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In this essay, Dr. Kohn discusses:

  • Why Civilian Control Matters;
  • Defining Civilian Control;
  • Foundations of Civilian Control;
  • Threats to Civilian Control


by Richard H. Kohn

A M O N G    T H E    O L D E S T   problems of human governance has been the subordination of the military to political authority: how a society controls those who possess the ultimate power of coercion or physical force. Since the earliest development of organized military forces in ancient times, governments, particularly republican or democratic governments, have been vulnerable to either being destroyed, overturned, or subverted by their armies. All forms of government, from the purest democracies to the most savage autocracies, whether they maintain order and gain compliance by consent or by coercion, must find the means to assure the obedience of their military — both to the regime in power and to the overall system of government.

At one time or another in the 20th century alone, civilian control of the military has been a concern of democracies like the United States and France, of communist tyrannies such as the Soviet Union and China, of fascist dictatorships in Germany and Italy, and since 1945, of many smaller states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As recently as ten years ago, military regimes ruled at least seventy of the world’s countries.

Civilian control has special significance today more than ever. Throughout the formerly communist world, societies are struggling to build the institutions for democratic governance. NATO has made civilian control a prerequisite for joining the Alliance. In encouraging democratization, the United States and other western powers use civilian control of the military as one measure of progress toward democratic process.

Control by civilians presents two challenges today:

  • For mature democracies, where civilian control has been strong and military establishments have focused on external defense, the test is whether civilians can exercise supremacy in military policy and decision-making. When the military enjoys great prestige, possesses advanced bureaucratic skills, believes that its ability to fulfill its mission may be at risk, or comes to doubt the civilian leadership, civilians can face great obstacles in exercising their authority.
For the new or newly-emerging democracies without much experience in combining popular government and civilian control, the challenge is more difficult: to assure that the military will not attempt a coup, or defy civilian authority. In many former autocracies, the military has concentrated on internal order, or been deeply involved in political life, sometimes preying on the society rather than protecting it. Then the chief requirement is to establish a tradition of civilian control, to develop an ironclad system of political neutrality within the military establishment, and to prevent or forestall on a permanent basis any possibility of a coup or military intervention in political life.The task will still remain to establish civilian control over national security policy and decision-making. But in the new democracies the challenge is more formidable, for in attempting to gain supremacy over military affairs, civilians risk provoking the defiance of the military, and without sufficient public support, perhaps even military intervention.The purpose of what follows is to describe briefly certain of the common characteristics or experiences that have, historically, fostered civilian control in democracy. While based mostly on western, and particularly Anglo-American experience, the analysis applies to any society that practices democratic government, or is making the transition to government based upon the sovereignty and will of the people.

Why Civilian Control Matters

F O R    D E M O C R A C Y,  civilian control — that is, control of the military by civilian officials elected by the people — is fundamental. Civilian control allows a nation to base its values and purposes, its institutions and practices, on the popular will rather than on the choices of military leaders, whose outlook by definition focuses on the need for internal order and external security.

The military is among the least democratic institutions in human experience; martial customs and procedures clash by nature with individual freedom and civil liberty, the highest values in democratic societie

  • The military is authoritarian, while democratic society is consensual or participatory.
  • One is hierarchical, the other essentially egalitarian.
  • One insists on discipline and obedience, subordinating personal needs and desires to the group and to a mission or goal. The other is individualistic, attempting to achieve the greatest good for the largest number by encouraging the pursuit of individual needs and desires in the marketplace and in personal lives, each person relying upon their own talents and ingenuity.
One emphasizes order, conformity, harmony, and homogeneity; the other tolerates, even celebrates, disagreement and diversity of perspective.Because their most fundamental purpose is to wage armed conflict, military institutions are designed for violence and coercion, and over the centuries have developed the organizational structure, operating procedures, and individual values needed to succeed in war. Authority in the military emphasizes hierarchy so that individuals and units act according to the plans and decisions of commanders, and can succeed under the very worst of mental and physical circumstances.While many of the military’s personal values–courage, honesty, sacrifice, integrity, loyalty, service–are among the most respected in human experience, the norms and processes intrinsic to these institutions so diverge from the premises of democratic society that the two exist in what is often an uneasy partnership. Military behaviors are functional imperatives. Military law, for example, endeavors first to promote discipline, and secondarily to render justice. If society were to be governed by the personal ideals or institutional perspectives of the military, developed over centuries to support service to the state and sacrifice in war, then each individual citizen and the national purpose would become subservient to national security, to the exclusion, or at least the devaluation, of other needs and concerns.The point of civilian control is to make security subordinate to the larger purposes of a nation, rather than the other way around. The purpose of the military is to defend society, not to define it. While a country may have civilian control of the military without democracy, it cannot have democracy without civilian control.

