Editor’s note: This is the latest article in “Rethinking Civ-Mil,” a series that endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding civil-military relations in the United States. Read all articles in the series here.

Special thanks to MWI’s research director, Dr. Max Margulies, and MWI research fellow Dr. Carrie A. Lee for their work as series editors.

While the health of civil-military relations has important domestic implications, including the overall strength and durability of our democracy, it is simultaneously important to consider how the status of civil-military relations at home influences the United States’ ability to promote healthy civil-military norms abroad. In other words, it is possible that internal degradation of civil-military relations, or at least the perception thereof, can have serious implications for external relations—particularly at the nexus of security force assistance and great power competition. This is all the more important to consider given that the United States has long been an exporter of military- and security-related services. Moreover, central features of security force assistance programs include imparting the importance of civilian control over the military and respect for human rights in recipient countries.

What is Security Force Assistance and Why Does it Matter?

The challenges of effective security force assistance (SFA) are well documented. Despite the success of US SFA to the Ukrainian armed forces, efforts to rebuild forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are illustrative of the difficulties of the SFA enterprise. Defining the concept is no easy task either. The Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance defines SFA as “the set of DoD activities that support the development of the capacity and capability of foreign security forces and their supporting institutions.” We find this definition to be good in the sense that it highlights the importance of enhancing partner nations’ capability and capacity across the spectrum of their security forces. We especially like the precision in Joint Publication 3-20, Security Cooperation, which stresses the “strict legal authorities” in the realm of security cooperation—including the requirement that US activities in this space are designed to enhance the capacity of partners in exercising responsible civilian control of the military.

Here, the idea of professionalism is crucial—not only in the ways that the United States and its allies train foreign militaries in the deployment of military force, but also in imparting the value of healthy civil-military relations. While the United States’ SFA track record has not always been perfect, the diffusion of healthy norms of civil-military relations—particularly the tenets of civilian control of the military and the military’s faithful execution of civilian orders—has largely been seen as a given. This is both because US legal constraints, specifically elements in 10 USC § 333, dictate SFA packages be designed to promote the importance of civilian control of the military and because since its founding, the United States has been a beacon of stable civil-military relations, even if it has had its challenges.

Such an assumption may hold weight, but a reckoning is needed on whether the optics of the potential degradation in the United States’ own civil-military norms in recent years has undermined its ability to impart the right message on the value of professional and healthy civil-military relations in partner nations. Whether the participation by active duty service members in the January 6 insurrection, elected officials using the military to “score political points,” or attitudinal challenges such as military or civilian leaders believing they are superior to their respective counterparts, cracks in the health of US civil-military norms certainly do not help efforts to transmit them abroad. Any incongruence between the norms the US military promotes internationally and adherence to those norms domestically can create real challenges in ensuring the right message is communicated.

Problems in SFA

It is important here to understand that SFA is not a panacea for projecting or protecting healthy civil-military norms abroad. Even when well intentioned, SFA does not guarantee the successful transmission of healthy civil-military norms. In some cases, researchers have found it might do the opposite. There is also concern, as highlighted by Renanah Miles Joyce, that efforts to impart norms like civilian control of the military and respect for human rights fail to consider how recipient militaries will respond when these norms come into conflict. While US service members may expect recipient militaries to prioritize human rights over civilian control (e.g., when civilian leaders issue orders that are illegal or immoral), that does not always appear to be the case.

Such findings underscore why the optics surrounding weakening civil-military norms in the United States matter for the legitimacy of SFA programs. While we may be saying the right things in the execution of SFA programs, actions speak louder than words. Recipient states may find it sanctimonious to have lectures about the importance of civil-military norms if the messengers appears to have their own civ-mil challenges.

Examining the Sahel

The concerns surrounding the establishment of healthy civil-military norms are especially relevant in contested theaters across the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, where civil-military relations have been volatile in recent years. After a period of historically low coup activity, the region has witnessed a dramatic resurgence of coups and Niger’s recent putsch has posed a direct threat to US interests in the region, including lingering questions about the durability of negotiations with the junta that have enabled the resumption of US counterterrorism operations. In the last two years, Sahelian states have experienced the perfect storm, with conditions combining to set a ripe environment for civil-military crises. Acute food shortages, a rise in insurgent violence, and a dramatic rise in the number of internally displaced persons represent proximate causes spurring coup activity. But underlying these proximate causes are two important sources of norm degradation, within the military and within civilian populations, that run parallel to those seen in the United States. The first concerns professionalism and partisanship within the military and the second is related to civilian attitudes on the military’s role in politics.

Analysts point to a critical need for security force assistance in the Sahel to prioritize civil-military relations. Doing so can have cascading effects as it can not only improve the overall security environment, but also enhance the prospects for military professionalism, regime durability, and deterring adversaries from gaining traction and influence. The problem is that our current efforts (along with those of our allies) to cultivate effective civil-military relations fail to consider local context and historical challenges in the region. In other words, even some minor stressors like increased partisanship within the armed forces can yield more severe outcomes like the willingness among soldiers to seize power.

