Outsourcing Thinking on Engagement?

| February 2018
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When looking at the question of American popular support for U.S. engagement around the world, are Americans, these days, too quick in outsourcing their thinking to the serving military? I raised this question with Kori Schake, deputy director general of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and one of the leading experts on civil-military relations in the United States, as well as someone with extensive practitioner experience in the U.S. national security apparatus.

She noted, “I do not think the American public is sufficiently engaged in questions of war and peace. In the survey data that was collected by James Mattis [currently serving as the Secretary of Defense] and myself for our book Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military (Hoover Institution, 2016) — one of the largest surveys of American public attitudes about the military that had been done since the Triangle study that Dick Kohn and Peter Feaver and others did in 1998—we found that the American public knows almost nothing about our military or what they do, and that cannot be healthy in a civilian society, in a free society, and in a democratic society.  But what has tended to happen — 50 years into an all-volunteer force — is that the American public increasingly outsources its judgment on these things to the military.  So as long as the military thinks the war is going well, the public is not going to put any pressure on the political leadership to do anything different.” She also observed, “I think there is concern by many, me included, that the American public is deferential to a degree that might not be healthy for civil-military relations.”

It also raises questions about where, in a democratic republic, responsibility lies for policy. Delegation without responsibility–outsourcing the considerations of war and peace–to the military creates an imbalance where the citizenry ultimately becomes disconnected from their country’s engagement in the international system. It also shifts the ethical burden away from “the people” to a smaller group of practitioners who are expected to “handle” these matters. What it can produce, as the incidents in West Africa last fall have shown, is not only a general population but even senior executive branch leaders and members of Congress who are disconnected from the question of where U.S. military power is being used and who become interested only when there are casualties or negative reporting–in other words, only when something goes wrong, not when the decision whether to become involved is being considered.

You can peruse the full interview at the American Engagement program site of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

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