Monday, March 7, 2011

The U.S. is not the new Prussia

Yesterday, the Small Wars Journal carried a post by Franz-Stefan Gady on the militarism of the United States, comparing this phenomenon to Prussian militarization. While not addressing every point in this piece, I do want to hone in on a couple of issues the author raised about the interaction of a nation with its military.

Politicians and the Military
To any observer it is fairly easy to see that the U.S. military has inequitable clout in U.S. foreign policy, the most recent review of our policy in Afghanistan being the shining light example. There is an imbalance that needs to be righted. What Gady doesn't discuss is a likely causation for this or how to fix it (save his comments later in the piece on the Defense budget, which I'll get to). Politicians defer to general and flag officers on matters of war too frequently, but the big question is why? I can't say for sure, but I've postulated before that the civilian leadership has abdicated there roll of military supervision because they don't really know what they're doing. Waging war, especially limited war, has become so complex that it requires special expertise often not found in career politicians. So they look for that expertise in those that have been conducting and training for war most of their lives (to include their former military, civilian advisors). As part of my grand strategy series, I pointed out the nature of U.S. military officership, which puts a high premium on initiative, nearly demands that officers fill in decision-making void created by civilian politicians. I don't see how this is done any differently with any highly specialized function of government. I'm not supporting this as something that should happen, just observing it.

One of the interesting aspects of the recent turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is a reversal of militarization. Many politicians have been calling for military intervention, particularly in Libya, and it has been the military pouring cold water on great ideas. How does this phenomenon fit into our understanding of civil-military relations at the national government level? I'm not sure yet, but I think it speaks volumes against Gady's argument. It seems that in most cases civilian politicians will defer to defense officials on defense matters as a matter of course (let's face it, the Ike Skeltons of the world are few and far between). Because they are the experts, whether you like it or not. I believe that these uniformed experts do provide their advice, which more often than not lately have become policy, based on their understand of the nation's objectives and (almost always) not on how they see these decisions would affect their own prestige or sense of militarism. In sum, I don't see this as militarization as much as highly specialized functions of government wherein the politicians defer to those that have more expertise than they. Politicians shouldn't do this, but policy details don't win elections, popular stances do. Which brings us to the next topic...

The People and the Military
I'm not sure what Gady's point is about strangers buying drinks for servicemembers in uniform and that this wouldn't happen in Europe. Strangers buy drinks for servicemembers because in this age of limited war waged by a small all-volunteer military, it's about the only thing they can do to recognize the many sacrifices made by these men and women and their families. I have been fortunate to have been on the receiving end of this symbolic gesture and it was almost always accompanied by thanks for my service and/or sacrifice. I don't see this as militarization of the U.S., but instead as a sense of doing something for someone who does give a lot (not necessarily directly for the drink buyer) and is quite foreign to most of the population. I think a good question to ask is why doesn't this happen more in Europe? As much as the U.S. population's love for the military has been a knee-jerk reaction to Vietnam, Europe's apathy or disdain for its militaries are still reactionary from World War II (generally speaking - it obviously differs country to country but in the stated case of Germany...).

This sense of distant gratitude does not explain the recurring election or campaigning for office of former generals and admirals. Why do the American people put so much stock in military service when considering political candidates? I'd like to say that for a lot of the electorate it is the belief that officers have spent their lives in service to their nation and not themselves, they are proven leaders under difficult circumstances, they are proven executives, that they are honorable and truthful people, etc. I think we all know that's not the case for every retired officer who runs for office. There's also the idea that experience equals expertise and that an expert in defense issues would better protect the nation, also an erroneous idea. I think it's more of the former ideals of military service that people think so highly of former servicemembers when considering them for elected office. Maybe this is a sign of militarism in the United States and I for one would like to see more study on this topic.

