Guardians of the Republic: Only a Nonpartisan Military Can Protect American Democracy

From a story in Foreign Affairs by Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Graham Allison, and Jonah Glick-Unterman headlined “Guardians of the Republic: Only a Nonpartisan Military Can Protect American Democracy”:

The central institutions of American democracy are under assault, as deepening divisions and poisonous politics paralyze Washington and tug at the seams of society. The U.S. military is not immune to this threat. The nonpartisan ethic of the armed forces is at greater risk today than it has been in our lifetimes, and maintaining it is essential for the survival of American democracy.

Although the Founding Fathers worried that a large standing army in peacetime would be a danger to liberty, the truth is that today’s U.S. military is more a protector of democracy than a threat to it. The reason for this is the institution’s disciplined ethic and practice of nonpartisanship. Over the centuries, American political and military leaders ingrained in the U.S. military a nonpartisan commitment to support and defend not any person or party but the Constitution itself. This nonpartisan commitment, embodied in every officer’s solemn oath, makes the U.S. military unique. It also mitigates against the most extreme threats to the republic, from insurrection to civil war. Since the U.S. military has a monopoly on the use of force within the country’s borders, any sane governor of a state or militant group considering taking up arms to splinter the nation will have second thoughts about doing so.

Many commentators use “nonpartisan” and “apolitical” as if they were synonymous, but they are not. U.S. military officers are not required to be apolitical. They do not forfeit their rights as citizens to vote, belong to a political party, or give money to a candidate of their choice. But in their professional lives, they are committed to being nonpartisan. Whatever their personal political opinions, whether they voted for or against their commander in chief, they must give the president (and their appointed civilian subordinates) their best professional military advice. They must execute lawful orders, even when they believe such orders are mistaken. This ethic of nonpartisanship is embedded in a thick web of laws, regulations, practices, and norms that has been woven over generations.

But this practice of nonpartisanship is not set in stone. Over the past three decades, as partisan divisions have become more intense, political leaders from both parties have increasingly misused the military for personal political gain. They have presented themselves as champions of the military, enlisted former officers in their political campaigns, and encouraged retired officers to speak publicly on partisan issues. Such actions, which are only growing more common, erode the military’s nonpartisan ethic and threaten its ability to play its essential role in society.

AN ARMED PRIESTHOOD

The U.S. military’s nonpartisan professional ethic has evolved over centuries. Having read of Oliver Cromwell’s use of the British Army to disband the English Parliament in 1653 and just recently defeated that same army, the founders of the United States knew that “despotism often wears a uniform,” as the military historian Eliot Cohen memorably put it. Thus, after the Continental Army won the country’s independence, it was essentially disbanded.

Once the founders had created a political system of checks and balances, they applied the same principle in assigning authority over the military. To ensure civilian control and unity of command in military operations, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution designates the president as commander in chief. Article I, Section 8, however, gives the legislative branch the exclusive right to declare war, raise and support armies, and maintain a navy.

The congressional act that created a permanent military in 1789 laid the foundation for a nonpartisan professional ethic. It specified procedures for raising a standing army and articulated an oath of office committing every officer to “support the constitution.” Over the centuries, as the country faced new threats, the oath evolved to reflect the expanding responsibilities of the armed forces—adding the phrase “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” during the Civil War to recognize the military’s role in preserving the Union.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ranks of the U.S. military expanded dramatically as the United States began to fight more offshore wars against other powerful countries. After a mine sank the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, killing 266 Americans, President William McKinley declared war on Spain. When Europe descended into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson marshaled three million troops to defend the Allied powers. And after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt raised 12 million troops to respond to Japanese aggression and wage an epochal war against Nazi Germany. The formation of NATO and other alliances, reinforced by a network of military bases on almost every continent, cemented the United States’ status as a global power with interests around the world whose defense required a military that could project power. Since 1941, the U.S. military has never had fewer than one million active-duty troops.

