Civil/Military Relationships
May 15, 2007

Given the current military operational tempo of the Canadian Forces (CF) and the growing debate in Canada over the rationale and ongoing viability of Canada’s commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, it is worthwhile to gain a most basic understanding of the nature of the civil-military relationship that has existed in Canada since the Second World War.

In the 1997 Report of the Somalia Commission of Inquiry, the Minister of Public Works and Government Services defined the Canadian civil-military relationships as: the control of the armed forces by civilians elected to Parliament acting in accordance with statutes passed by that legislative body. This principle is distinctly and conceptually different from the notion of civilian control of the military, which may mean control by anyone not enrolled in the armed forces, such as public servants.

This represents but one idea, as there are numerous models, definitions and theories of what the concept of civil-military relations is and how it works. It can be argued that the current paradigm of “what is the western ideal of civil-military relations” is dominated by the Cold War ideas of such writers as Morris Janowitz (The Professional Soldier) and Samuel Huntingdon (The Soldier and the State). Douglas Bland of Queen’s University has offered, in the context of Huntingdon and Janowitz, the best explanation to date that applies to the western democratic ideal pursued by Canada. In A Unified Theory of Civil-Military Relations, Bland states that “civil control of the military is managed and maintained through the sharing of responsibility for control between civilian leaders and military officers.” Therefore, it is of some import to discuss the Canadian policy context by briefly discussing the broader context of civil-military relations and how they relate to the Canadian experience since the end of WW2.

In “Political Dilemmas of Military Regimes,” authors Clapham and Philip note some key variables that must be considered when reviewing civil-military relationships: the unity of the military command structure; differentiation of the military from civil society; level of perceived threat from civil society; and the level of autonomous political organisation. Furthermore, it is important that the term civil-military relations be broadened beyond the relationship between the military and the state. Today, one must also consider issues regarding military law and the constitution, public opinion and the media, the rights of women and minorities and the civilian component of the military-industrial complex.

By doing so, one can show the civil-military relationship in a clearer light. BGen (ret’d) Dick Baly, a senior advisor in the UK’s Department for International Development, observed that “civil society is taken to be those political, social and cultural organizations that are separate from the state but larger than the individual or family.” In the Canadian context, non-state organisations that have the greatest influence on civil-military relations are academic institutions, NGOs and the news media.

In Civilian Control of the Military: The Changing Security Environment, author Michael Desch notes, “if it is not under firm civilian control, the military can represent a serious threat to democracy.” Desch offers a simple structural theory model of the civil-military relationship (see Figure 1) to which one can apply Clapham and Philip’s key variables.

Within the context of the Desch model, a key reason why the civil-military relationship has been successful in most western democratic states is that the movement of the scale is towards the “Best” option. Bland observes that, “civil-military relations, as practiced in each liberal democracy, are based on cardinal principles, norms, rules and decision making procedures,” which in effect creates an environment that allows for the movement towards the “Best” end of the scale in Figure 1. Huntingdon suggests that this has been exemplified by the acceptance of the norms of professionalism in the military, while civilian control of the military prevails. Desch notes there is one independent variable that affects the above model – a threat (be it internal or external). The threat type and how the actors involved perceive the threat has a great impact on how they react to it. Clear examples of this were the events of 9/11 and the initial willingness of the US military and civilian population to accept US casualties in a prolonged ground war in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and smaller conflicts elsewhere. This was a fundamental change in US public opinion about military engagements. Desch’s independent variable offers the following analytical tool towards threat assessment and the subsequent impact on civil-military relationships:

To illustrate how Figure 2 functions, when a situation arises where Internal threats are high and external threats are low there is a situation (represented by the “worst” box) where the military may be inclined to intervene and remove, or aid in the removal of, the state’s civilian leadership. A recent example of this was the removal of the civilian government in Pakistan by General Pervaz Musharraf. Keeping in mind the historical trend of military interventions in Pakistan, the threat was seen as internal due to massive street demonstrations and riots by the civilian population against the corruption of the democratically elected civilian government. In the larger macro context of civil-military relations, and keeping in mind the above figures, Huntingdon points out that “antigovernmental war encourages civil-military relations different from those stimulated by inter-state conflict.”

As illustrated in Figure 3, one can argue that Canada’s version of Figure 2 is somewhat different, given the nature of the civil-military relationship that has existed since WW2.

In the Canadian example, due to the historical relationship the military has had with government since Confederation, and more so since the end of WW2, the same scenarios discussed previously would create a ‘poor’ civil-military relationship. The Canadian Forces would be unable to function effectively in a ‘worst’ case scenario.

