Democracy and Coups: Taking Civilian Control of the Military for Granted

Argentina, 1976. Photo by Revista Gente, via Wikimedia.

By Steve Saideman

This post is part of the “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?” series. 

Reader Luis asks: “How did the military reached a credible commitment with the rest of the society not to overturn nonmilitary regimes? Aren’t there enough economic incentives, given that in developed societies soldiers and the military hierarchy is far from being on the top of the income distribution, for those who own the arms expropriate the rest of society? Does the answer rely on noneconomic incentives, then?

Check that my question is not about ‘why democracies survive’ but more general: why isn’t any society a military dictatorship? And my focus is on the mechanism of commitment that makes it possible to solve the problem.”

Argentina’s Golpe de Estado, 1976. Photo by Revista Gente, via Wikimedia.

This is an excellent question, as civil-military relations can mean many things. The classic discussion going back to Huntington, Janowitz, Finer and others focused on the possibility of coups and the challenges of keeping the military in the barracks. Over the course of time, scholars have increasingly focused not on coups and their prevention but how to finesse the tradeoffs between control and effectiveness. Why? In part because we take for granted that militaries in advanced democracies will always stay in the barracks. I always use the same example: when Bush and Gore contested the 2000 Presidential election, did anyone ask what the military thought? Not as far as I can tell. The military was never considered to be relevant in this crisis. This is quite distinct from contested elections in less established democracies, where contested elections and coups go together like peanut butter and jelly.

So the puzzle Luis raises is a good one, but let me address the motivations he suggests before considering the bigger one. No, the economic incentives are not so apparent for American, Canadian, British, French, German, and other officers and enlisted personnel. Just to focus on the American case, while officers start out underpaid as their careers advance, their pay not only competes well with the civilian sector (especially once you factor in healthcare and other benefits) but eventually exceeds what average civilians make. The same is largely true for enlisted personnel — the pay is lousy to start but catches up quickly. Plus advanced democracies do not generally have the same kinds of spoils that more fragile countries have. The post-industrial economy is hard to loot, at least it is hard for soldiers to do so.

Coup-proofing is a deliberate effort in authoritarian countries and in new democracies. In advanced democracies, it is not a focus of politicians. Why? Perhaps much of the coup-proofing has already been done. To launch a coup, you have to gamble that you will have enough support from key parts of the military and enough tolerance from the rest. The history of coups shows that this is a coin-flip at best. In autocracies, recruitment is a key issue — does the military over or under-represent ethnic groups, which might provide motivation for some to take power when their privileged situation is threatened?

In the US, Canada, and other multi-ethnic democracies, the military does not replicate the ethnic composition of the society, but their armies are multi-ethnic. Can you count on a multi-ethnic all supporting a seizure of power? Probably not.

But the key for advanced democracies is not incentives or the likelihood of success. There has been a distinction made between a logic of consequences and a logic of appropriateness. People can be focused on what is the most efficient way to get what they want — the logic of consequences — or they can only consider to act in ways that are appropriate. In established democracies, officers and soldiers do not think it is their role to decide political outcomes. They do not think about the possibility of coups because the thought is entirely inappropriate, just as most of us do not consider cannibalism when we get a bit hungry. A coup in America would be unthinkable except that Hollywood reminds us that the military does own many of the guns with movies like Seven Days in May and the new TV series Last Resort. Still, the educational systems on both the civilian and military sides indoctrinate the military’s narrow role in America, Canada, and the rest of the advanced democracies. I am curious about how the French educational system considers the role of the military, given that it is the advanced democracy with the most recent coup attempt. But the central point is that there is such a strong consensus in society and in the military that a coup would be inappropriate that few consider the matter at all.

Of course, the challenge is how to get from a to b: how to get from a weak democracy with a powerful military to a strong democracy with a military that holds a narrower conception of its own role in the society? Time, and hard work. Legitimacy and norms do not happen overnight, no matter how much international organizations like NATO try to inculcate civilian control of the military. Birthing these norms requires powerful individuals to be strong enough to decline power and to refrain from taking it. George Washington ran for only two terms and then stepped down. He had ample opportunities to undermine the United States’ fragile democracy as his term in office faced more than a little bit of rebellion and enjoyed considerable authority. Dwight Eisenhower, with his record in the Oval Office and famous speech at the end presidency warning of the military-industrial complex, reminded everyone that former Generals may not necessarily be a peril for democracy.

This is the classic question for democracy, for institutions, and for political scientists: when do the writing on the parchments matter? When do institutions bind behavior? When people think that they do; when people believe that the rules are binding and act accordingly. In the advanced democracies, we often disagree about many things. We often talk about crises in civil-military relations, but we rarely imagine coups and never plan them. In this case, not thinking about something is the first step towards the best outcome.

    1. Dan Slater’s Ordering Power doesn’t specifically look at it, but it provides a good idea of the circumstances will seize power and whether it will be a factionalized military working with civilians or a unified military working against civilians.

  1. There’s also separatism. France’s near-coup came as Algerian pied noirs and soldiers began to suspect that France was going to give up Algeria. I don’t know if Northern Ireland holds the same emotional response for the U.K. The U.S., however, has not faced the threat of losing territorial integrity since the 1860s.

  2. Thanks a lot for the answer!

    I’m still puzzled by the question you evoke in the last paragraph. I agree that the proximate cause for why soldiers stay in the barracks is to be found in some normative selfperception of their role in society. I just wonder about the degree of autonomy of such norms from other incentives.

    My tentative answer to this point was that there must be something in the internal organization of the army (the way recruitment works; how hierarchy is organized; etc), so I’m glad you tackled it. Thanks again for the answer

    1. Luis,
      You ask good questions that cannot be answered in a single blog post! I think the difference between advanced and less advanced democracies is very much about whether the norms are autonomous from other incentives. In the US, Canada, and West Europe, my guess is that the norms are entirely self-standing. Other incentives do not come into play for nearly all members of the militaries of these countries (note the news this week about four very low ranked American soldiers seeking to engage in revolt–exception that proves the rule). They don’t have to, as no one is thinking or planning or imagining. In less established democracies, the norms develop over time while other incentives (the risks of getting caught, the few benefits of winning, the acceptable status quo) play more of a role. Normal behavior–non-coup-ness–become norms as they become expected, standard behavior that is seen as appropriate–which takes time and repetition. The incentives prop up the norm until they are no longer necessary.

      But they still exist to some degree. In emails, I got some folks asking about force structures, for instance. UK army always small, which limits ability to seize power–only so much ships can do. The US army is dispersed across the world, even in peaceful times and is certainly not concentrated in DC. So, a coup would be hard. But the force structure of advanced democracies is not driven by coup-proofing, unlike autocracies, but by votes to a certain degree. US has more bases in south and west because of the folks who sat on the relevant committees and because of the relative importance of some states in the electoral college.

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