Normative Persuasion and the Impact of IMET Programs on U.S. National Security Goals

By: Simone Bak, Columnist

Photo by: NDU Audio Visual

Every year, U.S. International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs are used to train approximately 6,000-7,000 foreign officers from roughly 120 friendly and allied nations in US military schools alongside their US counterparts.[i] The Department of State runs and funds IMET programs, while the Department of Defense provides the course of study.[ii] Established in 1976 to enhance foreign military alliances and improve knowledge of US weapons systems, IMET’s scope expanded at the turn of the millennium to include education on US democracy.[iii] Courses focusing on human rights, independent judiciaries, civilian control of the military and free speech aim to “influence a critical sector of society that plays a pivotal role in…transitioning to democratic governance.”[iv] The shift in IMET’s emphasis – from tactical weapons instruction to educating foreign officers on democratic values – demonstrates that hegemonic power cannot be reduced simply to “coercive capacities.”[v] The use of ideas to persuade changes in identity and behavior are also at play.

A study published in 2014 by the University of Southern California’s Dr. Carol Atkinson reveals how IMET is used as a persuasive mechanism in achieving US national security goals. When asked to name their opinions on the United States’ best attributes as a result of their U.S.-based military training, a top response of international officers was “democracy.” Atkinson’s study also demonstrates causation between participation in US military educational exchanges and changed state identity. Autocratic countries who sent their officers to train at US military institutions were 2.8 times as likely to transition to democracy as those that didn’t. “Middle ground countries,” or those countries lying in the middle of the democracy-autocracy spectrum, were 2.4 times as likely to complete a democratic transition as a result of sending their officers to US military programs.[vi] Atkinson credits the democratic mores taught in the classroom as a key component to improving attitudes of US democracy and inducing democratic changes in partner nations.[vii]

Atkinson’s findings support a US grand strategy which aims to spread democratic values abroad in order to increase domestic security.[viii] However, IMET training becomes problematic when the transition it influences occurs by a military coup, in many cases barring the country from receiving further US aid.[ix] A study completed by Trinity College’s Jesse Savage and MIT’s Jonathan Caverly on IMET programs demonstrate that “any U.S. training leads to a rough doubling of the odds of a coup…U.S. foreign military training also correlates to coup success.”[x] In support of their claim, Savage and Caverly cite the direct roles of General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (U.S. Army War College graduate) and Lieutenant Colonel Lamin Sanneh (U.S. National War College graduate) in military-attempted democratic transitions in Egypt and Gambia, respectively.[xi] Similar to Atkinson’s analysis, Savage and Caverly claim that the democratic values imparted by IMET programs are the underlying reasons for their study’s findings.[xii] Additionally, Savage and Caverly claim that the social prestige acquired through US training embolden the officers of IMET recipient countries to carry out military coups.[xiii]

Even though these findings bear problematic implications for US foreign aid objectives, they nonetheless demonstrate the power of IMET to influence the international system by socializing new ideas with foreign partners. Because of IMET’s obvious impact, its many proponents advocate for reforming the structure of IMET to enhance its benefits and reduce negative second-order effects. For instance, practitioners working with IMET students at the National Defense University suggest better monitoring the activities of international alumni in relation to US objectives to understand the range of IMET’s advantages.[xiv] In order to reduce military coups, Savage and Caverly posit that IMET programs should increase their focus on educating foreign officers on the civilian control of the military, another important normative element of US democracy.[xv]

Despite these programmatic challenges, officials at the highest levels of the US government see the education of foreign military officers as an opportunity to produce lasting peace. This is in large part because they believe that the values imparted in these programs, as well as the friendships developed with fellow officers during them, will make the world a more secure place.[xvi] Additionally, the continued ability to reform, fund and execute normatively-persuasive programs like IMET may be essential in an era of potential great-power competition. For example, China currently facilitates educational exchanges for upwards of 130 partner nations at its National Defense University. A growing body of evidence suggests China plans to shift global dynamics through mil-mil exchanges, possibly at the expense of US interests.[xvii] To counter Chinese military soft power’s adverse effects, the U.S. should strongly consider not only reforming the IMET program but expanding it to countries with less-traditional ties to US security cooperation programs. One such example could be the inclusion of China itself, who already participates in limited mil-mil exchanges with the United States[xviii] and whose behavior would likely be affected by IMET’s proven prowess.

Programs like IMET are critical to strengthening US national security prerogatives because of their aptitude for shaping state behavior and identity through relationships and the exchange of ideas. Coercive action is not the only tool available to great powers; IMET demonstrates that normative persuasion also impacts the achievement of the US’s strategic goals.





[i] Joshua Kurlantzick. Reforming the U.S. International Military Education and Training Program, 2016.; Foreign Military Training: FY2015-16: Joint Report to Congress, Volume I; 2017 ASI 7004-36, 2017.

[ii] Joshua Kurlantzick. Reforming the U.S. International Military Education and Training Program, 2016.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Foreign Military Training: FY2015-16: Joint Report to Congress, Volume I; 2017 ASI 7004-36, 2017.

[v] Ikenberry, John G. and Charles A Kupchan. “Socialization and Hegemonic Power.” International Organization 44:3, 1990, 283-315.

[vi] Atkinson, Carol L. Military Soft Power. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. 147.

[vii] Ibid, 130-131, 147.

[viii] National Security Strategy of the United States, 2017.

[ix] Max Fisher. “Law Says the U.S. is Required to Cut Aid After Coups. Will it? (Posted 2013-07-03 20:59:09).” The Washington Post, Jul 3, 2013.

[x] Savage, Jesse D. and Jonathan Caverly. “Training the Man on Horseback: The Connection between U.S. Training and Military Coups”.

[xi] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Russell S Thacker and Paul W Lambert. Low Cost, High Returns: Getting More from International Partnerships. Washington: National Defense University, 2014.

[xv] Savage, Jesse D. and Jonathan Caverly. “Training the Man on Horseback: The Connection between U.S. Training and Military Coups”.

[xvi] “National War College Names Hall for Retired General Colin Powell.” ACI Information Group.

[xvii] Allen, Kenneth, Phillip Saunders, and John Chen. Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003–2016: Trends and Implications. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2017.

[xviii] Ibid, 14.

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