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Dennis C. Blair
Military Support for Democracy

In the past year three dictatorships with strong military support ended peacefully—in Tunisia, Egypt, and Burma. The armed forces of all three countries played a decisive role. Having for years supported autocratic regimes in which they enjoyed privileged positions, the army leaders in Tunisia and Egypt turned away from the very dictators who made them generals years before. In Burma a younger generation of officers took off their uniforms and set up the rudiments of a more democratic form of government. The outcome of the events in all three countries is not yet clear; what is clear is that military leaders in autocratic countries are not blind followers of the dictators who appointed them. They can turn against the regime or reform themselves in surprising ways.


Why do some military leaders step down as dictators, and why do others withdraw support from civilian autocrats who are often ex-military officers themselves, in favor of democratic elections? It has happened often. The Argentine junta handed over power in disgrace in 1983; the Turkish army has taken power several times but has then relinquished it; Thai General and then President Prem Tinnasulanond scheduled an election in 1989 and did not run in it; at about the same time in the Philippines, General and then President Fidel Ramos declined to change the constitutional term limit and retired; in Nigeria in 1999, a series of military coups ended in flawed but adequate elections that were followed by a decade of relative stability. This article examines the dynamics and causes of transitions from military-supported dictatorships to more democratic governments.


U.S. Marines demonstrate amphibious maneuver during multinational exercise Cobra Gold 2011 in Thailand

U.S. Marines demonstrate amphibious maneuver during multinational exercise Cobra Gold 2011 in Thailand

DOD (Nathaniel Henry)


If military-supported dictatorships are susceptible to change, what can the developed democracies—the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, India, and the many smaller mature and established democracies—do to encourage the armed forces of autocratic countries to support these transitions? This article proposes ways in which the developed democracies can use their military-military relations to encourage and assist democratic development around the world.


The Worldwide Democratic Trend


Democracy has been on the move for years. It has taken different shapes in different parts of the world and in different countries. However, John Locke and James Madison would recognize it in many locations. The fundamental components are accountability of the government to an electorate; an electorate that can give a government another term or vote it out of office; freedom of that electorate to organize itself for political activity; protection of the rights of all citizens, including minorities, by a system of laws that are fairly enforced by competent police and an independent judiciary; a low level of corruption with laws and institutions to contain it both in government and in business; and a free press. With the defeat of the two major antidemocratic ideologies of the last century—fascism and communism—and with the spread of information around the world, the universal appeal of democratic principles is having an ever stronger influence. Even the world’s two largest dictatorships in China and Russia find they must use the language of democracy and pretend they embrace it. Strong governments that are not fully democratic nonetheless adopt some democratic practices to satisfy their people’s aspirations, providing a basis from which further gains can be made.


There are also defining characteristics of the armed forces in a democracy. Their allegiance is to the people of their country, not to an individual, party, tribe, or ethnic or religious faction; they follow the orders of a freely and fairly elected government that represents the people; they do not support political parties or factions; and their primary mission is the defense of their country against external threats. When they are used within the country, whether it is to suppress an armed revolt, enforce a border, or provide relief following a natural disaster, it is for a limited time in support of domestic government organizations under special authorities and strict controls. They are established under provisions of a constitution or set of laws approved by a legislature, there is a means to determine the legality of orders they are given and actions they carry out, their budgets are provided by the legislature, and there is an established and fair system for promotion of officers and in the ranks based on performance.


Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were unpleasantly surprised when the generals they had moved into leadership positions and cultivated for many years turned on them. They should not have been surprised. Generals around the world learned long ago that military dictatorships were losing propositions. Even when there was significant popular support for coups, as there was in Argentina in 1976 and in Turkey in 1971, generals and admirals found that they did not have the mandate or the skills to govern successfully for extended periods. In 2006, the Thai army found it difficult to solve the problems that motivated it to take power, and it quickly set up elections to return the country to a representative government. Burma was in fact the only purely military dictatorship on the planet until last year. However, although military leaders are loath to govern through martial law themselves, in many countries they support authoritarian leaders. In these countries the generals seek to maintain a privileged position for themselves and their services while avoiding the risks of actually governing. They have learned that they know little about the economic management of their countries and that the top-down approach they have used in running military services is often ineffective and can excite widespread resentment when applied to national problems. They therefore stay out of direct involvement in internal governance and maintain a separate identity from the police, who handle internal security. However, they make it clear that they support the regime, and if necessary they will bring armed force to bear against those who oppose the regime and seek to change it. On a day-to-day basis, they often protect the regime through military intelligence services that operate domestically with the full range of military technical intelligence systems, and with unchecked arrest, intimidation, and incarceration capabilities. In the case of large-scale protests such as those in Iran in 2009 and in Syria at present, they use military units directly against regime opponents.


