Cornell University Press

How to Prevent Coups d’État

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In April 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s military collapsed within weeks. While the mismatch between the adversaries’ capabilities left little doubt about the eventual outcome of the war, the conflict was notable for the speed with which conventional military resistance fell apart. There was a reason for this. For most of his time in office, Saddam had divided the country’s coercive power into multiple, overlapping security and intelligence organizations— efforts to insulate his regime from coups d’état that also sapped morale within the armed forces and undermined military effectiveness. A decade later, following a multiyear, $20 billion effort to rebuild military capacity, it became clear that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had hobbled the reconstituted Iraqi army in similar ways. As a result, in the spring of 2014, when the Islamic State began capturing territory across northern Iraq, Maliki took much of the blame.

The dilemma Iraqi rulers have faced is hardly unique. How to build a military strong enough to defend the state against the threat of war and rebellion—but not so powerful as to undermine civilian rule—is a fundamental challenge for democratic and authoritarian rulers alike. For individual leaders, the decision to prioritize coup prevention is a rational one. The threat of a coup is more immediate and unpredictable than the threat posed by civil war or international conflict. The overwhelming majority of rulers removed from power via a coup face death, exile, or jail. In their efforts to prevent coups, rulers adopt a range of coup-proofing strategies that can hinder military effectiveness, reinforce ethnic and political divides, and drain financial resources. Some rulers artificially inflate defense budgets and salaries, while others take the opposite approach—keeping the size of the military small, restricting soldiers’ access to arms, or rotating officers frequently to prevent them from developing their own bases of power. Elsewhere, leaders manipulate recruitment and promotion within the military to surround themselves with loyal troops.

The threat of a coup is more immediate and unpredictable than the threat posed by civil war or international conflict.

The choices that Saddam and Maliki made are particularly common ones: counterbalancing the military with republican guards, militarized police, and other paramilitary forces is often a central feature of rulers’ coup-prevention strategies. From the praetorian guard in ancient Rome to the secret police in Soviet Russia and national militia in contemporary Venezuela, coercive institutions outside the regular military have long been used as a bulwark against coups. Yet despite the frequency with which counterbalancing is employed—and the ways in which it can weaken military capacity—we know little about whether and how it works. Is counterbalancing an effective way to prevent coups d’état?

This book demonstrates that the way rulers structure their coercive institutions can indeed have profound effects on the survival of their regimes. Drawing upon an original dataset of security forces in 110 countries, combined with careful process tracing in cases of individual coup attempts, it shows that counterbalancing the military with coercive institutions outside the regular military chain of command increases the risk that coup attempts will fail. The presence of additional security forces can make it more difficult for coup plotters to recruit among key units in advance. While a coup attempt is under way, counterbalancing creates incentives to resist the coup. Because the consequences for being on the losing side of a coup attempt can be dire, most officers remain on the sidelines until it is clear what the outcome of the coup will be. When rulers organize security forces outside of military command, however, it changes the calculus, increasing the costs of inaction and creating incentives for officers in such forces to defend the incumbent regime. Counterbalancing also complicates coup plotters’ efforts to monopolize information during a coup, increasing uncertainty about the outcome of the coup—and thus also the odds that at least some officers will resist. However, counterbalancing is not without risk for the leaders who adopt it. Where counterweights compete with the military for resources and recruits, resentment and fear about a decline in status among military officers can provoke new coup attempts, even as counterbalancing creates obstacles to their execution. Furthermore, the way in which counterbalancing works—by creating incentives for armed resistance—increases the risk that coup attempts will escalate to civil war.

Understanding how counterbalancing works can thus help us predict where coup attempts will occur, whether they will succeed, and how violent they are likely to be. Taken together, the arguments and evidence in this book suggest that while counterbalancing may prevent successful coups, it is a risky strategy to pursue—and one that may weaken regimes in the long term.

Between 2000 and 2019, soldiers in thirty-one different states attempted to seize power, staging more than fifty different coup attempts altogether. While coups are no longer as common as they once were, the threat of a coup thus remains a pressing one. Coups are the most common way dictatorships begin and end. They also remain common in many democracies. Newly democratizing regimes, which have not yet developed norms of civilian and democratic governance, are particularly vulnerable. Knowing what works, and what does not, in stopping coups is important because their outcomes can have alarming consequences.

