Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 7, Issue 4  /  

The Screenwriter’s Guide to NATO Civil-Military Relations

The Screenwriter’s Guide to NATO Civil-Military Relations The Screenwriter’s Guide to NATO Civil-Military Relations
To cite this article: To cite this article: Ellison, Davis, “The Screenwriter’s Guide to NATO Civil-Military Relations,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 4, winter 2022, pages 39-44.
Disclaimer: This article reflects the views of the author alone and does not represent the views of NATO, its allies, or institutions.

“Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?… He said, ‘War is too important to be left to the generals.’ When he said that, fifty years ago, he may have been right. But today war is too important to be left to the politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.”[i]

Beyond the ramblings on Communist subversion and the theft of ‘bodily fluids’, Base Commander Jack D. Ripper’s fictional dialogue with Group Captain Lionel Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove (played by Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers respectively) is a perceptive commentary on the core issue of civil-military relations. For whom is war “more important”?

Distinctly lacking from Dr. Strangelove as well as answers to the question above is one organization in particular, NATO. For a film on the high politics of nuclear deterrence between the United States and the USSR, particularly one with a British character, it is a distinctly glaring omission. Major Cold War crises almost always included consultation between NATO allies, from the Korean War to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is the case across books, films, and TV as well. Occasionally a film might begin with the collapse of NATO, like Red Dawn[ii], or the Alliance is merely a side mention to the drama of the story, like in the Bond film Thunderball[iii] or the more recent German-language TV show Deutschland 83.[iv] In the Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising[v], NATO is peripheral, merely occupying the same space as US forces.

This supporting character role for NATO in film, TV, and literature has its parallel in a particular niche corner of the academic world. In civil-military relations, that field which General Ripper alluded to earlier by invoking Clemenceau, NATO has been at best an extra with a speaking part, at worst mere scenery. Indeed, there has never been a dedicated and sufficiently broad study of civil-military relations with NATO in the spotlight.

To begin filling this academic gap this article returns to Ripper’s question, for whom in NATO is war more important? The simple answer is both the generals and the politicians. A more involved answer is that it depends on specific circumstance, the players involved, the nature of the war and its costs. Non-discretionary wars involve a greater commitment from both while wars of choice, such as in Afghanistan or Iraq, will probably be of greater interest to politicians. However, what we will see here is that to divide between the military and political is to detach two groups that share unique responsibilities in matters of war and peace, particularly in an alliance like NATO.

Why NATO civil-military relations?

The internal dynamics between civil and military authorities in NATO have been, on the whole, and especially on the surface, harmonious. This however does not eliminate NATO as an interesting case. As Mara Karlin, an academic recently turned Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, has written about the generally bland civil-military relations in the Pentagon, “Infrequent or utterly ineffective dialogue may be an anomaly in practice, but the magnitude of the consequences of [a] lack of communication caution against being overly optimistic.”[vi] Just because generally effective cooperation has been the norm, does not mean this norm has never been deviated from. Contentious politics and internal conflict within NATO structures may be rare, but its consequences are often strongly felt.

Meeting this standard does not take the study of NATO civil-military relations out of the woods yet. Both Samuel Huntington, the patriarch of civil-military relations theory, and the scholar Peter Feaver have been reticent to explore the alliance’s institutions. NATO’s internal dynamics are described as a “tangled mess” that “defies easy modelling,” by Feaver[vii] while Huntington’s normative ideals of the proper civil-military relationship dismisses many of NATO’s institutions as either “impractical” or unideal.[viii]

Some historians have been less reticent in their approach, however. Diego Ruiz Palmer[ix] and Lawrence Kaplan[x] have led efforts to overcome the tendency to look at the political and institutional history of the Alliance as separated from its military history. Despite this, in the introduction to a recent volume on NATO historiography, NATO historian Linda Risso has succinctly argued that the political and military institutions are “strongly interdependent, and they mutually influence each other to a point that has yet to be examined in a satisfactory account.”