Nevertheless, military leaders around the world are increasingly realizing that working for a dictator is a bad bargain over the long term both for their services and for themselves. Their services will often receive institutional benefits such as autonomy, permission to run profitable businesses, virtual licenses for corrupt enrichment, and parades. They themselves will often receive personal rewards for a time—kickbacks, mansions, airplanes, and drivers—but those rewards can be withdrawn as well as bestowed. More importantly, the longer a military-supported regime lasts, the more popular resentment builds up against both the dictator and his army. Military leaders realize that at some point a dictator will order them to turn their soldiers’ guns against their people. When they do, the leaders become one with the regime, and from that time on popular opposition to the regime becomes hostility to the armed forces that support it. At that point, when the army becomes not the defender of the people but their oppressor, an important ethical and psychological threshold is crossed. To turn their guns on their people violates the core of their ethos as military officers. No matter how corrupt and cynical they may have become, the great majority of officers first put on the uniform to protect their country and its citizens, not to fight them. They are proud to fight violent insurgents, and they do not mind intimidating individual regime opponents who seem to undermine their country. However, they do not wish to oppose large numbers of peaceful citizens who have legitimate grievances against a repressive regime. Finally, military officers care about their legacies, and they do not want to be remembered as butchers of their own people.


The parts played by the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Yemeni armed forces during the Arab Spring are therefore the latest chapter in a long story of democratic transitions in which the armed forces played a positive role, or at least a passive role, in bringing unpopular dictatorships to an end. Nevertheless, not all military leaders will abandon an authoritarian regime when protests arise. The sustained regime loyalty of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Bahraini armed forces and their willingness to gun down unarmed protestors in the streets are current examples. In Syria, too, as of this writing, the armed forces have largely supported the regime and moved against widespread protestors. In addition, democratic transitions are not irreversible, and some countries have moved back and forth between democratic and authoritarian rule, with the armed forces supporting both directions.


Yet, over the last 30 years, armed forces around the world have understood the advantages of democracy for their countries and for their military services and have played an important role in bringing more representative governments to power.


The trend has been worldwide, taking different forms in different regions and countries. In East Asia from 1985 to 1988, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and Korea—all countries that had been ruled by dictators, many of whom were ex-military men backed by their armed forces—held elections that brought opposition leaders to power. The armed forces in all cases supported the transition, and since that time democratic civil-military relations have become more stable and democracy has become more strongly established.


Countries in Latin America have often alternated periods of military rule with democratic interludes since gaining their independence from colonial masters. However, beginning with Argentina in 1983, and followed by Brazil in 1985 and Chile in 1990, the largest countries in South America transitioned peacefully to democracy with the support of the armed forces. All three of these democratic governments have strengthened their legitimacy since those transitions. A large measure of accountability for past military abuses of power has been established, and civil-military relations appear to be on a firm footing.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a large number of Eastern European countries made the transition to democracy. In many cases, with the assistance of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, these governments overhauled their departments of defense and the armed forces that had been organized on the pattern of the Red army and dominated by their Soviet senior allies in the Warsaw Pact. Military leaders emerged who understood the role of their forces in a democracy, and they actively assisted newly elected and appointed government officials in wrenching transitions of their military services.


Unfinished Business


There are still many countries and regions in which authoritarian governments persist and in which the armed forces support the regimes in power. As the nascent transition in Burma demonstrates, however, even in closed countries the winds of change can be felt. The global explosion of information, in which events in one part of the world are known quickly in its far corners, fan these winds. Most dictatorial closed regimes fear these developments and seek to insulate their armed forces from them. Military officers in Iran and North Korea, for example, are forbidden from having any unsupervised official contact with their counterparts in democratic countries for fear they may contract infectious ideas of reform. China also limits the contact of its officers with outsiders, supervises it closely, fosters nationalistic sentiment within its officer corps, and at the same time holds out the prospect of a democratic future in order to keep the People’s Liberation Army loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. African dictators maintain the loyalty of their armed forces using tribal ties, and they attempt to discredit democracy by associating it with the former colonial powers. Central Asian strongmen use the techniques they inherited from the Soviet Union to maintain party control over the armed forces.


