Scientific Public Policy – Military Version

The following is a draft I’ve been kicking around for months and have been completely unable to hone down into anything more concise and pointed.  It is an attempt to apply the “Public Policy replaced Democracy” line of thought from Moldbug’s open letter to the concept of an apolitical US military.  I’m posting it in hopes that I might get some criticism that helps develop the idea.

Notes to reviewers: 

1: My core point here is that the idea of “public policy” combined with an apolitical military invariably leads to a “one-true-path” worldview, (fashionable claims to “multi-culturalism” notwithstanding…how can we “respect” the cultures we are actively undermining or destroying?), which leads us to an endless Crusade to right all wrongs and bring all to our side.  In this regard, Neoconservatives and One-World-Government Liberals are the same thing in different packaging.

 2: To place my admittedly somewhat esoteric views in context more people care about, I applied them to counterinsurgency.  This is because a: successful counterinsurgency depends on successful governance, and b: Americans have no idea how their government works, and therefore what it is we are trying to impose on others

 3: I used this article ( as a springboard into conversation, because his argument reveals the very flaws in theory of government, politics, and armed force that I am concerned about.

 4: This article is really long, and probably disjointed to the reader (of course it looks fine to me, because I’m familiar with it!)  Any suggestions on shortening, clarifying, or even re-vectoring/re-framing this article are much appreciated.

In American culture, the military is understood to be an apolitical entity.  Yet it continues to be tasked with the inherently political missions of counterinsurgency and nation-building.

In his book Counterinsurgency David Kilcullen explains counterinsurgency and nation-building thusly:

 Further, in a third-country counterinsurgency there are at least two states, and at least two governments, involved: the government of the host nation in whose territory the campaign is being conducted and the intervening government providing assistance (sought or unsought) to that government. And since, as we have seen, counterinsurgency mirrors the state, in building or reinforcing a host nation-state to fight an insurgency, it therefore becomes essential for counterinsurgency strategists to ask themselves certain key questions about the nature of the local state. These include:

  •  What kind of state are we trying to build or assist?
  • How compatible is the local government’s character with our own?
  • What kinds of states have proven viable in the past, in this country and with this population?
  • What evidence is there that the kind of state we are trying to build will be viable here?

The fact that we, as an international community, failed to effectively ask or answer these questions at the beginning of our interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan may explain many of our subsequent problems.

As an apolitical organization, the military has no formal doctrine on politics.  As a result, ideas among military leadership originate in and reflect those found in the broader American culture.  This article serves as a window into the conventional American cultural understandings of politics, democracy, and government which ultimately guide the success or failure of defense policy in these endeavors.  I believe it reveals unacknowledged conflicts pertaining to the legitimate roles of the people, the government, and the armed forces in a democratic state.  Counterinsurgency and nation-building are political endeavors which encompasses the people, the government, and the armed forces, and therefore resolving these conflicts is vital to successful counterinsurgencies and nation-building operations in the future.

The Window

Given sufficiently broad reasons to do something, one always has a reason to do it.

Similarly, given contradictory premises, anything follows.  The key to understanding the situation isn’t to exhaust oneself addressing the infinite things that follow, but rather to address the root contradiction itself.

In “Moral principles for taking a volunteer force to war,” the author attempts to outline legitimate reasons for use of military force.  However, his own definitions of legitimate use of force by a democratic nation are contradictory, and therefore yield infinite numbers of “legitimate” uses of force.

Instead of examining the details of potentially legitimate uses of force, I will examine the root contradiction and attempt to resolve it.

“Legitimate Interests”

The author twice rejects Clausewitz’s assertion that “war is the continuation of policy by other means,” and asserts that there are separate, moral issues to be considered before going to war.

He states in his first principle for moral war that a “legitimate interest” must be at risk.  Continuing, he defines a legitimate interest (emphasis added):

1) A nation has determined that some interest, significant enough to warrant military action, is at risk, and that the domestic or global political costs are lower than those imposed by not acting.