Revisiting NATO through Civil-Military Relations

Scholars in general make little mention of NATO civil-military relations, though specific mention should be made of Robert Jordan’s Cold War-era companion analyses of NATO leadership[xi], as well as Ryan Hendrickson’s work on the post-Cold War office of the Secretary General. These, however, hardly scratch the surface given the breadth of NATO institutions. It is important then to re-examine the major theories in the field, and to critically assess if they can adequately equip researchers with the tools to approach civil-military relations in the case of NATO.

Samuel Huntington proposed a model of civil-military relations termed ‘objective civilian control’. Objective control, to Huntington, was the clear delineation of political and military spheres, and the total subordination of the latter to the former, while political officials are equally expected to stay out of military affairs. As put succinctly in The Soldier and the State, “A minister of war need not have a detailed knowledge of military affairs, and soldiers often make poor ministers.”[xii]

The Soldier and the State also critiqued the post-Second World War trend of ‘fusionism’, that military leaders should consider non-military (economic, diplomatic, etc.) factors into account in their military judgement, and commented negatively on ‘soldier-statesmen’ in uniform who acted in largely diplomatic roles and advocated for political agendas.[xiii]

Contrasted to Huntington, sociologist Morris Janowitz proposes the opposite ideal. Rather than strict military ‘professionals’, Janowitz argued that armed forces need political-military managers[xiv], who can effectively operate within the international security environment, with a major responsibility being the management of alliances.[xv] Beyond ascribing a specific “political-military officer”, Janowitz further argues that, “Every ranking field commander stationed abroad is, by virtue of his very position, a political agent…” Janowitz’s ideal officer, the political-military manager, is a reflection not only that war is an extension of politics, but that military affairs are inherently and inseparably political.

Competing theories, however, from researchers such as Rebecca Schiff[xvi] and Douglas Bland[xvii], abound. British historian Hew Strachan has noted how Huntington’s theories in particular are important only for understanding American politics in 1950s but remain limited in other contexts.[xviii] Gordon Craig has warned more broadly that “it is difficult to frame a theoretical definition of appropriate roles that is not so broad as to be meaningless,”[xix] while the author David Betz has argued convincingly that in cases where little in the academic literature can provide a guidebook, “it pays to be wary of theory.”[xx] Avoiding then categorical formulations of civil-military relations (particularly those based solely on the US case), the literature can provide only a loose framework, as well as some useful concepts like Janowitz’s “political-military manager” and Huntington’s “fusionism”.

A Window into NATO Civil-Military Relations

NATO officials may loosely fit the “fusionist” and “political-military manager” concepts. Neither political or military policy, strategy, or even operations is developed or conducted in total isolation from the other. Military officers have often performed political roles, while political leaders have been deeply involved in military affairs.

Take for instance the role of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), and the staff of Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe (SHAPE). Eisenhower, as the first SACEUR, served the almost exclusively political function of building support for the new organisation in allied governments and populations. General Alfred Gruenther, the third to hold the international post (1953-1956), had the task of convincing German political leaders that continued conscription was compatible with the ‘massive retaliation’ doctrine.[xxi]

Even more tellingly, General Lauris Norstad (1956-1963) and the SHAPE staff were intimately involved in the drafting of political directives, beyond what might be considered the normal scope of ‘military advice’. A declassified internal SHAPE history details the development of the 1957 Political Directive, which updated assessments of trends in Soviet policy that would form the basis of force reviews. Described in the internal history, “SACEUR and his staff took every opportunity to observe informally the development of this document within the framework of the civilian structure.” SHAPE staff concluded after several interventions in drafting that sought to avoid “political decision which could limit severely the military commander’s authority,” that “the Political Directive is generally acceptable to Allied Command Europe as guidance for the development of forward planning.’”[xxii]

This role played by SACEUR, as well as many subordinate commanders in Europe, was, and is today, the precise stereotype of the political-military manager. NATO military officials have often found themselves in the position of not only developing military plans for the defence of Europe, but also being a key player in securing a less tangible part of the Alliance: its solidarity.

