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  • How Democracies Control the Military
  • Richard H. Kohn (bio)

Among the oldest problems of human governance has been that of securing the subordination of military forces to political authority. In the twentieth century alone, civilian control of the military has been a concern of democracies like the United States and France, of communist tyrannies such as the Soviet Union and China, of fascist dictatorships in Germany and Italy, and since 1945, of many smaller states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Whether—and how—a society controls those who possess the ultimate power of physical coercion, and ensures their loyalty both to the particular government in power and to the regime in general, is basic to democratic governance.

Civilian control has special significance today. Throughout the postcommunist world, societies are struggling to build democratic institutions. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has declared civilian control a prerequisite for membership. In encouraging democratization, the United States and other Western powers use civilian control as a measure of progress toward democracy. While democracy is spreading in South and Central America, and in Europe, Asia, and Africa, there exists no set of standards by which to evaluate whether civilian control exists, how well it functions, and what the prognosis is for its continued success.

Control by civilians presents two challenges. For mature democracies, [End Page 140] where civilian control has historically been strong and military establishments have focused on external defense, the test is whether civilians can exercise supremacy in military policy and decision making—that is, frame the alternatives and define the discussion, as well as make the final choice. When the military enjoys great prestige, possesses advanced bureaucratic skills, believes that its ability to fulfill its mission may be at risk, or comes to doubt the civilian leadership, civilians can face great obstacles in exercising their authority.

Fledgling democracies, with scant experience in combining popular government and civilian control, face a tougher challenge. They must ensure that the military will not attempt a coup d’état, or otherwise defy civilian authority. In many former autocracies, the military has concentrated on internal order or been deeply involved in politics, sometimes preying on society rather than protecting it. There the chief requirement is to establish a tradition of civilian control, to make the military establishment politically neutral, and to prevent or preclude any possibility of military intervention in political life. The task will still remain to establish civilian control over national security policy and decision making. But in the new democracies, civilian efforts to gain supremacy over military affairs risk provoking military defiance, or, if public opinion does not support the civilians, perhaps even military intervention.

What are the common characteristics or experiences that have, historically, fostered civilian control under democracy? While this essay is based mostly on Western and particularly Anglo-American experience, the analysis applies to any society that practices, or is making the transition to practicing, government based upon the sovereignty and will of the people.

For democracy, civilian control—that is, control of the military by civilian officials elected by the people—is fundamental. Civilian control allows a nation to base its values, institutions, and practices on the popular will rather than on the choices of military leaders, whose outlook by definition focuses on the need for internal order and external security. The military is, by necessity, among the least democratic institutions in human experience; martial customs and procedures clash by nature with individual freedom and civil liberty, the highest values in democratic societies.

Because their basic purpose is to wage armed conflict, military institutions are designed for violence and coercion, and over the centuries have developed the organizational structure, operating procedures, and individual values needed to succeed in war. Authority in the military emphasizes hierarchy so that individuals and units act according to the intentions of commanders, and can succeed under the very worst of physical circumstances and mental stresses.

While many of the military’s professional values—courage, honesty, [End Page 141] sacrifice, integrity, loyalty, service—are among the most respected in human experience, the norms and processes intrinsic to military institutions diverge so far from the premises of democratic society that the relationship is inherently adversarial and...

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pp. 140-153
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