U.S. Air Force C-17 flies over pyramids of Giza Plateau as part of USCENTCOM biennial multinational exercise Bright Star

U.S. Air Force C-17 flies over pyramids of Giza Plateau as part of USCENTCOM biennial multinational exercise Bright Star

DOD (Jacob N. Bailey)


However, military leaders in these still authoritarian countries are subject to the same factors that have influenced their counterparts around the world, and the pressures are increasing to withdraw support from dictators, welcome popular democratic movements, and make the transition to civil-military relations. These initiatives will turn the officers into true defenders of their people and members of an institution that is respected by their fellow citizens. There are positive steps that the developed democracies, and especially their armed forces, can take to influence military leaders in dictatorships to realize these initiatives.


Outside Military Influences on Democratic Transitions


In almost all instances in which the armed forces of an autocratic country have either initiated or supported a transition to an elected government, the most important factors have been internal and often unique to that country. In the case of the Argentine junta’s departure from power in 1983, the causes included their economic mismanagement and loss of the Falklands/Malvinas war. The Turkish army was influenced by their Attaturk legacy. General-then-President Prem in Thailand had to put down several military coups himself and faced strong popular pressure and royal support for the establishment of an elected government. General-then-President Ramos in the Philippines did not want to become another Ferdinand Marcos.


However, outside influences can play a part, and among those influences are the military forces of the mature democracies. Armed forces the world over have hundreds of points of contact, from attachés in their embassies to visits of delegations back and forth, to common participation in exercises and international military events, and to education and training in each other’s countries. These interactions offer valuable opportunities to influence the officer corps and military leadership of dictatorial regimes to support democratic transitions in their
own countries.


Military democratic influences are spread by example. The most advanced, most skilled, and most respected armed forces in the world are those of the mature democratic countries. The military leaders of other countries look up to them and often seek to emulate them. Visiting officers from the People’s Liberation Army often comment on the appearance, skills, and maturity of the noncommissioned officers in democratic countries. Officers from autocratic countries who have served in peacekeeping missions with officers from democracies are generally more progressive within their own armed forces when they return. While not every officer from an autocratic country who attends a course in a democratic country becomes an ardent democrat, what they observe gives them an important frame of reference. President Ramos was a graduate of West Point and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono completed studies at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Several currently serving senior Egyptian generals are graduates of the École de Guerre in Paris. Sometimes individual officers and other officials from democratic countries have an opportunity to influence their counterparts in authoritarian countries directly, one-on-one.


All the developed democracies recognize the opportunities for influence that arise in military relations. Defense officials and military officers instinctively believe it is important to spread democratic values through their contacts with counterparts in countries that are autocratic or that are in transition from a dictatorship. Individuals and specific programs pursue the goal of influencing foreign military services toward the advantages of democracy and the means to achieve it in their countries. Nevertheless, no country takes full advantage of its many points of contact with foreign armed forces to foster democratic development, and none has a systematic effort based on strong policy guidance and smart programs.


Part of the reason is historical. During the Cold War, the United States and other democracies often supported anticommunist dictators and their armed forces. While checking Soviet military power was essential, however, the decisive factor in ending the Cold War was the recognition by Soviet leaders that their autocratic system of government was inferior to the dynamic and free democratic system of the West. Since the Berlin Wall came down, there has been no national interest compelling enough in the advanced democracies to overrule their interest in widening the circle of democratic countries as the best policy to ensure that the world of the future will be friendly and share their democratic values. Neither the cooperation of autocratic countries against violent terrorist groups nor their export of petroleum is sufficiently important to prevent the advanced democracies from persuading the military leaders of those countries, current and future, that both their nations and their services would be better off in a more democratic form of government.


However, the habit of downplaying long-term important objectives at the expense of more immediate short-term goals persists. Currently, the policy priorities for military engagement with autocratic or transitional countries are to influence them to support overall and specific American (or British or French or Australian) policies to build capacity and interoperability for them to operate in a coalition. The greatest effort put into military relationships has been combined exercises with the objective of increasing the interoperability of transitional forces and improving their skills, and arms sales to further enhance their capabilities. When the military relations with an autocratic regime have been put to larger purposes, it has often been to limit the impact of the regime’s military because of its human rights abuses.