Ensuring Alliance cohesion and solidarity is and has always been the ultimate political task in NATO. And it hardly falls to SACEUR alone. Both political and military authorities play an important task in this, again balanced with the equal task of ensuring effective deterrence and defence. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) and the subordinate Military Committee (MC), the two committees made up of all allies, are the ultimate symbols of cohesion and sources of authority in NATO, with only the NAC having the Washington Treaty as the source of its authority.

It is challenging enough to explore the relationship between the set of one nation’s institutions, but what of a ‘international political-military organization’, that blends both the national and the international, military and political? Feaver’s work on principal-agent models in civil-military relations provides useful concepts. In the context of civil-military relations, political leaders represent the ‘principal’ while the military is the ‘agent’, contracted to carry out political orders. [xxiii] In his brief reflections on NATO, Feaver describes the Alliance principal as ‘divided’, in that rather than having a single individual or authority, such as a prime minister or president, the power of the principal is spread between the NATO allies, making the ‘game’ between principal and agent only more complex.[xxiv] For example the military authorities are divided in a host of ways, be it through the multinational MC or ‘dual-hatted’ commanders with equal loyalties to the NAC and American authorities.

Further complicating matters is the role of the Secretary-General. Though not facing the dual hat challenge of NATO commanders, the Secretary-General experiences unique issues. As head of the International Staff (IS), the role is intended to chair NAC meetings and seek consensus, often through complex multi-player compromises in developing and agreeing NATO policies. However, neither the Secretary-General nor the IS have decision-making authority, only NAC does, and their role as principal or agent remains murky. Many have become closely involved in military affairs, such as Secretary General Dirk Stikker’s (1961-1964) close monitoring of high-readiness forces and nuclear targeting[xxv] or even Willy Claes (1994-1995) taking the extreme measure of initiating the NATO air campaign in Bosnia without consulting or informing the NAC.[xxvi]

In practice, these functions and their interactions were often quite successful. From Gruenther’s political engagement with allies, Norstad’s hand in shaping political directives, and Secretary General Stikker’s close monitoring of forces and targeting, all led to a high degree of strategic coherence that led to many NATO successes, including the integration of West Germany, delicate manoeuvring around nuclear issues, and a consistently shared view between senior political and military leaders on the proper direction of policy and planning.

What happens, however, when this harmony does not come about? What can happen within NATO if fusionism is eschewed for a stricter political-military division by leaders?

Czechoslovakia and Strategic Civil-Military Incoherency

In the late 1960s, SACEUR General Lyman Lemnitzer (1963-1969) took a more “Huntingtonian” view with a strictly military definition of his role, and deliberately limited SHAPE input into policy matters. Lemnitzer being more confrontational than diplomatic, this had a strong effect on the military’s relationship with both the NAC and then Secretary General Manlio Brosio (1964-1971).[xxvii]

In May 1967, then, a new guidance to the military authorities was issued, with comparatively less input from SACEUR and the military authorities in general. It emphasised that military planning should distinguish between political intentions and military capabilities, and that increases in warning levels should focus on political indicators such as a shift in Soviet policy. The Defence Planning Committee explicitly admitted that “reliance on [the probability of political warning time prior to military action] would involve considerable risk,” it was nonetheless approved as Alliance policy at the May 1967 Defence Ministers meeting.[xxviii]

In other years, this may have been rather routine. But beginning in January 1968, significant political tensions grew in Central Europe. The Prague Spring[xxix], a period of political liberalisation under Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia (ČSSR), shook the inner workings of the Warsaw Pact and the broader Soviet sphere. Tensions rose over the course of 1968, as leaders in Prague continued to break from the Moscow orthodoxy.

