Civil-Military Relations in the Age of Trump

Healthy relations between America’s civil and military populations depend upon the mutual trust, respect, and understanding between civilian and military leaders. This promotes the exchange of candid views and perspectives as part of the decision-making process.

While the military must have a voice in developing strategy, the military must also realize that politics permeates the conduct of war and that civilians have the final say, not only concerning the purposes of any military operations but also how those operations are conducted. On the other hand, civilians must understand that implementing effective policy and strategy requires the proper military instrument and therefore must insist that soldiers present their views frankly and forcefully throughout the strategy-making and implementation process. This is the key to healthy civil-military relations.

During his campaign for president, Donald Trump seemed to invite an unhealthy state of civil-military relations. He slammed the leadership of the U.S. military, claiming that “the generals under Barack Obama have not been successful. Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country.” He implied that, as president, he would replace Obama’s military leadership with generals and admirals who would not subordinate military effectiveness to “political correctness.”

Of course as president, Trump has not replaced the military’s leadership. Indeed, he has elevated three Obama-era generals to important administration positions: retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense; retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, first as secretary of Homeland Security and now as White House chief of staff; and active duty Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.

The proliferation of generals in high administration posts has led critics to express concern about the future of civilian control of the military under Trump. Many of these critics have also decried the delegation of authority regarding the use of military force along with what they see as the “militarization” of foreign policy as the State Department is marginalized. In addition, critics claim that the military is becoming more partisan.

So what does the contrast between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his actions regarding military policy as president say about the reality of civil-military relations today? How do civil-military relations in the Trump administration differ from civil-military relations in past administrations?

​Before addressing the particulars of civil-military relations in the Trump era, it is useful to understand what we mean by “civil-military relations” and to provide some conceptual and historical context.

The Civil-Military Bargain in America

U.S. civil-military relations constitute a bargain, regarding the allocation of prerogatives and responsibilities. There are three parties to the bargain: the American people; the government; and the uniformed military. The bargain must be periodically re-negotiated to take account of political, social, technological, or geopolitical changes.

There have been several renegotiations of the U.S. civil-military bargain over the past 70 years. During World War II the military became a “central” as opposed to a peripheral institution in America. During the Cold War, the rise of nuclear weapons and the central role of deterrence marginalized the military’s contribution to strategy-making. In the Post-Cold War period, the shift to regional conflict and constabulary operations changed the military’s operational standards. Post 9/11, we have turned to the needs of  a time of protracted conflict. A central question today is whether another renegotiation is in the offing.

The U.S. civil-military bargain focuses on five questions or sets of questions: First, how do we ensure civilian control of the military establishment? Second, what constitutes an acceptable level of military influence on the other spheres of society? Third, what is the primary purpose of the military? Fourth, what pattern of civil-military relations best ensures military success? Fifth, who serves? Given this context, what can we say about civil-military relations and the Trump administration?

Trump’s appointments have elicited two polar reactions: concern that they violate the principle of civilian control of the military, and belief that these military men would provide a stabilizing influence on a mercurial president. The latter should be of more concern to those who take healthy civil-military relations seriously.

The extreme example of this position was expressed by Georgetown law Professor Rosa Brooks, the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, who commented in Foreign Policy that Trump’s “first week as president has made it all too clear [that] he is as crazy as everyone feared. [One] possibility is one that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders.” A senior Pentagon appointee from 2009 to 2011, she continued that, for the first time, she could “imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: ‘No, sir. We’re not doing that.’”

Even short of this extreme, the idea that active and retired military officers should form a phalanx around the duly-elected president for the good of the country smacks of praetorianism, something usually associated with countries such as Turkey and Egypt, in which the army is the real power behind the government. Do we really want to normalize the view that the military is the protector of republican government?

The idea that the military officers in the administration are keeping the president in check is aided and abetted by the media, which purports to see daylight between Trump and his advisers. We saw that with the breathless report that the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force General John Hyten, said he would refuse an illegal order from President Trump to launch nuclear weapons. One would hope that all commanders would refuse any illegal order.
Reporters recently sought to drive a wedge between the president and Secretary Mattis on the transgender ban and North Korea. In both cases, Secretary Mattis made it clear that he was implementing the president’s policies. Clearly frustrated with the way reporters have been covering him, Mattis recently told them, “If I say six and the president says half a dozen, they’re going to say I disagree with him. Let’s just get over that.”