Defining Civilian Control

I N    T H E O R Y    A N D    C O N C E P T,  civilian control is simple. Every decision of government, in peace and in war — all choices about national security — are made or approved by officials outside the professional armed forces: in democracies, by civilian officials elected by the people or appointed by those who are elected. In principle, civilian control is absolute and all- encompassing. In principle, no decision or responsibility falls to the military unless expressly or implicitly delegated to it by civilian leaders. All matters great and small, from the resolve to go to war to the potential punishment prescribed for a hapless sentry who falls asleep on duty, emanate from civilian authority or are decided by civilians. Even the decisions of command–the selection of strategy, of what operations to mount and when, and what tactics to employ, the internal management of the military in peace and in war–derive from civilian authority, falling to uniformed people only for convenience or out of tradition, or for the greater efficiency and effectiveness of the armed forces.

“The professional military’s influence has grown, either from circum-
stance or from necessity.”

For a variety of reasons, military establishments have gained significant power and achieved considerable autonomy even in those democracies that have long practiced civilian control. In some countries, the military has in practice kept control over much of military life; in others, governments have never managed to develop the tools or the procedures, or the influence with elites or the prestige with the public, to establish supremacy over their armed forces. For the most part, however, a degree of military autonomy has grown out of the need to professionalize the management of war. In the last two centuries, war has become too complex–the preparations too elaborate, the weapons too sophisticated, command too arduous, operations too intricate–to leave the waging of combat to amateurs or part-time practitioners. As a result, the professional military’s influence has grown, either from circumstance or from necessity.

Forty years ago, the great theorist of civilian control, Samuel P. Huntington, argued in The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Practice of Civil-Military Relations, that the way to optimize civilian supremacy was to recognize such “autonomous military professionalism.” An officer corps focused on its own profession–and granted sufficient independence to organize itself and practice the art of war without interference in those areas which required technical expertise–would be politically neutral and less likely to intervene in politics. The paradox of Huntington’s formulation is that the greater a military’s autonomy, the less control civilians actually exercise; while ” objective” civilian control might minimize military involvement in politics, it also decreases civilian control over military affairs. And in the end, there will always be disagreement over how and where to draw the line between military and civilian responsibility. With war increasingly dangerous and destructive, where to divide the authority and assign the responsibility have become increasingly situational, and uncertain.

The truth of the matter is that fundamentally, civilian control is not a fact but a process.

“Fundamentally, civilian control is not a fact but a process.”

It exists along a continuum of more, or less, civilian control, from the extreme of countries ruled by military establishments, or that experience periodic coups d’etat and frequent direct or indirect military intervention in politics, to those that do not even possess standing military forces.The best way to understand civilian control, to measure its existence and evaluate its effectiveness, is to weigh the relative influence the military and civilians have in the decisions of state concerning war, internal security, external defense, and military affairs.

Sometimes, where civilian control is weak or nonexistent, military influence laps over into other areas of public policy and social life. Even in mature democracies that have long practiced civilian control, the balance between military and civilian varies with time and place, with the personalities involved, with the personal or political ambitions of senior military officers and leading politicians, and with the circumstances that give the military prestige and weight in public opinion. Even in those democracies with rich traditions of unbroken civilian dominance, war and security can (and have) become so important in national life and so central to the definition of the state, that the military, particularly during or after a crisis or war, can use its expertise or public standing to limit civilian influence in military affairs. In the wake of World War II, senior American generals and admirals possessed great influence in government. Nearly every American war has produced a heroic commander who emerges to run for president or consider doing so, Colin Powell being only the most recent example.