About half of coup attempts succeed overall, and those staged against democratic regimes are more likely to succeed than those against dictatorships. In the past decade alone, newly elected rulers in Egypt, Honduras, and Thailand have fallen to coups. The 2013 coup in Egypt ousted Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader, from power. In its aftermath, human rights organizations documented mass, arbitrary arrests; the detention of protestors and human rights workers; new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations; and a crackdown on political opposition.

About half of coup attempts succeed overall, and those staged against democratic regimes are more likely to succeed than those against dictatorships.

To be sure, some successful coups do usher in more democratic regimes. In recent years, some observers have gone so far as to suggest that coups may be the most practical way to force long-entrenched dictators from power. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of so-called “good coups”—defined as those that are followed by competitive elections—has been on the rise. But more often than not, coups in authoritarian regimes still simply replace one dictator with another. Those coups that are followed by elections, moreover, typically revert to authoritarianism within a few years. In part, this is because many coup leaders receive support and protection from autocratic sponsors abroad. More generally, military intervention in politics undermines norms of civilian control that are a prerequisite for stable, democratic rule.

Even failed coup attempts can have deleterious effects. Rulers who have survived a coup frequently take violent measures to prevent subsequent efforts to oust them from power, using the coup as justification for increased repression against political opponents. For example, after he survived a failed coup in April 2002, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez cracked down on the press and repressed supporters of the opposition. In the year following the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led a sweeping purge of political opponents. An estimated fifty thousand people were arrested and another one hundred and fifty thousand dismissed from their jobs. Finally, no matter their outcome, coup attempts themselves can also result in a significant amount of bloodshed. The 2016 coup in Turkey resulted in an estimated 265 deaths. Some coup attempts even escalate to civil war. The Spanish Civil War began with a failed coup, as did more recent civil wars in Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau. All told, an estimated 22 percent of civil wars between 1946 and 2011 had their origins in coups or other mass defections from the military. The analysis in this book suggests that the risk that coup attempts will escalate to civil war is higher when rulers use other coercive institutions to counterbalance the military.

How rulers design their coercive institutions varies widely. Some countries, like Chile under Augusto Pinochet, centralize control over all state security forces under military command, while others, like Libya under Muammar Qaddafi, rely on a complex web of overlapping and competing coercive institutions to check and balance one another. How states configure their coercive institutions is, in part, a reflection of their historical experiences and the particular combination of threats they face. More fragmented and politicized coercive institutions are thought to help rulers combat threats to their power from within their ruling coalitions, while more centralized and merit-based institutions are more effective at combating threats from other states and rebel groups. Where rulers organize coercive institutions outside of military command, they have the potential to serve as counterweights to the military.

A wide range of coercive institutions may be capable of balancing the military. Some rulers have focused on strengthening presidential guards or elevating individual units within the military. In Haiti, François Duvalier split a number of units off from the regular military to form counterweights; they began to report directly to him without going through the normal military chain of command. Duvalier also raised a civilian militia commonly known as the Tonton Macoutes, which both served as a check on the military and harassed regime opponents. Other leaders depend on interior troops, gendarmerie, or small, militarized units within the regular police. In the Ivory Coast, for instance, the National Gendarmerie “provide[d] a military counterweight to the army, which could not seize power without securing the unlikely consent of the Gendarmerie.” Elsewhere, rulers turn to secret police, like those under the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in East Germany, or the State Security Department in North Korea. What these very different types of coercive institutions—presidential guards, interior troops, civilian militia, and secret police—have in common is their independence from the regular military and access to the centers of political power that are the targets of coups.