As the U.S. military grew to 2,000 times its original size, wise leaders attempted to mitigate the risks that had worried the founders by creating a disciplined, deeply rooted ethic of nonpartisanship. Considered legislative and institutional efforts limited the military’s involvement in domestic affairs, distinguished its authorities from those of civilian leaders, and proscribed specific partisan activities. For instance, the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act forbade the U.S. Army from enforcing civil laws without authorization from Congress or the president. Subsequent legislation and administrative actions extended the Posse Comitatus Act to the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. In 1939, as the prospect of a second world war increased, Congress passed the Hatch Act—the central piece of legislation regulating all federal employees’ partisan activities—which prohibits military officers from interfering in elections and engaging in partisan activities while in uniform. General George Marshall, who became chief of staff of the army in 1939, stands as the emblem of the modern ethos of nonpartisanship. As he preached to his officers, “We are completely devoted, we are a member of a priesthood really, the sole purpose of which is to defend the republic.”

After World War II, U.S. military and political leaders undertook an extensive review of the country’s national security institutions. The product was the 1947 National Security Act, which established the Department of Defense, created distinct responsibilities for civilian and military leaders, and helped clarify the limits of uniformed officers’ authority. For example, the act states that the secretary of defense should be “appointed from civilian life” and serve as the “principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the national security.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile, were to serve as “principal military advisers to the President and the Secretary of Defense.” In 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols Act further refined the roles of military officers—for instance, by formally removing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the chain of command.

Policies and practices flowing from this legal foundation have strengthened the military’s nonpartisan commitment. The Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the basis of U.S. military law, forbids service members from expressing “contempt toward officials,” from state legislators to the president. And Department of Defense instructions and directives prohibit active-duty personnel from engaging in a variety of political activities, including attending political events in uniform, making endorsements, and fundraising for partisan causes. Each service has academies where officers learn not just strategy, tactics, and the demands of leadership at each rank but also professional responsibility. They learn that for the force to be the best that it can be, officers must be promoted by review processes that are impartial—based on performance, not political patronage. Nominations for the most senior positions—from combatant commanders to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—must be reviewed and recommended by the Senate Armed Services Committee and approved by the Senate. Although public confidence in the military has eroded slightly in recent years, it remains the most trusted U.S. government institution. According to the 2022 Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military—compared with 23 percent for the presidency and just seven percent for Congress.

METTLE TESTED

The United States is not facing a full-blown crisis in civil-military relations as a result of partisan activity by military personnel, as some analysts and members of the media have claimed. Although there are serious threats to military nonpartisanship, they are not primarily from active-duty service members. Indeed, the 2020 presidential election served as an extreme test case. The U.S. military not only withstood the pressure and did its job; it emerged stronger and even more committed to maintaining its unique nonpartisan role. If it were subjected to a similar test today or during the 2024 election cycle, we are confident it would pass again.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump and some members of the media have alleged that, in 2020 and 2021, the military significantly overstepped its constitutional authority. In September 2021, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley became a subject of controversy for a conference call he held in January 2021 with officers from the National Military Command Center. After the journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa described the call as part of a secret plan to rein in the president if he were to “go rogue” and order a nuclear strike, politicians and pundits on the right accused the chairman of insubordination and even called for his indictment. In reality, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not have the authority to direct U.S. forces—and he did not pretend to have it in this case. As the evidence from subsequent investigations clearly shows, the call was simply intended to refresh officers on procedures for conducting a nuclear launch—procedures practiced regularly to maintain a reliable nuclear system that will under all conditions give the president feasible nuclear options. Combatant commanders must stand ready every day to carry out presidential orders, and regular reviews of procedures are an essential part of the chairman’s job.

A second narrative that has taken hold among some analysts and members of the media insists that military nonpartisanship and civil-military relations are in crisis because military officers have undermined civilian supremacy. As Risa Brooks, Jim Golby, and Heidi Urben have argued in Foreign Affairs, military officers have “played a role in the degradation of civilian control”—for instance, by intervening in policy decisions and replacing civilians in policy roles. The most conspicuous cases that such critics cite are the appointments of two retired generals, Jim Mattis and Lloyd Austin, as secretary of defense. By law, former military officers are required to wait seven years before taking office as secretary of defense. But Congress reserves the right to grant exemptions in exceptional circumstances—as it did for Mattis and Austin. A sustained pattern of exceptions would risk eroding the norm of nonpartisanship and might even encourage current officers to “color military advice” or engage in partisan behavior in the hope of obtaining future appointments, as the military analyst Caitlin Talmadge has argued. But both Mattis and Austin are highly unusual cases. A more serious issue raised by Brooks, Golby, and Urben concerns the relative influence of the Joint Staff and the civilian staff of the office of the secretary of defense. The Joint Staff is certainly a reservoir of talent, and the question of “institutional parity,” as Brooks, Golby, and Urben put it, is a debate worth having. But it is not grounds for arguing that the president or secretary of defense has lost control of the military.