The Defense Budget
Gady states that "[r]educing the defense budget would not threaten the security of the United States or lead to a decline in its international standing." His not being a paper on defense economics, that is quite a statement to make. In my opinion, should DoD make cuts? Yes, to improve efficiencies lost of the past forever years. But Gady seems to suggest that this should be done to decrease the militarism of the United States. I haven't read the Adams and Leatherman article referenced (I stopped my subscription to Foreign Affairs last year), but generically stating that we can maintain our security and international status is dubious at best. Even by taking the bloat out of the Pentagon's budget and stop paying the $100B or so for Iraq and Afghanistan, it still costs a lot of money to maintain and equip the world's most advanced military (in most regards at least) and to procure equipment needed for the future. Oh, and good luck telling Congress to make a ton of cuts. The recent budget battle has just reinforced the idea that Congress uses the DoD as a jobs program in manufacturing jobs, which has nothing to do with militarization.

Civil-military relations have been a hot topic lately and will continue to be one for the foreseeable future. I haven't covered nearly everything in Mr. Gady's paper here and do not intend to in the future. Suffice it to say that I think there is a tilting towards militarism in the United States in some of the ways that Gady suggests. I do not think many of the things he discusses are militarism, but instead are practical (if not necessarily correct) reactions to environmental stimuli as outlined here. While I've been thinking about it, I cannot begin to suggest how to correct for either actual militarism or reactions that resemble militarism. I do believe that Gady is way off on suggesting that the United States is the new Prussia. We may be on a path to such a state of affairs, but if we are we've only just begun and have time to turn back. Being stuck in two very long wars that will likely result in our achieving few objectives will most likely help us not to continue down such a path.


  1. Jason:

    To what extent does deference to military professionalism and near-monopoly on special, expert knowledge compare to deference with respect to other spheres of knowledge, e.g., health care policy? I'd agree that the level of deference is higher - greater respect for military officers than doctors, perhaps greater impact in the local districts than military service (not everyone is affected by Libya, but everyone sees a doctor, etc.). Does civil-military relations (or, at least, the state of civil-military relations as it currently states) constitute a problem (I won't use the word "crisis," because I don't think there is one)? There's inevitably delegation of authority within any hierarchy irrespective of its governance structure (i.e., irrespective of whether it's a democracy, dictatorship, limited liability corporation, or non-profit), due to the span of control, physics of the 24-hour day, etc. I suppose the question might be framed as, Does the delegation of authority and expertise to the military exceed that of other policy realms (I imagine the answer is a resounding, Yes), does that skew policy anymore than delegation of authority and expertise in other policy arenas, and is any such skewedness markedly detrimental to the national interest? To use a term that is overused, given there's a principal-agent problem, to what extent is that really a *problem?*

    I'd also be interested in knowing the levels at which the deference occurs, because I imagine it can occur at many levels and in many ways e.g., State versus Defense - I imagine military officers receive greater deference than FSOs because military service is perceived as a greater sacrifice.

    As an aside, Priest, "The Mission" comes to mind with respect to DOD's dominance in foreign policy, as does Betts, "Soliders..." and Huntington "Soldier," with respect to your assertion of a reversal of militarization, both of which would have been predicted by the noted books (I think).

    Not a comprehensive response to what is (again) a nicely crafted post, but a few thoughts that came to mind.


  2. I'm sure this guy makes some fine points, but I had to quit reading after this knee-slapper:

    Almost every four-star general in the United States sooner or later is presumed to have presidential aspirations.

    I think he was actually trying to be serious.

  3. I had the same thoughts about the paper as you, Jason.

    Left a longer comment over at SWJ....

    (Brought in my favorite hobby-horse, the technocratic elite part of the Eisenhower address that tends to get less attention than the military-industrial complex does. Related phenomena, IMO.)

  4. BTW, plan to see Bing West at the Chitown Council on Global Affairs. Reading his latest book....

    Anyone else?

  5. I think the US military is loved so much because of the constant propaganda and perhaps a much less of a nuanced understanding of the role that the US military plays in destroying countries throughout the world. The european nations are quite aware of their imperial history, I very much doubt that many American citizens are.

    Take a quick look at the declassified record, or read some history. The push into Iraq was about geo-political positioning vis-a-vis China and ultimately Europe. You can delude yourselves, but what you see as a strength of US society many others see as a profound weakness, especially when the US mil has some a global reach. We need far more informed US citizens.