Recent scholarship by Sharan Grewal found that members of the Tunisian military do indeed absorb norms indirectly, meaning through passive observation or socialization arising from their interactions with US personnel, regardless of the norms that trainers are formally teaching. Although the United States may very well be teaching norms of an apolitical military, Tunisian military personnel who trained in the United States were more likely to support members of the military taking an active role in politics by voting or holding office after retirement.

On the surface, these may seem like nonissues, particularly for a country where the military has been intentionally kept out of politics. And in certain cases, they probably should not be interpreted as cause for serious concern. However, in states with a history—especially a recent history—of military interference in politics, it is worth considering the wider implications.

There is also a concern about increasing civilian tolerance—or even overt support—for military intervention in politics by local populations in the Sahel. To explore shifts in civilian attitudes across the region, one can find evidence of concerning trends from the Afrobarometer survey project. In the most recent survey wave, 50 percent of Burkinabes, 26 percent of Malians, and 31 percent of Nigeriens invoked support for military rule. When asked how much they trust the military, 56 percent of Burkinabes, 62 percent of Malians, and 70 percent of Nigeriens responded with “a lot.” These Sahelian attitudes are not altogether concerning in isolation. However, given the context where civilian control—the central norm that offers protection from civil-military crises—is hardly observable, these patterns are potential indicators of prolonged, repeated crises.

Moreover, these dynamics are occurring in a region where the United States and its Western allies have faced critical challenges from revisionist states like Russia and China—both willing to invest with “no strings attached”—and several regimes in the region are thirsty for non-Western security alternatives. In Mali, for instance, the Wagner Group has now fully replaced the French, though the private military firm’s future is unclear following the death of its leader.

In contrast to competitors like Russia that have offered viable SFA options without preconditions, the United States is bound by institutional constraints, like the Leahy amendment and coup-related aid restrictions, that limit the choice of available partner nations and further require that would-be recipients rectify human rights issues and civil-military challenges for eligibility. In such an environment, it is incumbent on the United States to develop creative ways to compete against malign influencers. Losing out on cooperative security arrangements in the Sahel only guarantees further degradation of civil-military norms in the region as alternative SFA providers do not adhere, even superficially, to the same anticoup norms as the West. Furthermore, pitching the importance of healthy civil-military norms to states across the Sahel while the United States wrestles with its own civil-military relations challenges can degrade American credibility and adds opportunity for China and Russia to contest the United States and allied partners’ legitimacy.

It’s helpful to remember that the military is only one part of this larger constellation of actors needed to uphold healthy civil-military norms. Indeed, elected officials in the United States have a responsibility to consider the implications of their actions for US legitimacy abroad. The public, both in the United States and in SFA recipient states, is also a critical piece of the civil-military puzzle. Attitudinal shifts that support military rule or undercut support for democracy are particularly pernicious patterns. In the Sahel, where democratic governance has faced serious challenges because of domestic threats to sovereignty from insurgent groups and steep humanitarian problems, American foreign policy makers must carefully consider how to promote attitudes that lay the foundation for healthy civil-military relations now and in the future.

Norms do not exist in isolation. Norm diffusion, or the spreading of domestic norms beyond borders, are critically important to global civil-military relations. Norms generally diffuse because they are promoted by entrepreneurs that hold influence in the international community. But should we expect that norm entrepreneurs can promote norms abroad that they themselves are struggling to uphold domestically? Furthermore, what happens when norm entrepreneurs are challenged by competitors that have far fewer commitments to normative conditions? Challenges in norm promotion, and to US credibility in this space, are only compounded when the United States chooses pragmatism over principles in responding to coups. US government waffling on labeling Niger’s coup a coup is a case in point. The time for self-reflection on the health of US civil-military relations is now, lest the United States risks transmitting the wrong values at best, and a crisis of legitimacy at worst.

Jaclyn Johnson is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on civil-military relations with specific attention on military mutinies. She developed the first quantitative, global sample of mutinies and her research has been published in the Journal of Peace Research and the Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Christopher M. Faulkner is an assistant professor of national security affairs in the College of Distance Education at the United States Naval War College. His research areas include human security and irregular warfare, civil-military relations, and private military companies. His work has been published in outlets such as African Security, Democratization, and International Studies Quarterly.

Salah Ben Hammou is a PhD candidate in security studies at the University of Central Florida and a Minerva Peace and Security Scholar with the United States Institute of Peace. His research focuses on civil-military relations, military coups, and democratization. His work has been published in peer-reviewed journals like Armed Forces & Society, Africa Spectrum, International Studies Review, and the Journal of Global Security Studies as well as popular outlets like the Washington Post, Just Security, and Political Violence at a Glance.

Jonathan M. Powell is an independent scholar specializing in political instability and human security. His work has appeared in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the Journal of Peace Research, Armed Forces & Society, and African Affairs.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or those of any institution the authors are affiliated with, including the US Naval War College and Department of the Navy.

Image credit: Master Sgt. Michael Matkin, US Air Force