The reasoning behind this assessment is that, overall, Canada has employed its military in some 109 occasions in aid of the civil power or to quell insurrections. Such deployments have, as Retired Commodore Eric Lerhe observes, “largely ignored Janowitz’ urgings to avoid the use of the military in these tasks as it also ignores Huntington’s rules on horizontal control.” Moreover, since the end of WW2, there has been a trend to resolve the civil-military relationship in Canada by emasculating the military establishment. This is illustrated by the systematic disarmament of the Canadian military and policies such as the “Integration” of the 1960s initiated by the recommendations in the Glassco Commission, the “Civilianization” of the Trudeau era in the 1970’s, and the build-up of a national mythology of the military as a benign peacekeeper from the mid-1960’s to the early 2000’s. Moreover, as the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute observed in 2003, “Since the late 1980s Canada has been governed by administrations which placed issues other than foreign policy and defence at the top of their political agendas.”

This process of subordination of the military can be clearly reflected in changes within the CF and DND, as the “Defence Performance and Outlook 2000” notes, “the institution [DND] has recognised that it must be as open and transparent as possible with Canadians. Indeed, the view today is that an informed Canadian citizen is one of the best allies the Canadian Forces has.” In December 1998, Parliament approved major changes to the National Defence Act – the “most sweeping” since its creation some 50 plus years ago. DND also noted that “these changes have served to enhance the transparency of the military justice system and align it more closely with the civilian system and Canadian values.”

This ‘civilianization’ has been further exacerbated by the “rust out” of equipment, degeneration of infrastructure, general underfunding of regular and reserve forces, and an overall neglect of the military as senior military officers became careerists rather than commanders. This has begun to change in the era of General Rick Hillier, however, the critique from a decade ago by former CDS, General Gerry Theriault, still holds true: “Little understood by civilians and military alike is the large degree to which the military has become institutionalized and bureaucratized; and the ways in which culture and corporate nature, compounded by the intensive manner in which it socializes and develops its people, act to undermine its capacity for objectivity, critical self-study and renewal.”

Without a doubt this has brought the Canadian military establishment well towards the “Best” category as reflected in Figure 1, but in turn is has reduced the CF’s ability to react to internal and external threats as reflected in Figure 3. This is exemplified by the limited number of regular troops that Canada can deploy for any type of domestic or foreign mission and the limited capacity of the reserves.

DND’s 1994 White Paper on Defence identified the idea of civil-military relations as something that Canada could help other states with, but over a decade later there is still little dialogue between military and civilian authorities in regards to a cooperative relationship within Canada. This fact aside, there is a segment of the academic community that certainly seems to understand the need for a healthy civil-military relationship. Arguments have been put forth for a system where the Royal Military College provides 40% of the officer corps with the rest being drawn from civilian institutions. This would create, as Ronald Haycock stated, in the Canadian Military Journal (2001), a “dual civil-military officer production system [with] strong and healthy links between the military and societal imperatives ­necessary for a well rounded, well educated Armed Force in a democratic society.”

Ultimately, there had been a growing belief in Canada, barring the current combat mission in Afghanistan, that the CF was involved in benign activities like peacekeeping. As the Somalia Commission noted, “peacekeeping has come to be regarded as a national vocation. Peacekeeping, seen as a neutral, non-violent activity focused essentially on soldiers as mediators, has some considerable allure.” This image has had a great bearing on how DND has developed the civil-military relationship in Canada. The current iteration of this relationship is illustrated by the present line of departmental authority and accountability within DND that clearly shows a duality of control between the civilian and military side of DND, where the civilian side takes the dominant role. A role that has, over the past 60 years, become so dominant that there tends to be a one-way dialogue between the two sides.

The Deputy Minister cannot issue orders to military personnel who are accountable to the Deputy Minister for financial, administrative or civilian human resources issues. But directives can be issued. Conversely, those civilian employees within DND who are accountable to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) are not in the military chain of command. This structure allows for both civilian and military personnel to function within the integrated structure of authority and accountability in the CF. It is important to note that only military personnel are in the military chain of command.

That being the case, as Douglas Bland mentioned in 2001, at the end of the day neither the CDS, nor any other officer is responsible or accountable for defence policy or national defence. A year later, the Morton Report noted: “If the Chief of Defence Staff and the Deputy Minister do not work together, they become enemies with a paralyzing sting. Integration made less sense when the three services had utterly different commitments than it does now, when Canada can rethink its strategy and its commitments.”

Thus, if one accepts the model offered in Figure 3, even now, with clear support for the military by the Harper government, and with the formidable presence of General Rick Hillier, there remains a dysfunctional civil-military relationship in Canada. We are still working with two relative solitudes, and this does not bode well for a nation that clearly is engaged in a war that will go on for years to come.

Sunil Ram, an international defence and security expert, is a Professor of Military History at American Military University. For further reference, Professor Ram’s commissioned paper, The Nature of the Civil-Military Relationship in Canada and its Impact on the Leadership Role of the Officer Corps, co-authored with Tim Mau in 2003 for the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, can be found at:
© FrontLine Defence 2007