Security Scholar Forum: What is a Civilian Strategist?

By Natalie Sambhi & Nic R. Jenzen-Jones

As part of a new initiative, Security Scholar is now hosting monthly online forums on security, strategy and military-related issues, bringing scholars, practitioners and commentators together for debate and discussion. It was our pleasure to host the first of these on 25 August on the topic of “What is a civilian strategist?”, an issue that has grown out of a series of blog posts and comments (started on the Lowy’s Interpreter and continued on Security Scholar, Rethinking Security and Pnyx), driven by the observed disjuncture between the development of strategy and implementation of policy and what role civilian strategists play in that interface.

Our aim has been not only to extend discussion beyond defining ‘civilian strategist’, but also to unpack a key area of civil-military relations (comparing the systems of three liberal democracies) and reach consensus on the function and utility of civilian strategists.

The hour-long forum, held over Google+, hosted guests from Australia, the US and the UK, from academia, the blogosphere and the Twitterverse, moderated by the Security Scholar team. Several points emerged from the debate.

First, what struck us was the interest in this topic; this has been an issue that has generated similar levels of concern amongst our US and UK contemporaries, as it has here in Australia. There was general consensus among participants that the role of civilian strategists was crucial in interpreting and implementing government’s intent into operational-level action.

Second, when compared to the blog exchanges, there was the shift in the online discussion towards whole-of-government/interagency issues. While the lexicon between international participants differed, it was clear that we all identified the interagency nature of contemporary security issues and appreciated that the increased involvement of non-military actors dictated that the role of civilian strategists was indispensable.

Third, we quickly agreed that the meaning of ‘civilian strategist’ depended entirely upon what level of decision-making we were are addressing; that is, at the higher levels of national security, decision-making was seen to be exercised predominantly by civilian rather than military strategists, whereas at lower levels, the ratio tips in favour of military strategists. Professor Samuel Liles pointed out the crucial role played by civilians in the National Security Council Deputies Committee in determining issues national security in the United States. Moreover, Samuel and Dr David Connery noted the role that their respective education institutions—the Information Resources Management College at the National Defense University and the National Security College at the Australian National University—played in creating and shaping civilian strategists (a considerable proportion in the case of NSC).

Whilst we did not come to a concrete definition of a ‘civilian strategist’, there are a few key characteristics we feel all parties agreed upon. All participants agreed that such a person must be a civilian (that is, not a currently serving member of a nation’s armed forces). They must also either make, or directly influence, strategic level decisions (although there was some discussion about the various ‘levels’ of strategy). While the distinction was made between those who are strategists and those who are policy makers, what is less clear is the distinction in practice between strategy and policy. Such confusion has led to a misunderstanding not only of who civilian strategists are (given rise to the debate in the first instance) but also what they do.

Overall, we were delighted to be able to host thinkers from around the world, and we hope that some of the points that have been raised will continue to stimulate discussion. Ultimately, by lending legitimacy to the role of civilian strategists to help overcome mistrust and misunderstanding with uniformed peers, we can encourage greater cooperation and implementation of a holistic and cohesive national security strategy.


Prof. Samuel Liles, Washington (National Defense University/
Dr David Connery, Canberra (National Security College)
Aaron Ellis, Liverpool (Thinking Strategically)
Dan Trombly, Washington (Slouching Towards Columbia)
Adam Elkus, Washington (Rethinking Security)
Matthew Hill, Ithaca (Pnyx)
Crispin Rovere, Canberra (
Sheryn Lee, Canberra (ANU)
Caitlin FitzGerald, Boston (The Children’s Illustrated Clausewitz) [by correspondence]


Nic R. Jenzen-Jones, Perth (Security Scholar)
Natalie Sambhi, Canberra (Security Scholar)

Excerpt from forum transcript:

Crispin Rovere: … I’m just sort of wondering what everyone else’s thoughts are on whether civilians are capable, or can, or should, be involved in operational matters as well.

Nic Jenzen-Jones: … When you say ‘operational matters’ are you referring to solely traditional military operations? Or are you talking cyber-operations and these sorts of things? Because there are certainly a lot of areas now where civilians are the norm, rather than the exception.

Sam Liles: You should bring up special operations, also.

David Connery: Or are you talking about procurement decisions and budgeting decisions? You really seem to range over a whole range of areas there… In some cases, civilians are better equipped to tell what’s the better fighter aircraft; they’re the engineers that have done that training, whereas the pilots can give opinions on which is better to fly, or to deploy.