In Brussels, reports from SACEUR raised concerns about the capability and risk of the Warsaw Pact to quickly intervene in Czechoslovakia.[xxx] Any Soviet invasion could threaten the border with West Germany or cause a destabilising conflict. In the Political Committee however, the risk of such an intervention was dismissed, given the focus on intentions rather than capabilities.[xxxi] Warsaw Pact manoeuvres, though foreboding, stood alongside the Bratislava Declaration between Warsaw Pact leaders, including Dubček, reaffirming fidelity to Marxism-Leninism and a withdrawal of Soviet troops stationed inside the ČSSR to its border. Soviet intentions, it seemed, remained committed to peaceful resolution.

Some military leaders were in agreement with the Committee, particularly the local commander of the Central Army Group (CENTAG), General James Polk. Put clearly by Polk after the invasion, “we…were dealing very largely in Soviet intentions and not hard capabilities: we simply did not think it would happen.”[xxxii] Reflective of both Feaver’s concept of divided principals and agents, the military did not have a single view on the capability vs. intention matter. Nor did the political principal. Secretary General Brosio agreed with Lemnitzer’s assessment that Warsaw Pact troops were “pressuring” Czechoslovak authorities, and that there was a latent form of military risk to the situation.

Optimism, either in Prague or Brussels, was misplaced as history bore out. On the night of 20-21 August 1968 Warsaw Pact troops invaded. “NATO had no tactical warning whatsoever,” a Military Committee report described later[xxxiii], while Alliance officials and military forces relied mainly on press reports. The intention-based approach to warning had not led to heightened intelligence gathering. NATO radar had even missed Soviet aircraft entering Czechoslovakia. As put succinctly by Timothy Andrews Sayle, “NATO had proved unable to recognise Warsaw Pact military actions in the heart of Europe.”[xxxiv] After the invasion, Lemnitzer was unable to argue of the importance of this event for the Alliance, with diplomats continuing to trust Soviet assurances. [xxxv]

This case is important for a number of reasons. One, it provides more nuance to the historical record of NATO in the détente period of the late 1960s. Though a period of generally reduced tensions, there was clearly misplaced optimism and undue trust in assurances from Moscow. Secondly, it reinforces the important historical civil-military lesson (and warning) of the dangers of incoherence at the strategic level. Taking a more strictly military role in his approach to policy-making, Lemnitzer neglected the political-military manager’s role in being an active player in international security affairs. More generally, it highlights the importance of civil-military relations throughout NATO’s history, in that the strategic incoherence towards the Czechoslovak crisis was uniquely “NATO” and a result of its structures.

A Screenwriter’s Guide

Writing about NATO civil-military relations is a bit like writing a movie about the topic. It would require a broad cast of characters, from across military and political structures. It would have to be a ‘slow-burn’, with a gradual build-up to crisis over many years. Largely devoid of action, the true drama would be between the personalities of the characters and the forces between the institutions they represent. Less Tom Clancy think rather of a cross between West Wing and Yes, Minister.

NATO might not be the easiest study, nor may it seem at first glance immediately exciting or dramatic. Yet the history of the Cold War in Europe was largely written and negotiated behind the closed doors of the Alliance’s political and military establishments. In the margins and footnotes of bland policy documents lies the major 20th century debates on deterring nuclear war, East-West relations, and civil-military relations.

Beyond a potential screenplay and manuscript on NATO history, there is a hint for scholars of civil-military relations to the question posed by Ripper’s quote of Clemenceau to Mandrake. For whom is war more important? The simple answer is both. The more complex answer, it depends on the specific circumstances, the actors involved, the nature of the war, and its costs (e.g., cost to society at large or cost to the military force). “Existential” or “total” wars naturally entail a higher degree of involvement for both, while discretionary wars of choice, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, will probably be of greater interest to the political side. To arbitrarily divide between the military and political at the strategic level is to wilfully separate two spheres that desperately need each other’s views and advice. Recent debates underline the challenges of these tendencies highlighted here in the case of NATO.[xxxvi] There is a clear role for a ‘fusionist’ or a ‘political-military manager’ who is willing to blur the lines in practice to achieve more effective strategy. What is historically evident, is that rigid adherence to an “ideal form” or the strict division of military and political categories at the highest levels is to court disaster.