Civilian control depends frequently on the individuals involved: how each side views its role and function; the public respect or popularity possessed by a particular politician, or political institution, or military officer, or armed force; the bureaucratic or political skill of the various officials.

  • The Truman-MacArthur crisis in 1951 originated in trying to limit a conflict early in the era of atomic weapons, in a part of the world the American political and military leadership deemed secondary in the Cold War struggle against communism. The crisis exploded when a legendary general whose reputation overshadowed the president’s, a general who was not willing to settle for stalemate after suffering a shocking defeat at the end of a fabled career, would not cease public disagreement with American policy and strategy.
For the first three years of his presidency, Bill Clinton’s avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War and his unfamiliarity with military affairs, juxtaposed against the military’s (and especially General Powell’s) political instincts and bureaucratic skills, their experience (and network of friends and allies) inside the Beltway, and the public adulation that followed the stunning success of American forces in the Persian Gulf, all weakened the President and strengthened the military in the power equation.If civilian control of the military is, under normal circumstances, a process defined by the relative influence of civilian and military officials, then the central issue confronting scholars and policy-makers today is how to judge the extent to which civilian control exists, how well it functions, and whether it is sufficient for democratic governance. Ultimately, civilian control rests upon a series of ideas, institutions, and behaviors that has developed over time in democratic societies. Together they check the likelihood that the military will interfere in political life; together they constitute a system that provides civilian officials with both the authority and the machinery to exercise supremacy in military affairs.

Foundations of Civilian Control

T H E    F I R S T    R E Q U I R E M E N T  for civilian control in democracy is democratic governance itself, that is, the rule of law, a stable method for succession, workable practices for electing officials,

A democracy’s require-
ments for ensuring civilian control:

  1. Democratic governance & rule of law
  2. Accountability to public institutions
  3. Effective counter-
    vailing power
  4. A military tradition committed to neutrality

and a government and governing process accepted as legitimate by elites and by the population as a whole (perhaps spelled out in a written constitution).Civilian control can support or sustain democracy, but civilian control is only one aspect of democratic rule; civilian control is necessary for democracy but not sufficient. Without a stable and legitimate governmental system and process, the military may be induced to intervene or interfere in order to protect society from chaos, internal challenge, or external attack–even though intervention may itself perpetuate instability and destroy the legitimacy of the government. The tradition of legitimacy in government acts on the one hand to deter military interference in politics and on the other to counteract intervention should it threaten or occur. In countries with English legal traditions, but also in others like Switzerland or the Scandinavian states, the rule of law puts the military by definition under civilian authority and keeps it there.

The state must, as a matter of ongoing national policy, clearly and precisely specify the role of the military. Certainly uniformed leaders can and should be consulted in this process as the mission of the military changes to suit new conditions. But the military cannot define its own function or purpose. Furthermore, every effort must be made to limit the military to external defense so that it functions as representatives of the whole society acting in the best interest of the entire nation. Military forces should be used for internal order only in dire emergency so that they see themselves, and are seen, as the guardians and not the oppressors of the population; the organs of courts, police, militia, or border/security guards should keep order and execute the laws.

