The President, the Pentagon, and the People
By Captain Sean R. Liedman U.S. Navy (Retired)
Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “Its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity, composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity. . . .The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government.” Clausewitz further wrote that to be effective, a nation must "maintain a balance between these three tendencies like an object suspended between three magnets." Examining the preparedness of the United States government, military, and people in ascending order of strength and importance is instructive.
The government is clearly the weakest apex of the American trinity today, paralyzed by partisanship, rife with ethics scandals, and lacking credibility and approval among the people it purports to represent. Currently President Donald Trump’s approval rating has fallen to 36 percent, while Congress’s approval rating has risen to a paltry 28 percent, up from its nadir at 9 percent in 2013. The government’s behavior over the past eight years has been self-destructive, as evidenced by eight consecutive years of continuing resolutions because of its failure to pass a defense appropriations bill at the start of the fiscal year. The government further amplified the effects of that dysfunction through the default passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and its insidious sequestration provisions, which leaders of both parties have deemed “mindless” and “reckless.”
In August 2010, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen shocked the nation when he declared that “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt,” and yet the government has increased the size of the debt from $13.5 trillion at the time of his remarks to an estimated $20 trillion today. Nondiscretionary entitlement spending currently consumes two-thirds of the federal budget, and its three largest components—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—are projected to more than double as a percentage of GDP by 2055.
If the government apex of the trinity were the sole determinant of national security, my answer to the question posed here would be a solid no, as there does not seem to be any political will on the horizon to fix its dysfunction.
Clausewitz understood that “the moral elements are among the most important in war,” and the principal moral elements are “the skill of the commander, the experience and courage of the troops, and their patriotic spirit.” Today’s military is filled with battle-hardened leaders in the field-grade officer and senior noncommissioned officer ranks, many of whom experienced multiple combat tours during the past 15 years of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader war on terror. These young men and women know how to lead; even as popular support (the people apex of the trinity) for the Iraq war dimmed, the military’s morale remained relatively high.
While Clausewitz focused heavily on the human element of war, technology plays a larger role in the modern war calculus than it did in his time. The U.S. military enjoys technological superiority against any potential adversary today, but its key vulnerability is a lack of capacity in the form of steady-state deployed forces (Phase 0 presence, in military jargon) in any given region around the globe. This deficit of credible combat power cedes the strategic initiative to regional adversaries, and the U.S. military is forced to rely on a strategic messaging campaign akin to, “Don’t do it, because we will respond with overwhelming force… six months from now.” The government has a duty to provide the military with the resources required to fill in the hollowness that has set in over the past eight years of dysfunction and build a military with sufficient capacity to ensure it is not strewn about as tripwires around the globe but rather exist as a force in being that provides credible deterrence to bad actors.
The people are the final apex of the trinity and continue to constitute a comparative advantage in trinity relative to any other nation. While a body of research suggests that the American public is more polarized along partisan lines than ever before in history, a solid 39 percent of the public identifies as “independent,” and that trend is increasing as partisan affiliation declines. Additionally, 79 percent of the public continues to express confidence in the military as an institution, and none of the branches military have experienced significant shortfalls in attracting people to serve in the armed forces.
The trinitarian apices of the military and the people have structural flaws, but those flaws do not threaten the integrity of the trinity. The strong bond between those two institutions remains a critical strength, although the potential exists for that bond to weaken over time. The dysfunction of the government apex is putting undue stress on its bonds with the other two institutions and left unchecked, threatens to destroy the balance of the trinity and weaken U.S. national security.
Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.” We are living in a time when the U.S. government is dithering while “trying everything else,” but potential adversaries should be ever mindful of America’s penchant “to do the right thing” when slapped out of its partisan stupor.
Captain Liedman is the founder and president of Eagle Strategy, Inc. and an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He was a career naval flight officer and a commanded a patrol squadron and patrol and reconnaissance wing before his retirement from the Navy in 2016.
By Commander Daniel Dolan, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The three main elements of Carl von Clausewitz’s model are the people, the government, and the military, which form an equilateral triangle commonly referred to as Clausewitz’s “Triangle.” These three interconnected variables always exist in any nation, and Clausewitz teaches that to be effective a nation must “maintain a balance between these three tendencies like an object suspended between three magnets.” In the simplest terms, the stronger the triangle’s elements, the stronger the nation.
