Skip to main content Accessibility help

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

  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.


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.


Corresponding author

R. Blake McMahon is Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of California–San Diego, CA 92093-0521 (
Branislav L. Slantchev is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California–San Diego, CA 92093-0521 (


Hide All
Acemoglu, Daron, Ticchi, Davide, and Vindigni, Andrea. 2008. “A Theory of Military Dictatorships.” NBER Working Paper Series, No. 13915.
al-Marashi, Ibrahim. 2002. “Iraq’s Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis.” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal 6 (3): 113.
Arbatli, Cemal Eren, and Arbatli, Ekim. 2014. “External Threats and Political Survival: Can Dispute Involvement Deter Coup Attempts?Conflict Management and Peace Science.
Bengio, Ofra. 1989. “Iraq.” In Middle East Contemporary Survey, 1987, Vol. XI, eds. Rabinovich, Itamar, Shaked, Haim, and Ayalon, Ami. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 423–59.
Bengio, Ofra. 1990. “Iraq.” In Middle East Contemporary Survey, 1988, Vol. XII, eds. Ayalon, Ami and Shaked, Haim. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 500–43.
Bennett, Richard M. 2001. “The Syrian Military: A Primer.” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin 3 (8).
Besley, Timothy, and Robinson, James A.. 2010. “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? Civilian Control Over the Military.” Journal of the European Economic Association 8 (2-3): 655–63.
Brooks, Risa A. 1998. “Political-Military Relations and the Stability of Arab Regimes.” In Adelphi Paper 324. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Brooks, Risa A. 2008. Shaping Strategy: The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Desch, Michael C. 1999. Civilian Control of the Military: The Changing Security Environment. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Egorov, Georgy, and Sonin, Konstantin. 2011. “Dictators and their Viziers: Endogenizing the Loyalty-Competence Trade-Off.” Journal of the European Economic Association 9 (5): 903–30.
Enloe, Cynthia H. 1975. “Ethnic Factors in the Evolution of the South African Military.” Issue: A Journal of Opinion 5 (4): 21–8.
Esteban, Joan, and Ray, Debraj. 2008. “On the Salience of Ethnic Conflict.” American Economic Review 98 (5): 2185–202.
Feaver, Peter. 1996. “The Civil-Military Problematique: Huntington, Janowitz, and the Question of Civilian Control.” Armed Forces and Society 23 (2): 149–78.
Feaver, Peter. 1999. “Civil-Military Relations.” Annual Review of Political Science 2: 211–41.
Finer, S. E. 1988. The Man on Horseback. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Gaub, Florence. 2013. “The Libyan Armed Forces between Coup-proofing and Repression.” Journal of Strategic Studies 36 (2): 221–44.
Goemans, Henk E., Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede, and Chiozza, Giacomo. 2009. “Introducing Archigos: A Dataset of Political Leaders.” Journal of Peace Research 46 (2): 269–83.
Hiro, Dilip. 1991. The Longest War. New York, NY: Routledge.
Horowitz, Donald. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Huntington, Samuel P. 1957. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Practice of Civil-Military Relations. Boston, MA: Belknap.
Kaufman, Eric, and Haklai, Oded. 2008. “Dominant Ethnicity: From Minority to Majority.” Nations and Nationalism 14 (4): 743–67.
Londregan, John, and Poole, Keith. 1990. “Poverty, the Coup Trap and the Seizure of Executive Power.” World Politics 42 (2): 151–83.
Lutterbeck, Derek. 2013. “Arab Uprisings, Armed Forces, and Civil-Military Relations.” Armed Forces and Society 39 (1): 2852.
Luttwak, Edward. 1979. Coup D’etat, a Practical Handbook. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
McMahon, R. Blake. 2014. “Circling the Wagons: Civil-Military Relations and International Disputes.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Peace Science Society, Philadelphia.
Neff, Donald. 1994. “Israel-Syria: Conflict at the Jordan River, 1949–1967.” Journal of Palestine Studies 23 (4): 2640.
Nossiter, Adam. 2012. “Leaders of Mali’s Military Coup Seem to Have Uncertain Grasp on Power.” The New York Times, March 24, A8.
Parasiliti, Andrew, and Antoon, Sinan. 2000. “Friends in Need, Foes to Heed: The Iraqi Military in Politics.” Middle East Policy 7 (4): 130–40.
Pelletiere, Stephen C., and Johnson, Douglas V.. 1991. Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War. Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College.
Pilster, Ulrich, and Boehmelt, Tobias. 2011. “Coup-Proofing and Military Effectiveness in Interstate Wars, 1965–1999.” Conflict Management and Peace Science 28 (4): 331–50.
Pipes, Daniel. 1989. “The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria.” Middle Eastern Studies 25 (4): 429–50.
Piplani, Varun, and Talmadge, Caitlin. 2015. “When War Helps Civil—military Relations: Prolonged Interstate Conflict and the Reduced Risk of Coups.” Journal of Conflict Resolution.
Powell, Jonathan. 2012. “Determinants of the Attempting and Outcome of Coups d’Etat.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 56 (6): 1017–40.
Powell, Jonathan M., and Thyne, Clayton L.. 2010. “Global Instances of Coups from 1950 to 2009: A New Dataset.” Journal of Peace Research 48 (2): 249–59.
Quinlivan, James T. 1999. “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East.” International Security 24 (2): 131–65.
Roessler, Philip. 2011. “The Enemy Within: Personal Rule, Coups, and Civil War in Africa.” World Politics 63 (2): 300–46.
Slantchev, Branislav. 2003. “The Principle of Convergence in Wartime Negotiations.” American Political Science Review 97 (4): 621–32.
Staniland, Paul. 2008. “Explaining Civil-Military Relations in Complex Political Environments: India and Pakistan in Comparative Perspective.” Security Studies 17 (2): 322–62.
Sutter, Daniel. 2000. “A Game-Theoretic Model of the Coup D’Etat.” Economics & Politics 12 (2): 205–23.
Svolik, Milan W. 2009. “Power Sharing and Leadership Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (2): 477–94.
Svolik, Milan W. 2012. The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Svolik, Milan W. 2013. “Contracting on Violence: The Moral Hazard in Authoritarian Repression and Military Intervention in Politics.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 57 (5): 765–94.
Talmadge, Caitlin. 2013. “The Puzzle of Personalist Performance: Iraqi Battlefield Effectiveness in the Iran-Iraq War.” Security Studies 22 (2): 180221.
Thompson, Leonard. 2001. A History of South Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Woods, Kevin M., Murray, Williamson, Nathan, Elizabeth A., Sabara, Laila, and Venegas, Ana M.. 2011. Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analysis.
Zimmermann, Ekkart. 1983. Political Violence, Crises, and Revolutions. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall and Co.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

McMahon and Slantchev supplementary material

 PDF (955 KB)
955 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed

A correction has been issued for this article: