Review of The Democratic Coup d’État
Robert F. Baumann, PhD
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Ozan Varol gets straight to the point in his latest work, The Democratic Coup d’État. He asserts in his opening, “Sometimes democracy is established through a military coup.”1 A self-proclaimed contrarian, Varol directly challenges conventional wisdom not only concerning the process by which democracies can be established but also on the critical role of the military in extralegal political transitions across the globe.2
Unencumbered by elaborate political theories or attempts at quantitative proofs, Varol depends on his extensive knowledge of history and international affairs, as well as a philosophical commitment to empirical reasoning, to pull together a persuasive argument that the way politics, coups, and revolutions unfold simply does not conform to prevailing legal and political thought in the West. In fact, Varol bluntly suggests that Western scholars and governmental officials tend to be blinded by romantic mythology that contends democratic transitions are led by the people taking to the streets, large mobilized groups of civilians yearning for liberty, free markets, and the rule of law. Though he acknowledges that popular peaceful uprisings have a role to play in many instances, Varol does not accept the proposition that this is the usual pattern for establishing democratic rule. As he explains, principled, persuasive leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, or Mahatma Gandhi are rare. Varol is certainly not doctrinaire and claims that every case must be understood on its terms. Still, there are some discernible patterns, and those patterns are not to be found in the average political science class.
This essay addresses Varol’s work in three parts. First, it considers Varol’s main line of argument and some examples of evidence he uses to substantiate it. Second, it puts Varol’s reasoning in comparative perspective through the introduction of additional case examples, including Russia, China, and the United States. Third, it concisely reviews some of the implications of Varol’s claims about the relationship between systems of military recruitment and attitudes of armies toward democratic social movements.
Perhaps, given his unusual background, Varol is comfortable in cross-examining what he regards as conventional wisdom on the subject of coups and democratic transitions. Born in Turkey but educated in the United States, he began his remarkable career working as a rocket scientist for NASA before drifting into law and the theories of governance. Thus, he enthusiastically crosses disciplinary boundaries to construct an analysis that draws extensively from classical wisdom on politics and post-Cold War case studies. Moreover, he executes this ambitious project with a lively and readable argumentative style, exploiting frequent references to popular culture.
Varol focuses much of his discussion on the recent experience of the Arab Spring but also examines events in such disparate venues as Turkey, Mali, Serbia, Portugal, and Chile. To his credit, he does not neglect cases that do not comfortably fit his thesis. Indeed, at no time does he argue that military coups typically lead to democracy. On the contrary, he contends that military coups yielding a democratic result remain the exception rather than the rule. Military intervention is just as likely to end a democratic process as create one. Nevertheless, military coups do from time to time install democracy, and Varol sets out to examine why this should be so.
A principal reason is that armies are politically influential institutions that often serve as an instrument of change, a fact too often ignored in the scholarly literature due to a pervasive predisposition to ignore military affairs. Varol contends that militaries often side with the protesters and facilitate democratic transitions such as what occurred in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring. In Varol’s view, the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was, in reality, not so much due to massively popular protests—the favorite narrative of sympathetic scholars—as to a coup backed by the army. This interpretation was counterintuitive to many observers since the military coup was directed against a retired general. Varol notes with some amusement that the U.S. Department of State went to embarrassing lengths to avoid the use of the word “coup,” since such a pronouncement would have legally required the United States to suspend military aid to Egypt. In any case, during his long presidency, Mubarak did not head a military regime; on the contrary, he based his own security state on special police forces to maintain order. Fatefully, he was no longer perceived as a champion of the interests of the military in Egypt.
The Egyptian case offers a particularly useful object lesson for understanding the place of militaries in periods of political upheaval. Varol asserts that dictators understand perhaps better than anyone that military institutions can be a force for change. In the average dictatorship, the military is often the only institution with the clout to challenge the ruler. Alex de Waal from the World Peace Foundation describes how various authoritarian regimes have “coup-proofed” their power by “distributing armed capacity among different elements of the army and security forces.”3 Since coups are almost by definition conspiratorial, the complexity of seizing power increases in direct proportion to the number of armed agencies.
