All I Want for Christmas Is…Civilian Leadership of U.S. Foreign Policy

In their infinite wisdom, the Founding Fathers warned against the dangers of standing armies and determined that it should be civilians, not military leaders, who had final authority over the size, shape, and use of America’s armed forces. Their reasoning was simple. Without civilian control of the military there would be no bulwark against military coup or dictatorship. 

But civilian control should not stop at simple control over the armed forces. Civilian officials must provide active leadership and management of the full spectrum of American foreign policy efforts, from intelligence gathering and alliance building to arms sales and crisis diplomacy and, most importantly, the decision to make war. The old chestnut that “War is too important to be left to the generals” is an old chestnut for a reason: It’s true.

Civilian leaders have institutional incentives to be responsive to the full range of considerations that must inform foreign policy. Military leaders, as well informed and dedicated as they may be, operate with too much occupational bias to be the only source of input to the foreign policy making process. Their input on military matters is critical – but not sufficient. Socialized to look at every mission in black and white military terms, military leaders are in fact poorly suited to exercise the kind of political judgment required in a liberal democracy.

And this is where we have a problem. Since taking office, Donald Trump has made it achingly clear that he has little or no respect for the concept of civilian control, and little interest in exercising the sort of political judgment necessary from the White House.

As a candidate Trump exhibited signs of militarism, but it was his appointment of several current and former generals that signaled the coming erosion of civilian leadership. McMaster, Kelly, and Mattis are all clever and competent people, but  putting military leaders in charge of the Pentagon and the National Security Council began the tilting of the playing field, ensuring that Trump would get a larger dose of the military worldview in every conversation about world affairs.

The real proof of the loss of civilian control over foreign policy, however, has been Trump’s abandonment of diplomacy. First, Trump appointed Rex Tillerson, a man he had never met and whom he clearly did not really trust, as the Secretary of State. Then, he made sure that Tillerson’s main job would not be to act as the nation’s top diplomat and top foreign policy advisor to the president, but instead to perform radical surgery on the State Department. Tillerson’s plans to shrink and reorganize the State Department have already led a large percentage of the department’s most talented people to resign or retire. The failure to appoint new leaders for a vast number of top State Department jobs not only echoes Trump’s disinterest in diplomacy, but also undermines the broader concept of civilian control in foreign policy.

Of course, it’s not clear that Trump even thinks he needs a State Department. When Tillerson was trying to encourage North Korea to sit down for talks with the United States in late September, Trump hamstrung his efforts by issuing a contradictory pair of tweets: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…” and then, “…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

The implication is clear: not only aren’t Rex Tillerson and the State Department part of the solution, Trump doesn’t even think of Tillerson as being part of his national security leadership team in the first place. It’s hard to imagine any previous president saying “we” with respect to a foreign policy issue and the Secretary of State not being part of that “we.”

Beyond the loss of diplomatic influence and engagement it portends, Trump’s breathless militarism and the loss of civilian control also puts the nation at grave risk. Less than two weeks ago one of Trump’s generals, National Security Adviser Henry McMaster, warned that the potential for war with North Korea was increasing by the day and that there “isn’t much time left” to prevent it. Rather than working with a wide range of civilian and military leaders to figure out how to make diplomacy work in North Korea, it looks like Trump has already decided that the military option is the only one that matters.

When Trump took office, many people hoped that “responsible adults” might be able to moderate his foreign policies. Without greater civilian leadership, however, the prospects for sound foreign policy look grim.