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Rethinking How the United States Trains Foreign Militaries

Renanah Miles Joyce
Sunday, August 14, 2022, 10:01 AM

The United States tries to instill liberal norms in partner forces, but what happens when those norms are in tension?

A Liberian soldier salutes Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, then-president of Liberia, at Roberts International Airport on June 20, 2013, after receiving U.S. training in preparation to deploy to Mali. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Brian Bahret.

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Editor’s Note: The United States has invested heavily in training militaries around the world with at best limited success. Brandeis University’s Renanah Miles Joyce examines the pitfalls of different approaches, with a particular emphasis on when U.S. efforts to spread the norms of respect for human rights and civilian control succeed and fail and how the United States can do better.

Daniel Byman


In May, President Biden quietly signed an order authorizing a persistent U.S. military presence in Somalia. U.S. troops are not engaging in direct combat operations there; instead, they are primarily training and advising Somali and African Union partner forces to fight the terrorist group al-Shabaab. These training efforts are part of a global web of U.S. military training and advising that aims both to build partner militaries’ warfighting capabilities and to influence when and how they fight.

The United States has different tools at its disposal to influence security partners: It can provide material goods such as arms and equipment to incentivize good behavior, or it can make support conditional on partners doing what it wants. Both approaches have problems. Generous flows of assistance rarely motivate partners to change, particularly when they get what they want without having to make painful adjustments. Conditionality has a better track record, but it can backfire. Pushing weak partners too far risks their collapse, and alternative providers such as China and Russia create outside options that allow them to dodge compliance.

Military training offers another pathway to influence: changing soldiers’ beliefs so that their preferences align with those of the United States. Shaping how partner militaries think and what they want offers a cheaper, more durable path to influence, because partners who share U.S. values should need less monitoring and less motivating to do what the United States wants them to do.

Two issue areas where the United States attempts to impart its preferred norms and values are human rights and civilian control of the military. Prioritization of these norms has increased over time—the United States did not always champion liberal norms in the militaries that it trained (the coup-producing School of the Americas is a notorious case in point). But U.S. law now requires that all efforts to build partner forces include training on “observance of and respect for the law of armed conflict, human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, and civilian control of the military.”

In theory, producing more liberal and more competent militaries should go hand-in-hand. Research has shown that illiberal civil-military relations often produce ineffective militaries, and abusive militaries can fuel insurgencies by alienating local populations. But despite committing vast amounts of resources toward foreign military training—including almost $15 billion to train over 2.3 million military students around the world between 1999 and 2016—the United States has struggled to produce militaries that are either competent or liberal minded, especially in weak and unstable states.

In recent years, U.S.-trained militaries have launched coups in Mali and Guinea and committed human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon, among other places. Policymakers and scholars disagree on the reasons why training fails to impart U.S. values. Policymakers and military officials often point to insufficient focus on norms, while scholars often point to fundamental problems with interest misalignment—the United States and its local partners often want different things and, as a result, partners misuse or redirect resources toward their own goals. A common policy solution is more training, while scholars suggest choosing better partners (and, at least implicitly, not choosing ones that are unlikely to produce success). Both recommendations have merit, but flawed assumptions in the U.S. approach will undermine outcomes even with increased investment or better selection.


Training and Advising as a Path to Influence


Norms training tends to occur in places where policymakers believe that more liberal and professional militaries are key to long-term stability. Norms training is particularly useful for countries where the primary threats are tied to internal state weakness. Militaries in these countries often have histories of human rights violations and intervention in politics. The United States tries to build up capabilities for counterterrorism or counterinsurgency missions while simultaneously inculcating norms of restraint to prevent abuse of military power.

The U.S. playbook for training and advising foreign militaries relies heavily on socialization to transform partner preferences. Teaching and persuasion are core socialization mechanisms through which people come to adopt new norms and rules for behavior.

The U.S. approach emphasizes interpersonal relationships and rapport-building as a foundation for persuasion. Training and advising build on this foundation in several different ways. First, trainers and advisers provide partner soldiers with ready-made “templates” for operational or tactical activities. In my visits to Liberia, I saw that the walls of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) headquarters are lined with U.S. doctrine, imported wholesale and adopted for use by the Liberian military.

Second, trainers use classroom and field training to teach partner soldiers what constitutes appropriate behavior. This training ranges from tactical and operational instruction to regional seminars and courses in U.S. professional military education institutions. In Liberia, for example, U.S. trainers spent weeks teaching the new AFL a civics curriculum that emphasized, according to one trainer, “that human rights were the key to everything.” Finally, trainers and advisers attempt to demonstrate appropriate behavior in the hopes that partners will see the merit in doing things differently and seek to emulate the new behavior. Many advisers describe showing partners “what right looks like” as their primary strategy for persuasion.

The socialization theory behind these efforts predicts that as partner soldiers are exposed to new ways of thinking, they will see the merit of the ideas and start to bring their behavior in line with the new standards. Eventually, they will adopt new norms, their beliefs will shift, and their preferences over specific policies will reflect these realigned beliefs and values.

