The Theory and Practice of Civil-Military Relations

Civil-military relations refer to the relationship between civilian political leadership and the military organization in a country. This includes how civilian leaders control and oversee the armed forces as well as how the military influences politics and society. The theory and practice of civil-military relations focuses on establishing proper levels of civilian control over the military to ensure that the armed forces serve national interests and support democratic governance.

The issue of civil-military relations stems from the problem of how to align military power with political objectives. On one hand, civilian leaders want to maintain authority over the military to prevent coups or other threats. On the other hand, civilian control cannot undermine military effectiveness in protecting national security. Getting this balance right has been a challenge for democracies throughout history.

This article provides an overview of the key theoretical issues and practical lessons in civil-military relations. It examines theories on proper civilian control, military prerogatives, objective control vs. subjective control, and professionalism vs. politicization. The article then explores real-world cases and policy implications for managing civil-military relations in contemporary democracies. Proper structuring of civil-military relations enhances democratic governance, protects human rights, prevents praetorianism, and enables effective defense policy.

Theories of Civilian Control

A starting point for the theory of civil-military relations is Samuel Huntington’s 1957 book The Soldier and the State, which emphasized assertive civilian control to minimize military influence on politics (Huntington, 1957). Huntington argued civilian leaders must establish “objective control” by professionalizing the military and making it politically neutral. This model of control remains influential today.

An alternative view comes from Morris Janowitz, who advocated “subjective control” based on integrating the military into democratic society (Janowitz, 1960). With subjective control, the military internalizes societal norms and identifies with the nation rather than seeing itself as a separate group. However, others argue too much civilian influence through subjective control could reduce military effectiveness (Feaver, 1996).

Peter Feaver’s “agency theory” models the strategic interaction between civilians and the military as principals and agents (Feaver, 1996). Civilian principals delegate responsibility to military agents but face risks the agents may “shirk” by not following orders. Feaver argues assertive control mechanisms are needed to minimize shirking and achieve cooperative outcomes.

Proponents of normative theory argue civilian control should be structured according to liberal democratic principles and shared norms between civilian principals and military agents (Dahl & Lindblom, 1953; Finer, 1962). The key is cultivating military acceptance of liberal norms.

Other scholars emphasize the danger of praetorianism, situations where military leaders intervene in politics (Nordlinger, 1977). Preventing praetorianism requires keeping the military out of domestic politics through firm boundaries.

Overall, theories differ on the ideal structure and mechanisms for civilian control. But they share the premise that proper civil-military relations are vital for democratic governance.

Military Prerogatives and the Civil-Military Problematique

Even with civilian control, the military retains certain prerogatives over its internal affairs (Huntington, 1957). These include the military’s autonomy in areas like internal management, training, operations, and promotions. Granting the military these functional prerogatives is seen as part of the bargain for keeping the military out of politics.

However, military prerogatives can sometimes expand into greater military influence on foreign and domestic policy issues. Some scholars refer to an inherent “civil-military problematique” where both civilian leaders and military officers continually seek to expand their power and influence (Feaver, 1996). Managing this struggle for power under civilian authority is an ongoing challenge.

Objective Control vs. Subjective Control

The concepts of objective control and subjective control present contrasting models for how civilian leaders can structure control over the military (Huntington, 1957; Janowitz, 1960).

Objective control aims to minimize military influence by professionalizing the armed forces and making officers politically sterile and neutral. Keeping the military out of politics enhances prospects for democratic consolidation. Objective control is asserting through mechanisms like creating an apolitical officer corps and institutional constraints.

In contrast, subjective control integrates the military into political and social processes. By socializing military personnel with societal norms, the military internalizes those democratic values. However, too much integration raises risks of politicization.

In practice, elements of both objective and subjective control are needed. Objective control establishes clear boundaries to prevent military interference in politics. But normative integration through subjective control also helps align the military with democratic principles. Combining these approaches remains an ongoing challenge.

Professionalism vs. Politicization

A closely related issue is maintaining military professionalism while avoiding politicization risks (Huntington, 1957; Janowitz, 1960). Professionalism implies the military sticks to its functional expertise and avoids partisan politics. Politicization means military involvement in domestic politics and policy debates.

Professionalism is associated with objective control mechanisms like political neutrality. In contrast, too much integration raises risks of politicization through subjective control. But the dividing line between professional norms and improper politicization is not always clear.

For example, military leaders making public statements on defense budgets could be seen as legitimate issue advocacy consistent with professional norms. However, civilian leaders may view such statements as crossing the line into politicization, especially if they oppose budget increases.

Overall, keeping the military focused on its functional roles enhances professionalism. But civilian leaders must also communicate red lines to avoid perceivably improper politicization, which undermines healthy civil-military relations.


Praetorianism refers to military interventions that disrupt democratic governance, named after the historic praetorian guard’s political influence in ancient Rome (Nordlinger, 1977). Praetorian behavior includes coups as well as less overt influence by the military over politics. Preventing praetorianism is a key aim of civil-military relations theory.

