There are many arguments in favor of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin’s nomination for secretary of defense. There is no denying that the nomination of the first Black defense secretary in American history is a landmark moment. We should celebrate its implications for all who want the Department of Defense to be a diverse and inclusive environment, and especially for Black servicemembers and DOD civilians, whose contributions to national security have long been overlooked. Many analysts have also praised Austin’s nomination by focusing on the short-term practical implications, arguing that Austin is an excellent leader, will advocate for good policies, or will be a political asset to the Biden administration.
Some of these arguments have been made explicitly to counter concerns raised by civil-military relations scholars that a retired general may not make a good secretary of defense. Mark Nevitt’s recent Just Security article, for example, highlights reasons to be optimistic about the choice of Austin: President-Elect Joe Biden will approach civil-military relations very differently than President Donald Trump has, Austin has demonstrated respect for civilian control, and Austin’s track record suggests he may push for better policies than some previous civilian defense secretaries have.
But this short-term focus overlooks the long-term damage to American democracy that many civil-military relations experts fear occurs when politicians allow the norm of civilian control of defense policy to erode. While we do not dispute Austin’s character or qualifications, these may not be enough to insulate the United States from the negative long-term repercussions of granting another recently retired general officer a waiver to serve as secretary of defense. Even if Austin handles the job perfectly, his nomination alone still has long-term consequences, eroding the norm of civilian control by reinforcing a belief in the superiority of military vs. civilian institutions. Paradoxically, the better Austin is at the job, the more his service as secretary of defense may reinforce the idea that a broken civilian government can be saved when the military steps in. It is possible that civil-military relations will improve in a Biden administration. But if they do, it will be in spite of the Austin nomination, not because of it.
Civil-Military Problems Go Beyond Trump
Civil-military relations experts have written extensively about the problems raised by Trump’s relationship with the military. But while Trump certainly exacerbated worries about American civil-military relations, he is not the root cause of many current issues, and his leaving office will not automatically fix things. Many of these problems pre-date the Trump administration and will continue to define American society for the foreseeable future. The American public has long had low confidence in civilian government institutions (particularly Congress) compared to the military. This worries scholars because civilian control–or perhaps more accurately, democratic control–of the military is a cornerstone of American democracy. Politicians are accountable to the public through elections, and they, in turn, are responsible for ensuring the responsiveness of the unelected parts of government, including the military. Secretaries play an important role in maintaining this delicate balance. Privileging military experience over civilian political and policymaking experience in key government roles fundamentally undermines this principle, suggesting that perhaps elected officials should instead be held accountable by the military.
This trust gap also creates a temptation for civilian politicians to use association with the military as a political shield or prop. Trump’s efforts to seize on the public’s high trust in the military for political benefit have sparked alarm, from signing his controversial travel ban at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes to making explicit appeals for political support when speaking to U.S. servicemembers. While these actions crossed new lines, they are part of a pre-existing trend. For years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have sought endorsements from retired military officers, showcased their own military service in campaign ads, and used the support of “the generals” to justify policy. Indeed, some praise Biden’s decision to seek a waiver for Austin by arguing it will bolster bipartisan confidence in the administration by leveraging the public’s high respect for the military. But even if this works in the short-run, it exacerbates the civil-military trust gap long term, reinforcing the idea that civilian politicians and policymakers are only to be trusted to the extent they have the support of those with military credentials.
It also reinforces a dangerous public perception that military experience is among the most important qualifications for making defense policy. After arguments in back-to-back administrations that Congress should make an exception to the law because a recently retired general is the best-qualified person to run the DOD given the pressing concerns facing the country, it is not hard to imagine that future potential nominees without military careers will face a tough road. The gap in public trust between military and civilian institutions will not simply evaporate with a new administration, and trying to use the military’s prestige to close the gap is likely to make it worse.
Is It Only One More Waiver?
It would be a mistake to simply dismiss the legal prohibition on recently retired generals serving as secretary of defense as only one minor link in a strong chain of civil-military safeguards. As Nevitt points out, the institutional checks and balances that ensure civilian representatives maintain the final say on defense policy are not operating as intended. If Congress has been reluctant to oversee the conduct of war, it seems unlikely that its members will pay close attention to the day-to-day operations of the Defense Department. While the secretary of defense may not be the final or most important bulwark of civilian control, its importance is amplified when other safeguards are eroding.
Many say that the law’s standard that a person be out of uniform for at least seven years is arbitrary. But the emphasis should be on “appointed from civilian life,” a standard that the cooling off period is an attempt to quantify. Many scholars see an important difference between someone who has military experience but has gone on to have other significant personal and career experience in their adult life, and a recently retired general officer who has spent decades in the military, whose first name is effectively still “General.” The question is not one of technicalities–what’s the difference, really, between four years and seven?–but rather one of intent. The provision is intended to cement the norm that the secretary of defense should be seen by all as a civilian first. It is no surprise that the language was originally introduced in 1947 with the consolidation of the Navy and War Departments, as the United States was facing for the first time the possibility of a large standing military for the foreseeable future. Notably, this was fundamentally at odds with the founders’ conception of defense provided primarily by citizen-soldiers, whose interests would be inseparable from those of their fellow citizens. During the debates over unifying the defense establishment, there were serious concerns about consolidating power in a professional military.
