The Magazine

Democracy at Arms

"The Soldier and the State" is 50 years old, and still relevant.

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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While the average political scientist is lucky to make a name for himself in one area of the field, Samuel Huntington has made major contributions to three: civil-military relations, democratic theory, and international relations. And while most people think of The Clash of Civilizations when they hear his name today, his most influential book--for better or worse--remains one that he wrote exactly a half-century ago: The Soldier and the State. Here, Huntington advances an institutional theory of civil-military relations, one that "focuses on the interaction of political actors played out in the specific institutional setting of government."

A good theory possesses three elements: a descriptive or empirical element that accounts for and explains relevant phenomena; a predictive element that enables its adherents successfully to argue that, under such-and-such conditions, a certain outcome can be expected to occur; and a prescriptive or normative element that provides a guide to policy based on the descriptive and predictive qualities of the theory.

Huntington's main descriptive or empirical claim in The Soldier and the State was that American civil-military relations have been shaped by three variables: the external threat, which he called the functional imperative, and two components of what he called the societal imperative, "the social forces, ideologies and institutions dominant within the society."

The first component of the social imperative is the constitutional structure of the United States, the legal-institutional framework that guides political affairs generally and civil-military affairs specifically. The second is ideology, the prevailing worldview of a state. Huntington identified four ideologies--conservative pro-military, fascist pro-military, Marxist antimilitary, and liberal antimilitary--and argued that the fourth was the dominant ideology of the United States.

Huntington also argued that both components of the social imperative--the constitutional structure and the American ideology of antimilitary liberalism--had remained constant throughout U.S. history. Accordingly, the entire burden of explaining any change in civilian control or level of military armament would have to rest with the functional imperative; that is, the external threat.

He further contended that liberalism was "the gravest domestic threat to American military security. The tension between the demands of military security and the values of American liberalism can, in the long run, be relieved only by the weakening of the security threat or the weakening of liberalism." The requisite for military security is a shift in basic American values from liberalism to conservatism. Only an environment which is sympathetically conservative will permit American military leaders to combine the political power which society thrusts upon them with the military professionalism without which society cannot endure.

According to Huntington, America's antimilitary liberal ideology produces "extirpation"--the virtual elimination of military forces--when the external threat is low and "transmutation,"--the refashioning of the military in accordance with liberalism, which leads to the loss of "peculiarly military characteristics"--when the external threat is high. The problem for the United States in a protracted contest such as the Cold War (or the war against radical Islam) is that, while transmutation may work for short periods of time during which concentrated military effort is required (a world war, for example), it will not assure adequate military capability over the long term.

In the context of the Cold War, Huntington argued that the ideological component of America's societal imperative--liberal antimilitary ideology--would make it impossible to build the forces necessary to confront the functional imperative in the form of the Soviet threat to the United States and to permit military leaders to take the steps necessary to provide national security. The predictive element of Huntington's theory held that, without a change in the societal imperative, the United States would never be able to build the necessary military forces necessary to confront the Soviet Union.

The prescriptive or normative element of Huntington's theory was to suggest a way for the United States to deal with the dilemma raised by what Peter Feaver has called civil-military problématique: How to address the tension between the desire for civilian control and the need for military security, or how to minimize the power of the military and make civilian control more certain without sacrificing protection against external enemies.