The opportunities and challenges facing Lloyd Austin as defense secretary

Austin’s forty years in the military represent both the risk of inertia and a real opportunity to address serious issues.

Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

When then-President-elect Joseph Biden nominated retired general Lloyd Austin as his pick for Secretary of Defense, it was clear that it would be a controversial nomination. Scholars and observers of American civilian-military relations raised legitimate concerns that granting Austin the necessary waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense would further degrade the norm and expectation that “the secretary of defense is intended to be the daily personification of the ‘civilian’ in ‘civilian control.’” Biden even preemptively penned an op-ed in The Atlantic justifying his choice, indicating that finding the right person for the job turned out to be immensely difficult. It initially appeared installing Austin in the Pentagon’s E-ring would prove challenging.

Those concerns evaporated quickly when members of the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to confirm Austin in late January, leaving the law barring officers from serving as Secretary for at least seven years after retirement as a hindrance in name only, but the implications of having a former general serving as the political leader of the Department of Defense still matter. As the military simultaneously grapples with racial discrimination and the threat of white nationalists within the ranks, while also addressing the long-simmering issue of sexual harassment and assault, Secretary Austin’s time as a general is likely to shape his response. 

Any individual who is a product of the military will inherently have blind spots and bring institutional biases to the table when addressing military culture. However, in the case of Austin, his experiences as a minority bring a powerful and unique perspective to one of the primary challenges facing today’s military. Austin’s forty years in the military represent both the risk of inertia and a real opportunity to address these issues.

Negative continuity

Some observers of civil-military relations have suggested that a retired general may have the respect and ability to curb and instruct current military leadership. If history is a guide, there is at least an equal chance Austin will take a defensive stance against significant change. When it comes to issues of gender equality, it is what military leaders have done for decades. 

The degree to which the military has consistently failed to address the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the ranks has been shown year after year. In Congressional testimony and public speeches, military leaders have been consistent in saying the right things, such as “one sexual assault is too many,” “sexual assault is a crime. [sic.] This isn’t who we are,” and that the military has a “zero tolerance” policy. Unfortunately, these statements ring hollow in the face of continued issues of sexual harassment and assault within the ranks, with the climate of pervasive sexual discrimination found at Fort Hood yet another chapter in a seemingly neverending saga of sexual assault scandals in the military

Given his background, Austin is likely to turn to familiar processes and solutions. For example, on his first day in the job Austin addressed “the scourge of sexual assault” in a memo requesting senior military leadership submit a summary of sexual assault and harassment prevention measures within two weeks. As his first directive, it would seem Austin is prioritizing the issue of sexual assault. However, the memo contained contradictions, with Austin acknowledging, “I tried to tackle it myself when I, too, commanded” while also saying, “this is a leadership issue, we will lead.” It does not make clear why so many previous leaders, himself included, failed to adequately address the issue. 

While Austin’s prioritization of the issue is a refreshing change, it is unclear how far he will push his former peers. Military leaders have been consistent in arguing over the responsibility and authority of commanders in addressing the scourge, insisting that military officers should retain legal authority over incidents of sexual assault and harassment that occur within their command. This despite research highlighting the causal aspects of military socialization and the subtleties of pervasive gender discrimination in military culture

The Army’s recent report on egregious failures at Fort Hood points to an environment ripe for gender based violence. It was remarkable as one of the rare instances where military leaders were held accountable, but the report also framed their lack of attention to discrimination as prioritizing mission readiness, in keeping with the Army’s tendency to see these as mutually exclusive efforts. Such prioritization of the specter of readiness over personnel should not be a surprise to observers of the military. It has long been the position of the former Secretary, James Mattis, that efforts to integrate the military are a mere ‘imposition of social choices’ that degrade from military effectiveness, stating as late as 2018 that he felt the ‘jury was still out’ on the question of women in combat roles. 