For any military organization in such a context, the motives to promote change, including democratic change, need not be rooted in principles or ideology. On the contrary, militaries are apt to act in support of their corporate interests as measured in resources and influence. In good times, militaries tend to be reliable pillars of the status quo. Accordingly, militaries prefer political stability. When bad, corrupt, or dysfunctional governance threatens to result in societal upheaval and chaos, militaries may opt to weigh in on the side of those societal elements demanding change. Such was also the case when the Serbian military helped remove Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000.
During a democratic coup, the coup makers might consider a range of options. What Varol terms “the golden parachute” can be a factor in decision-making. Military and democratically inclined civilian leaders have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of transfer in a manner satisfactory to both sides. Varol points to cases in which the military, for a set period, is guaranteed a role in governance during which it will incrementally relinquish specific powers. Meanwhile, civilian advocates of democracy can gain a period of stability with military backing. Both sides can benefit from the international legitimacy that such an approach can bring, such as access to foreign assistance. Varol notes transitions fitting this description include Portugal in the 1970s and Egypt in the 1980s and again in 2014. This does not suggest that coups d’état are an attractive option for managing change. Indeed, Varol notes that a “culture of coups” in a given country can be highly problematic and perpetuate instability.
A more recent instance in Zimbabwe is unfolding even as this article goes to publication. The thirty-seven-year reign of Robert Mugabe reached an endpoint in December 2017 with the active participation of the military forcing the dictator’s removal. Observers referred to it as a “military-assisted transition” to avoid the attendant political complications of calling the event a coup. However, by Varol’s own terminology, this could be a democratic coup in the making, as a power-sharing agreement is already in place. In what could be construed as tacit recognition that the phenomenon of a democratic coup is possible, the well-respected Crisis Group proposed a series of steps such as a gradual return to civilian policing and transparent voter registration to help facilitate a democratic outcome.4
Of course, as Varol points out, militaries can also be the instrument of the suppression of democratic change. The crushing of the protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 illustrates this point. Still, it is unknown whether there were elements in the Chinese army that might have been sympathetic to the activists. The Chinese Communist Party leadership was careful to deploy units it considered least inclined to identify with the lives and concerns of the protesters, many of whom were university students. The selection of units stocked with poorly educated rural recruits was anything but a coincidence.
To further probe Varol’s thesis about military behavior during moments of political upheaval, it is instructive to look closely at some additional case material. About two years after the crushing of democratic protest in Beijing, during the August 1991 putsch attempt, events in Russia would reveal an alternative scenario. There, Russian army units, and even elements of the KGB, refused to fire on their fellow citizens in the streets of Moscow. Despite a directive from the Ministry of Defense, quite a few senior Soviet officers stayed as far removed from events as possible, sometimes even by declining to answer the phone.5 Amidst the drama, Boris Yeltsin seized center stage by backing the protesters and directly addressing soldiers near the parliament building, imploring them to stand with rather than against the people. This act spelled doom for the Soviet coup makers and propelled him to become the first president of the independent Russian government.6 Although not one of Varol’s chosen examples, this instance is extremely revealing of the choices available to military leaders during pivotal events.
In a particularly intriguing line of investigation, Varol considers institutional factors such as systems of recruitment that might sway decisions of senior military leaders in highly charged scenarios. For example, he maintains that as a rule conscript armies better reflect social demographics and are more likely to feel a connection to the population. Consequently, they may be more disposed to sympathize with protesters in the streets. Of course, as the Tiananmen Square case reveals, conscription alone does not tell us much about the way specific military units are constituted.
This critical proposition warrants deeper analysis than Varol offers. Perhaps one reason that Russian troops in Moscow readily sided with protesters in the streets stemmed from their political indoctrination and a strong association in the popular mind between the people and the army. The Soviet army had long-been presented to the public as a people’s institution. This was in part due to the principle of universal military service but also because of the army’s history of defending the motherland during the Great Patriotic War.7 As part of what was termed military-patriotic education, Soviet soldiers were taught to take their role as defenders of the people seriously. Since the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia, there has been a vigorous return to a culture of extravagant praise for the army and Russian military history.8 For Putin, this serves to both heighten patriotism and reassure the military that their interests will be respected.
In contrast to conscript armies, professional armies that normally rely heavily on long-serving volunteers often develop a certain psychological distance from the general population. In the United States, for example, it is not at all uncommon to hear the complaint that the public does not share or fully appreciate the sacrifices of those in uniform. Moreover, as Varol notes, members of the military may draw unfavorable comparisons between the military and civilian society, which is often perceived by the former as less ethical, disciplined, and competent.