[i] Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1964; Culver City, CA: Columbia Pictures Home Video, 2005), DVD.
[ii] Red Dawn, directed by John Milius (1984; Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2000), Streaming.
[iii] Thunderball, directed by Terence Young (1965; Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2008), Streaming.
[iv] Deutschland 83, directed by Samira Radsi (2015; London, UK: Universal Pictures (UK), 2015), DVD.
[v] Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising (New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1986).
[vi] Mara Karlin, “Civilian Oversight in the Pentagon,” in Reconsidering American Civil-Military Relations, ed. Lionel Beehner, Risa Brooks, and Daniel Maurer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), pg. 90.
[vii] Peter D. Feaver, Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil Military Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), pg. 281.
[viii] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), pg. 356-357.
[ix] Diego A. Ruiz Palmer, “The NATO-Warsaw Pact Competition in the 1970s and 1980s: a revolution in military affairs in the making or the end of a strategic age?” Cold War History 14, no. 4 (2014): 533-573.
[x] Lawrence S. Kaplan, “General Lyman L. Lemnitzer and NATO, 1948-1969: a deferential leader,” Cold War History 19, no. 3 (2019): 323-341.
[xi] Robert S. Jordan, Political Leadership in NATO: A Study in Multinational Diplomacy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1979); Robert S. Jordan, Generals in International Politics: NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987); Ryan C. Hendrickson, Diplomacy and War at NATO: The Secretary General and Military Action after the Cold War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006).
[xii] Huntington, 58.
[xiii] Huntington, 351-353.
[xiv] Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait (New York: Free Press, 1971), pg. 70.
[xv] Janowitz, pg. 334.
[xvi] Rebecca L. Schiff, “Civil-Military Relations Reconsidered: A Theory of Concordance,” Armed Forces and Society 22, no. 1 (1995): 7-24.
[xvii] Douglas L. Bland, “A Unified Theory of Civil-Military Relations,” Armed Forces and Society 26, no. 1 (1999): 7-26.
[xviii] Hew Strachan, “The Civil-military ‘Gap’ in Britain,” Journal of Strategic Studies 26, no. 2 (2003): 46-63.
[xix] Gordon A. Craig, “The Political Leader as Strategist,” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 482.
[xx] David J. Betz, Civil-Military Relations in Russia and Eastern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2004), 7.
[xxi] Janowitz, 314.
[xxii] SHAPE Historical Office, SHAPE 57/67, History 1957: The Political Directive (Mons: NATO Archives, 1967): 12-16.
[xxiii] Feaver.
[xxiv] Feaver, 280.
[xxv] Jordan (1979), 139-140.
[xxvi] Richard Holbrooke, To End a War (New York: Random House, 1998), 99.
[xxvii] Jordan (1979), 226-228.
[xxviii] “Annex II to DPC/D (67) 23, Guidance to the NATO Military Authorities” in NATO Strategy Documents 1949 - 1969, ed. Gregory W. Pedlow (Mons: SHAPE Historical Office, 1997), 333-344.
[xxix] Günter Bischof, Stefan Karner, and Peter Ruggenthaler, The Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Lanham: Lexington Press, 2009).
[xxx] “PO/68/430 August 1968 DPC Report on Situation in Czechoslovakia,” (Brussels: NATO Archives); “IMSWM-259-68 Crisis Management Aspect of the Invasion of Czechoslovakia” (Brussels: NATO Archives).
[xxxi] PO/68/430.
[xxxii] James H. Polk, “Reflections on the Czechoslovakian Invasion, 1968,” Strategic Review (Winter 1977), 33.
[xxxiii] “MCM-0085-1968,” (Brussels: NATO Archives).
[xxxiv] Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), 161.
[xxxv] Kaplan, 338-339.
[xxxvi] Kori Schake, Peter D. Feaver, Risa Brooks, Jim Golby, and Heidi Urben. “Masters and Commanders: Are Civil-Military Relations in Crisis?” Foreign Affairs 100, no. 2 (2021): 230-238.