Although it does not appear that Austin shares the reactionary views of Mattis, and his support of the removal of barriers to service for transgender individuals is a promising sign, the default approach to these issues would be to mirror the response of his former peers, and focus on process and prosecution while sidestepping the real challenge of changing military culture towards women. 

Positive change

The events of January 6th exposed strong links between the military community, conspiracy theorists, and white nationalism. And while Austin’s tolerance for a substantial and sustainable effort on issues of gender integration remains an open question, he is uniquely positioned to bring real change to the Department of Defense as it reckons with racist legacies and the prevalence of white nationalist extremism in the ranks. 

Representation matters; representation in an institution that pulls from across the nation and serves as a primary arm of national security matters even more. Leaders who understand the lived experiences of traditionally underrepresented groups are able to identify blind spots and biases and shape institutions in a profoundly different way. Not only do they recognize the importance of diversity, but they are also able to build teams centered around those values as Austin has done during his Army career. His time in uniform therefore uniquely awards him the ability to know when the services may be avoiding substantive change.

Leaders of color are often trailblazers due to the dearth of support systems, mentorship options, and pipelines for building diversity. They also serve as aspirational examples and models for those who follow. The military is a unique proving ground for people of color. The military has slightly higher Black representation than national averages and shows strong representation across most racial and ethnic groups, but generally only in the lower ranks. Over the course of the last couple decades, the military has largely stalled in elevating more minorities to senior ranks, making Austin’s achievement of four stars all the more remarkable. 

But despite challenges facing the military, compared to the civilian side of the national defense community, the military is a trailblazer. While women have made some strides in representation in civilian roles, people of color remain significantly underrepresented in national security and foreign policy circles, making the community of former military leaders the best place to look for a senior Black defense expert. So while personnel reform is rarely a priority of the department or a secretary, falling to the wayside of budgets, procurement, and strategy, Austin’s nomination in this moment presents a real opportunity for progress. 

Importantly, it offers an expansion of viewpoints as the military addresses the problem of white nationalists in the ranks. Militia movements and hate groups have a long history of trying to serve or to recruit veterans to gain skills and legitimacy. Tattoo screening guidelines have been one way to weed out white nationalists, though overarching connections between extremism and military service have rarely been comprehensively addressed. However, the need to protect the incoming Commander in Chief on Inauguration Day has prompted some soul searching and opened an opportunity for the Department of Defense to not only leverage its recruitment and retention policies to eradicate white nationalism but to comprehensively examine a culture that too often tolerates such people in the ranks.

Austin recently ordered a DoD-wide stand down. This move forces the entire chain of command to consider how to discuss and address white nationalist extremism in the ranks. However, stand-downs alone cannot accomplish meaningful or lasting change. Nor is there evidence that the leaders expected to hold these conversations are prepared to manage or navigate these challenging issues, particularly when military leaders, who are overwhelmingly white, may be less likely than those in the junior ranks to believe that race relations are an issue in the military. Fortunately, Austin is uniquely positioned to understand these dynamics and take the stand-downs beyond another ‘check-the-block’ exercise focused on the legalities of certain behaviors, and begin to address an organizational culture that allows such problems to fester in the ranks.

The Trump administration began with a slew of retired and active generals appointed to political positions. Beyond the disrespect that this approach shows for civilian control of the military and American democracy, there are more mundane risks to having a ‘super-general’ assume the position of Secretary of Defense, including an approach to the military that is too deferential and avoids real change. Austin’s lived experience enables much needed racial representation and a new perspective within the department, but progress demands an ability to police the military services and hold them accountable for results. Austin will have to move beyond the reflexive protection of the profession and fulfill the role of secretary. By virtue of his own journey through the military, Austin represents both opportunity and the potential for inertia in improving military culture as it relates to white supremacy and gender integration.

Jason Dempsey and Emma Moore

Jason Dempsey and Emma MooreJason Dempsey is a former Army infantry officer and a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. Emma Moore is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security and non-resident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University. Contact the author here.