Samuel Huntington – The Soldier and the State

Samuel P. Huntington

Last week the Navy Secretary, Richard Spencer, resigned at the request of Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The specific details remain unclear but there is no doubt the pivotal moment surrounded the intervention of Donald Trump into the handling of disciplinary action against Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher. It is not my intention to evaluate the decision for the President to intervene or the strength of the case against this military veteran. Rather this event highlights the complicated relationship within civil-military relations which have long offered a glimpse into the professionalization of the entire administrative state. Indeed, the professionalization of the military has been a key symbol of political modernization recognized widely among political science giants such as Fukuyama and, of course, Samuel P. Huntington.

Huntington redefined the meaning of modernization for political scientists through his work Political Order in Changing Societies. He transformed it from a purely economic concept to offer a political dimension. But before he wrote this classic work, he offered an early glimpse into his ideas of political modernization in The Soldier and the State. Parts read like an introduction to his later masterpiece. He begins the work with a theoretical model of the military as an independent institution within the larger organization of the state and relies heavily on the ideas of Clausewitz who defined war as an extension of diplomacy. This concept is central to the work because it removes the distinction between war and peace for the professional soldier. The soldier looks to avoid conflict because the profession accepts the ultimate inevitability of violent conflict.

The book is divided into three different parts. The last two parts revolve around the evolution of civil-military relations within the United States. The ideas within the first part are tested within the peculiar environment of the American political context. In many ways, this is a work of American politics, but the first part is so well constructed it offers both a theoretical model and an analysis of several different military traditions within different political traditions. Fukuyama’s later description of the development of the German administrative state is a poor imitation of Huntington’s account. But the key to this work is Huntington goes beyond a high-level analysis to explore the psychology and role of the professionals within the institutional context. An early key to understand Huntington is that he believes people are defined by their environment. This insight helps understand his later ideas about political modernization, democratization and even civilizational geopolitics.

The analysis of the military professional is central to this work. Huntington distinguishes the modern professional from the earlier warrior class. The military professional emerges from the wider modernization which leads to the development of the administrative state. The professional is distinct from the warrior because their role is defined by their organizational ability and education rather than individual attributes like courage and bravery. It is important to recognize Huntington focuses on the officer class who require specialized education and training in tactics and strategy rather than the enlisted men whose bravery depends on a faith in the competency of their commanders and the reliability of their orders.

The professionalization of the soldier naturally leads to a common outlook which extends across different states and governments although he distinguishes the Japanese for its different military approach. It is unclear to me whether Huntington has meaningful insights into the Japanese military tradition or if this represents an early glimpse into his racial and cultural prejudices which led to his Clash of Civilizations thesis. The military outlook becomes uniquely conservative. It seeks to avoid the conflicts it simultaneously expects and prepares to encounter. The mindset is fundamentally realistic rather than pessimistic. It believes its best course to avoid conflict is through preparation for conflict. But it remains cautious to deploy the resources it has assembled because their exhaustion will become a natural weakness which other rivals will look to exploit. His account of World War II is fascinating because he looks beyond the allies to analyze the German military tradition within the conflict. The Germans had been the pinnacle of military modernization yet their aggressiveness in the Second World War defied the inherent conservativism of the military outlook. Indeed, Huntington goes to great length to distinguish between the military policy of Hitler and the reservations of the German military establishment.

The military tradition was slow to develop within America because of its fidelity to a liberal tradition. Huntington sees an inherent tension between the politics of liberalism and the conservatism of the professional soldier. Liberalism seeks to avoid military conflict, like the professional solider, but believes the tools of diplomacy make militarism obsolete among civilized nations. Huntington believes liberalism establishes a false dichotomy between war and diplomacy. Relying on the work of Clausewitz, war becomes an element of diplomacy. The growth of a professional military becomes restricted within a liberal political environment because the resources are limited for its development and construction. The American military tradition transformed during the Civil War when a generation of soldiers emerged under a unique context which remained through the separation of the military life from the civilian. The modernization of the military was possible only through the isolation of its professionals from the liberal American political tradition.

The Republican Party has long been synonymous with conservative politics in the United States. But the meaning of conservatism has changed over multiple generations. It has generally remained faithful to the interests of the business community, but it has also become representative of the interests of the military since the end of the Second World War. The earlier isolationism of the Republican Party was distinguished from the conservatism of the military outlook because isolationism generally leads to a reduction in resources devoted to the military. After the Second World War, the business community formed a closer alignment to the interests of the military which Eisenhower described as the military-industrial complex. Yet the Republican Party never completely expelled the idealism of liberalism as demonstrated through its engagement in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Trump administration has sought the approval of the military establishment from the earliest construction of its cabinet which included an unusual number of military generals. But this dynamic was awkward at best. The Trump Presidency has represented a transformation in the meaning of conservatism within American politics. There is a departure from the neoconservative tradition established under Reagan which emphasized low taxes, small government despite its commitment to a persistent growth in military resources. It is difficult for liberal observers to recognize this departure because many of the policies have remained the same. Trump has maintained a commitment to deregulation and his signature piece of legislation was a tax cut. But the motivations behind these policies represent a departure from the past policies of the Republican Party.

