America’s Political Turmoil Is Threatening the Norms of Civil-Military Relations

America’s Political Turmoil Is Threatening the Norms of Civil-Military Relations
Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 16, 2016 (AP photo by J. Scott Applewhite).

In 1992, the U.S. Army War College’s journal Parameters published a provocative article entitled “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” which critiqued the state of U.S. civil-military relations by imagining a fictional future military takeover of the government. The premise was that political leaders had essentially provoked the military to intervene in the political system by failing to respect their professionalism. The article caused a stir in part because its author, Charles Dunlap, was a serving U.S. Air Force lawyer, but mostly because the idea of a military intervention in the American political system was so inconceivable. Coups happened in other countries, but not in the United States.

It is true that American civil-military relations normally have been cordial. The military unquestioningly accepts the civilian control of the military codified in the Constitution. And—again normally—civilian political leaders respect the military’s apolitical professionalism and go to great lengths to avoid politicizing the armed forces.

The problem is that this arrangement is based largely on norms and traditions. But today, Donald Trump is the biggest norm- and tradition-buster in the history of the American presidency. While this has not yet created an outright crisis in civil-military relations, it has created the potential for one, raising difficult, uncomfortable questions and demonstrating the inherent fragility of the system.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review