Building Military Support for Democratic Transitions


The first step for the advanced democratic nations to take is simple but vital—to clearly state that the development of support for democracy is the top long-term policy objective for military relations with autocratic or transitional countries. At present, in the official policies of the advanced democracies, this objective is generally not specified, is not given a prominent place, or is hidden behind more neutral concepts such as “Security Sector Reform.” For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee, in its 2007 Ministerial Statement on security sector reform, never used the word “democracy.” Many of the specific objectives it established, such as “effective governance, oversight and accountability systems,” are characteristics of the armed forces in democratic countries, but in the statement they are not put into the larger framework of democracy. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review by the U.S. Department of Defense listed five “operational benefits” for security cooperation with other countries. Number five was “influencing the development of foreign military institutions and their roles in democratic societies.” These elliptical allusions to supporting democratic development do not offer the solid foundation needed for defense officials and military officers to provide guidance and design sound programs.


With a clear policy foundation in place, defense officials and military officers can design and carry out sound programs. Despite the lack of clear guidance, many programs have been developed that have proved effective in influencing the armed forces of autocratic or transitional countries to support democratic development.


International Military Education


One of the best opportunities to influence foreign officers from autocratic countries is when they come to the military colleges and other educational institutions in democratic countries. These courses range from a full academic year at a service command or staff college to a few weeks for a specialized technical course. Other countries will often send their best and brightest. For example, some 35 officers have attended the Army War College and returned home to become chiefs in their armies.


The advantage to a country, of educating international students, is well recognized. However, there is more that can be done in the education of international military officers to give them an appreciation for the foundational elements and advantages of a democratic system.


The curricula for international officers in the command and staff colleges of most democratic countries include explanations of the civil-military system in the host country. In the case of the United States, for example, there are classes on the role of the U.S. Armed Forces as established by the U.S. Constitution. It would be much more powerful and relevant to international officers if the lectures and discussions covered the many ways in which countries achieve the same foundational elements of a democratic civil-military structure: political control of the armed forces; legislative authorization of budgets and oversight of activities; government control of the promotion of senior officers; judicial authority over military activities; and press access to military activities. Exposed to examples drawn from a wide variety of countries, international students from authoritarian countries would find it much easier to imagine how their own countries might evolve to a democratic system.


For senior military officers the world over, one of the most important professional issues is their relationship to their political superiors. They are expected to provide their best professional advice and then to carry out legal orders. In democracies, the worst that can happen to a senior officer if his advice is not welcome is that he is replaced. If the order is not legal or he believes it is wrong, he can resign. He retires with his pension. In autocracies a general who provides unwelcome advice or refuses to obey an order can be imprisoned or worse. Seminar study in war college courses of the responsibilities of senior officers to their political superiors, and how to handle illegal or dangerous orders, would be very effective in reinforcing the ethos of loyalty to the nation, not to an individual or party.


Surveys of international graduates of command courses in the United Kingdom and the United States make it clear that they are influenced as much by what they observe outside their classrooms as what they are taught inside them. It is important that in field trips around their host countries, the international students learn about the full range of organizations and groups that interact with the armed forces. The democracies generally take better care of their veterans than autocratic countries do, so visits to veterans hospitals and clinics would be valuable; it would be eye-opening to many international students to talk with the many volunteer organizations that have sprung up in democratic countries to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan: the Yellow Ribbon Society in the United States and the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees in the United Kingdom, for example. International students should talk to military journalists from the media about the role of a free press in writing not just about the successes and positive accomplishments of the armed forces, but about mistakes and worse. It was civilian correspondents who broke the stories of My Lai and Abu Ghraib and of major cost overruns and performance shortfalls in military hardware programs. Although these stories caused hardship at the time, their final result was to strengthen the armed forces. International students should meet with officers and noncommissioned officers who have completed military careers and gone on to succeed in other fields, from high school teaching to corporate management. The overall objective of outside programs should be to expose international military students to the complex texture of relationships of the armed forces in a democracy, relationships that ensure that those forces play their appropriate role of protecting their country’s citizens, and in turn being understood and rewarded for their service.




The armed forces of most countries find the greatest opportunity for interaction during exercises. These range from large multilateral exercises like Cobra Gold in Thailand, Eagle Resolve in the Persian Gulf, and Bright Star in Egypt to small bilateral encounters involving a few dozen participants. The objective of most of these exercises is to establish or enhance the ability of the units involved to work together—to practice common procedures and communications and to iron out interoperability problems.