In this important regard, the professional, all-volunteer U.S. Armed Forces offer an instructive example, especially since it would not occur to most Americans that their military even belongs in this discussion. This is not to suggest that the American military in a hypothetical crisis necessarily would be more likely to react in an antidemocratic fashion than conscript counterparts somewhere else would be. Indeed, nearly all Americans would agree that their military institutions would be most unlikely to act in such a fashion. Still, toward the end of the Vietnam War, University of Chicago sociologist Morris Janowitz argued that the advent of an all-volunteer force would make the military less representative of society. To mitigate this risk, he urged that the Officer Candidate School and ROTC be expanded, and even advised that every West Point cadet should spend a year at a civilian university before graduation.9
In the American case, specific factors of tradition and culture are highly influential. The U.S. military personnel swear allegiance to the Constitution, which probably imposes a significant constraint on antidemocratic behaviors. Still, the constitution is a document that is often subject to interpretation, and it is not beyond the imagination that ambitious senior officers could bend that interpretation in some hypothetical scenario to personal or partisan advantage. Of course, it is also an article of faith in the American military that it must remain above politics, another hedge against irresponsible conduct. Unfortunately, this is also one specific ground on which some members of uniformed services view themselves as bound to a higher code of ethics than their elected representatives, hence in some way morally superior.
Although he does not delve too deeply into the problem of the makeup of specific militaries, Varol observes that the choice of who will serve inevitably matters in moments of societal crisis. He notes that in some countries army recruiting may skew in favor of the interests of an important ethnic or religious group. In such circumstances, they may be closely aligned with a power structure that probably does not favor democracy. Varol notes the role of the Alawites in support of the Assad regime in Syria to emphasize his claim.
To press this point a bit further, within any military, the selection of officers says much about the national power structure. In some countries, the officer corps may be drawn overwhelmingly from a specific social element. In the Imperial Russian Army, like most European armies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, officers with few exceptions came from the nobility. In the age of empire, British officers purchased their commissions, a requirement that guaranteed a strong upper-class foundation. In twentieth-century multiethnic states, officer demographics often reflected the overrepresentation of a dominant group. This trend typically became even more pronounced at the most senior ranks. The officer corps in the Soviet army was far more Slavic than the population as a whole. In the former Yugoslavia, Serbs played a predominant role.
Again, Varol does not devote much attention to the Russians or the Americans, but a quick historical glance at their experiences is instructive in reinforcing his general point about the importance of military institutions. Influential officers in the Imperial Russian Army often intervened in politics and helped depose Tsars Peter III and Paul I for what they believed was the good of the country. The final such political intrusion before the 1917 revolution, the so-called Decembrist revolt in 1825, was actually aimed at establishing a constitutional monarchy and abolishing serfdom. Still, it is critical to remember that army units also put down the revolt. Thus, depending upon the situation, the army could be either the guardian of the status quo or an instigator of change.
Another important milestone in Russian military development was the establishment of a system of universal military service in 1874.10 The author of this reform was the war minister, Dmitry Milyutin, who brilliantly understood that a conscription army is just as much a social as a military institution. Touching the lives of millions of young men, the army could help accomplish multiple goals of benefit to the state. In a vast, multiethnic empire with an appallingly low literacy rate of about 10 percent, Milyutin linked the length of required military service to one’s level of education. The prospect of a shorter term of conscripted service induced many parents, heretofore indifferent to the presumed value of formal learning, to educate their sons. Meanwhile, regimental schools worked to promote literacy within the force. The law also attempted to limit the impact of conscription on individual families, critically important segments of the economy and strategically important professions such as education. In other words, Milyutin viewed the army as an agent of broader change. An American analog might be the employment of the military to promote racial desegregation beginning with the Truman administration.
Meanwhile, Milyutin also saw the army as a mechanism for indoctrinating patriotic citizens. (The Bolsheviks would later dub the army the schoolhouse of the revolution for its contribution to ideological education.) With the exception of indigenous populations in the recently subjugated outlying regions of the empire such as Turkestan, conscription embraced able-bodied males of all nationalities and ensured that units would be ethnically mixed. The system worked well enough that the new Soviet regime preserved much of it after 1917. During the revolution, the Red Army emphasized its role as an organization of the people. Meanwhile, Vladimir Lenin passed the role of internal security to the Cheka, the forerunner of the better-remembered KGB. Thus, the image of the army was not sullied by association with politically motivated arrests and purges. It is also worth remembering that in its infancy the revolution was widely identified with the democratic aspirations of the working class and even promised self-determination to non-Russian nationalities. The fact that Soviet democracy was ultimately a sham was not the fault of the army.