The U.S. military represents the strongest side of the nation’s strategic triangle and would be ready to respond to any emergent foreign crisis. The U.S. military remains the most globally responsive and powerful force on earth, and it is one of the most trusted and respected American institutions (roughly 80 percent of Americans have a positive opinion of the U.S. military). Would this positive support change in the event of a major crisis? There are at least three variables currently in play that could swing the opinion needle south.
First, President Donald Trump runs the risk of overpromoting what he often refers to as “his Generals.” His frequent spotlighting of the service association of these distinguished retired flag officers puts the military brand at risk by blurring the civil-military line of separation.
On 23 February, President Trump repeatedly referred to the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids across the country as a “military operation.” This statement required retired Marine General John Kelly, now Secretary of Homeland Security, to clarify that, “There will be no—repeat, no—use of military force in immigration operations.” Kelly’s statement was correct, and appropriate, but the optics of one of Trump’s “Generals” making the claim did not make a positive impression on many Americans.
The second risk to the military’s foundation of strength is the proposed growth in military spending at the expense of popular social programs. Examining local newspaper op-eds and comment sections, one hears the voices of everyday Americans reacting to major cuts to agencies and programs they hold dear “so that Trump can build a massive military.” There have always been opponents to military spending in the United States, but the chorus seems to be growing louder by the day in response to the administration’s policies, words, and actions.
Finally, there is a risk of creating the perception of irrational, or ill-conceived military expansion, such as the President’s 22 December call for the United States to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” A restart of a nuclear arms race would not be popular among many Americans, nor U.S. allies. In terms of defense spending, Americans may agree with the need for a bigger Navy and other specific military capabilities, but American taxpayers deserve to know why these things are needed. The perception of a bigger military, however, just for the sake of being bigger will only serve to erode public confidence in the judgment of military leaders.
The government is currently the weakest side of the U.S.’s triangle. It has arguably been out of phase for the past 8 to12 years. The deep partisan divisions in the United States government in recent years are now only deeper following the acrimonious political campaigns of 2016. The U.S. is still experiencing the aftershocks of Russian election tampering, accusations of massive voter fraud, and the as-yet unproven accusation that Trump Tower was wire tapped (or was under surveillance) by the former administration. These events, whether real or imagined, are having a decidedly corrosive impact on the strength of the government side of the triangle.
In a related area, Congress now appears to be on a path to add another $3.5–5.5 trillion to the national debt in the next ten years. If coupled with President Trump’s proposed tax cuts, the level of debt to GDP ratio could reach an alarming 105 percent. This weakening of the U.S. economy will ironically occur in an effort to strengthen the nation. This lack of government fiscal responsibility creates a vulnerability and erodes confidence that elected leaders can responsibly manage the economy. Further, if tariffs and trade-wars develop, this will only further erode America’s economic lever of power.
Clausewitz places the people first in his trinity. He notes, “The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people.” Clausewitz underscores that the people side of the triangle is the most important, and it is also the most vulnerable area for the United States today. The deep divisions in the nation’s fabric are playing out daily in response to the election, executive orders, and every policy decision made in Washington, D.C. These actions and reactions of the people are evidence enough that two sides of the political divide are not likely to come together to respond to a foreign crisis.
In the event of a major crisis, the American people are likely to go from 0 to 1968 overnight. Unlike Vietnam that slowly reached a boiling point in 1968, an emergent crisis today would launch millions in the United States to paint a sign and join the nearest protest within hours.
A war-weary nation will not easily be coaxed into another major foreign entanglement. It is difficult to imagine many scenarios that would bridge the gap and bring popular support for a foreign crisis, especially one that could be even tangentially linked to Trump policy, actions, or negligence.
Herein lies the greatest point of vulnerability in the U.S. triangle. Without the support of the people, the triangle will quickly collapse. The United States proved it was not immune to this timeless truth in the early 1970s. The loss of popular support for the war in Vietnam is proof enough that no nation, no matter how exceptional, is immune to these forces.
Those who disagree with this assessment risk discarding the reality that is playing out before them every day on social media as well as national and local news. The very election of President Trump was built the on passions of the people in our divided nation. Half of the American people opposed to all things related to Trump are unlikely to “get on board” just because the script written by the other half says they should.
True national security is achieved when all three sides of the triangle are strong and in balance. That is clearly not the case for the United States today.
Commander Dolan served for 32 years on active duty as a naval aircrew operator and naval flight officer on Navy reconnaissance aircraft. During his career, he served in support of operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He teaches history and strategy as an adjunct professor for the Naval War College and the University of Maine Augusta.