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Backstage Politics

Civil-military Relations: Democracy and Militarism


The relations between civilians and the military at the political level are not well known. The general idea is quite formal, and it claims the civil government commands the army, and this institution obeys. However, things are more complicated, and that’s what we’re going to see here.

Today, I want to speak to you about how the relations between civilians and high-rank officials of the military are. That’s a controversial topic. At least, it becomes controversial when we address it and start to analyze the complex interactions between members of the government and the armed forces in constitutional regimes. So, first of all, I want to make clear that the following discussion is going to deal with these relations in the political context of liberal-democratic countries.

I believe it’s controversial to analyze these relations insofar as it involves questioning the dominant speech on this matter. That also means to examine the connection between democracy and militarism. It can be awkward because it may show democracy, or at least that thing we call democracy, isn’t exactly as we have regarded it so far.

Rather than coming up with questions, I want to scrutinize the interactions between the political directorate and the armed forces. Although I’m going to focus on the US case, most of the observations discussed here are valid for most countries with a similar regime.




The structure of this discussion is as much important as the content. For this reason, I consider it necessary to make some preliminary clarifications.

First, I’m going to analyze the dominant speech that describes these relations. To do so, I’ll take as a yardstick the constitutional order and laws that establish the political organization and the formal articulation of these relations.

Second, I’ll address the power relations behind legal provisions. In this way, we’ll be able to analyze the real situation that goes on behind the scene, out of the public eye.

Finally, I’ll draw the pertinent conclusions to clarify the existent relationship between democracy and militarism in the current days. That will allow confirming the influence of the international environment in domestic politics.


The official speech


The official speech is rooted in the western and liberal political tradition. That means that our understanding of this issue is based on specific assumptions. These assumptions are the result of the west’s experience in the modern age, and more specifically, during the transformation of absolute monarchies into parliamentary political systems.

This experience was a struggle between the executive, represented by the crown, and the legislative, represented by the parliament. Depending on each country, the sequence of events has been different, but the final result has been similar. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that the parliamentary system, with its representative chambers and the role of the consent as its political bedrock, has its origins in militarism. Indeed, I discussed this aspect on another occasion, so I recommend checking that video.

Nevertheless, the struggle between the monarch and the parliament revolved around the political supremacy. It wasn’t by coincidence that their quarrel had much to do with raising funds for the military. The resistance of the parliament to give funds without political concessions was cardinal for the following course of events. While the king wanted to build a strong standing army to compete successfully in the international realm, and also subdue his enemies at home, the parliament opposed this trend. In England, for instance, this fight led to a civil war in which each side raised their armies, and fought each other. The triumph of the parliamentary cause would have, in theory, lead to the rule of a civil government. Yet, things were different, and they had a military dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell. It may seem a paradox that those who fought for liberty against the tyrannical rule of the absolute monarch ended up establishing a bloody military dictatorship. Nonetheless, politics is full of paradoxes.

After the Glorious Revolution, the parliament consolidated its central position in the political system. From then on, its political supremacy wasn’t put under question anymore. That’s valid for England, and even for more Western countries, but the political, historical, and military development has been more complicated. Anyways, the civil government advanced by John Lock in his essays has been significant to depict the new political stage. The liberal narrative stresses the subordination of the armed forces to the authority of the parliament. The political directorate clustered at the parliament and the Cabinet was the commander of the military in formal terms. Indeed, in the UK, the parliament authorizes the existence of the army once every five years with the Armed Forces Act. That enables the maintenance of a standing army.

Hence, the official speech is clear in this respect. The political power concentrated in the parliament rules the country and commands the military. The latter follows the governmental guidelines of the former. In this way, the political realm is the sphere in which rulers make big decisions, and the armed forces only comply with the law and executive orders of the government. That’s, in brief, the self-indulgent official narrative that depicts the relationship between the civil government and the military.


Power relations behind the scenes


However, politics not always works as laws say. Reality is different when we’re dealing with large and impersonal organizations. Due to this circumstance, there is a bureaucracy in charge of managing many issues beyond the direct control of the political elite gathered in the executive and the legislative.

At this point, we can identify parallelism between the past and the present. In the early modern age, the king had the executive power to raise armies and command them. Nevertheless, the growth of the military and the necessary bureaucracy to manage it make the king delegate his authority to specific officials. These officials were vested with special powers, and they ended up wielding more power than the king. They had a de facto power the king lacked, and that situation made him depend on his subordinates.

In the parliamentary system, things evolved in the same way. In this case, the parliament took on the leadership of the nation, which entailed the control of the military. For this purpose, the Cabinet developed the management of this institution as the head of the executive branch. Nevertheless, the process we witnessed in absolute monarchies repeated in parliamentary systems. The trajectory was different depending on the specific situation of each country. Aside from that, the growth of standing armies made necessary the existence of a large bureaucracy. As a result, the government delegated its authority to unelected officials who assumed the real power.