2) A nation must further determine if the act will have domestic and global legitimacy, and in the absence of either, that the costs of acting are acceptable when compared to the costs of not acting.

The contradictions should be immediately apparent.  After insisting that moral considerations for war are separate from political ones, the author includes domestic or global political costs in the first criterion for moral warfare.

It also makes little sense that global political concerns are considered here, because later the author discounts these, saying,

 While it is certainly true, as Clausewitz argued, that wars are merely foreign policy (read: politics) by other means, it does not change the moral obligation of leaders to avoid wasting human life and the treasure of the nation they are elected to lead.

So global political concerns both are and aren’t moral reasons to go to war.

More confusingly, what does it mean that the “domestic political costs” of acting must be lower than the domestic political cost of not acting?  If the nation’s government represents the people’s interests, what political risk does the government face in defending an interest perceived as legitimate by the people?  Let’s table that for now and continue the analysis.

Continuing on, he requires that legitimate interests have “domestic and global legitimacy,” a definition which appears circular at best.  For argument’s sake, I’ll paraphrase this as a requirement that to be legitimate, an interest must have domestic and global popular support.  After all, we are a democracy, and the concept of popular sovereignty is a core tenet of our theory of government.

It seems reasonable that a government legitimized by the consent of the people can only legitimately take actions the people consent to (although the significance of global popular support remains unclear.)  It also seems to assuage the concern from a paragraph ago that the government might somehow take an action not supported by the people.

Except that in the very same sentence, he writes, “and in the absence of either, that the costs of acting are acceptable when compared to the costs of not acting!”

So, to recap, the moral criteria of a “legitimate interest” justifying military force can be defined as either:

  1.  An interest with both domestic and global political popular support
  2. An interest where the cost of not acting compared to the cost of acting.

It seems odd that in a representative democracy, military action is justified when sanctioned by the people, but also for some other reason.  Also, what role does the global community have in interpreting a nation’s interests?  Let’s table that as well and continue on.


The author recognizes he has made a controversial assertion.  In fact, he doubles-down on it:

 In a representative democracy, this is critical.  The population can vote out of office leaders who fail to make this calculation or those who incorrectly analyze the risks.  This necessitates both a careful review of any action and the inclusion of the national population in any ensuing debate.  An elected leader cannot expect his or her constituents to support a conflict that has not obtained at the very least domestic legitimacy.

This is an important distinction.  Waging war can be done in the short term if the population has a certain amount of trust in their leaders, enough to allow a rapid response to a sudden crisis.  However, as the cost in lives and treasure begins to rise, the population will expect to understand the necessity of the conflict; that is, the interest and why it must be defended.  When such legitimacy is absent, the military will begin to separate from the population and the government, questioning the merits of the conflict and the extent to which their nation supports them.

Remember, the issue here is, “how does a representative democracy morally take an all-volunteer force to war?” Yet the author warns that the population can vote politicians who fail to represent them out of office* as if it were a “bug” of the system, rather than a feature!

As a result of this unseemly accountability mechanism, the author advises that politicians must carefully consider their choices and “include the national population in any ensuing debate.”  This seems to gloss over the fact that the power to declare war rests with Congress and no other person or agency, and that the people should be proactively represented by their Congressmen.  There should be no “ensuing” debate, because the debate should take place in the course of deciding whether or not to declare war before any action is taken!

That “an elected leader cannot expect his or her constituents to support a conflict that has not obtained at the very least domestic legitimacy,” is a truism; by definition, a conflict without domestic legitimacy is a conflict not supported by constituents.

Yet the next sentence says “This is an important distinction.”  Clearly the author meant to demonstrate a difference and did not mean to write a truism.  To rectify this, I don’t believe it is a stretch to paraphrase this as, “an elected leader cannot expect his or her constituents to support a conflict without convincing them of its legitimacy.”  As he continues to say, sometimes leaders must act decisively in times of crisis, but then must be able to explain and justify their actions after-the-fact.  This is our final issue to be tabled.