The American experience, though highly divergent, reinforces the argument about armies and their modalities. As most Americans once learned in school, the idea of a standing professional army did not play well among most colonists who, based on experience with British “red coats,” viewed such a force as a potential instrument of repression. Only the harsh experience of Revolutionary War, followed by an encore tutorial at the hands of the British who burned Washington during the War of 1812, led Congress to grudgingly fund a modest standing force. Still, the idea that homegrown militias could manage most of the requirements of national defense did not fade quickly. Eventually, the two world wars cemented the idea that national conscription may at times be necessary, at least until the incredibly divisive Vietnam War made conscription untenable politically. With the advent of the all-volunteer force under President Richard Nixon, the American military charted a new course, finding that long-serving professionals were a great asset as the flood of new technologies required far more sophisticated methods of training and education within the force. Today, the United States operates with a military system that is amazingly capable and adaptive but also to a significant degree constitutes a society unto itself. Somewhat surprisingly, in light of Varol’s thoughts about professional armies, domestic public support for, and even identification with the U.S. Armed Forces is high. Indeed, polling suggests that the military is perhaps the country’s most widely trusted institution.11 However, if American society ever did dissolve into chaos and dysfunction, would this not increase the probability that the military might have to be part of the solution?
Thus, it is worthwhile to consider some of the implicit issues that arise from Varol’s discussion of armies. In 1990, professor Peter Maslowski, having just completed a one-year tour as a visiting professor of military history at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), wrote an article for Military Review analyzing the dilemma posed by the tension between certain implicit military values, such as subordination and conformity, and the values of citizenship such as the right to dissent in the United States. Maslowski expressed profound concern that many officers in his experience regarded civilians and members of Congress with contempt, and displayed a depressing ignorance of American and military history.12 Were Maslowski to return in 2018, he might come away with a more sanguine impression, perhaps because the current force is both more educated and more diverse than before. Generally speaking, now that the end of the Vietnam War is over four decades behind us, there is reason to believe (including polling data already noted) that civil-military relations are healthier today. For instance, there is now a significant emphasis on teaching principles of civil-military relations at CGSC. This guidance is enshrined in official documents signed by senior general officers.13
Still, a professional military, having lived in a “bubble” for several generations, almost inevitably develops a separate corporate culture. Nevertheless, it is important to remember for this essay that, although Americans justifiably take for granted that their military will stand aside from political matters, this is not the way things work in most of the world.
In Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger comments, “Western-style democracy presupposes a consensus on values that sets limits to partisanship,” whereas in most other places, “the political process is about domination, not alteration in office, which takes place, if at all, by coups rather than constitutional procedures.”14 He thereby implies another fundamental reason why the idea of a democratic coup need not be an oxymoron in all circumstances. As Varol cautions, in some times and circumstances, a coup may be the only means to effect a transition to a democratic form of governance. The military in such a setting can provide a stabilizing influence until civilian and democratic forces can organize and take the reins of power.
As for creating transitions to democracy, no one has yet found a foolproof approach. In her memoirs, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes of the Clinton administration’s ambitious efforts to promote democracy. During the heady 1990s, when liberal democracy seemed to be inexorably on the ascent, particularly in eastern Europe, the possibility of a seismic shift beckoned. An international conference on democracy attracted 107 participating states and produced a manifesto called the Warsaw Declaration. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan proclaimed an aspirational future of a global community of democracies.15 Since then, however, democracy has had its ups and downs, most notably in the very eastern European states that once held so much promise. Moreover, the unhappy truth is that holding elections has been exposed as a tentative, and often reversible, first step on the way to functioning democracy. Sometimes internationally sanctioned elections have installed in power the very elements they were intended to defeat. The early elections staged in Bosnia in 1996, which handed majorities to the same extremist parties that created the civil war, offer a cautionary example. In short, democracy itself can be troublesome if not grounded in a culture that accepts compromise and values tolerance.
