- Who’s Holding the Guns? Is There a Grand Theory of Civil-Military Relations: A Structuralist Takes a Stab
Michael Desch writes in his acknowledgments that he has sought to build upon those parts of Samuel Huntington’s book The Soldier and the State that “have stood the test of time,” and challenge those that have not. It is a daunting task indeed, which Desch approaches by explicating a structural theory of civil-military relations and then applying that theory to a number of case studies from the twentieth century. After six years in the making, the publication of Desch’s new book has raised high expectations. Readers are bound to be disappointed. His concentration on a structural theory is limiting and flawed in its application. He attempts to remove ambiguities in the theory by examining the use of military doctrine, which in fact adds little to the argument and ignores the doctrine’s origins. Finally, his parsimonious analysis of the case studies (twenty-three cases in fewer than 150 pages) results in a whirlwind, superficial survey that leaves the reader very much in doubt that any of the cases have been handled with sufficient care. [End Page 237]
The literature in the field of civil-military relations is a rich one. Anyone who wishes to understand the position the military plays in (American) society starts with Samuel Huntington’s 1957 treatise The Soldier and the State. Huntington argued that more highly professionalized militaries were conducive to strong civilian control of the military, whereas divided civilian authority could allow a more assertive military. Morris Janowitz’s The Professional Soldier posited an organizational model for explaining the nature of civil-military relations. For Desch, neither of these models is sufficient to explain fully who comes out on top in the struggle between the military and civilian authorities. Since Huntington and Janowitz examined the military as social institutions, they did not include the role that “international variables” play in determining the nature civil-military relations. Although this criticism is valid, Desch has placed too heavy an emphasis on the role that the structure of the international system plays.
Desch’s theory is structural. His book “provides a theory of civilian control of the military that considers the role of individual, military, state, and societal variables as they respond to domestic and international threats.” His division of the world into domestic and international threats results in a simple four-field matrix. He argues that civilian control will be strong when domestic threats are low and international threats are high. Civilian control will be at its worst when internal threats are high and external threats are low. The middle cases, where external and internal threats are either both high or both low, tend to be ambiguous. The structural nature of the theory has limitations, which he is careful to point out. The most important of these is that the structure does not dictate what will happen, it merely acts as a facilitator. This acts to greatly weaken the effectiveness of the argument, because analysis of the case studies may demonstrate a correlation between the structure and the nature of civilian control of the military, but it will certainly not prove that a causal relationship exists. At times, it seems as though Desch has forgotten this point. A second issue, which he brings out himself, is that when it comes to threats, “what really counts...is how actors perceive them.” Yet he claims that threats are “independent variables.” These two statements are difficult to reconcile, because the claim that threats are independent, that is, exogenously imposed upon a country, ignores the interplay between states that gives rise to the threats. A threat does not arise of its own accord. Rather, how the state perceives this threat (therefore [End Page 238] making the threat dependent upon state perceptions) will shape the form the threat takes.
In order to clear up the ambiguities that arise in the middle cases (where external and internal threats are both high or both...