A third narrative about creeping partisanship within the ranks holds that the military has been infected by political extremism—by “wokeism,” according to pundits on the right, and by far-right nationalism, according to pundits on the left. Such claims are mostly bunk. The military recruits nearly 150,000 new members each year. They come from every corner of U.S. society, with views they have formed in their homes, high schools, and colleges across the country. But extremist sentiments among service members are relatively rare—which, as the defense analyst Kori Schake has argued, is a “tribute to the strength of the U.S. military’s professionalism.”

THREATS TO NONPARTISANSHIP

The main threat to the military’s ethic of nonpartisanship comes not from within the armed forces but from political leaders seeking personal advantage without thinking about the larger consequences for American democracy. Over the last 30 years, politicians from both parties have increasingly sought to exploit the public’s trust in the military by attempting to wrap themselves in the flag and encouraging former officers to speak publicly on partisan issues. This behavior sows confusion about the role of the military and chips away at the public’s perception of its nonpartisanship. Although this trend does not yet suggest that the military would act in a manner inconsistent with its constitutional duties, it is clearly heading in the wrong direction.

Such damaging behavior can be traced back to the 1992 presidential election, when a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed Bill Clinton—and was subsequently rewarded with the post of ambassador to the United Kingdom. Thus began a contest during successive presidential elections to amass as many endorsements from retired military officers as possible. In 2000, George W. Bush narrowly beat Al Gore with over 80 individual endorsements from former officers, including a general who had until two months before endorsing Bush served as a combatant commander. In the lead-up to the 2004 election, 12 former flag officers endorsed John Kerry onstage at the Democratic National Convention—an event that also featured an address by a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At almost every nominating convention since, retired flag officers have made public endorsements, with some of the most vocal receiving prominent positions in the winning candidate’s administration.

Political leaders have increasingly used active-duty officers as props in other inappropriate settings. In June 2020, after police cleared protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., military personnel flanked Trump as he walked to St. John’s Church, giving the impression that the use of force had been sanctioned by the U.S. military. Trump wasn’t unique in using military officers for political gain: in Philadelphia in September 2022, President Joe Biden gave a political speech while uniformed U.S. Marines stood in the background.

Friction in relations between civilians and military advisers has also grown more conspicuous. For example, at the beginning of his administration in 2009, President Barack Obama considered his options in Afghanistan, including scaling down the war effort, as then Vice President Biden advocated. Several military advisers who strongly opposed this option made their case publicly, leaving White House staff feeling that the president had been “boxed in” by the armed forces. As then Secretary of Defense Bob Gates writes in his memoir, one of Obama’s closest advisers would say every day that “the military can’t be trusted.”

These trends have led to a number of disturbing developments, including a retired general recommending in 2020 that the U.S. military be deployed to seize ballot boxes and overturn the results of the election, and 124 retired generals and admirals signing a letter in 2021 questioning Biden’s fitness for office. As the 2022 Reagan National Defense Survey observed, the primary reason for declining public trust in the military is a perception that its leaders are being politicized. Should citizens come to distrust the military or see it as a threat to their way of life, not only will the services struggle to recruit the personnel they need to defend against foreign enemies but an essential guardrail against the splintering of the union will have been undermined.

A HUMAN INSTITUTION

The military’s nonpartisan core is also vulnerable to destructive forces now evident in our society. The military is a human institution—subject to human leaders, their frailties, and the political forces that amplify them. Its operational effectiveness and nonpartisan character depend on responsible public servants performing their duties and a properly functioning constitutional system that maintains legitimate civilian authority to which the military is loyal. Neither is guaranteed; both require constant renewal.

Recent events have forced Americans to consider the risks posed by a president intent on politicizing the military. Could such a president manipulate the appointment process to replace the military leadership with partisan loyalists? Since the president must approve all promotions of uniformed personnel to the position of general or flag officer, the president also has the discretion to nominate any general or flag officer for promotion to four-star. If the Senate were controlled by likeminded leaders, a president could conceivably install devotees in all the most senior military positions. Since there are only seven joint chiefs and 11 combatant commanders, the military’s highest echelons could be filled with partisan supporters even if the vast majority of officers did not share the president’s political beliefs or refused to be appointed. And if senior military leaders whose first loyalty was to the person who appointed them were put to tests such as the 2020 election, the republic could indeed be at risk.