The movement from 10 years to seven, as well as the two times Congress has made exceptions to the law for presidential nominees, demonstrate that there are powerful political incentives for both the president and members of Congress to prioritize short-term concerns over long-term effects on democratic norms. If Congress votes for an exemption to the law for a second time in four years–at least in some part justified by arguments of “we did it for the last administration”–it is unlikely to take a firmer stand on this or other issues of civil-military norms in the future. One senator, who supported a waiver for James Mattis on the grounds that it was a “once in a generation” exception, has already softened his stance after the announcement of Austin’s nomination.
The Burden of Ensuring Civilian Control Should Not Rest Solely on the Military
No scholars concerned by Austin’s nomination impugn his deep respect for or understanding of civilian control. The greater fear among these experts is the very idea that senior military officers’ training in democratic norms qualifies them to take the lead in safeguarding them. This belief exacerbates the gap in trust between military and civilian officials, and it reinforces the idea that the military is better suited to interpret and enforce the rules. This ultimately undermines the norm that civilians should lead. It also unfairly places the burden for upholding civil-military norms squarely on the military, letting civilian policymakers off the hook.
A reliance on military internalization of norms also oversimplifies the idea of civilian control to a binary “does the military let civilians call the shots.” While coups and disobeying orders are the most obvious manifestations of the failures of civilian control, there are other civil-military dynamics that can give the military outsized influence in democratic decision-making. A preference for working through and seeking advice from the uniformed side of the Pentagon could leave civilian advice, and even diplomatic advice from the State Department, sidelined. A public perception that military support is what makes policy legitimate would effectively give the military a veto over policy. This is not merely a concern about whether military biases produce better or worse policy; it places what should be democratically informed policy decisions in the hands of a particularly insular and undemocratic institution.
Unfortunately, the extent to which the secretary of defense has internalized their own identity as a civilian is not a sufficient safeguard against the encroaching influence of the military. Even if Austin convinces Congress that he can adopt a civilian’s approach to defense management, there is still the matter of how the public perceives him. While serving as Secretary of Defense, Mattis was still commonly known as “General Mattis,” and more recently Biden repeatedly referred to Austin as “General” during his introduction of him as nominee for secretary of defense. As these references show, it is difficult to undo a lifetime of military service in a few years, at least in the public’s eye. If presidents continue to appoint secretaries of defense whom the public views as embodying military values and expertise, they undermine the idea that civilian control of the military is both legitimate and fundamental to democracy.
Whose Expertise is Valued?
Lastly, many of the defenses of Austin boil down to the argument that he will be a good secretary of defense in practical terms–or, at a minimum, that we cannot be sure he will be a worse one than a civilian, given that some civilians have done poorly in the job. The truth of this is largely irrelevant from the perspective of civil-military norms. There are many individuals with a range of policy views and excellent credentials who are not recently retired generals (although, as Bishop Garrison has pointed out, the demographics of retired military vs. purely civilian candidate pools differ in important respects). Critics of Austin’s nomination do not all argue that civilians necessarily make better policy. Rather, they maintain that extensive civilian experience–and a firm civilian identity–is a precondition to making policy in a democracy: civilians “have the right to be wrong.”
More dangerous, some–including Biden–argue that Austin is uniquely qualified for the position because of his military service, from his oversight of major logistical operations to his sensitivity to the human cost of conflict. Austin’s particular experiences and expertise may lead him to be an outstanding secretary of defense, or they may not. But this argument risks setting a precedent that the military has a monopoly on expertise related to defense issues, or that the skills obtained in the military are by definition more valuable than those achieved in the civilian sector. This assumption erodes civil-military norms by elevating military qualifications and devaluing the ability of civilians to oversee the military effectively. Congress will need to carefully consider, debate, and make a case for whether Austin’s particular skills–military or otherwise–are advantages that are worth an exception to a law intended to enshrine civilian control, and worth the risk of devaluing civilian expertise in future administrations. The question, therefore, is not only whether Austin is the right person for the job today, but also how his nomination will shape democratic control of the armed forces in the future.
Putting the Best Foot Forward, and Considering the Tradeoffs
Many considerations go into choosing a secretary of defense: their relationship with the president, their likelihood of getting along with Congress, their policy views, their managerial skills, the effect of the nomination on representation and morale within the military and DoD more broadly, and the effect on civil-military relations are all undoubtedly important factors. These considerations will almost never all point in the same direction. Tradeoffs are inevitable. It may be the case that all the other benefits Austin brings to the table outweigh the long-term damage to civil-military norms. Supporters will need to make that case by explicitly acknowledging these trade-offs, rather than waving away legitimate civil-military concerns or pretending they don’t exist.
Yet, now that Austin has been nominated, one must also consider the possibility that he is not confirmed. This will not fully rectify the problems of civilian control mentioned above, and it could raise others. It would be impossible to ignore the racial undertones of denying Austin a waiver after Mattis was granted one. The debate that has arisen over Austin’s nomination should serve as a call not only to reconsider the American relationship with the military, but also to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment for civilian defense expertise inside and outside the Pentagon. As the current nominee, Austin certainly deserves a fair hearing and an opportunity to make this case. Yet, regardless of the outcome of Austin’s confirmation, the choice to nominate another retired general is indicative of the depth of American civil-military ills and continues a worrisome pattern of looking to the military to solve America’s problems.
All views expressed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of their employers.
Editor’s note: For different perspectives, readers may be interested in Bishop Garrison’s Representation at the Top: The Importance of Race in the Austin Nomination Debate and Mark Nevitt’s Important Context Missing from the Austin Nomination Debate.