Scholars have identified factors associated with praetorianism. High levels of domestic military involvement, politicization within the officer corps, social instability, and weak civilian control increase praetorian risks. On the other hand, objective civilian control, shared democratic norms, and military professionalism constrain praetorian tendencies.

Countries where the military historically had internal security roles and extensive domestic influence faced higher risks of praetorian behavior. Examples include much of Latin America in the 1960s-1980s. Removing domestic roles helps decrease praetorianism risks by keeping the military focused externally rather externally.

Overall, preventing praetorianism requires erecting institutional and normative barriers between the military and domestic politics. This enables the military to focus on its functional roles while civilian leaders retain authority over political processes. Getting this balance right remains an ongoing challenge.

Policy Issues in Contemporary Civil-Military Relations

In contemporary democracies, several policy issues pose challenges for managing civil-military relations. Key areas include setting defense budgets, military obedience to civilian leaders, women’s military integration, shaping military culture, private military contractors, and media-military relations.

Defense Budgets

Debates over defense budgets and force posture inherently position civilian leaders and military interests in tension, triggering civil-military bargaining (Feaver, 1996). Military leaders lobby for greater resources, while civilian leaders must balance security needs against other priorities.

While the military has expertise on its own requirements, civilian leaders ultimately must determine budget tradeoffs. However, military efforts to pressure congress on budgets could be seen as crossing the line into politicization.

Setting appropriate processes and norms of debate reduces risks of improper politicization when bargaining over military resources. But disagreements will persist given unavoidable tradeoffs. Managing tensions in a spirit of good faith helps stabilize budget processes.

Obedience to Civilian Leaders

Civilian control relies on the military’s obedience in following lawful orders, even if military leaders disagree with policies (Huntington, 1957). For example, the military must implement civilian decisions to intervene abroad or end interventions, despite internal opposition.

Absolute obedience maintains proper subordination. But military leaders also have an obligation to provide frank professional advice. Tensions arise when military leaders believe certain orders are clearly contrary to national interests.

In rare cases, disobedience may be morally justified as a last resort if orders are illegal. But presumption should favor deference to civilian control, bounded by norms against clearly immoral actions. Overall, ingrained habits of obedience reinforce civilian control.

Women’s Military Integration

Expanding roles for women in the armed forces supported by civilian leaders has challenged traditional military culture. Many militaries resisted allowing women in combat positions or restricted their service (Stiehm, 1989).

However, most advanced militaries have now opened all positions to women, including combat roles. Ongoing challenges include resistance among some male military personnel and issues with sexual harassment and discrimination. Strengthening recruitment and retention of women remains a priority.

This exemplifies subjective control through norm change and top-down social engineering to align the military with liberal values on gender equality (Stiehm, 1989). But progress has been uneven, showing the limits of externally imposing norm change. Women’s integration illustrates civil-military tensions arising from social change.

Shaping Military Culture

More broadly, crafting policies to shape internal military culture is an important arena for subjective control. For example, instituting norms of service subordination enhances objective control (Nielson & Snider, 2009). Leaders can also shape attitudes on issues like gender relations.

However, directly changing culture is difficult. Military culture often evolves gradually through generational change. Externally imposed reforms may face resistance if seen as threatening cherished traditions or cohesion. Change is most effective when allowing internal evolution guided by incentives.

Managing civil-military relations requires balancing top-down norm promotion with sensitivity to military cultural concerns. Nuanced efforts recognizing internal military dynamics enjoy greater success than heavy-handed imposition of cultural revolution.

Private Military Contractors

Widespread use of private military contractors in recent decades also affects civil-military relations (Avant & Sigelman, 2010). Contracting out roles like training, logistics and security guards reduces military force structure. But it also imposes one more layer between uniformed service members and civilian oversight.

Effective oversight requires integrating contractors into civilian control frameworks. Challenges include less public transparency over private forces, diluted chains of authority, and potential mismatches between contractor motivations and national interests.

Establishing oversight mechanisms like rules for hiring contractors and compliance monitoring helps mitigate risks. But integrating contractors into objective control models remains an evolving challenge. The role of private forces in warfare will likely remain contested.

Media and the Military

Media relations also impact civil-military dynamics (Rid, 2007). Media coverage shapes public perceptions of the military and defense policy. This gives the media influence over debates on military roles and resources.

From the military perspective, negative coverage undermines public confidence and change policies they oppose. But military efforts to shape media narratives, like through embedding reporters during the Iraq War, risk allegations of politicization and propaganda.

Managing this tension requires policies for transparent but security-conscious media relations during operations. Differences over media access and messaging will persist given inherent conflicts between the media’s oversight function and military preferences for positive narratives.

Real-World Cases: United States

The United States represents an advanced democracy with historically robust civilian control. However, tensions persist in navigating military prerogatives and politicization risks (Bacevich, 2016).

