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date: 13 June 2024

Leaders, Generals, Juntas: The Military in Politics and International Conflict Initiationlocked

Leaders, Generals, Juntas: The Military in Politics and International Conflict Initiationlocked

  • Peter WhitePeter WhiteDepartment of Political Science, Auburn University

Summary

International conflict—war, crises, international disputes, and rivalries between states—has a clear influence on the military’s role in politics and vice versa. Given that the military is the primary instrument for defending the state from conventional military threats, international conflict has been an early focus of the civil–military relations literature. Generally, very high levels of involvement in politics—for example, coups, military rule, military officers in high-level government positions—are associated with a greater propensity to initiate international conflict on the part of states. However, there is disagreement as to the reasons for this pattern—for example, preferences for aggression on the part of a politically active military, diversionary incentives for a coup-threatened civilian leader, or institutional pathologies brought on by shared civil–military power are all proffered as possible explanations.

Politically active militaries tend to do poorly in conflict. There are two reasons for this. The first is the dysfunction endemic in a military that splits its time between politics and proficiency in arms—as opposed to one that specializes in defense. The second reason is that when the politically active military poses a risk of coup to the political leadership of the state, the latter will often engage in such “coup-proofing” practices as purges, onerous command and control measures, the reshuffling of commanders, and the build-up of security organizations intended to offset the military. These measures not only make it harder for the military to stage a coup, they also make it harder for the military to defend the state.

Although military involvement in politics makes “acute” conflict—war, militarized disputes, or crises—more likely, these types of international conflict tend to lead to reduced levels of political involvement by the military. War or a crisis can make a coup more difficult as the military is moved away from the centers of political power. International conflict—especially when it goes poorly—also can lead to reform and professionalization within the military, which decreases the appetite for political involvement. At the same time, indicators of a more severe “chronic” threat environment—hostile neighbors, unfavorable geography, or long-standing international rivalries—can make military intrusions into politics more likely.

Subjects

  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Governance/Political Change
  • Political Institutions
  • World Politics

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