Liberal norms aren’t the only issue areas where the U.S. military tries to shape its partners’ preferences. But they are a dominant theme in parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa, where the primary stated goals of U.S. foreign military training for nearly every country include respect for human rights and civilian control of the military.


Flawed Assumptions in the U.S. Approach


Given the investment, why the meager results? To be fair, it is not clear how meager the results are—the U.S. government has not yet figured out how to measure the effectiveness of their efforts to impart norms. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that outcomes are mixed at best. There are at least three flawed assumptions in the U.S. approach to training and advising that help to explain why efforts to shape partner soldiers’ beliefs may not translate into durable influence.

First, the U.S. approach assumes that socialization is cheap and easy. It is not. Socialization may reduce costs over the long run by reducing the need to monitor partners or coerce them to comply, but military socialization typically requires intensive and sustained interaction over time. In other words, it is least likely to work when the United States is trying to get results quickly and cheaply—which is often when it reaches for the foreign military training tool in its foreign policy toolkit. In a survey that I did of the Liberian military, I found that soldiers with the most exposure to U.S. norms training expressed the strongest support for liberal norms, but that these effects faded quickly for soldiers with less training.

Second, the U.S. approach assumes that liberal norms are mutually reinforcing. This is not necessarily true in the fragile states where the most norms training happens. In research published recently in International Security, I examine the problem of conflicting liberal norms, in particular, the tension between the norms of respect for human rights and civilian control of the military. Soldiers are taught to obey civilians and protect the population, but what happens if civilian leaders order them to repress the population? Experimental evidence suggests that the answer is bad for liberal norms. I found that soldiers who heard a scenario in which the civilian leader orders the military to repress protests were less likely to support prioritizing human rights and more likely to prioritize internal cohesion—that is, doing whatever best served the military organization in that moment. And the results were strongest for soldiers with more U.S. training.

Third, the U.S. approach assumes that individual belief change translates unproblematically to institutional change. But there is a disconnect between operational- and tactical-level training and the kinds of strategic activities necessary to lock changes into institutional design. My research suggests that norm gains are fragile and easily reversible without the right institutions. The U.S. Department of Defense has begun to incorporate institutional capacity building into its repertoire, working to improve governance and organizational processes such as planning, logistics, and resource management in partner defense institutions. But these efforts remain too small and divorced from the primary focus on individual- and unit-level training that consumes the bulk of security assistance resources implemented through the Defense Department. And the department’s institutional capacity building efforts largely focus on the technical aspects of defense institutions while leaving the political aspects untouched.


Improving the U.S. Approach


The U.S. approach is neither irrational nor fatally flawed. Under the right conditions, training and advising can shape when and how partners fight. But these conditions are narrower than expected, not least because influence is a two-way street and partners have a say in outcomes. These limitations notwithstanding, improving the assumptions that underpin the U.S. approach can still make it a more useful tool.

Above all, U.S. policymakers should temper their expectations when it comes to training and advising. There is no silver bullet for ensuring compliance. Shaping beliefs might be the most durable form of influence when it works, but it takes time and sustained engagement, both of which are in short supply for U.S. foreign policy, especially in “economy-of-force” theaters like sub-Saharan Africa. It also requires receptive political partners who are open to new norms. Reforming a military does little good if the political leadership within the state continues to view it as a threat or tool for repression.

Second, trainers and advisers should address problems of liberal norm conflict. Expecting soldiers to respect human rights and obey civilian authority works only when civilians are demanding the right things. If civilians are not, then U.S. policymakers must consider whether they really want soldiers to prioritize human rights over civilian authority and what that would mean in practice. Right now, the stated U.S. position of putting human rights first is rarely conveyed clearly to trainees. This is no surprise, because policymakers may not want their hands tied depending on whether or not the regime is a friend. Clearer messaging about norm preferences can help provide a blueprint for action when norm conflicts arise.

Finally, the United States should emphasize institution building over individual training—or at least accord them similar importance. This shift could require a major overhaul of the U.S. approach to engaging with partner militaries. For one thing, it would require focusing on security governance holistically, with operations and tactics subsumed under strategy rather than dominating it. It would also require grappling with local political dynamics and civilian institutions because military and defense institutions are ultimately connected with—and, in liberal democracies, subordinate to—civilian political authority.

This is a much more political understanding of institutional capacity building than currently typifies much of the Defense Department’s efforts, and would require an interagency approach on both the U.S. and partner sides. The United States has made steps in this direction, with congressional authorities broadening the Defense Department’s institutional capacity building reach to include all security force institutions. And the State Department has led targeted efforts to improve security governance in recent years. Much more should be done to integrate these activities and ensure that political context and institutional design inform all efforts to train and advise partner militaries. This approach would be complex and time-consuming, but it is also the only way to translate individual preference changes into durable changes in when and how militaries fight.

Renanah Miles Joyce is an assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University and a nonresident fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative, a jointly sponsored program between the Modern War Institute at West Point and the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project.

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