Most exercises involving the forces of established democracies and authoritarian or transitional countries are politically neutral peace operations. The scenarios range from search and rescue efforts to disaster relief to peacekeeping. These scenarios offer the opportunity to reinforce the fundamental commitment of military forces to protect and rescue civilian citizens from violence and danger. It is this commitment that will prevent military forces from carrying out the orders of a repressive regime to put down peaceful protests by its citizens. Too often international exercises move quickly to the operational phases, exercising military functions such as combined helicopter extractions and roadblock procedures. Emphasis needs to be placed on an initial phase in which the legal basis of the military action in the particular scenario is established: international law and custom for search and rescue; a host country invitation for disaster relief; or a United Nations resolution for peacekeeping operations. The objective is to reinforce the concept that all military operations must have a legal basis. In the initial planning phase, emphasis also needs to be placed on civil-military relationships, underscoring that military operations take place within a larger political context—for example, that military units operate in support of civilian-led government disaster relief agencies and that peacekeeping operations support political agreements reached between governments. Finally, the initial planning phase of these exercises needs to emphasize the legal basis and control of the use of military force in the exercise scenario. Should troops be armed or unarmed? Under what circumstances can force be used? In a disaster relief operation, can force be used, for example, against looters? In a peacekeeping operation, can force be used only in self-defense or can it be used against an armed faction that is breaking the conditions of a ceasefire?


In this initial planning phase, the objective is to convey to the officers and noncommissioned officers of autocratic countries the concepts of the legal use of force, of proportional use of force, and the subordination and control of the use of force to political direction. These concepts will cause them to question their own regimes over time.


The same concepts can be reinforced during the later phases of the exercise by appropriate selection of events within the scenario and by the after action review, which is the final phase of all exercises in which the performance of the units is evaluated and issues that are exposed are discussed.


Conferences and Visits


The scale of meetings, conferences, and visits among the armed forces of the established democracies and autocratic or transitional countries is vast. When the author was Commander in Chief, Pacific Command, the staff prepared a list of the visits scheduled over the course of a year with China, and the list ran on for pages.


The great majority of these interactions are among functional counterparts in the armed forces—military doctors visit their counterparts and logisticians have conferences; so do special forces officers. Army, Navy, and Air Force chiefs consider it part of their duties to visit counterparts around the world.


The preparation of officers from the established democracies for these interactions is generally of two types: functional and political. First, their staffs work to identify safe common professional topics that they and their bosses can discuss with counterparts. The objective is to establish a common professional bond. Second, there is preparation on how to handle the current political issues between their countries. When the author and other senior U.S. officers visited Indonesia in the late 1990s, for example, they were thoroughly prepared regarding the latest developments in the East Timor crisis. What officers from democratic countries are not thoroughly prepared for by their staffs or their experience to discuss, however, are the civil-military issues in the particular autocratic countries they are visiting. They probably know the order of battle of an autocratic country, but they generally do not know enough to engage their counterparts on issues such as the internal security role of the armed forces, the relationship with the intelligence and internal security services, the sources of funding for the armed forces, or the recent history of the armed forces’ relationship with the regime. It is discussions about such topics, not in open meetings or seminars but during private conversations, that can open the minds of officers in autocratic countries to the possibilities for progress in their countries toward the more democratic forms of government that would give their services more stable and honorable positions.




These examples for improving the effectiveness of military education and training programs, exercises, conferences, and visits are only a few of the ways that the advanced democratic countries can focus their interactions with autocratic armed forces on the objective of supporting democratic transitions. There are literally thousands of points of contact among the armed forces of the democracies and autocratic countries, and all of them offer opportunities for influence. Once this objective is established clearly by the governments of the advanced democracies, their extremely capable defense officials and military officers will devise many ways to carry out the mission.

The events of the Arab Spring are the latest in a long line of failures of dictatorships, stretching from Latin America across East Asia and Central and Eastern Europe. The Arab Spring also reemphasizes the centrality of the armed forces in popular protests against dictatorships and whether countries transition to democratic forms of government or revert to rule by repressive regimes. The democracies of the world have no more important objective than the successful transition of dictatorships to democracies. The armed forces of democratic countries can be even more positive and effective influences on the counterparts in autocratic countries if they are given the policy guidance and mission.

Другие статьи автора: C. Blair Dennis

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