Nic Jenzen-Jones: And I guess what always springs to mind for me, is that you’ve got law enforcement professionals in that spectrum as well. You’ve got FBI agents out there overseas, you’ve got DEA agents over in Afghanistan and so on, and you’ve got AFP all over our neck of the woods. They are obviously civilians, and are conducting operational-level thinking.

Matt Hill: Yeah, I think that’s a really important distinction to make here. I think this is where we can fall into a trap when we talk about civilian strategists, in that we make the civilian strategy divide such that we put the military at the ‘means’ point and the civilians at the ‘ends’ point. The reality is the military is one means amongst the national capabilities, and the vast majority of those capabilities are in fact civilian. There is actually a greater penetration of civilian involvement all the way down the spectrum, from strategy right down to the tactical level, which you’re not going to see necessarily from the military.

Sam Liles: I’d like to add one thing. In the military lexicon, we have the DIME model – the Diplomacy, Intelligence, Military, Economic model – that’s discussed in depth. But there’s also another one, the MIDLIFE [AKA ‘DIMEFIL – ed.] model. That’s Military, Economic, Diplomacy, Law enforcement, Intelligence, Financial and so on it goes. That law enforcement piece is very important because often, at the diplomacy level, if you want to get a change made you need to take in something other than a military brew to act within another country’s borders. So an FBI, or DEA, or shared use case with a share concept of operations will be able to work in a way that a military wouldn’t. So when you’re talking about strategies, it doesn’t always have to come back to we’re going to blow something up, kill people, break things – it can also be in the order of “we’re going to help you guys arrest the bad guys and clean up the streets”. That’s still enacting a strategy, maybe by a civilian organisation.

David Connery: Yeah a great point there by Matt, ‘military strategist’ is really confusing the means with the ends, it’s making the means predominant. Picking up on Sam’s point there, truly national strategies employ instruments of national power; the DIME formulation is really far too narrow. I’m not sure, Sam, of the MIDLIFE model but I will google that pretty shortly. But yes, a strategist needs to understand how to employ every tool available to the nation – and beyond the state – including what’s available in the private sector, what’s available in the community sector, and what’s available from your allies overseas, to achieve your political goals. Now, the military is a fine tool, but in the National Security College, we have about 15% of our students are military officers. The rest are representing all of those other agencies that are tools that Sam mentioned. And in that way I think we driving towards a better understanding of ‘how do you implement national security strategy?’, and leave the application of military force to the professionals.

Nic Jenzen-Jones: I think looking outside the state is a really important point as well. We’ve got a pretty clear civil-military divide in Australia, for example, but a lot of countries have paramilitary groups, and even law-enforcement groups that border on the military. It might be a lot more black and white for us than it is in other countries.

David Connery: Yeah, although in terms of becoming blurred, when you look at the State police ‘STAR’ forces and the Australian Federal Police’s International Deployment Group, the distinctions between ‘civil’ and ‘military’ become a little blurred.

Crispin Rovere: Do you think, in certain circumstances, that we’re even bringing civilians more into military operations? I’m thinking here of the CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and it becomes so intensive that we are now at a point where David Petraeus, obviously a life-time general, has now been appointed the head of the CIA. Do we think that perhaps that the whole distinction of armed force, in terms of means, is now becoming increasingly civilian as well?

Nic Jenzen-Jones: I couldn’t agree more, mate. I think the Petraeus-Panetta shift is the example that’s on everyone’s mind right now, but even some of the stuff we were talking about before is a good example. These Law Enforcement teams, AFP, DEA, particularly FASTs in Afghanistan and Colombia and so on, are integrating into the local military or paramilitary and acting more or less in a military capacity, as well as integrating into the local law enforcement and mentoring in the traditional sense. And you’ve also got Private Military Contractors, of course. You’ve got huge armies of ex-military guys, who are very clearly now civilians, operating in country – not so much on the strategy level, but still affecting it. If you look at some of the larger companies, Blackwater, previously, and DynCorp and so on, some of the in-country managers are responsible for a large area and are in a sense involved in some strategy in that they are being consulted by civilian and military leaders in country. So these guys have a dialogue going with senior officers and civilian representatives of coalition nations.

David Connery: To follow on from Nic there, Private Military Contractors are even setting foreign policy in some circumstances. But Crispin makes an excellent point in ‘what is a military operation these days?’. I can’t think of a single operation that is a solely military activity. And I don’t think there will be again, short of a major international war, where you’ve got to impose the peace. If you think of World War Two as a continuum that lasts through from maybe 1930, to 1955 or 1960, one phase of it was the fighting, but what happened next was the rebuilding of Europe. And although it was military-led in the very early years, there was a transition out of it. So what’s a military operation? Great point.

