International Politics Redux
On Generals and Politicians

Who runs the show and calls the shots in most countries, the generals or the politicians?  The fact that we can even ask this question points to the inherent tension between a country’s military and civilian leadership structures in many countries.  Power is a prize to be won and kept, no doubt, and whosoever wields it – whether generals, politicians or another group of elites – is tempted to expand it.  In most democracies, power’s corrupting influence is curbed by constitutional safeguards, governmental checks and balances, term limits and regularized transfers of power in periodic elections.  These institutions maximize controls on the arbitrary use of force in national societies since the military is subservient to the democratically elected civilian political leadership, just like it is here in Canada.  Can you imagine the Canadian Forces defying the Harper Administration’s directives, or laying siege to Parliament Hill in a bid to unseat the prime minister and install their own leader? 

Comical as this scenario may seem, a dysfunctional civil-military relationship no doubt exists in many countries today, a relationship in which a healthy balance of power eludes the generals and the politicians.  Either the generals seize power and overthrow a weak, corrupt, ineffective or otherwise undesirable government, or the politicians consolidate their own power after long periods of military rule and systematically purge the generals when they can no longer be trusted.  If the general-politician relationship is a spectrum of civil-military relations, with complete military dictatorship on one side and the tyranny of the civilian government on the other, then the dysfunction arises from the scales on this balance being tipped too far in one direction.  Keep in mind that the optimal relationship should skew slightly in favour of the politicians, for the constitutionally mandated and democratically elected reasons mentioned above.  Let’s take a look at some contemporary country cases where these tensions in civil-military relationships have yet to be resolved.

The cases in which the military exerts disproportionate influence over a country’s policy- and decision-making structures are more common in fragile countries with little to no experience with democracy.  In resource-rich yet poverty-stricken Africa, coup d’états are still very real and very significant occurrences.  Mauritania had two military-led coups in the past 7 years (2005 and 2008), Guinea’s authoritarian strongmen took power in 2008, Madagascar’s military ousted the government in 2009, and 2010 saw Guinea-Bissau and Niger both undergo general-driven governmental change.  Even outward stability can be misleading since many African states still lack the political legitimacy that accompanies democracies and that would be needed to avoid domination by the military establishment, like those governments in Algeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe, for example. 

This is also true of several Asian states, many of whose generals have steered their countries through the turbulence of the Cold War but failed to adapt to the post-Cold War world.  Burma (or Myanmar) has been wracked by ethnic civil wars since its independence from the British in 1948 and controlled by a military committee since 1961.  This Southeast Asian country’s ruling junta has recently demonstrated its willingness to cede power to a democratically elected civilian government while maintaining certain privileges for itself in order to balance competing foreign interests over its vast mineral resource wealth.  Another prime example is North Korea, whose hereditary communist dynasty has always relied on the military to maintain its totalitarian grip on power.  The late Kim Jong-Il prioritized militarization above all else, promoted his son and the current leader, Kim Jong-Un, to the rank of a four-star general in 2010 to solidify his military credentials, and is constantly surrounded by a military entourage for propaganda purposes.  Even South Korea and Taiwan only reined in the military’s overwhelming influence on the political processes in their countries as recently as the late 1980s, successfully evolving to benefit from the conditions following the Soviet Union’s demise and indicating that the proper balance between civil-military relations can be difficult to achieve in conflict zones but is never impossible as a rule.

What about the other extreme, the case where the political elites monopolize power and marginalize the military generals?  This is inevitably a more complex situation because the politicians need a base of support independent from and superior to the military’s comparative advantage in the use of physical force.  Turkey finds itself in this unexpected situation as the Islamist AKP ruling party wins greater support from the public and grows increasingly bolder in its confrontations with the military, an institution whose members have long prided themselves as the guarantors of Ataturk’s vision for a secular republic.  Beginning in 2007, Turkey has arrested and detained hundreds of military officers and generals for alleged plots to overthrow the AKP when they first assumed power in 2003, then forced the resignations of the chiefs of the army, navy and air force in July 2011 as well as the most recent arrest of the former head of the Turkish armed forces in January 2012.  It is too early to tell whether Turkey has swung too far along the civil-military spectrum in favour of the politicians, but it is worth noting that they can only challenge the prestigious military thanks to the steadily growing legitimacy won by successive civilian governments in several rounds of democratic elections.

Three more countries are worth briefly considering: Pakistan, Egypt and Iran.  Pakistan has a long history of military coups and governments led by the generals, like the one led by the former four-star general Pervez Musharraf until 2008.  After a civilian-led government was installed shortly thereafter, tensions with the military have risen ever since as the Pakistani government faces off against the military leadership most recently by firing the defence secretary in early January 2012 over a disputed memo.  At the centre of the Arab uprisings, Egypt’s powerful military has found itself in an awkward position as the Muslim Brotherhood wins parliamentary elections and demands an end to the military’s stewardship of the country since Hosni Mubarak was forced from power by popular protests nearly one year ago.  In Iran, the clerical regime’s private militia has protected it from domestic and foreign political competition since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps not only represents a fusing of the military and civilian aspects of the government, but has since evolved into an overwhelming ‘socio-military-political-economic force’ in Iranian society.  These examples are all indicative of unique failures of the civilian government to negotiate a healthy relationship with its military counterpart.

None of this is to say that Europe and other parts of the world we would today label as ‘democratic’ have not had their fair share of civil-military imbalances in the past, but these national societies have since evolved and learned to shift their positions on the spectrum of civil-military relations towards the optimal level.  There is certainly some logic to a country’s relative position on this spectrum.  Most new countries unfortunately begin on the military side since the monopoly on the use of force is a necessary precondition for law and order within a society.  As the institutions of electoral democracy are gradually introduced, it is not uncommon for the civilian administration to overstep its boundaries and rescind too much power from the military.  The trick is to find that balance without tearing the country asunder.