Vital and Simple National Interests: Two Sides of the Same Coin

The author remains committed to defining moral principles for the employment of force.  He struggles with the possibility that wars might be fought for political reasons, rather than moral ones.  He paraphrases Clausewitz’s observation, saying, “wars are merely foreign policy (read: politics) by other means,” but insists that leaders have a separate “moral obligation…to avoid wasting human life and the treasure of the nation they were elected to lead.”

To differentiate between moral and political decision-making, the author proposes a distinction between “national interests,” (later called “simple national interests), which are “almost always driven by politics,” and “vital national interests,” which are things that “directly influence the economic or physical well-being of the state.”

That war is justified in cases of vital national interests is assumed.  But the author sets an interesting standard for simple national interests, saying “if a leader chooses to make war over a simple interest, then he or she must be certain that the interest is worth the expenditure of human lives.”  As examples of simple interests, he lists instances of nations fighting for interests other than their own as means of strengthening alliances, which he refers to as “vital national interests.”  He has walked in a circle.  Although he earlier tried to separate Clausewitz’s view of war as a form of foreign policy from his own criteria of moral reasons for war, it appears the author cannot ultimately escape Clausewitz’s conclusion.

Politics has been replaced…

This analysis has yielded four issues that were set aside for later consideration:

  1. Military action is justified when sanctioned by the people, but also for some other reason?
  2. If the nation’s government represents the people’s interests, what political risk does the government face in defending an interest perceived as legitimate by the people?
  3. Why must leaders sometimes convince the population of a war’s legitimacy?
  4. What role does the global community have in interpreting a nation’s interests?

Let’s try to make sense of these by writing out a theory of moral war that takes them into account:

“A democratic government can justly go to war when the people sanction it, in response to physical or economical threats, but also for some other reason.  Making war for other reasons has a political cost to the government, and requires the government to convince the population of the war’s legitimacy.  These other reasons somehow relate to the global community.”

The question is: what are the other reasons that officers serving a democratic government believe are grounds for going to war?

I offer as a starting ground the author’s insistence on separating morals, which he approves of, from politics, which he clearly wants to keep at arm’s length.  And this seems appropriate, for an officer in an apolitical military.

So what is politics?  Clearly it is something that civilians don’t like either.  It is with contempt that Liberals accuse Conservatives of “politicizing” Benghazi.  It is with contempt that Conservatives accuse Liberals of “politicizing” the IRS.  The words “politician,” and “partisan,” both carry strong negative connotations.

In contrast, words like “bipartisan,” “nonpartisan,” and, like we have seen, “apolitical,” have positive connotations, just like “democracy” itself.  No one is concerned that the IRS has become “democratized.”

But what is a democracy without politics?  What is a democracy without parties fighting for control of the government every election year?  Perhaps a government ruled by one party would be free of “politics,” but American military history is full of opposition to such governments.

So, if a democratic government’s actions should not be determined by officials elected in contested elections, and certainly not by officials elected in uncontested elections, that is to say, politics, what do Americans believe should determine them?  Where do these morals the author refers to come from?

I believe the answer is: “public policy.”

…by Public Policy

In theory, power in the American government is held by the elected politicians representing the people.  From their positions of power, they make decisions.  Americans seem satisfied with this arrangement.

Yet, as we have just seen, Americans detest politics, the very means by which politicians come to power, as a means of making decisions.  We are actually less concerned with who is making decisions than that the correct decisions are made.  In modern parlance, the study of correct political decisions is known as “public policy.”

To believe in public policy is to believe that government is an objective discipline, like math or geography.  In objective disciplines, it does not matter who the practitioners are.  It does not matter who the mathematicians or geographers are.  There is no Conservative mathematics, nor is there such a thing as Liberal geography.  There is only correct mathematics, discovered and refined by experts.  There is only correct geography discovered and refined by experts.  And there is only correct public policy, which is, of course, discovered and refined by experts.