Civilian control was firmly established early on. George Washington willingly resigned his commission after the Revolutionary War, setting the precedent for military subservience. Later, the Posse Comitatus Act restricted domestic military involvement. These examples represent objective control mechanisms. The 1947 National Security Act further codified civilian authority.

However, some argue dynamics have shifted away from firm objective control since the Cold War, with increased military influence on foreign policy (Bacevich, 2016). The volunteer force raised concerns about a growing civil-military gap, with the all-volunteer force increasingly culturally distant from society. Politicization risks also increased.

For example, General Douglas MacArthur’s public defiance of President Truman’s Korea policy led to his dismissal in 1951, limiting military insubordination. But some cite inappropriate partisanship in General McChrystal criticizing Obama in 2009-10 and retired officers opposing President Trump.

Defense lobbying for bigger budgets also generates periodic charges of politicization. And scholars cite overly deferential civilian “failure of imagination” enabling military policies like torture or manipulated Iraq WMD claims (Owens, 2018).

Overall, while civilian control remains fundamentally strong, risks of expanding military prerogatives and politicization have grown. Restoring firmer boundaries while engaging emerging security challenges will remain an issue. The U.S. case illustrates enduring tensions.

Real-World Cases: Turkey

In contrast to the United States, Turkey exemplifies a case where military influence periodically subverted democratic control (Sarigil, 2015). The Turkish military intervened to reshape politics in 1960, 1971, and 1980 coups based on perceived threats to secular Kemalist ideology. This represents classic praetorianism.

After transitions to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, the rise of Islamist political parties like the AKP raised fears of growing religiosity. The military issued threats in 1997 and 2007 reasserting its guardianship role over Turkish secularism. This signaled boundaries on civilian control.

However, the AKP government asserted civilian control in the 2000s-2010s through reforms increasing subordination and reducing military prerogatives (Sarigil, 2015). For example, officers were prosecuted for coup plots, conscription was reduced, and budgets and media oversight cut. These constraints on the military shifted the civil-military balance toward objective control.

But tensions persist, seen in the 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan and ongoing Kurdish insurgency. The future trajectory of civil-military relations in Turkey remains uncertain given its history of praetorianism and internal instability. The Turkey case reveals the challenges of democratic consolidation.

Implications for Policy and Theory

Analysis of real-world cases provides lessons for practitioners on managing civil-military relations:

  • Prioritize firm objective control with clear boundaries between civilian leaders and military functional roles. Keep the military focused externally rather than internal security roles.
  • Promote military professionalism and political neutrality. Incentivize meritocracy and oaths of loyalty. Constraint behaviors and rhetoric seen as partisan.
  • Shape military culture and attitudes to internalize democratic norms. But allow gradual internal adaptation rather than imposed revolution.
  • Increase transparency and legislative oversight over defense policy and budgets. But maintain military prerogatives on core functions like operations and training.
  • Establish clear guidelines on acceptable public messaging and advocacy by military leaders. Avoid muzzling dissent, but prohibit perceptions of politicization.
  • Integrate contractors into oversight frameworks and transparency measures. Reduce risks of fragmented control by improving principal-agent monitoring.
  • Weigh media access and messaging aimed at public awareness with security needs. Recognize inherent civil-military tensions on narratives.

For theorists, the study of civil-military relations demonstrates enduring issues in structuring democratic institutions:

  • Managing principal-agent problems between civilian principals and military agents requires getting incentives right for cooperative outcomes. Assertive control helps overcome shirking risks.
  • Internalizing norms of subordination and shared democratic values enhances prospects for healthy civil-military relations. But norm promotion has limits if viewed as externally imposed.
  • Civilian objective control works best when paired with granting military functional autonomy. The military more readily accepts limits on influence over politics when retaining control over its professional sphere.
  • Principal-agent challenges reappear in new contexts like private contractors. Democratic governance requires adapting oversight mechanisms.
  • Power asymmetries between actors create inherent conflicts of interest. Mitigating tendencies toward expanding influence requires checks and balances. But friction will persist given divergent interests.

Overall, the theory and practice of civil-military relations remains critically important for scholars and practitioners focused on enhancing democratic governance, human rights, and international security.


This article reviewed key issues, theories, and cases related to civil-military relations. The theory explores how civilian leaders exercise control over the military to serve national interests while preventing threats to democratic governance. In practice, managing civil-military relations well is vital but challenging.

Central debates include objective versus subjective control, professionalism versus politicization, and preventing praetorianism. Analysis of real-world cases provides examples of effective civilian control as well as risks of expanding military prerogatives. Ongoing policy issues include defense budgets, shaping military culture, privatization, and media relations.

Overall, structuring proper civil-military relations requires nuanced policies rooted in political and organizational theory. Further scholarship and inclusive policy dialogue between civilians and the military can help continuously improve practices to enhance democracy.


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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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