30 May 1996 - 01 June 1996

Relationships Between the State and the Armed Forces

Chair: General Wolfgang Altenburg

The end of the Cold War had seemed to remove or downgrade, in most of the developed countries on which our conference concentrated, the specific tasks which had long served as prime determinants of what armed forces were for, and what they must be capable of doing. In parallel, missions like those in Somalia and Bosnia had highlighted functions of a different and in some ways more perplexing character. The interface between civil government and society and the military presented itself accordingly in altered and more complex ways.

The use of the military in a wide variety of roles was scarcely new, as British historical experience illustrated; but apparent probability and salience as between roles was shifting. We wondered briefly whether low-intensity conflict should henceforth be seen as the norm, shaping structure, training and equipment; but most of us were in no doubt that high-intensity conflict must continue to be the prime design scenario. The deterrence provided by evident capability at that level might well be still a major reason why it rarely had to be invoked; the world might still go wrong in ways demanding its use, as DESERT STORM had illustrated; the military themselves needed the professional self-confidence it provided; and it would be imprudent to suppose that conflict situations, however they started, would always remain tidily within low-intensity/high-intensity categorisations. Societies would continue to look to the military for ready versatility, and mindsets dismissing peace keeping as “not proper soldiering” were increasingly inappropriate; at the same time, we noted the dangers, in political acceptability as well as professional dilution, if armed forces came to be viewed and counted upon as all-purpose saviours for every large mishap. It was observed that, as one means of coping with diverse role demands, some countries had long maintained gendarmeries more or less distinct from their armies; we acknowledged the merits of this, especially where history made law-and-order or border-control use of the main armed forces extra-sensitive, but there was then some trade-off (we suspected) against overall flexibility and cost-effectiveness within limited total resource allocations.

The shifting balance of military roles might pose awkward tasks also for the civilian-control system. That system was in itself not under basic challenge in any of our countries, but the increasing interpenetration of political and military considerations meant that the skills required of it were in some ways more subtle and testing than in the starker but simpler setting of “straightforward” warfare. In situations like the wreck of Yugoslavia vital interest was moreover not an easy criterion for national decision-makers to apply to near-voluntary military involvement. The need for clear definition of purpose and task was vividly shown by recent experience; diplomatic fudge-formulae (or a vague do-something motivation that could too easily degenerate into do-the-minimum, under the guise of avoiding “mission creep”) were no basis for the commitment of forces. Political leaders needed to be alive to the realities and exigences of armed-force employment; and that was not always easily secured when fewer and fewer of them had experience of or automatic empathy with the military (and when the cultivation of defence expertise was rarely now a natural career path for the top-flight politician.)

The military had a clear entitlement to defined missions properly related to the reality on the ground and to the resources assigned, with meaningful concepts and prospects of success; the wrenching experience of the under-strength under-supplied Netherlands battalion humiliated by impotence in the presence of genocide at Srebrenica bitterly illustrated the point. In most countries military leaders now enjoyed, and used, ready access to governments for the provision of advice and warning; but we recognised that perfect precision and realism in task-setting would remain elusive, especially in confused situations and diverse coalitions such as Bosnia exemplified. We were gloomy about much of the performance of the United Nations in the oversight of armed- force operations. Some participants indeed believed that in view of the deeply-ingrained limitations of UN culture and structure only the “sub-contracting” model, as in Korea or the Gulf, could ever really work; others, judging that effective sub-contract simply could not everywhere be achieved, emphasised the need to improve UN capability, notably through staff support of adequate scale and politico-military competence. We noted that in complex settings the fine-tuning of oversight required especial skill - and that the improvement of communications, in itself highly desirable, could import risks of attempted micro-management cutting damagingly across sensible chains of professional command.

The fact of coalition as increasingly the normal framework of operations also presented challenges. National armed forces needed to be able to operate effectively alongside a wide diversity of partners (and where cooperation might take the form of outright reliance, questions arose about the setting and verification of standards among allies depended upon). For some countries there also arose awkward issues about international command, and temptations towards undesirable use (as in Somalia) of national back-channels; for the United States in particular the occasional expectation of non-US command, however logical on a global view, was hard to manage under the pressures of a right-wing UN-averse Congress.

Public expectations and sensitivities were inevitably powerful in shaping governmental approaches to military commitment. Attitudes - for example on the tolerance of casualties - varied widely from country to country. In Japan for example, and perhaps in the Netherlands, that tolerance seemed very low; even in Germany there had grown up a tendency, not now easily dislodged, to assume that the hard, life-risking elements of the armed-forces bargain would never really be called up. More generally, difficulty often arose from the mounting propensity - observable, we knew, in many other contexts besides this one - to look, if not for the absence of risk, at least for its precise and bankable measurement in advance, so as to offer the limitation of national liability and the promise of scheduled extrication. It was not necessary to despair of educating publics to reality and its uncertainties, and of persuading them (despite the increasing absence, among the post-war majority, of any sense of shared risk) to accept the legitimacy of military operations and their costs; but the task of communication needed more and more skilled and timely effort. Modem technology could help in this, just as it could in reducing risk to the serviceman in conflict situations (but most of us were wary of entertaining or encouraging expectation that it could do more than modify the degree of that risk - whatever might be possible in a future DESERT STORM, a future Bosnia could scarcely avoid placing the infantryman in exposed settings, potentially to be shot at).