While counterweights might help insulate rulers from successful coups, their use weakens the state in a number of ways. As Saddam Hussein and Nourial-Maliki found in Iraq, counterbalancing and other coup-proofing measure undermine military professionalism and hinder the coordination crucial to success in conventional warfare, making states more vulnerable to external threats. Counterbalancing in particular makes it more difficult for different security forces to work together on the battlefield and execute more complex operations. Counterbalancing can also help institutionalize factional and ethnic divides within the state apparatus, which affects how regimes respond to domestic threats such as revolutions and mass uprisings. The proliferation of coercive institutions can demoralize soldiers in regular army units, creating grievances against the regime and making them less likely to defend rulers in the face of widespread protest. More fragmented security sectors have also been associated with higher levels of repression and violence against civilians. In a study of Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines, for instance, Sheena Greitens found that “a fragmented, exclusive coercive apparatus gives its agents social and material incentives to escalate rather than dampen violence, and also hampers agents from collecting the intelligence necessary to engage in targeted, discriminate, and pre-emptive repression.”

The costs of counterbalancing make it all the more imperative to understand whether, and how, it does what it is intended to do: stop coups. While the causes of coups have been the subject of an immense body of research in political science and sociology, important gaps remain in our understanding of coup prevention strategies. An emerging literature on coup prevention, or coup-proofing, has brought new focus to the practice of counterbalancing and other strategies rulers use to insulate themselves from coups. Existing studies have provided important insights, but debate remains over whether or not counterbalancing strategies actually work to prevent coups. In part, this is because central works on counterbalancing are primarily descriptive in nature; they do not develop or test arguments about how counterbalancing is supposed to work. It is not obvious why police and paramilitary units would be any more reliable than the regular military. Nor is it clear how the presence of a small presidential guard force or a lightly armed civilian militia might block a larger, better-trained, and better-equipped military from seizing power. Some studies depict counterbalancing as complicating the coordination of a coup attempt, but typically do not specify how it might do so. Partly because of this under-theorizing, there is no consensus about whether counterbalancing is effective at preventing coups.

Existing studies have provided important insights, but debate remains over whether or not counterbalancing strategies actually work to prevent coups.

Identifying the mechanisms linking counterbalancing to the incidence and outcomes of coup attempts is important because doing so can help reconcile conflicting theoretical predictions about the strategy’s effectiveness. Case studies of long-standing civilian regimes frequently highlight the role of counterweights in preventing military intervention in politics. For instance, in an influential study of coup-proofing practices in the Middle East, James Quinlivan empahsized the role of counterbalancing or “parallel militaries” in keeping rulers in power. Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, built two coercive institutions outside the regular army: a Royal Guard made of tribal retainers and the White Army (now called the National Guard). Likewise, in Indonesia, Robert Bruce argues that counterbalancing was responsible for delaying for several years the coup attempt that eventually ousted Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, from power. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical of counterbalancing: as the case of Indonesia highlights, coup attempts still regularly occur in states that counterbalance. Indeed, coup plotters frequently cite efforts to establish counterweights among their motives for seizing power. Statistical evidence on whether counterbalancing is effective is also mixed.

Part of the reason for the lack of consensus stems from limitations in the empirical approaches used in existing studies. Some restrict their focus to long-serving civilian regimes. This method of case selection makes it difficult to know whether it is counterbalancing or some other factor underpinning regime stability. Efforts to test theories of coup prevention more systematically have been hindered by poor quality data. Existing analyses depend almost exclusively on the Military Balance, an annual defense review published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). However, a number of studies have documented biases, inconsistencies, and errors in IISS data that limit its utility in mapping the use of counterweights. In more recent editions, the IISS itself explicitly cautions against using its data to capture changes over time in how states organize their security sectors. As a result, scholars and policymakers do not yet know what works to prevent coups.

Excerpted from De Bruin, Erica. 2020. How to Prevent Coups d’État: Counterbalancing and Regime Survival. Cornell University Press.