The Insurrection Act, which gives the president authority to deploy active-duty troops domestically in cases of civil disorder and rebellion, could be similarly misused by a president to politicize the military. Ratified in 1807, the act was not intended to transform the military into a domestic political tool. Nonetheless, it gives the president considerable discretion. Even before the president has received a request for assistance from a state experiencing what its governor believes is an insurrection, the president has the authority to issue a proclamation ordering insurgents to disperse by a certain deadline. If they fail to comply, the president can issue an executive order deploying troops. Although that order can be reviewed by the courts, the review would likely happen after the troops had already been deployed. Thus, even with healthy institutions and loyal public servants, the U.S. constitutional system remains vulnerable to a president determined to abuse the power of the office.

Among the hardest questions the founders confronted was how to create a government that was powerful enough to protect Americans and ensure their rights but not so powerful that it would threaten their liberties. To do this, they created what the American presidential scholar Richard Neustadt has called a government not just of separated powers but also of “separated institutions sharing power.” As the head of the executive branch and commander in chief of the military, the president is the most powerful person in the country. But in every realm, that power is shared by Congress (which alone can declare war and raise revenues) and the courts (which can overrule the president and Congress if either violates the Constitution). The process of governing was not meant to be pretty. As the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed, the founders’ aim was “not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power.” Nevertheless, repeatedly and almost miraculously, the founders’ design has demonstrated a capacity for renewal and reinvention.

Today, this remarkable system is seriously threatened by declining confidence in its capacity to deliver and by extreme partisanship. Three-quarters of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, as a 2022 NBC survey found. According to a 2022 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of Republicans and a majority of Democrats view members of the other party as “very unfavorable.” And a 2021 survey by CBS and YouGov observed that 54 percent of Americans considered the biggest threat to the country’s way of life to be “other people in the country.” In times of crisis, the American military answers to legitimate civilian authority as identified by the U.S. constitutional system. If that system of government came to be regarded as illegitimate, the military’s loyalty could be called into question, thereby obstructing its operations and imperiling the nation.

A SACRED TRUST

Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 warning that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” remains as relevant today as it was on the eve of the Civil War. If American society becomes so polarized that large numbers of citizens are prepared to take up arms against each other, the United States’ experiment in self-government could ultimately fail. Fortunately, in building a military to defend against foreign enemies, the country created a fighting force steeped in nonpartisanship and committed to upholding the Constitution—traits that create a thick buffer against the most extreme threats to American democracy.

But as surely as U.S. institutions were built by human hands, they can be undermined by the choices of leaders and citizens. One urgent task, therefore, is to reaffirm the centrality of nonpartisanship in the military and to reestablish the behavior required of military personnel, including by developing guidelines for political activity once officers retire. A strong starting point is a recently published letter co-authored by 13 former secretaries of defense and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that outlines first principles of civilian control and best practices of civil-military relations. Active-duty personnel, retired officers, and political leaders must appreciate the importance of a nonpartisan military to the country’s survival, seek to counter the forces that threaten the military’s nonpartisan ethos, and take it as their personal responsibility to act within the norms of nonpartisanship. When those norms are violated, political leaders and members of the media should call out the offenders.

Political leaders must not drag the military into partisan activity. Doing so risks eroding an essential bulwark against the splintering of the republic. As Marshall understood, maintaining a nonpartisan military is a matter of “sacred trust”—not just for officers but also for political leaders and citizens, who must attend to the foundations of democracy and guard against the forces that risk undermining them. They should be comforted by the country’s resilience, but not complacent. In the absence of responsible leadership and informed and engaged citizens, the Constitution is a piece of paper that by itself is powerless. Combined with principled leaders and committed citizens, it can continue to sustain the United States’ remarkable democratic experiment.

JOSEPH F. DUNFORD, JR., is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From 2015 to 2019, he served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

GRAHAM ALLISON is Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

JONAH GLICK-UNTERMAN is a former defense policy researcher at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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