Delegating Authority for Military Operations and a “Militarized” Foreign Policy

One of the major characteristics of the Obama administration was its centralization of decision making regarding the use of the military. Nothing better illustrated this tendency than the administration’s treatment of Gen. Mattis when he was commander of U.S. Central Command. In December of 2012, right after Obama’s reelection, Mattis received word that his command was being terminated several months before he was scheduled to leave his post. Observers were stunned since there was no apparent reason for this action.

The early retirement of a general renowned for his powerful blend of strategic sense and candor, was a blow to healthy civil-military relations, as it sent a signal to the uniformed military that the frank and forceful presentation of the military’s view throughout the strategy-making and implementation process was not welcome.  As I remarked at the time, a president of course has every right to choose the generals he wants, but it is also the case that he usually gets the generals he deserves. By pushing Mattis overboard, the administration sent a message that it didn’t want smart, independent-minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders. The message to generals and admirals was that they should go along to get along, which is a bad message for the health of U.S. civil-military relations.

By delegating the authority to use discretion in military operations, President Trump has indicated his trust in the military’s judgment. One consequence of reversing the Obama policy regarding military operations has been substantial gains in the campaign against ISIS. As noted above, the use of military force is an iterative process that requires the input of both civilian policy makers and the uniformed military throughout.

Regarding the alleged “militarization” of U.S. foreign policy, that charge has been levelled as part of the claim that President Trump is trying to weaken the State Department by not filling vacancies. But this process has been ongoing for some time with the rise of unified regional commanders, who have assumed increasing responsibility for the conduct of diplomacy. Ironically, military diplomacy by these so-called proconsuls is often more catholic than that conducted by professional diplomats, who are often “captured” by the regions in which they represent the United States. Indeed, given his performance as a unified commander, Jim Mattis could just as easily have become secretary of State.


Both of the 2016 party conventions left much to be desired but the worst feature was the attempt by both parties to treat the U.S. military as a partisan prize. In Cleveland, the Republicans highlighted retired Army Lt. Gen, Mike Flynn speaking on behalf of Donald Trump and in Philadelphia, retired Marine Gen. John Allen did the same for Hillary Clinton. Neither convention should have asked for these speeches. Neither officer should have given one.

These speeches were troubling for several reasons. First, they undermined a pillar of American civil-military relations: that members of the U.S. military remain non-partisan in the performance of their duties. It doesn’t matter that both speakers were retired. They were not introduced as “Mike” or “John,” but “General,” implying that neither was speaking in his capacity as a private citizen but as a military officer.

Second, the U.S. military is highly respected by the American people. If the public begins to perceive the military as just another interest group vying for power though partisan politics, that respect will wither.

Third, partisanship undermines the claim of the U.S. military to be a profession, the essence of which is service to a client, in the case of the U.S. military, the American people as a whole, not just Democrats or Republicans.

But the military must do its part. Recently, an active duty U.S. Army major was criticized for an article he wrote in support of President Trump, despite adding the required disclaimers. Yet the U.S. Army was perfectly happy to send a female U.S. Military Academy student—in uniform—to participate in a symposium hosted by Hillary Clinton with Teen Vogue, a magazine infamous for recently publishing a “how-to” article for teenagers on anal sex. The symposium ran under the headline of “Nonetheless, We Resist.” There was no disclaimer despite the fact that Ms. Clinton has questioned the legitimacy of the election she lost and has placed herself at the head of a political movement dedicated to undermining the presidency of the man to whom she lost.  So far, Donald Trump has recognized the professionalism of the military in a way that Democrats have not.

The future health of U.S. civil-military relations will depend on a number of factors. How informed are civilian leaders when they choose to commit the military instrument? How well does the prevailing pattern of civil-military relations enable the integration of divergent and even contradictory views?  Does this pattern ensure a practical military strategy that properly serves the ends of national policy?

Today’s U.S. civil-military relations also point to the issue of trust: the mutual respect and understanding between civilian and military leaders and the exchange of candid views and perspectives between the two parties as part of the decision-making process. Establishing trust requires that both parties to the civil-military bargain reexamine their mutual relationship. And mutual trust—in the Trump era as well as all others—ultimately constitutes the key to healthy civil-military relations.

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