The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Civilian political authority over military leadership is a bedrock principle of the U.S. Constitution, so fundamental to the American system of government that it has rarely been questioned. But since President Donald Trump entered office in 2017, his administration has systematically eroded the norms that have supported this constitutional principle for generations.
The Trump administration has consistently elevated military voices over those of experienced civil servants in the development of foreign policy, and funding cuts to nondefense federal agencies, along with the resignations of many career civil servants, have left government offices woefully understaffed. As a result, policy planning and the guidance of strategic defense initiatives—which have historically been the purview of senior civil servants—have increasingly been ceded to those in uniform. Civilian authority over the armed forces is weaker now than at any point in living memory, and the Trump administration is increasingly engaging with the world in ways that mirror military preferences.
The resulting foreign policy is eerily reminiscent of the “cult of the offensive”: an overconfidence in offensive military advantage that can lead to rapid escalation; such overconfidence is widely believed to have contributed to the outbreak of World War I. Unless civilian control over the military can be reestablished, the United States risks sleepwalking its way into another world war.
By giving civilian leaders authority over the military, the framers of the U.S. Constitution were not merely assigning elected officials a few oversight duties. They were creating a system in which defense planning would be guided by civilian needs and the military would carry out its activities in the service of civilian goals.
Since Trump’s civilian “America first” plan was announced early in the 2016 presidential campaign, many members of the U.S. foreign policy community have viewed the agenda as an inherent danger to national security. Even more worrisome for those concerned about the continuing stability of civil-military relations, many of the cabinet nominees whom the new administration found acceptable were military officers, such as General James Mattis, General John Kelly, and Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster.
From the beginning of the Trump era, the national security establishment made a Faustian bargain: in an effort to constrain the new president, it looked the other way as extraordinary numbers of active duty and retired military officers were appointed to positions usually reserved for civilian experts. As the “adults in the room,” these career military officials hoped to protect American alliances and constrain Trump’s worst impulses. Although few of these officers questioned the principle of civilian control, their narrow interpretation of civilian oversight meant that broader norms of civilian guidance became a kind of collateral damage in the struggle to contain the chaos.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution created a system in which the military would serve civilian goals.
This political bargain gave the more experienced military officers at the highest levels of the administration, some of whom had served together for decades, a natural advantage over their civilian counterparts. Their shared service gave them a common language and, most important, an outlook that allowed them to easily sideline civilian outsiders like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and later, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
When leaders are appointed at the top levels of government, they staff their organizations with people whom they trust to execute their plans. Most civilian leaders have diverse professional networks to draw upon, but career military officers tend to know few qualified people outside of veterans’ organizations. As a result, many of the lower-level staff posts within the Trump administration have also been filled with retired military officers.
In the office of the secretary of defense, uniformed officers continue to execute civilian responsibilities. And although sluggish hiring and retention difficulties have played a role, Mattis’s admitted preference for military officers over career civil servants during his tenure exacerbated the imbalance. When the department did hire civilians, it often placed them in “acting” roles with little power and even less influence.
The result is that uniformed officers of the military have developed and enacted policy for the secretary of defense—such that it does not necessarily reflect the priorities of civilians in the administration. Indeed, the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission noted in November 2018 that “there is an imbalance in civil-military relations on critical issues of strategy development and implementation. Civilian voices appear relatively muted on issues at the center of U.S. defense and national security policy.”
Military officers and civilians see foreign affairs differently. Military officers tend to assume worst-case intentions and capabilities in order to be best prepared for potential threats. When called upon to act, they often prefer solutions that enable them to take the offensive. When civilians lose their voice in the process, military preferences shape security strategy in ways that reflect these institutional biases toward action and confrontation. And as civilian control of the U.S. armed forces has declined, these preferences have increasingly dominated American foreign policy. Thus, the current imbalance in civil-military relations has led to a foreign policy that has heightened international tensions, closed off avenues for productive diplomacy, and increased the risk of inadvertent escalation or even accidental war.
Mattis and McMaster principally authored the 2017 United States National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy. These documents defined security almost exclusively in terms of great-power competition and state actors, emphasizing the threat from China in particular. The strategies largely approach the world as a zero-sum competition in which maintaining an advantage matters far more than cooperating for mutual benefit.
The imbalance in civil-military relations has raised international tensions.
