Groundbreaking Study Outlines Framework for Strengthening Civil-Military Relations

Contact: Doug Gavel
Phone: (617) 495-1115
Date: March 19, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, MA – A groundbreaking study by Harvard Kennedy School faculty members Sarah Sewall and John P. White assesses modern national security decision-making through the eyes of senior practitioners and offers a series of findings to strengthen the relationship between civilian and military leaders. The report, “Parameters of Partnership: U.S. Civil-Military Relations in the 21st Century,” also addresses the unique challenges and opportunities facing the incoming Obama Administration in civil-military relations.

“The traditional shorthand that ‘civilians make policy and the military executes it’ is overly simplistic, masking an intricate interdependence,” Sewall and White said. The report analyzes the multiple dimensions and synergies of the relationship, noting the need for officials collectively to redefine their roles and responsibilities.

Sewall and White interviewed dozens of former national security leaders serving as Secretaries of Defense, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretaries and Chief of Staff of the Military Services, Combatant Commanders, and other key roles across six prior administrations. Their research offers unprecedented insights into a contentious, complex and important partnership that one participant described as an “unnatural act.”

In the report, Sewall and White highlight the role of personalities and transparent processes in building and reinforcing successful partnership. They call upon military leaders to assume a more proactive and broad advising and educating role, accept the frictions that come with their dual responsibilities to both the Executive Branch and the Congress, and refrain from seeking to influence or undermine political decisions.

The authors urge civilian leaders to respect the apolitical nature of military service, to draw upon military expertise in ensuring that policy options can be implemented, and to assume responsibility for policy decisions. Sewall and White explore the issue of military dissent and explain the negative effects of political activism by retired military officers.

“Our past year of dialogue with national security decision makers has revealed underlying tensions in the partnership,” Sewall and White said. “We hope this report contributes to a deeper understanding of the modern demands of the relationship and better enables participants to improve it in the years ahead.”

The authors are both lecturers in public policy and co-directors of the Harvard Kennedy School Project on Civil-Military Relations. White served as Deputy Secretary of Defense and Sewall as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Clinton Administration. Most recently, Sewall directed the National Security Agency Review Teams and White led the Defense Department Agency Review Team for the Obama Presidential Transition.

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