American Civil-Military Relations, with an Emphasis on Trump’s Presidency

Document Type : Research Paper


Professor, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran



American society is struggling to deal with the mounting social tensions between different political orientations of the extremists and the moderate forces amid the increasing likelihood of a military confrontation between the great powers in a turbulent global environment. All of these events necessitate some reorientation in thinking about US military, and its relations with the civilian leadership. The two main objectives of this paper are to investigate the nature of the relationship between military commanders and civilian leaders in the U.S. particularly during Donald Trump’s presidency, and to examine the impact of their interactions on political stability and democracy. Since the probability of a military coup in politically advanced countries is low, it is unlikely that the military commanders in the Pentagon would be planning to overthrow the civilian government. However, the signs of more prominent political role of military elites have led to serious concerns about the negative consequences of politicization of the armed forces for democracy. The research questions are as follows: 1. To what extent have the military been involved in American politics? 2. How, and with what political consequences, had the relations between the U.S. military and civilian leaders changed during Trump's presidency?
The civilian governments occasionally have to ask the men and women, who serve in the U.S. military—an all-volunteer force— to perform non-military tasks which are usually assigned to the first-responders such as police, firefighters, and paramedics working for emergency services. The severity and urgency of some crises may require the involvement of the well-prepared and professional military personnel to promptly help the victims of natural or man-made disasters such as floods, earthquakes, forest fires, pandemics, and so on. These crises do not necessarily have immediate security implications, but must be managed in an orderly and timely fashion to minimize the human and material cost associated with them. The well-organized cooperation between the U.S. armed forces and the non-military services involved in these types of crisis management has proven useful.
Since the military officers swore an oath to defend the Constitution and impartially serve the country, it is objectionable for them to be involved in politics in order to promote the political agenda of a particular President or party in a partisan manner.
In the research hypothesis, it is postulated that military professionalism and civilian control prevent military intervention in politics during political crises and help to strengthen democracy. First, the findings of research conducted by the leading theorists of civil-military relations are carefully examined. Then, with the goal of analyzing the relations between Trump and the military in the 2016-2021 time period, key tweets and statements made by Trump and high-ranking American military commanders about the most contentious military-related issues are identified. Using a qualitative conceptual content analysis, three major issue-areas which had caused tension between Trump and the military are observed. These issue-areas are: a) The withdrawal of US military forces stationed in the territories of other states; b) the declaration of war and the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons; and C) the intervention of the armed forces in domestic political disputes.
The findings of the research showed that the military leaders — due to Trump's personality and governance style that undermined democracy— were repeatedly put in a difficult position, and realized that they should play a more prominent role in deciding on national security issues within the framework of the US Constitution. The military elites were not in pursuit of political superiority. 


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