We talked, of course, about the media. Here too, as with political leaderships and publics, there seemed to be some ebbing of military understanding - defence correspondents were mostly fewer, less prestigious or less knowledgeable than in the past. But we accepted that the media continued to reflect as well as to form public attitudes, for better or worse, and generalised lamentation about them was unfruitful; it was powerfully argued, moreover, that their pressures hardly ever skewed policy unless policy was unclear or otherwise infirm. The practical task for the armed forces in dealing with the media was patient and professionally-competent communication, not over-touchy complaint.

The attitudes of society to the armed forces as institutions, just as to their use in operations, varied widely from country to country, usually in line with history (as the contrasting examples of Poland and the Czech Republic showed). In Germany, wariness persisted; in the United States the post-Vietnam recovery of esteem seemed largely complete; in Britain there were few basic problems. In almost all our countries, nevertheless, there were tendencies (again not weighing uniquely upon the armed forces) towards distrust of authority-structures, and also towards a blame-assignment/ litigation/compensation outlook largely alien to military tradition; we heard of a suit in Israel’s civil courts against an officer whose poor operational decision had cost life, and other countries could show broadly-analogous happenings. Armed forces had inescapably distinctive institutional characteristics, and must constantly explain these to society at large; at the same time, they needed to test them regularly for real need, so as to keep to a minimum the risks of damaging divergence from the wider community’s expectations and values.

We reflected inconclusively on how far the metaphor of contract between the armed forces and society was illuminating or useful. The individual, especially in volunteer forces, had indeed to weigh up a bargain, and the details were shifting in most countries, with (for example) shrinking size, reduced opportunity for advancement and self-improvement, a higher proportion of married personnel and therefore higher disadvantage seen in family separation or frequent mobility (which the increasing civilianisation or contractorisation of the more static duties, for all its budget-stretching utility, might proportionately intensify). The pressure on defence budgets and the demand to do more with less, with management perhaps more emphasised than leadership, showed little sign of abating; and governments needed to beware of overstraining the bargain to a point that either undermined professional ethic (including its ultimate willingness to risk life) or seriously harmed recruitment and retention.

Those considerations were the more important as conscription receded, albeit not necessarily everywhere - in Germany, we were reminded, it was still seen as having real socio-political value. Volunteer forces had great strengths, for example in professional readiness and in broad usability (to a degree which reservists, valuable though they were in some settings, could not uniformly rival). And few of us doubted, despite the special instances of the French Foreign Legion and Britain’s Gurkhas, that any general reliance on mercenary forces, whether in national or UN guise, could not securely command societal acceptance or back-up commitment. But if volunteers were to be relied upon, nations must in the long run - even though voluntary recruitment had nowhere yet proved a stronger constraint than limited budgets upon armed-force size – accord their armed services both good material conditions and genuine respect.

We judged that basic relationships between society and armed forces were in healthy shape overall in most of our countries; there were risks, but these were being controlled, and the armed forces were generally seen as success-providing assets. But change both in attitudes and in environments was unlikely to cease; and the issues we had addressed would deserve continuing vigilance accordingly.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: General Wolfgang Altenburg
Chairman, NATO Military Committee (1986-89)  


Professor Robert O’Neill
Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford

Lieutenant Colonel James Baxter OBE
Directorate of Military Operations, Ministry of Defence
Commodore James Burnell-Nugent RN
On secondment to HM Treasury
Field Marshal Sir John Chapple GCB CBE DL
Chief of General Staff 1988-92
Dr Christopher Dandeker
Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, King’s College London
Dr Martin Edmonds
Director, Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, Lancaster University
Mr Nik Gowing
Presenter/anchor, international TV news, BBC World Service
Sir Michael Howard CBE MC FBA             
Emeritus Professor of Modem History, University of Oxford
Air Commodore             
Michael Rudd AFC

Director of Operational Requirements (Air), Ministry of Defence
Field Marshal Sir Richard Vincent GBE KCB DSO
Chairman, NATO Military Committee 1993-96
Air Chief Marshal Sir John Willis KCB CBE RAF
Vice Chief of the Defence Staff

Dr Douglas Bland
Independent defence and security policy researcher
Ms Louise Fréchette
Deputy Minister of National Defence
Professor Desmond Morton
Professor of History, University of Toronto

Colonel Armin H Hasenpusch
Assistant Director (Security Policy), Ministry of Defence
Professor Dr Lothar Rühl
State Secretary, Ministry of Defence 1982-89

Ms Réka Szemerkényi  
Research Associate, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Brigadier General Jonathan Shimshoni (retd)
Brigadier General, Reserves

Mr Morio Ito
Special Assistant to the Deputy Vice-Minister, Defense Agency

Professor Dr Bart Tromp
Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Leiden; member, Advisory Board for Peace and Security, Ministry of Defence/Foreign Office

Professor Denis McLean CMG
Warburg Professor of International Relations, Simmons  College, Boston, MA; Secretary of Defence 1979-88

Dr James Burk
Associate Professor of Sociology, Center for Presidential Studies, Texas A&M University 
Professor Richard H Kohn
Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The Hon Jan Lodal
Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy  
David H McCormick
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
Professor Steven E Miller
Director, International Security Program, Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
The Hon Terrence O’Donnell
General Counsel, US Department of Defense 1989-92
Colonel David H Petraeus
Commander, 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Lieutenant General James T Scott
Commanding General, US Army Special Operations Command (Airborne)
Dr Don M Snider
Olin Distinguished Professor of National Security Studies, Department of Social Sciences, US Military Academy
Professor Richard H Ullman
David K E Bruce Professor of International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
Ms Christine Wing
Programme Officer, The Ford Foundation, New York