Public Trust in the Military

Illustration of a smiling soldier shaking hands with a civilian in Nairobi (Nick Lotito × DALL·E).

With Renanah Miles Joyce

Across much of the developing world, the military is the most trusted public institution, often by a wide margin. This vote of public confidence is surprising, given histories of civil-military tensions, armed conflict, and the weakness of formal institutions in many countries. Moreover, some militaries have enjoyed rapid and significant changes in public trust. Drawing on the literatures on institutions, public trust, and conflict, we develop two competing models of trust in the military—one that is oriented around the military’s performance in war and one that is oriented around the military’s role in society. We test these arguments using nationally representative public opinion surveys, as well as data on coups d’état, inter- and intra-state wars, and U.S. military assistance. Understanding the sources of trust in the military has important implications for democratic consolidation and backsliding. Yet the civil-military relations literature has largely overlooked the determinants of public approval of the military and support for its actions in the domestic arena. Thus, the paper contributes to a growing literature on the critical role of the military in political development.

Nick Lotito
Nick Lotito
Associate Research Scholar, School of Public and International Affairs

Political scientist at Princeton University studying civil-military relations and international security in North Africa and the Middle East.