attempts, it shows that counterbalancing the military with coercive institutions outside the regular military chain of command increases the risk that coup attempts will fail. The presence of additional security forces can make it more difficult for coup plotters to recruit among key units in advance. While a coup attempt is under way, counterbalancing createsincentives to resist the coup. Because the consequences for being on the losing side of a coup attempt can be dire, most officers remain on the sidelines until it is clear what the outcome of the coup will be. When rulers organize security forces outside of military command, however, it changes the calculus, increasing the costs of inaction and creating incentives for officers in such forces to defend the incumbent regime. Counterbalancing also complicates coup plotters’ efforts to monopolize information during a coup, increasing uncertainty about the outcome of the coup—and thus also the odds that at least some officers will resist. However, counterbalancing is not without risk for the leaders who adopt it. Where counterweights competewith the military for resources and recruits, resentment and fear about a decline in status among military officers can provoke new coup attempts, even as counterbalancing creates obstacles to their execution. Furthermore, the way in which counterbalancing works—by creating incentives for armed resistance—increases the risk that coup attempts willescalate to civil war. Understanding how counterbalancing works can thus help us predict where coup attempts willoccur, whether they will succeed, and how violent they are likely to be. Taken together, the arguments and evidence in this book suggest that while counterbalancing may prevent successful coups, it is a risky strategy to pursue—and one that may weaken regimes in the long term.Between 2000 and 2019, soldiers in thirty-one different states attempted to seize power, staging more than fifty different coup attempts altogether. While coups are no longer as common as they once were, the threat of a coup thus remains a pressing one. Coups are the most common way dictatorships begin and end. They also remain common in many democracies. Newly democratizing regimes, which have not yet developed norms of civilian and democratic governance, are particularly vulnerable. Knowing what works, and what does not, in stopping coups is important because their outcomes can have alarming consequences.About half of coup attempts succeed overall, and those staged against democratic regimes are more likely to succeed than those against dictatorships. In the past decade alone, newly elected rulers in Egypt, Honduras, and Thailand have fallen to coups. The 2013 coup in Egypt ousted Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader, from power. In its aftermath, human rights organizations documented mass, arbitrary arrests; the detention of protestors and human rights workers; new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations; anda crackdown on political oppositionTo be sure, some successful coups do usher in more democratic regimes. In recent years, some observers have gone so far as to suggest that coups maybe the most practical way to force long-entrenched dictators from power. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of so-called “good coups”—defined as those that are followed by competitive elections—has been on therise. But more often than not, coups in authoritarian regimes still simply replace one dictator with another. Those coups that are followed by elections, moreover, typically revert to authoritarianism within a few years. In part, this is because many coup leaders receive support and protection from autocratic sponsors abroad. More generally, military intervention in politics undermines norms of civilian control that are a prerequisite for stable, democraticrule.Even failed coup attempts can have deleterious effects. Rulers who have survived a coup frequently take violent measures to prevent subsequent efforts to oust them from power, using the coup as justification for increased repression against political opponents. For example, after he survived a failed coup in April 2002, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez cracked down on the press and repressed supporters of the opposition. In the year following the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led a sweeping purge of political opponents. An estimated fifty thousand people were arrested and another one hundred and fifty thousand dismissed from their jobs. Finally, no matter their outcome, coup attempts themselves can also result in a significant amount of bloodshed. The 2016 coup in Turkey resulted in an estimated 265 deaths. Some coup attempts even escalate to civil war. The Spanish Civil War began with a failed coup, asdid more recent civil wars in Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau. All told, an estimated 22 percent of civil wars between 1946 and 2011 had their origins in coups or other mass defections from the military. The analysis in this booksuggests that the risk that coup attempts will escalate to civil war is higher when rulers use other coercive institutions to counterbalance the military.How rulers design their coercive institutions varies widely. Some countries, like Chile underAugusto Pinochet, centralize control over all state security forces under military command, while others, like Libya under Muammar Qaddafi, rely on a complex web of overlapping and competing coercive institutions to check and balance one another. How states configure their coercive institutions is, in part, a reflection of their historical experiences and the particular combination of threats they face. More fragmented and politicized coercive institutions are thought to help rulers combat threats to their power from within their ruling coalitions, while more centralized and merit-based institutions are more effective at combating threats from other states and rebel groups. Where rulers organize coercive institutions outside of military command, they have the potential to serve as counterweights to the military.A wide range of coercive institutions may be capable of balancing the military. Some rulers have focused on strengthening presidential guards or elevating individual units within the