American Civil-Military Relations Under President Trump

April 23, 2018
American Civil-Military Relations Under President Trump
Risa Brooks
Risa Brooks Non-Resident Fellow in Security Studies

This coming Veterans Day (11 November), the United States will hold what President Trump heralds as a great parade to display the country’s military might. Inspired by his attendance at France’s Bastille Day celebration, the parade will be the first of its scale since the country’s victory over Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. Although the planned event is less ambitious than originally foreseen (it excludes tanks due to concerns about damaging infrastructure), it will include major equipment and a “heavy air component.” Trump himself will be surrounded on a dais by Veterans and Medal of Honor Recipients.

While it would be unusual under any administration, the parade is striking because it follows a list of exceptional actions President Trump has taken in relations with the U.S. military—actions that some contend challenge longstanding traditions of civil-military relations in the USA. But what precisely are these norms and conventions? A closer look at the underlying features of American civil-military relations helps explain why Trump’s actions have been so provocative.

Samuel Huntington and American Civil-military Relations

Perhaps the best place to start in understanding the fundamentals of contemporary American civil-military relations is scholar Samuel Huntington’s classic book, The Soldier and the State.

In the book, Huntington seeks to address a perennial problem of civil-military relations in all countries: how to ensure that a country’s military is powerful on the battlefield against external adversaries, but that it does not use that influence internally against political leaders, especially to challenge their positions in office or ability to make policy. In the United States few worry that the military will engage in a coup d’etat against elected leaders. But, as in many countries with large and esteemed armed forces, maintaining civilian supremacy over military affairs is an enduring concern.

Specifically, Huntington argues that the best model for civilian control in the United States is what he terms “Objective Control.” In the model, he proposes that a division of labor be maintained between civilians and the military. Political leaders decide when to use force in an international dispute and for what political aims. Once a decision to use force is made, however, civilians should stand aside. Responsibility shifts to the military sphere and its leaders devise strategy and operational plans.

As part of this division of labor, military leaders also abstain from the realm of partisan debates and keep their distance from policy debates about the use of force. Huntington anticipated that the military’s undivided attention to cultivating expertise in “the management of violence” would, in turn, yield a strong professional ethos. Military leaders would devote all their energy and focus to mastering the art of warfare, without the distraction of politics. This would help ensure their subordination to civilian authority.

The Tradition of Apolitical Professionalism in the U.S. Military

Huntington’s arguments, in turn, help us understand two key traditions of contemporary U.S. civil-military relations. The first has to do with the norms governing the military’s participation in political debate and partisan politics. Following Huntington, military officers see themselves as “apolitical professionals.”

Indeed, the officer corps works hard to socialize its personnel to behave like professionals who abstain from political activity. These efforts are reinforced by prohibitions against partisan political activity in Department of Defense regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. For example, currently serving military personnel are limited in how they can express their partisan and political views (these rules do not apply to retired officers). They cannot campaign for politicians during elections, fundraise, or speak at conventions or rallies. If they speak “contemptuous words” against the president, vice president or Secretary of Defense they can be court-martialed.

Also, in line with Huntington, active duty personnel are supposed to refrain from participating in public debate about the country’s foreign policies or strategies in war. Military leaders must offer advice about military options to the president and Defense Department officials (the chairman of the Chiefs is the legally mandated principal military advisor to the president). But, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, such advice is supposed to be offered “candidly but privately” and within the chain of command. When military leaders are seen to cross this line and advocate publicly on behalf of their policy views, it generates significant controversy.

These norms are internalized in the culture of the officer corps, which carefully polices itself such that violations are not taken lightly. But civilian leaders also play an important role in maintaining these traditions. Presidents for the most part are careful to avoid putting military leaders in compromising positions or pushing them into the political spotlight. Neither George W. Bush or Barack Obama, for example, ever referenced the military’s partisan support for them.

Donald Trump in contrast has not always followed those rules. While all presidents cloak themselves in patriotic ephemera, he has at times explicitly treated the military as a political constituency to be courted. A case in point is Trump’s February 2017 speech at MacDill Air Force Base in which he directly referred to military personnel voting for him. As he put it, “We had a wonderful election . . . you like me, and I like you.”  In a July 2017 speech, he called on military personnel to lobby Congress on behalf of his legislative priorities, including in opposing the country’s healthcare laws.

Trump’s actions make sense given the remarkable social esteem the American military enjoys in the United States. But may be harmful to the U.S. military’s efforts to appear nonpartisan, especially given that many military officers already privately support Trump’s Republican Party. To some Americans, Trump’s comments may create an impression that the military is indeed politically allied with the president.

So far, the military has primarily “held the line,” as Secretary of Defense Mattis put it to West Point cadets and to troops deployed overseas, and resisted these pressures. It has publicly maintained its nonpartisan stance. But whether the military can remain immune from the intense polarization within American society today remains to be seen, especially when the president encourages the military to identify as his supporters. Also uncertain is whether its leaders will in the future refrain from advocacy about foreign or defense policy as they for the most part do today. With the current pressure on the military’s apolitical norms, some officers might choose to defy those traditions in the future.

Civilian Control of Military Activity

A second tradition highlighted by Huntington relates to civilian oversight of military activity. Huntington’s views reflect how military leaders in general think things should be done: the military and political spheres should remain clearly divided. Civilians may commit forces, but then they should let the military leaders take over and conduct operations.

Civilian defense officials in the Pentagon see things differently. As they view it, effective civilian oversight requires them to question and evaluate military activity potentially at all levels of operations. This has created a kind of culture clash within the Pentagon. For many military leaders, civilians are intruding into their sphere of influence when they question the day-to-day management of military operations. One side’s “oversight” becomes the other’s “micromanagement.”

Recent presidents have clearly sided with the civilian oversight camp. Indeed, both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have followed the model of engaging in extensive and active oversight of military activity. Contrary to Huntington’s Objective Control, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, relied on a model of civilian control that requires intervention in decisions about military activity at all levels. Civilians in the Obama administration also exercised extensive oversight and intervened heavily in tactical decisions in military operations.

Here too, President Trump has departed from his predecessors and taken and adopted an approach to managing military affairs that seems closer to Huntington’s. Trump has delegated broad authority to the Secretary of Defense and military commanders to decide internally within their chains of command how to prosecute military operations. As he frames it, he has returned autonomy to the military to run the country’s wars. He is leaving the military alone “to do its job.”

What Trump characterizes as delegation to his military, however, looks to others like a worrisome disengagement with his responsibilities as commander in chief. His staff has sought to portray him as deeply involved in major decisions, such as when he approved the country’s plan for increased military deployments to Afghanistan. But concerns persist that he is leaving too much to the military to decide without sufficient civilian oversight.

Trump has also challenged the tradition of civilian control of the military in another way:  by shifting the balance of influence in the national security establishment heavily toward the military. It is well known that Trump has appointed top generals to key posts in his administration, such as his Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. In addition, there has been an influx of military personnel into the NSC staff.

To be clear, the presence of these generals is top positions does not represent an overt challenge to civilian control of the military. These appointments are legal and these men are acting within the chain of command, in which Trump remains commander in chief. But it could undermine the spirit or practice of civilian control in which civilian preferences prevail in the making of national security policy. One concern is that military viewpoints and perspectives may usurp other perspectives on military operations and strategic issues—or even more broadly in foreign policy. This worry is magnified by the institutional decline of the State Department and diplomatic apparatus, which is a longstanding concern that has amplified since Trump became president.

Of course, it is too soon to tell what impact Donald Trump’s actions will have in the long-term on American civil-military relations. That is just one of the many questions raised by his unconventional presidency.