Matt Hill: If I could just follow on that briefly, I think what we are basically seeing, at least thematically, in the problem of defining civilian strategists, is that if we take strategy as being the bridge between the means and the ends of society, we have seen two major dynamics, really, since World War Two. We’ve seen the means; and questions of the means, and in what situations and how the means are deployed has changed dramatically with these non-traditional directions, as well as the change within the military towards professionalization. And at the ends, we’ve seen changes within societies. Dramatic changes in how we operate in Western society. So there seems to be pulling at both ends of that bridge, and they are both hard to reconcile with traditional concepts of strategy. And I think that’s quite a stretch on the concept of civilian strategists, these two dynamics happening at both ends.

From Caitlin Fitz Gerald (by correspondence)

“I think the slipperiness of the definition of a ‘civilian strategist’ derives from the rarity of the breed. I see strategy as a main intersection of the civil and the military, taking input from both and ideally grounded in a strong grasp of concerns from the tactical to the political. However, military leaders tend to have far more focus on strategic training, but the civilian leaders are the ones with the power to implement. So, I see civilian strategists as something that should exist, but don’t always (and actually I would argue that strategy in general is something that should exist, but doesn’t always).”

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About Natalie Sambhi

Natalie Sambhi is co-editor of Security Scholar. She is also Founder and Executive Director of Verve Research, an independent research collective focussed on the relationship between militaries and societies in Southeast Asia.

5 thoughts on “Security Scholar Forum: What is a Civilian Strategist?

  1. I appreciate Security Scholar for putting together this debate, as the civilian-military relationship is highly critical and highly relevant, yet also under-discussed. And they certainly couldn’t have assembled a better group of experts to discuss the matter.

    But I think there’s a very important element missing in this discussion, and that’s the issue of accountability. As the panel laid out quite clearly, the line between civilian and military is increasingly hard to distinguish. This is of interest academically, as in determining the exact definition of a civilian strategist, but it should also be setting off alarm bells for all citizens. Frankly, if we need a debate to tell the difference between civilians and military, then something is terribly wrong.

    While these issues might seem new, a brave new world of government privatization and civilian-military partnership (eg COIN, or DIME/MIDLIFE), really we know exactly what it means when the civilian and military become indistinguishable; it’s a police state. After all, the problem with blurring civilian and military roles is that it makes civilians more like the military, not the other way around.

    If the civilian and military roles are blurred, how are citizens able to hold them accountable? Each has very different ways of establishing the credibility of their authority (one through electoral mandate, the other through rank), and even separate codes of justice (UCMJ). Simply answering the question of “does a Raytheon analyst count as a civilian or military entity?” doesn’t help much if we don’t acknowledge the consequences – for government, for citizens, for the constitution – of what your answer means.

    But the issue of accountability is treated as a footnote at best. If not the explicit purpose of this debate (what is a civilian strategist?), it should at the very least be the driving force behind it. If accountability, the ability of the citizenry to select and direct the actions of both civilian and military roles, is not at the foundation of this debate, then by the time you figure out the difference between the two, it won’t even matter.

    This is not meant as derisive toward the debate thus far, only to serve as a reminder that there are larger issues in play that will in one way or another be affected by this debate. The difference between civilian and military, from the ordinary citizens’ point of view, is the difference between liberty and tyranny.

    – @joshmull

  2. I’m wondering why only Academics were invited, and not practitioners? Leaving the discussion only open to scholars closes the process to simply conceptualising theories, without any discussion on the real-world practical applications of those theories.

    To gain recognition, or acceptance, then perhaps you should stop limiting these discussions to simply academia, and invite some real-world experts; those who have ample experience in the field instead of self-labelled experts based on their theoretical writings.

    You have also limited yourself to one closed viewpoint of a “civilian”. Not all non-Military people are “civilians”. Those who swear / affirm an allegiance to their country, and deal with violence as part of their job, are not all “military”. A “civilian” strategist could be someone with real world experience in the blurry line between Military, Law Enforcement, and Intelligence. Or it could be someone who gains their insight from a computer screen.

    Don’t negate the value of the practitioners in this dangerous field.

    • Thanks for your comment. As you state in your last substantial paragraph, those who are able to comment in the debate should not have to be bound to labels such as ‘civilian’ or ‘military’, and we have endeavoured to provide a forum for a range of contributors to participate in the debate. Several of those participating in the ‘Civilian Strategist’ forum have been, at one or several points in their career, practitioners. Future forums may have a different ratio of practitioners/scholars/bureaucrats.

  3. Hi!
    Very interesting name by the forum

    It is remarkable, very valuable message

  4. Hi there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative. I’m going to watch out for Brussels. I will appreciate if you continue this in future. Lots of people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

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