Hence, we see how civil-military relations have changed with the pass of time. The formality of the constitutional order with its laws doesn’t explain the current reality. The reason is simple: politics is not only a matter of law. Rules play an important role, but other factors influence the political organization too. So, the amount of power that any institution may concentrate doesn’t depend exclusively on laws. The development of modern standing armies has been critical for the new political arrangements in the domestic realm. In this regard, military efficiency, and especially security requirements, has determined the ascendancy of military officials. I spoke about this on several occasions, so I recommend you watch those videos. I refer to the relationship between domestic politics and international relations, but also when I addressed the national security complex. Check them out for further information on this issue.

In politics, we’re used to witnessing permanent shifts in power relations. That’s also the case in civil-military relations. The development of modern warfare changed the size and extension of armies substantially. Besides, the need to organize the military has boosted the growth of the defense budget. Security issues have played a crucial role, and it has pushed the military power beyond its legal boundaries.

We have to take into account that military power is not derived from the electoral process but from the military’s ability to establish itself at the center of the national political system, especially the center of the national security complex. This claim is valid for parliamentary systems, and also for outright dictatorial regimes. The military, like any institution or social group, looks for maximizing its influence on politics and policy.

When we talk about the national security complex, we refer to power structures that have vast resources at their disposal. The international environment, in which security matters are of paramount importance, facilitated the growth of the military’s political influence. The world politics competition has been a powerful stimulus for that shift that has altered the balance of power established by the constitution and its separation of powers.

The main conclusion I draw from all I’ve discussed so far is that the political system doesn’t determine the influence of the military. The constitutional arrangements establish the general structure, but the polity isn’t a static unit. It evolves through history, and it operates in a changeable environment. These factors are crucial in the evolution of the polity because they affect the shifts in the balance of power in domestic politics.

The US case is enlightening on this. Although I spoke about it on another occasion, I think it will be helpful to go over it again.

WWII was a tipping point in the political evolution of the US. Due to this conflict, the military gained power in the federal government to defeat Japan and Germany. The military budget and the human resources at its service were overwhelming. Never before had the US experienced such transference of power from society to an unelected institution. The political directorate lost power, and in the meanwhile, the emerging military-industrial complex achieved a dominant position in the political system.

As a result of this process, the balance between society and the government broke. From then on, the national power gravitated towards the military and its contractors. Historical institutions, such as the US Congress, stopped being the center of big political decisions. A new wave of militarism permeated American politics in which defense and security matters took priority. We’ve seen the new dynamics during the Cold War in Korea, Vietnam, and so on. Nevertheless, this trend went on after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as we witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The political class has less autonomy compared to statesmen of the beginning of the nineteenth century. Besides, elected institutions have lost their former leading role in national politics. The consequence of all of this has been the transformation of American politics into a spectacle. On stage, several actors draw public attention and perform a play written by others backstage. They entertain the public, and in the meantime, important events going on behind the scenes, where a few people make crucial decisions away from the public opinion scrutiny.

Democracy and militarism today


At this point, a question arises. What is the current relationship between democracy and militarism? We can deny there is a matter of intensity in all of this. What I mean with this is that Western democracies, despite the militarism behind their political backdrop, are not the same as outright military dictatorships. In the latter, the intensity of the military rule is higher and much bitter because it intervenes directly in politics by the use of brute force. In these cases, we are before praetorian regimes. Democracies, however, still have a set of political institutions that constrain the military activity by keeping it away from direct intervention in politics. Yet, that doesn’t strip the military of its overwhelming influence at all levels of the political stage.

What explains this situation is the same reason that explains the formation and development of the modern State. I refer to the competitive environment of the global stage. International politics has played a critical role in the transformation of State structures, and that has affected domestic politics. Security needs have been a consistent pressure in domestic structures. So, consecutive arms races and wars have led to the growth of armies up to the point of creating a powerful military estate.

Insofar as the international realm is anarchical because of its organization, and every country distrusts each other, we see how militarism has taken advantage of this situation. Although militarism focuses its attention on the world stage in democratic regimes, its working has profound implications in domestic politics. In this regard, the general trend is the strengthening of this institution and the establishment of a double government behind the scenes. Security issues lead to that scenario, and in that way, democracies become more and more aggressive regimes. Indeed, they become more similar to those blatant dictatorships that ride roughshod over people’s liberties. That seems to be the fate of modernity with the apotheosis of the State.


Question of the day


Question of the day! Do you think it is possible to reverse the current militarism in democracies? Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.


Bibliography used:

Strayer, Joseph, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State

Strayer, Joseph, Medieval Statecraft and the Perspectives of History

Gilbert, Felix (ed.), The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze

Tilly, Charles, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1992

Mann, Michael, The Sources of Social Power

Poggi, Gianfranco, The Development of the Modern State

Anderson, M. S., The Origins of the Modern European State System 1494-1618

Spruyt, Hendrik, The Sovereign State and its Competitors

Le Goff, Jacques, La Baja Edad Media

Giddens, Anthony, The Nation-State and violence

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