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Sleepwalking Into World War III

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Civilian political authority over military leadership is a bedrock principle of the U.S. Constitution, so fundamental to the American system of government that it has rarely been questioned. But since President Donald Trump entered office in 2017, his administration has systematically eroded the norms that have supported this constitutional principle for generations.

The Trump administration has consistently elevated military voices over those of experienced civil servants in the development of foreign policy, and funding cuts to nondefense federal agencies, along with the resignations of many career civil servants, have left government offices woefully understaffed. As a result, policy planning and the guidance of strategic defense initiatives—which have historically been the purview of senior civil servants—have increasingly been ceded to those in uniform. Civilian authority over the armed forces is weaker now than at any point in living memory, and the Trump administration is increasingly engaging with the world in ways that mirror military preferences.

The resulting foreign policy is eerily reminiscent of the “cult of the offensive”: an overconfidence in offensive military advantage that can lead to rapid escalation; such overconfidence is widely believed to have contributed to the outbreak of World War I. Unless civilian control over the military can be reestablished, the United States risks sleepwalking its way into another world war.

By giving civilian leaders authority over the military, the framers of the U.S. Constitution were not merely assigning elected officials a few oversight duties. They were creating a system in which defense planning would be guided by civilian needs and the military would carry out its activities in the service of civilian goals.

Since Trump’s civilian “America first” plan was announced early in the 2016 presidential campaign, many members of the U.S. foreign policy community have viewed the agenda as an inherent danger to national security. Even more worrisome for those concerned about the continuing stability of civil-military relations, many of the cabinet nominees whom the new administration found acceptable were military officers, such as General James Mattis, General John Kelly, and Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster.

From the beginning of the Trump era, the national security establishment made a Faustian bargain: in an effort to constrain the new president, it looked the other way as extraordinary numbers of active duty and retired military officers were appointed to positions usually reserved for civilian experts. As the “adults in the room,” these career military officials hoped to protect American alliances and constrain Trump’s worst impulses. Although few of these officers questioned the principle of civilian control, their narrow interpretation of civilian oversight meant that broader norms of civilian guidance became a kind of collateral damage in the struggle to contain the chaos.

This political bargain gave the more........

© Foreign Affairs

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