military. In Haiti, François Duvalier split anumber of units off from the regular military to form counterweights; they began to report directly to him without going through the normal military chain of command. Duvalier also raised a civilian militia commonly known as the Tonton Macoutes, which both served as a check on the military and harassed regime opponents. Other leaders depend on interior troops, gendarmerie, or small, militarized units within the regular police. In the Ivory Coast, for instance, the National Gendarmerie “provide[d] a military counterweight to the army, which could not seize power without securing theunlikely consent of the Gendarmerie.” Elsewhere, rulers turn to secret police,like those under the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in East Germany, or the State Security Department in North Korea. What these very different types of coercive institutions—presidential guards, interior troops, civilian militia, and secret police—have in common is their independence from the regular military and access to the centers of political power that are the targets of coups.While counterweights might help insulate rulers from successful coups, their use weakens the state in a number of ways. As Saddam Hussein and Nourial-Maliki found in Iraq, counterbalancing and other coup-proofing measure undermine military professionalism and hinder the coordination crucial to success in conventional warfare, making states more vulnerable to external threats. Counterbalancing in particular makes it more difficult for different security forces to work together on the battlefield and execute more complex operations. Counterbalancing can also help institutionalize factional and ethnic divides within the state apparatus, which affects how regimes respond to domestic threats such as revolutions and mass uprisings. The proliferation of coercive institutions can demoralize soldiers in regular army units, creating grievances against the regime and making them less likely to defend rulers in the face of widespread protest. More fragmented security sectors have also been associated with higher levels of repression and violence against civilians. In a study of Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines, for instance, Sheena Greitens found that “a fragmented, exclusive coercive apparatus gives its agents social and material incentives to escalate rather than dampen violence, and also hampers agents from collecting the intelligence necessary to engage in targeted, discriminate, andpre-emptive repression.”The costs of counterbalancing make it all the more imperative to understand whether, and how, it does what it is intended to do: stop coups. While the causes of coups have been the subject of an immense body of research in political science and sociology, important gaps remain in our understanding of coup prevention strategies. An emerging literature on coup prevention, or coup-proofing, has brought new focus to the practice of counterbalancing and other strategies rulers use to insulate themselves from coups. Existing studies have providedImportant insights, but debate remains over whether or not counterbalancingstrategies actually work to prevent coups. In part, this is because central works on counterbalancing are primarily descriptive in nature; they do not develop or test arguments about how counterbalancing is supposed to work. It is not obvious why police and paramilitary units would be any more reliablethan the regular military. Nor is it clear how the presence of a small presidential guard force or a lightly armed civilian militia might block a larger, better-trained, and better-equipped military from seizing power. Some studies depict counterbalancing ascomplicating the coordination of a coup attempt, but typically do not specify how it might do so. Partly because of this under-theorizing, there is no consensus about whether counterbalancing is effective at preventing coups.Identifying the mechanisms linking counterbalancing to the incidence and outcomes of coup attempts is important because doing so can help reconcileconflicting theoretical predictions about the strategy’s effectiveness. Case studies of long-standing civilian regimes frequently highlight the role of counterweights in preventing military intervention in politics. For instance, inan influential study of coup-proofing practices in the Middle East, James Quinlivan empahsized therole of counterbalancing or “parallel militaries” in keeping rulers in power. IbnSaud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, built two coercive institutions outside the regular army: a Royal Guard made of tribal retainers and the White Army (now called the National Guard). Likewise, in Indonesia, Robert Bruce argues that counterbalancing was responsible for delaying for several years the coup attempt that eventually ousted Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, from power. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical of counterbalancing: as thecase of Indonesia highlights, coup attempts still regularly occur in states thatcounterbalance. Indeed, coup plotters frequently cite efforts to establish counterweights among their motives for seizing power. Statistical evidence on whether counterbalancing is effective is also mixed.Part of the reason for the lack of consensus stems from limitations in the empirical approaches used in existing studies. Some restrict their focus to long-serving civilian regimes. This method of case selection makes it difficult to know whether it is counterbalancing or some other factorunderpinning regime stability. Efforts to test theories of coup prevention more systematically have been hindered by poor quality data. Existing analyses depend almost exclusively on the Military Balance, an annual defense review published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). However, a number of studies have documented biases, inconsistencies, and errors in IISS data that limit its utility in mapping the useof counterweights. In more recent editions, the IISS itself explicitly cautions against using its data to capture changes over time in how states organize their security sectors. As a result, scholars and policymakers do not yet knowwhat works to prevent coups

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