Sleepwalking Into World War III

Sleepwalking Into World War III

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.