Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

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.


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.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. and Jonah Glick-Unterman.“Guardians of the Republic.” Foreign Affairs, 1/05/2023.