Strategy and Policy: Civilian and Military Leadership in the 21st Century


The United States is at war. In recent months, foreign affairs headlines have revolved around such topics as an American rebalance toward the Pacific theater, renewed unrest in key states in the Middle East and Africa and the implications abroad of America’s elections. All of these issues demand significant attention, strong leadership and the full commitment of the entire national security apparatus—civilian and military. It is sometimes easy to forget that nearly 60,000 Soldiers are fighting a very intense war in Afghanistan today. The need for capable leadership and visionary strategy for this campaign, as well as future ones, is not a distant goal; there is a pressing, immediate requirement right now.

More broadly, the global security environment today is as ambiguous and complex as ever and growing more unstable by the day. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey calls attention to the security paradox of our time—that despite arguments from some that peace and stability are spreading, greater numbers of adversaries are simultaneously becoming more capable of harming the United States in new and unpredictable ways. Partly for this reason, American Soldiers are deployed or forward stationed in nearly 160 countries. For the same reason, there is urgent need for visionary leadership at the broadest strategic level as well.

Therefore, it is worth reviewing how the United States creates its security strategy and executes its security policy. Civil control of America’s military is ingrained in the Constitution (statutory) and in strategic policy guidance (regulatory); what is a significant issue in the current environment is the relationship between civilian masters and military subordinates and the integral roles played by both in the decisionmaking process. This issue is an operational and strategic one. Decisions with operational effect are essentially civil–military decisions: campaigns, sequence, force size policies, mobilization policies, deployment policies, resources and others. If one side of this relationship is cut out—for whatever reason—the probability rises that the resultant decision will be less than effective. For example, the World War II campaigns for North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France were not just military decisions; these campaigns and their sequence were primarily civilian leadership decisions informed by, but not always guided by, military leaders’ advice. These actual examples demonstrate that Huntington’s model of semiautonomy to the military is not entirely accurate—nor should it be. Where the civil–military relationship is open and candid, there is an increased likelihood that good policies will be enacted; the inverse is also true. In sum, two aspects of the civil–military relationship are significant: one—civilian control of the military—is a given in the United States; the other—an open and trustful relationship between civil and military leaders in the discourse that leads to solid strategic, operational and policy decisions—has fluctuated throughout America’s history.