Yascha Mounk recognized past Presidential Administrations have remained committed to the principles of liberal democracy. There have been policy differences between the administrations of Obama, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes but they remained committed to the liberal democratic tradition. Mounk noted George W. Bush was a conservative in the American context but remained a liberal in a grander historical context. Trump represents a distinct departure from the liberal democratic tradition but it is difficult to define his brand of conservatism. Indeed, Trump has been described as lacking a true ideology. And many Republicans do not consider him a real conservative. But the emergence of Trump and other populists represents a redefinition of the meaning of conservatism within the political environment today.

The early work of Francis Fukuyama believed in the inevitability of liberal democracy to emerge throughout the world. However, he also offered a hedge to his End of History thesis. The Last Man was a nod to the philosophical conservatism of Friederich Nietzsche who is often overlooked within both philosophical and political circles and recognized more as an intellectual curiosity who is generally misunderstood for his cryptic writings which approached philosophy with a style which resembled the aesthetics he often wrote about. But Fukuyama recognized a fundamental conservatism within Nietzsche despite his rejection of key elements of the conservative tradition such as religion. Indeed, the conservatism of Nietzsche did not glorify the traditions of the past. He embraced the older philosophical traditions of the pre-Socratics like Heraclitus who emphasized the notion of becoming rather than being.

Nietzsche is often ignored among political theorists because his ideas are counterproductive. He is a philosopher of chaos who challenges both morals and institutions. He defends the aristocratic class not because they offer a higher social order but because they represent a challenge for his hero to overcome. The aristocracy becomes exhausted over time and is no better than the general population who he refers to as the herd. Despite his commitment to outdated institutions (even in his own time) like the aristocracy and slavery, he has no fondness for the institutions or norms which govern behavior within these contexts. Instead he values human will and pure, unadulterated power. The Nietzschean hero is not a product of institutions. He rises above the confines of political institutions to exercise his will upon others.

Modernization represents a break from old feudal institutions. But the collapse of traditional institutions required the emergence of new institutions to develop in their place. The chaos of the English Civil War and the French Revolution represent the difficulties encountered in tearing down traditional institutions. The American Civil War was necessary not just for the sake of human justice but to eliminate outdated institutions which prevented the political and economic modernization of the Southern economy. Indeed, the institutions of today no longer reflect the traditional norms or values of the feudal past. Institutions have become transformed by the ideals of liberalism and have been developed to reinforce a new cosmopolitan culture. But this also means the liberals of today have greater skin in the game than ever before. They have become the contemporary conservatives who defend the institutions of the modern age and the social norms which have developed to reflect its beliefs.

Nietzsche recognized the changing winds which produced cultural, economic and political transformations within society. He recognized how conservatives had already begun to defend the liberal reforms and institutions which had transformed the social order. Liberalism was no longer about the destruction of the institutions of the past. It had already become about the preservation of the new institutions it had developed. Liberalism was now in conflict with the individualism which John Stuart Mill defended. Its focus was no longer the development of the individual but the centralization of resources and the commitment of society toward a greater good. Institutions, for Nietzsche, were obstacles to true individualism. His hero sought to overcome institutions and destroy institutions and ignore moral standards rather than construct new ones as a replacement.

Huntington, on the other hand, believed in the construction of institutions as a means toward political modernization. Sometimes it becomes difficult to recognize his commitment to the liberal tradition within his conservative outlook. But the meaning of conservatism has undergone dramatic change over the course of the twentieth century. The liberals of today no longer seek to tear down the institutional order but to reform its edges. Donald Trump and his brand of populism is different. He represents the emergence of a modern form of conservatism into the American political environment. His distrust of the administrative state has no limitations because it places boundaries on individual initiative. Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher has become a hero among conservative pundits because he expressed his will through aggressive action. Rather than condemn him for possible war crimes, they glorify him for his refusal to respect traditional boundaries. And they distrust the institution which seeks to enforce moral standards and a sense of professionalism.

Samuel P. Huntington is often criticized as too conservative for the tastes of today’s academics. But his work cannot simply be dismissed. Recent events do not make Huntington less relevant. Indeed, they make it even more important to study his work on civil military relations to understand the politics of today. It helps that this work is available on Audible for those who pretend they are too busy to take the time to expand their reading lists. The first part of the work is classic Huntington where he explains big picture concepts with details which are rivaled by none. Anytime Huntington explains a topic, it becomes difficult to follow him because his explanations are both more expansive and clearer than subsequent accounts. And most importantly, the concepts which he wrestled to explain in 1957 have only become more relevant in an era of populism.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

Follow me on twitter @DemParadox

Leave a Reply

Up ↑