🦋 ♟️ Control over militaries is the forgotten landmark of democracy after imperialism

When democracies’ most basic features lose their distinctive edge, differentiating regime types becomes a problem for scholars of democracy and autocracy alike. Hager Ali aims to redraw demarcations between regimes across the political spectrum. To do so, she argues that civilian control over militaries is just as fundamental as suffrage

As autocracies emulate democratic features and democracies adopt authoritarian characteristics, elections, representation, and civil liberties are not enough to distinguish regime types. They never were to begin with. Gagnon’s proposition to update the repository of democracies is pressing. However, it will not work without also updating the basic metrics of regime classifications, democratic or not. So, what could be even more fundamental to democracy than free and fair elections?

I argue that the political role of militaries fits that bill or, specifically, how civilians control their armies. Problems with unchecked militaries are typically associated with Africa or the Americas. But reining in military power was just as integral to Western democratisation after imperialism and war-waging.

Democratic practices for undemocratic reasons

Many contributions to the Science of Democracy series use a Schumpeterian procedural definition of democracy. In such a definition, representativeness and elections differentiate democracies. Elections and their outcomes indeed are a convenient yardstick for regime classifications within democracies and autocracies. But globally, regular elections are not the exception any more. Representation and political participation are not as cut-and-dried either. Autocrats hold competitive multi-party elections to fracture their opposition. They appoint and integrate minorities into their administrations to pre-empt popular unrest. In fact, co-opting activist causes including women’s, minority and labour rights is common to gain domestic and international approval. Citizens in autocracies participate and mobilise beyond ballots and parties.

Globally, regular elections and representation are not exceptions any more; autocrats hold competitive multi-party elections to fracture their opposition, and appoint and integrate minorities into their administrations

Regimes can very well follow the letter of democratic practices for undemocratic reasons, which undermines how political science traditionally classifies democratic sub-types. Of course, my critique about relying too much on elections in classifying regimes is not new.

Philippe Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl had already dubbed this the ‘fallacy of electoralism’ in 1991. Naming and shaming this fallacy did not prevent its reproduction in the democracy-literature, though, whether unwittingly or intentionally. Moving past the fallacy of electoralism in the Science of Democracy now, however, means finding another normative and empirical milestone that anchors regime definitions. Civilian control over militaries is particularly suitable for comparative studies because unchecked military power is detrimental for every civilian regime.

Imperialism and the waves of democracy

Military involvement can range from endorsing politicians or parties, cancelling elections, to seizing full direct power. Ideally, civilians keep their armies in check through norms, laws, separation of powers, and other measures. Full control over a military is fundamental for democracy. As Robert Dahl writes, polyarchy is impossible unless ‘the military is sufficiently depoliticised to permit civilian rule’.

Larry Diamond affirms that democracies would otherwise be inherently flawed, becoming democracies with reserved domains. Whether military rule ends through state collapse or military withdrawal, undoing its institutional legacy is always contentious and prone to relapses. The Three Waves of Democracy, for example, ebbed and flowed because of it.

In the aftermath of imperial conquests and offensive wars, reducing military power domestically and internationally was integral yet overlooked in democratisation

Samuel Huntington set the first slow wave of democracy in the age of imperialism between the early nineteenth century and 1920. Catalysed through the allied victory after World War II, the second wave lasted until the 1960s. The third wave began with the 1974 military coup in Portugal which ousted the authoritarian Estado Novo and contributed to the fall of the Portuguese Empire. Militarism, in turn, drove each reversal wave, as the rise of Mussolini after the first wave, the emergence of Latin American juntas in the 1960s, or the contemporary surge of military coups.

Especially in the aftermath of imperial conquests and offensive wars, reducing military power domestically and internationally was integral yet overlooked in democratisation. Japan’s Self-Defence Forces were reluctantly established with democratic civilian oversight to break with the Imperial Japanese Army. After the Wehrmacht was dissolved, Germany’s new and strictly defensive Bundeswehr was kept small and subjugated to tight control by multiple institutions.

In the Middle East and Africa on the other hand, militaries often ousted the last vestiges of colonialism, because colonial powers systematically undermined civilian popular resistance beforehand. Where militaries took root in politics through decolonisation and nation-building, democratisation often suffocates.

Military service as gateway to suffrage

But it isn’t just about governments keeping armies in check. Civil society oversees militaries through the extent of its involvement, too. Germany instated general conscription after World War II because drafting approximates a societal cross-section which counteracts self-selection by extremists. Conversely, Gulf monarchies long avoided the draft because a more representative military corps would dilute an army’s exclusive ethnic or tribal bonds to the crown. Especially in democracies, societal oversight of militaries becomes more than a civic duty.

Civil society oversees militaries through the extent of its involvement, too, and military service has historically been a key means of political empowerment for the disenfranchised

In many countries military service is as fundamental to citizenship as suffrage. For the disenfranchised through history, military service was a means of political empowerment long before civil liberties. In the first French Republic, the Levée en masse dissolved socio-political structures of the ancien régime, where the aristocracy was entrenched through mandatory service in the officer corps. African American men gained suffrage in part through service in the American Civil War. We can also trace many of today’s ethnoreligious power-dynamics in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa back to selective miliary recruitment by colonial powers.

A new line between democracy and autocracy

Civilian control over militaries is the forgotten landmark of democracy. After imperialism and waging World Wars, Western democratisation thrived through curtailing military power. Where that failed, democracy suffocated. That should warrant a much closer look at how civilian control differentiates democracies, especially because autocracies doing democratic things for undemocratic reasons upended traditional regime classifications.

The Loop's Science of Democracy and Autocracies with Adjectives series are of course entirely separate threads. Yet they share their quest to find better demarcation lines between democracy and autocracy, and between sub-types of either regime. And precisely because unchecked military power diminishes any civilian regime, civilian control can draw clearer lines where conventional metrics lost their edge long ago.

🦋 No.64 in The Loop's Science of Democracy series

♟️ No.9 in The Loop's Autocracies with Adjectives series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Hager Ali
Hager Ali
Research Fellow and Doctoral Student, GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies, Hamburg

Hager's research focuses on civil-military relations, regime stability, and authoritarian politics across the Middle East and North Africa.

She received her MA from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, where she specialised in comparative political science, and her BA in Political Science and Sociology from Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Hager is also a freelance journalist.

She tweets @ActuallyHager

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