Why the Military Should Not Be Used to Build International Relationships


Favoring the military over alternative tools of U.S. foreign policy remains one of the few consistencies within the current administration. Internal documents have proposed folding USAID into the State Department and “zeroing” out development assistance programs that do not advance specific U.S. political or strategic objectives. With few civilian appointees in either the Departments of Defense or State and unprecedented levels of “authorization,” the uniformed services enjoy tremendous operational discretion with few civilian counterbalances either inside or outside the Pentagon.

The trend of shifting foreign policy funds towards programs with an explicit security focus long predates the Trump administration. A third of all U.S. foreign aid funds, $17 billion, goes towards military aid and security assistance, making it on its own the fourth-largest foreign aid budget in the world. Moreover, management of this security assistance money has migrated away from the State Department to the Pentagon. A recent Open Society report shows that, whereas in 2011 the Defense Department directed only 17 percent of all security assistance (compared to the State Department’s 80 percent), by 2015 the Defense Department’s share had increased to 57 percent and the State Department’s had dropped to 42 percent. Officials wearing digicam rather than pinstripes are delivering an increasing percentage of U.S. assistance.

While the broad potential problems with this trend have been wellexplored, in this article we focus on a concrete implication by looking at an important component of U.S. assistance: the training of other states’ militaries and security personnel, known as foreign military training (FMT). As in the case of Egypt, this training can empower its uniformed recipients to participate more in their home countries’ internal politics, up to and including coups.


According to the U.S. government, in fiscal year 2015 approximately 76,400 students from 154 countries participated in U.S. foreign military training, costing $876.5 million. Colleagues have recently argued that this sort of security assistance rarely achieves its stated goals of contributing to U.S. foreign policy objectives through “helping allies and partners improve their defense capabilities and enhance their ability to participate in missions alongside U.S. forces.” In contrast, we argue that in some cases, security assistance does have a profound effect, albeit in ways unintended by the donor. By strengthening the military in states with few counterbalancing civilian institutions, U.S. foreign military training can lead to both more military-backed coup attempts, as well as a higher likelihood of a coup’s success.


This might seem counterintuitive since the training provided to these officers is designed to encourage liberal values including respect for civilian control, a norm central to the U.S. military’s own identity. Moreover, the United States normally cuts security assistance when a coup occurs, which should deter military officers from attempting a takeover.

We argue, however, that the norm most likely to be transmitted by U.S. training is one to which foreign military officers are already receptive: a professional identity independent from that of their own government. The U.S. military’s distinct professional culture is largely based on Samuel Huntington’s notion of “objective civilian control.” This ideal precludes military interference by in politics, but it also generates a strong, separate corporate identity. Huntington himself recognized that, in countries that are not solidly established democracies, the more professional the military considers itself, the higher its temptation to intervene in political affairs.

This has been known for years.  The unsavory reputation of the School of the Americas, which led to its renaming in 2000.

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