Current U.S. strategy therefore filters the meaning of the changing geopolitical environment almost exclusively through military perceptions of threat. In the event of a war with China or Russia, the military would face a daunting task in the South China Sea or in the Baltic states. Its instinct, then, is to develop the strategies and build the capabilities that are most likely to win such a confrontation at the lowest cost possible.
But these strategies can have dangerous consequences. With their emphasis on “globally integrated operations,” senior military commanders are developing retaliatory military strategies that emphasize speed and could lead to quick escalation, effectively limiting the options of political bodies like the North Atlantic Council in the event of a conflict. And by officially labeling China a “revisionist” state, Mattis and McMaster assume its hostility, forcing decision-makers to start from the premise that diplomatic approaches are unproductive and preventive action is the only way to contain China’s ambitions.
Military leaders need civilian input in order to mitigate these risks. Military operational preferences privilege offensive action—civilian officials are best positioned to articulate the pitfalls of such an approach, lest the concern about a great-power war become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The military naturally seeks to modernize and acquire new weapons systems. In response to this desire, the Trump administration withdrew from at least three major arms control agreements, and it looks unlikely to renew the New START agreement with Russia. But without arms control, the United States not only risks setting off arms races but also loses transparency into its adversaries’ systems, capabilities, and intent. Decision-makers must then adopt the military’s worst-case assumptions in the event of a crisis, and they are likely to miscalculate.
The military’s priority of seeking ever more lethal and modern weapons increases the risks of nuclear use and proliferation. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review advocated for the development and deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons in response to Russia’s alleged intention to use limited nuclear strikes in regional conflicts. But by acquiring nuclear weapons specifically designed to be used in a much wider set of circumstances than the current inventory, the military has effectively lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons—a fact that did not escape congressional leaders during their hearings on the document.
Furthermore, as the United States modernizes its arsenal, states with vulnerable stockpiles may feel the need to invest even more in their nuclear programs, increasing their inventories and investing in second-strike capabilities. The United States has proposed to develop new weapons systems capable of dismantling nascent nuclear programs. Some states may therefore conclude that nuclear latency—the ability to develop a nuclear weapons program from existing peaceful infrastructure—is no longer a sufficient deterrent and choose to proliferate instead. The United States is rushing even now to introduce hypersonic weapons into its arsenal. Such missiles serve essentially no defensive purpose—and their development is leading to a new nuclear arms race.
The White House and Congress must reestablish strong civilian control over military priorities if the United States is to find diplomatic solutions that can help avoid another great-power war. The next administration, whether under Joe Biden or Donald Trump, should refrain from equating military experience with foreign policy expertise. Rather, at the top levels of government, the president should reset the balance of power toward civilians, appointing officials whose backgrounds yield a variety of perspectives on foreign policymaking.
The next president’s priority upon taking office should be to fill positions within the civilian office of the secretary of defense that have been largely taken over by uniformed military officers. These new civilians should be hired in a manner that maximizes the office’s demographic, experiential, and intellectual diversity. Current hiring laws privilege hiring veterans, which limits the diversity of those in policymaking positions. Civilian hiring initiatives must therefore act as a counterweight to that tendency.
Finally, the administration should comprehensively review engagements, programs, and posture to ensure that U.S. actions are in fact aligned with strategic intent. Such a review should encompass all military programs. Many may seem like good ideas in isolation, but in combination they may prove to be provocative or threatening. Civilian leaders should make political determinations about the risks and rewards of military spending on offensive weapons programs; in particular, they should review the constraints on the new Space Force that may be necessary in order to both encourage service pride and avoid an arms race and conflict.
In 1962, the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles just 90 miles from the United States’ shore. President John F. Kennedy and the rest of the civilian leadership did not allow the military to continue with its standard operating procedures and preferred courses of action. Instead, they carefully orchestrated a series of signals that narrowly avoided the outbreak of open hostilities between the world’s two nuclear superpowers.
Current U.S. policy resembles the firm civilian control and oversight of the Kennedy administration far less than it does the posture of the great powers before the outbreak of World War I. Civilian leadership was either co-opted or pushed aside as French, German, and Russian militaries pursued strategies that prioritize offensive operations and doctrines—leading to the now famous cult of the offensive. Privileging the military’s perceptions of threat over those of diplomats makes war all but inevitable. Without strong civilian oversight, the United States risks this catastrophic fate.
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