SECOND, civilian control depends substantially on the mechanics of government — the methods by which civilian authority rules military forces.  If they exist and function as an expression of the will of the whole society, their subordination must be broad, to the entire governmental structure, not simply to the president or prime minister who exercises command. Dividing control does contain inherent dangers. The military can become adept at playing off civilian authorities against each other to exaggerate military influence. Accountability to parliament or to the legislature implies accountability to the populace. It forces public discussion of defense, justification of military budgets, the airing of policy, the investigation of mistakes and malfeasance. Actively exercised, parliamentary power over the military contributes to transparency in military affairs that actually strengthens national defense by reinforcing military identification with the people and popular identification with the military. The judiciary plays a supporting, but nonetheless indispensable role, holding military individuals personally accountable in ways that prevent military interference in politics and assure that officers know that they will be punished for violations of law.
A THIRD element that fosters civilian control is countervailing power. The military can be blocked from even considering interference or exercising power openly in two ways:
  • through force, by other armed forces in society (such as militia or police or an armed population); and,
  • by the knowledge that illegal acts will not be tolerated, and will lead to personal dishonor, disgrace, retirement, relief, fine, arrest, trial, conviction, prison–whatever punishment is legal, appropriate, and can be made to stick.
    The more likely that violations of civilian control will not be forgiven and will be met by effective resistance, the less likely they are to occur. Historically a most effective counterweight has been a reliance on citizen-soldiers as opposed to full-time professionals. The ” standing army” has often been difficult to manage. But knowledge that revolt would lead to crisis and be opposed by an armed population, or that citizen forces might not heed the orders, has been an effective deterrent. Size matters. Standing forces should be as small as security permits: so that the population consents to provide the resources, so that the military will be oriented exclusively to external defense, and to reduce civil- military friction.
Finally, the most important institution supporting civilian control must be the military itself. The fundamental assumption behind civilian supremacy is the abstinence by the military from intervention in government and political life. While worldwide the coup has diminished in the last decade, in many places the threat still lingers. In still others, the military has the power to make and unmake governments, or to impose or block policies wholly outside the realm of national security, and certainly on issues of defense. Civilian control is, by its very nature, nonexistent if the armed forces can use force, or military influence, to turn a government out of power, to dictate the character of a government or a particular policy, or to act in any way outside those areas of responsibility duly delegated by higher authority. Even the hint of such extortion, if allowed to persist or to go unpunished, intimidates civilian officials from exercising their authority, particularly in military affairs. Therefore civilian control requires a military establishment trained, committed, and dedicated to political neutrality, that shuns under all circumstances any interference with the constitutional functioning or legitimate process of government, that identifies itself as the embodiment of the people and the nation, and that defines into its professionalism unhesitating loyalty to the system of government and obedience to whomever exercises legal authority.

Because of their expertise and role as the nation’s guardian, military leaders in democracies can possess great public credibility, and can use it to limit or undermine civilian control, particularly during and after successful wars. The difficulty is to define their proper role and to confine their activity within proper boundaries even when those boundaries are fuzzy and indistinct. The scholar of civil-military relations in Israel, Yehuda Ben Meir, believes that the military should advise civilians, represent the needs of the military inside the government, but not advocate military interests or perspectives publicly in such a way as to undermine or circumscribe civilian authority.

Helpful to this ethos is an officer corps that is, in every respect possible, representative of the diversity or homogeneity of the larger society. Some countries have enjoyed civilian control with officers drawn only from particular races, religions, classes, or ethnic backgrounds. But it seems far wiser to build an officer corps that equates itself with the national population and whose officers identify their first loyalty to the country rather than the profession of arms. Drawing them from one segment risks them identifying as guardians above, and independent of, society–separate and superior. If they see their own values at variance with those of the population and their loyalties to their group of origin and to the military as primary, they may delude themselves into thinking that their purpose is to preserve or reform society’s values and norms, rather than safeguard the nation’s physical security.

Nor should the military participate in any fashion in politics, not as members of parties, in elected office, or even in appointive office as members of a political administration at the local or national level. If officers belong to a political party, run for office, represent a particular group or constituency, publicly express their views (and vote), attack or defend the executive leadership–in short, behave like politicians–they cannot be trusted to be neutral servants of the state and guardians of society. Even personal identification with a political program or party can compromise an officer in the performance of his or her duty.

In theory, nothing physical in most societies prevents armies from interfering in politics or even attempting to overturn their government. But where civilian control has succeeded over a long period, military professionals have internalized civilian control to an extraordinary degree. In those countries, the people and civilian leaders expect, because of law or tradition, military subordination to civil authority. The organs of public opinion, in the press and among elites, accept the principle and in times of stress in civil-military relations declare it as an axiom of government. Some countervailing power to the military force may exist, but the military understands that any step toward insubordination would immediately provoke a crisis that by consensus they would lose, with the possibility of legal sanctions to them personally.Yet ultimately, on a day-to-day basis, it is the military officers’ own discipline and restraint that maintains civilian control. Whether or not they would face dismissal or prison, they choose to submit, to define their duty as advice to civilian bosses rather than advocacy, and to carry out all lawful orders effectively and without complaint. But because civilians frequently lack knowledge and understanding of military affairs, and the apportioning of military and civilian responsibility depends so often on circumstances, the relationship even in the most stable governments has, historically, been messy, uncertain, and filled with friction. And thus, historically, the degree of civilian control, that is, the relative weight of the civilian and the military, has been dependent on the people and the issues.

