The Guardianship Dilemma: Regime Security through and from the Armed Forces

R. Blake McMahon, Branislav L. Slantchev

American Political Science Review, Vol. 109, No. 2. (May, 2015), pp. 297-313.


Armed forces strong enough to protect the state also pose a threat to the state. We develop a model that distills this "Guardianship Dilemma" to its barest essentials, and show that the seemingly ironclad logic underlying our existing understanding of civil-military relations is flawed. Militaries contemplating disloyalty must worry about both successfully overthrowing the government and defeating the state's opponent. This twin challenge induces loyalty as the state faces increasingly strong external threats, and can be managed effectively by rulers using a number of policy levers. Disloyalty can still occur when political and military elites hold divergent beliefs about the threat environment facing the state, since militaries will sometimes have less incentive to remain loyal than the ruler suspects. Consequently, it is not the need to respond to external threats that raises the risk of disloyalty --- as conventional wisdom suggests --- but rather uncertainty about the severity of these threats.