In this way, the function and definition of American democracy has radically changed.  Elected representatives no longer serve to exercise the people’s partisan will through the government.  Instead, government exists to implement correct public policy, directed by experts.

Full Circle

This thought-excursion may seem extreme.  But at this point, it is vital to return to where we started to see if this theory explains our earlier observations.

First, it was clear that the author was attempting to separate “political” and “moral” decision-making.  The theory above highlights that not only does the apolitical military think this way, so does the general public.  There is a general acceptance that the government ought not to be a reflection of the people’s will, but rather the implementation of correct policy as determined by experts.  It seems all parties are in agreement here.

Second, this explains why the author believes that war is justified not only when the people support it, but also for some other reason.  That reason has now become clear; war is also justified when experts determine it is correct.  This explains the next issue as well; the government faces political risks when representing the people because…it is undertaking actions which don’t represent the people!

Third, it is now clear why the government may need to convince the people of a war’s legitimacy; this is because the government may, on the authority of experts, initiate a war which the people disapprove of, and must address aforementioned political risks by persuading the people after-the-fact.

Finally, the references to the importance of “global legitimacy” now make sense.  As covered earlier, if public policy is considered to be an objective discipline, there is no American public policy, nor a NATO public policy, nor an Iranian public policy, nor a North Korean public policy; there is only correct public policy.  Public policy is singular.  It is global.  There is one right answer, and all others are wrong.  There are no differences of opinion, only insufficiently educated dissenters.

What It All Means

This concept obviously has broad implications for all levels of American politics.  This article isn’t intended to address them all.  Instead, this article began with, and will end with, popular conceptions of democratic government as applied to just warfare and counterinsurgency, as filtered from the general public into the domain of military leadership.

Public Policy and Just Warfare: the doctrine of apolitical public policy justifies not only going to war due to the demands of the people, but also whenever experts determine war is justified.  The author included among these two notable items.  First, that war could be justified when an ally goes to war and we support them in the name of strengthening our alliance.**  Second, that wars must be fought to a victorious conclusion, lest the sacrifices of the soldiers lost to-date be in vain.***  Neither are good ideas, and neither respect the ideals of popular sovereignty or democratic government.

Public Policy and Counterinsurgency: As David Kilcullen laid out, many problems in Iraq and Afghanistan have been due to the inability to understand the governance of those regions.  The fundamental, underlying idea that there is only one right answer to government (ie public policy) has subconciously undermined policy decisions at all levels of these efforts.  Indeed, a task such as counterinsurgency requires us to “outgovern” the insurgents, yet it appears we ourselves are uncertain of the mechanisms by which our own government works.  Such oversight seems destined to produce flawed decisions.

The military is and will continue to be understood as an apolitical entity.  Accordingly, it has no formal doctrine on politics.  Yet it continues to be tasked with the inherently political missions of counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism, nation-building, and peacekeeping.

As a result, ideas among military leadership originate in and reflect those found in the broader American culture.  This’s article serves as a window into the conventional American cultural understandings of politics, democracy, and government which ultimately guide the success or failure of defense policy in these endeavors.  If the military is to succeed in future counterinsurgencies, it will be necessary to truly study apolitical governance.  Yet we have also seen that apolitical governance, or public policy, is a singular concept which permits no dissent.  The danger is obvious, and we must proceed carefully and deliberately in our preparations for future counterinsurgencies.

*In point of fact, it is worth noting that American voters actually rarely vote incumbents out of office, despite consistently abysmal approval ratings.

**This is largely considered to be how World War I escalated to the proportions it did.  Also, it directly contradicts George Washington’s advice regarding foreign entanglements in his Farewell Address.

***This is a sunk-cost fallacy that only serves to place ever more lives at risk regardless of the likelihood of success.

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One thought on “Scientific Public Policy – Military Version

  1. I think it would have been helpful to discuss all three legs of the proposed “trinity” – taken together, they paint a more accurate picture of my intent than when held in isolation.

    I think that the basic argument you are making is that “experts” should run the country? Is that a fair read of your essay?

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