Military Politicization

Q1: What is politicization of the military? Why is it a problem?

A1: A politicized military exercises loyalty to a single political party and/or consistently advocates for and defends partisan political positions and fortunes. An apolitical, nonpartisan military is one of the norms underpinning American democracy and a feature of American military professionalism. The military serves the Constitution through obedience to democratically elected civilian officials without regard for political party or partisan positions. This idea underwrites the peaceful transfer of power between presidential administrations and ensures that the American people can make governance choices free from the threat of coercion. Knowing that partisan intentions do not inform professional military advice also allows elected officials to trust the expertise and advice provided by senior officers. Moreover, if the military took partisan positions or exercised partisan loyalties, voters might reasonably assume that the opposition party would not be able to control the military if voted into office. In other words, the democratically elected representatives of the people would not be able to count on the faithful execution of national security policy if the military expressly favored the other party. Such conditions would break down the public’s confidence in either the disfavored party or in the military itself and damage the functioning of the government.

Another critical result of a nonpartisan force is that it protects the military: because the American military serves elected representatives from different political parties equally, there is no reason for those representatives to treat the military differently based on partisan affiliation. Decisions about the funding, size, shape, and use of the military are much less likely to be motivated by a desire to defend partisan power and much more likely to be driven by wider strategic, economic, and public values. Moreover, service personnel management can remain a professional—not political—process.

The U.S. military services treat the principle of nonpartisan service as a bedrock element of the military profession. While DoD Directive 1344.10, “Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces,” encourages everyone in uniform “to carry out the obligations of citizenship,” it also prohibits active duty personnel from overt partisanship while acting in an official capacity. These prohibitions include partisan fundraising and management or representational duties in political campaigns, partisan endorsements or speeches, and use of “official authority or influence to…affect the course or outcome of an election.” The Uniform Code of Military Justice, Section 888, Article 88, also prohibits commissioned officers from expressing “contempt toward officials” who occupy elected and appointed positions in the government.

Q2: Why is it problematic for someone in the chain of command—civilians or military personnel—to advocate partisan political beliefs and loyalties before a military audience?

A2: Leaders set standards of conduct and emulate corporate values in both military and nonmilitary settings. Expressions of preference for political ideas or parties by a superior, especially in professional settings, implies to subordinates that professional survival and advancement are best served by adopting that preference. For those in the military profession, the chain of command imposes still further constraints and expectations about subordination to a superior’s intent. Thus, when someone in the chain of command expresses support for partisan positions before an audience of subordinates, that audience cannot be sure if it must agree or risk being disobedient or disrespectful.

For the most part, the military takes primary responsibility for maintaining its apolitical character. But civilians play a vital role in the military’s political neutrality, often by abstaining from soliciting military support for or advocacy of political preferences. This consideration is particularly important for the most senior civilian political leaders who are in the chain of command: the secretary of defense and the president. Everyone in uniform is subordinate to these two officials in hierarchy and in law. Abstaining from partisan advocacy before uniformed audiences is a critical means by which civilian leaders support the professional, apolitical character of the armed forces and through them the health of American democracy.

Q3: How would we know if the military was becoming politicized?

A3: Measures of military politicization are both qualitative and quantitative. Quantitatively, social scientists have surveyed officer voting behavior and professed party affiliation for decades. Between 1976 and 1996, for example, a study called the Foreign Policy Leadership Project led by Ole Holsti and James Rosenau surveyed both senior officer and civilian attitudes on a wide range of foreign policy and political issues. In 1998, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies conducted a one-year survey of civilian and military attitudes under the direction of Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn. More recently, scholars have examined the rate of uniformed political activity on social media and active duty personnel’s private contributions to political campaigns. Qualitatively, scholars examine the public comments military officers make simultaneous to private policy deliberation; the extent to which the services influence, delay, or evade civilian policy choices depending on the party affiliation of political appointees; how and when partisan civilians solicit military advocacy for causes or campaigns; and the political activities of retired officers as windows into the possible political orientation or exploitation of the force more broadly.

The data on politicization do run into a challenge: there is an important distinction between the political affiliation of an institution and the political activities of individual members. The actions of individuals, even prominent ones like officers, do not necessarily represent the true orientation of an institution. There is also a key distinction between private and professional behavior and choices. Nevertheless, the data do suggest that professional standards for “citizen-soldiers” have shifted over time from general abstention from any political affiliation to a broad comfort with registering with—and consistently voting for—political parties. Whether the aggregation of these individual choices belies a deeper shift toward a more politically conscious military is an unanswered question.

Q4: Is it legitimate for retired military officers to get involved in political causes and campaigns?

A4: It depends on the context, and there are many more challenges in practice than in principle. There is general agreement that once military personnel, including officers, retire, they have the same rights and privileges as private citizens when it comes to political activities. Donating to causes, volunteering with service organizations, engaging in public debate, and even contributing expertise to political campaigns need not be problematic. What is important to consider is whether a retired officer’s title is being used to represent his or her former service or even the entire military rather than the individual’s views alone. Even though an individual’s personal views cannot be used as scientific proxies for institutional preferences, general audiences nevertheless often substitute the statements retired general and flag officers make for the military’s corporate opinions—indeed, the credibility of military expertise is a major reason why those opinions are so highly valued in a political context. It is therefore problematic for a retired officer to endorse causes or candidates because of the implication that a broader institutional endorsement lies behind that individual’s advocacy.

Again, this is an area where civilians acting in political roles also bear responsibility for protecting the nonpartisan identity of military officers and military institutions. Seeking a retired officer’s endorsement to lend a partisan campaign credibility teeters on the edge of a slippery slope because it implies military loyalty to a party rather than to the country or the Constitution. And while it may seem harmless so long as both major parties can marshal officer-advocates, the growth of partisan activity by military professionals could undermine the development of trust and openness between civilian political officials and their military advisers. Ideally, each side of the civil-military relationship can have faith that when it comes to national security policy their counterpart is squarely focused on the national interest, not the fortunes of a political party.

Alice Hunt Friend is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Alice Hunt Friend