This does not mean that Varol’s views are not problematic. One can argue that most of the “democratic coups d’état” he cites did not lead to stable and lasting democracy, especially if measured by standards of the Western democracies. Also, acceptance of the possibility of a democratic coup could perhaps lend legitimacy to undemocratic coups. Varol would probably reply that reality is messy and good results are never guaranteed.
In sum, despite the occasional tendency to ramble, the virtue of Varol’s analysis is that it offers a myriad of alternative scenarios based upon actual events in diverse regions of the world. The facts, he argues, reveal that theory has displaced reality in academic thinking about transitions to democracy.16 In a vintage Clausewitzian way that openly disdains iron-clad principles of political or military behavior, Varol offers insights into what history suggests is possible and strongly discourages templated thinking. When it comes to democracies, armies are neither intrinsically good nor evil. Their behavior depends on a complex web of considerations that are distinctive to every situation and not likely to be repeated except in a most general way. Varol offers a measured assessment that goes where the evidence, rather than any political or theoretical predisposition, takes him. There is nothing provisional about his conclusion, however. He asserts that scientific reasoning, based on empirical evidence, shows beyond doubt that democratic coups do occur and that armies are frequently critical actors in these transitions.
The author would like to thank Bill Bassett, Prisco Hernandez, and Jackie Kem for offering very thoughtful comment while this article was in draft. The views expressed, along with any wrong-headed analysis contained herein, are the author’s own.
- Ozan Varol, The Democratic Coup d’État (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1.
- “About,” Ozan Varol’s website, accessed 18 January 2018, https://ozanvarol.com/about/.
- Alex de Waal, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015), 45.
- To some extent, this report might belie Ozan Varol’s assertion that nobody agrees with him. “Zimbabwe’s ‘Military-Assisted Transition’ and Prospects for Recovery,” International Crisis Group, Briefing No. 134/Africa, 20 December 2017, accessed 23 January 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/southern-africa/zimbabwe/b134-zimbabwes-military-assisted-transition-and-prospects-recovery.
- This author spoke with one such officer two decades ago. The individual in question felt that the decision to take down the Gorbachev regime by traditional Soviet hardliners was likely to end badly but did not want to stick his neck out by openly violating a directive. A pragmatist, he waited for the course of events to reveal itself.
- For a review of the events and their significance, see Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 485–87; Timothy Colton, Yeltsin: A Life (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 196–204.
- A splendid example for Russian readers is G. S. Es’kov and O. A. Bel’kov’s Ediny s narodom [United with the people] (Moscow, 1989). Essentially a work of propaganda, it is a pretty typical example of Soviet-era writings on the subject.
- Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 184–85.
- Morris Janowitz, “Volunteer Armed Forces and Military Purpose,” Military Review 52, no. 7 (July 1972): 20.
- Robert Baumann, “Universal Service and Russia’s Imperial Dilemma,” War and Society 4, no. 2 (September 1986): 31–49.
- See Brian Kennedy, “Most Americans Trust the Military and Scientists to Act in Public’s Interest,” Pew Research Center, 18 October 2016, accessed 10 January 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/18/most-americans-trust-the-military-and-scientists-to-act-in-the-publics-interest/. Interestingly, the same poll shows that the military is far more widely trusted than elected officials are.
- Peter Maslowski, “Army Values and American Values,” Military Review 70, no. 4 (April 1990): 17–22.
- In a 3 March 2015 memorandum to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, professor Dick Kohn urged increased emphasis on the subordination of the military to civilian authority at intermediate service schools such as the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), as well as at the national war colleges. In a 15 March 2015 response, Dr. W. Chris King, the dean of CGSC, offered an extended reply demonstrating in detail that this need was already extensively addressed in the current college curricula.
- Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 811.
- Madeleine Albright, Madam Secretary: A Memoir (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003), 564–66.
- In fact, this writer believes that the proliferation of theories, in not only the social sciences but also even in the humanities, has been a signature feature of scholarship during the past several decades. Not infrequently, politically agreeable theory has raced ahead of the evidence and hardened into orthodox dogma.
Robert F. Baumann, PhD, is the director of the graduate degree program and professor of history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He holds a BA in Russian from Dartmouth College, an MA in Russian and East European studies from Yale University, and a PhD in history from Yale University. He is the author of numerous books, book chapters, and scholarly articles, and is the writer and producer of a documentary film on the U.S. and multinational peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.