicable to the U.S. in its modern day operations is through its work training other countries militaries. The U.S. military has made training and capacity building of other countries militaries a priority in dealing with non-conventional threats worldwide. As threats of terrorism increase in places like Somalia or Nigeria, instead of sending U.S. troops to fight the battles, which is costly and risks U.S. lives, U.S. trainers are working with native militaries to enable them to deal with the threat domestically.[1] Another example of this training is the more formal education that the U.S. War Colleges offer foreign officers, for example, each year the U.S. Army War College hosts approximately 80 senior military officers from 75 different countries.[2] Many of the countries receiving military training from the United States have not achieved objective civilian control over their militaries, so the U.S. military should aim to increase these militaries professional capacity as well as their operational capacity while they are training them.

While Huntington’s theory of objective control still provides an important foundation for thinking about civil-military relations, it does not adequately deal with modern situations where military officers have to take on roles beyond managing violence. For example, in Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. military had to perform roles related to nation building and development traditionally left to the State Department or USAID. The inability of the and military to successfully manage interagency cooperation, or to perform roles outside of the management of violence, contributed to the deteriorating situation in both countries, and was one of the most important lessons of the early years in both conflicts.[3] This is not a new problem, but was analyzed in depth by R.W. Komer in his RAND study of the Vietnam conflict, “Bureaucracy Does its Thing.” In Komer’s analysis, he explains how large organizations, the military included, tend to be slow to depart from established beliefs and ways of doing things, and to reward conformity rather than creative thinking. In the Vietnam War, the U.S. military relied on a traditional war mindset that resulted in an overly conventional and militaristic response when a more political counterinsurgency response was needed.  Komer recognized that the civilian bureaucracies were just as stuck in their traditional mindsets in the Vietnam War as the U.S. military. In particular, Komer points out that the State Department deferred to traditional thinking on civil-military relations and focused on diplomatic relations with the South Vietnam government rather than becoming involved with ground operations, despite the political nature of counterinsurgency missions. In insurgencies, the military simply has more logistical capacity and manpower to carry out nation building and development projects than civilian agencies, and in many theaters it is too dangerous for civilians to carry out this work. However, even as traditional war becomes less and less common, there is still a lag as agencies are unable and unwilling to change how they think of themselves that results in inefficiencies that learning organizations like insurgencies can exploit, despite their smaller traditional capacity. This is an especially salient point considering that the U.S. military and foreign policy bureaucracies have proven to have a short organizational memory when it comes to non-traditional operations that fall out of the scope of what these organizations consider to be their traditional roles.

In order to understand modern civil-military relations, it is important to consider the role of the national security bureaucrats who increasingly control national security policy more than elected political leaders. According to Michael Glennon, this has resulted in a double government where the “dignified,” institutions like the Congress and the Presidency are a façade for the real decision making power wielded by career national security professionals.  This double government did not emerge from conscious effort, but emerged overtime because of systemic and legal incentives baked in the national security structures of the United States. Glennon dubs this class of national security officials and influencers an “efficient” class due to the relative quickness they are able to work compared to the elected officials publically thought to be in charge of national security policy. This efficiency is especially important now that national security covers a wide range of non-traditional threats like terrorism, piracy, and cyber attack that require quick action and a wide range of expertise that elected officials cannot match. Glennon points out that despite running on a platform dedicated to changing the national security policies of the Bush Administration, President Obama has continued most of the same policies. The United States is a democracy, and as the head of the executive branch, the American public expects the President to set the national security agenda, so this double government has subverted U.S. civil-military relations, even if the façade of Presidential leadership remains. Another way that this situation has effected civil-military relations is that some members of this efficient class are even taking over the traditional military role of organizing violence. The best case in point is the use of UAV strikes in counter-terror operations carried out by the CIA. Under President Obama, the CIA has increased the number of UAV strikes and covert operations, carrying out what should be military operations.[4]

As the security environment has evolved and become more complex, theories about civil-military relations are vital to understand the complexity of these relationships. Many older theories still form a relevant core, such as Huntington’s ideas about military professionalism and objective civilian control, but are no longer adequate to cover the evolving roles of both the civilians and the military. As Komer has shown, large organizations like the military or the State Department are slow to change their conceptions of themselves, and have difficulty in adapting to the new roles that modern “grey area” warfare demand. Even though these large institutions have a hard time adapting to new challenges, there is a class of national security officials who operate efficiently, and as shown by Glennon, are increasingly monopolizing national security decision making, and in some cases the actual management of violence itself. Situations as complex as these require robust theories and frameworks to analyze successfully, and require looking both to traditional theorists as well as more modern ones, and even theorists who are not writing explicitly about civil-military relations itself.

[1] Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Takes Training Role in Africa as Threats Grow and Budgets Shrink,” The New York Times, March 5, 2014,

[2] The United States Army War College, International Fellows Home (accessed December 13, 2014); available from

[3] “Decade of War, Volume 1,” JCOA, June 15, 2012, 25.

[4] Ibid, 3.

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
This entry was posted in Security Studies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s