Threats to Civilian Control

T H E    T H R E A T S    T O    C I V I L I A N   control have been unspecified but assumed in this essay. It bears repeating that any breakdown or erosion of constitutional process caused or used by the military or that permits the military to become independent represents a threat to democratic rule.

Unitary control of the military, or control by one person or branch or institution of government that unbalances power, can permit the military to become the tool of tyranny and, quite possibly, the successor tyrant. A military establishment larger than needed, tasked with missions beyond national defense, strains the trust between soldiers and society that must underlie stable civilian control. Political or bureaucratic conditions periodically offer armed forces limited opportunities to disobey, circumvent, ignore, or defy civilian authority. And of course last, and most dangerous, a military leadership willing to intervene improperly in politics and governance always threatens military subordination.

Sometimes, however, the threats are simpler and more direct.

  • Externally, a security crisis so grave as to imperil the existence of a nation invites military intervention under the illusion of efficiency, as occurred in Germany in World War I.
  • Internally, a crisis or series of crises can produce disorder or chaos at such a level as to invite military rule, as occurred in many newly-independent nations in Africa and Asia in the wake of decolonization after World War II.These extraordinary conditions occur at political divides, often when new countries are born or economic conditions are desperate.Demagogues or dictators sometimes use the military to seize and maintain power. But the remarkable fact about the last decade and a half is the diminishing frequency of military coups, not only in the less developed areas of the globe, but also during the extraordinary upheavals involved in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of over a dozen new states, many of which themselves have suffered violent internal conflict. In those instances where the military did become involved–Poland in 1981, the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia in 1993–it was largely to maintain or uphold constituted authority or to smooth the transitions taking place.Another menace to civilian control, more vague and difficult to describe, is a slow, imperceptible deterioration that can occur through inattention, conflict, or the accretion of military power because of public adulation of the military or disgust with politics and politicians. Military establishments naturally gather allies who advocate military needs and perspectives, inflating military influence and diminishing civilian control. Civilian officials themselves, either for political convenience or necessity, or out of failure to recognize the processes at work, can concede influence to the military. Without a vigilant press and a widespread public understanding of the importance of civilian control and the requirements for its successful operation, civilian control can weaken while on the surface appear to be functioning properly.

    D E M O C R A C Y is a disorderly form of government, often inefficient, always frustrating. Maintaining liberty and security, governing in such a manner as to achieve desirable political outcomes and at the same time military effectiveness, is among the most difficult dilemmas of human governance.

    As the new millennium approaches, newly emerging democracies with long-established armed forces accustomed to a large degree of autonomy face the challenge of gaining enough influence and control to say with confidence that they have civilian control over their military. Military establishments which are unused to having their judgment or authority questioned by anyone, much less the cacophony of groups and individuals (many of whom most flagrantly do not subscribe to the values and behaviors traditional to military groups) typical of democratic governance, will experience an equally uncomfortable challenge.

    How will that transition come about, or be managed, without the kind of internal conflict, or even violence, which so threatens democratic process? On the answer to this problem, undoubtedly worked out slowly and painfully, will rest much of the future of democracy in human society.

    Contents © 1997 by Richard H. Kohn.

An extended, more comprehensive version of this essay nears completion. For reading a draft of that work and offering helpful suggestions, the author thanks Andrew C. Bacevich, Yehuda Ben Meir, Douglas L. Bland, Charles F. Brower, IV, Mark Clodfelter, Eliot A. Cohen, Elliott V. Converse, Cori Dauber, Raymond H. Dawson, Michael C. Desch, Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., Peter D. Feaver, Yuri Fedorov, Alfred Goldberg, Don Higginbotham, Ole R. Holsti, H. R. McMaster, Eric Mlyn, Richard S. Rauschkolb, Thomas E. Ricks, Alex Roland, Jeffrey Simon, Don M. Snider, Glenn Snyder, Gerhard Weinberg, and Adam Yarmolinsky.


Dick Kohn is professor of history and chairman of the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as executive secretary, Triangle Institute for Security Studies. Further, he is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of American Diplomacy.

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