What Military Missions Reveal About State Capacity

Military Missions in Democratic Latin America

Military Missions in Democratic Latin America was first published in 2016. It offered an examination of the new roles the military had begun to handle in recent years. Its author, David Pion-Berlin, is a widely known scholar of civil-military relations in Latin America.  In this book, he went beyond traditional civil-military relations to consider the implications of the broader scope of military missions themselves throughout Latin America. The discussion below represent the thoughts and reflections of Justin Kempf on this important book.

State Capacity and the Military

State capacity is a term that gets thrown around too often these days. The state is not a monolithic organization. It is better understood as a mosaic of institutions. Sometimes bureaucracy can build upon itself, but each agency or department typically builds apart from one another. For example, an effective military does not guarantee a professional civil service. This is the great conundrum for advocates of state capacity. There is no single path toward the creation of the modern state. It is largely established piecemeal.

Militaries have long been a focus of political modernization. Samuel Huntington wrote about civil-military relations before he took on the larger challenge to define political modernization. It is widely accepted his studies of civil-military relations contributed or indeed even led him to insights on political modernization. Germany is widely recognized as the archetypal example where the creation of the state was brought about through the professionalization of its military. As Charles Tilly claimed, “War made the state.” So, lessons in the development and institutionalization of the military are considered to have contributed to the creation of the modern state and brought about the need for a professional civil service.

Nonetheless, there are differences between the institutionalization of the military and the civil service. Differences in culture and norms are the key to recognize distinct institutions from independent organizations. Nobody denies militaries have a distinctive culture with unique values and priorities. Again, this was the basis for Huntington’s classic The Soldier and the State.

Guns or Butter

The military is the clearest indication of a state’s hard power. Still, nobody believes investments into the military permeate into the wider civil service. The debate between guns and butter is a common euphemism for public policy priorities. There is an implicit recognition that investments into military power do not translate into broader state capacity. This brings about a clear paradox for political modernization. Investments into the state bureaucracy are not guaranteed to permeate into other areas.

The clear lesson is state capacity is limited by more than raw resources. It is also restrained by experience, personnel, and culture. This is a problem for advocates of limited governance because fiscal restraint has long-term implications for the performance of government. Without consistent investments into the broader bureaucracy, it is impossible to simply “turn on” the capacity of the state through short term financial resources. It takes a long-term commitment to strengthen the capacity of the state and improve the performance of governance.

These are important lessons reinforced by the experience of the global pandemic. Crises are bound to arise where government becomes necessary. It is not possible to prepare for every contingency, but engagement offers opportunities to develop related organizational skills and capacities. Indeed, it was prior American investments into the research for a coronavirus vaccine that made it possible to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 so rapidly. But it was also the lack of investments into other areas of government that have made a coherent American response so difficult.

An Absence of Military Conflict

David Pion-Berlin’s study of Military Missions in Democratic Latin America gives concrete examples to the theoretical challenges I outlined above. His focus on Latin America thickens his analysis because the region offers peculiar conditions that help explain how institutions function. The military has played an outsized role in Latin American political history. The region is largely democratic today but exists under a cloud of authoritarian legacies brought about from decades of military governance.

Because the military has shaped the Latin American political history, it is natural to imagine the region as violent. Pion-Berlin brings to the reader’s attention the general absence of armed conflict in the region. It truly is remarkable how few interstate conflicts have occurred despite the region’s legacies of military governance. Indeed, the relative passivity of the region has contributed to the restlessness of the armed forces. The lack of external conflict led militaries to look for threats within their borders. This dynamic brought about political instability, or rather, democratic instability for many decades.

At first glance, it is a puzzle why Latin America is known for its militaries but has had so little interstate conflict. David Pion-Berlin explains, “Professionalization was not accompanied… by the level of resources, training, and manpower required to build up potent forces.” The irony of the Latin American experience has been the political instability brought about by its armed forces was from a lack of investment rather than overinvestment.

Unintended Consequences

Advocates for small governance regularly cite “the law of unintended consequences” as a justification for government noninterference in every imaginable area. Pion-Berlin, on the other hand, implies the lack of investments into the military contributed to two significant but unintended consequences. First, militaries were unprepared for interstate conflicts, so wars were largely avoided. But the focus of the military was drawn to internal conflicts, so the second outcome was an inclination to overstep its role into politics and undermine democratic governance in the past.

There are consequences for government inaction as well as government action. Pion-Berlin shows how some of those consequences may be positive while others may have deleterious effects at the same time. Moreover, the allocation of resources and talent shape the evolution of institutions over time. There is no single static path of modernization. The development of some aspects of society have hold others back. Huntington referred to democratization as a culmination of modernization which subsequently brings about a retrenchment of traditional sources of power. He referred to this as a paradox of democracy, but I have always believed it was more of a paradox of Westernization or modernization.

Military Missions in Democracies

The third wave of democratization largely shed Latin America of a tradition of military dictatorship. There has clearly been backsliding in Venezuela and Nicaragua, but generally democratic governance has necessitated an uneasy reconciliation with a role for the military. For some countries, a role for the military became obvious through the rise of drug cartels and the rise of guerilla and paramilitary forces. Colombia is an example where the military has had a defined and necessary role in combatting organizations that have grown beyond the capacity of traditional law enforcement. Mexico has also seen the rise of crime organizations beyond the capacity of law enforcement and has relied on the military to combat these organizations. But other countries have found new missions to make use of their military capacity.

Nonetheless, the most remarkable insight Pion-Berlin offers is Latin American militaries are largely unprepared for domestic defense. It is not simply a failure in the allocation of resources. Military forces are largely untested and lack any incentive for continual improvements and modernization. Huntington emphasized the conservative nature of the military as an institution so it is no surprise the institution may remain reluctant to reform and modernize as circumstances evolve. Pion-Berlin emphasizes it is often through strong civilian leadership where militaries find the inclination to make necessary improvements in their structure and capacity.

Institutional Experience

Experience matters. Institutions and organizations are not static entities. Their experiences shape their capacity, vision, and values. American involvement in conflicts around the world has obvious downsides, but it has offered challenges for the military to overcome. The solutions to clear challenges have given the American military an edge over other global competitors. There is always a fear of exhaustion when resources are pushed to their limits, but there is also a need to exercise those capacities to maintain their strength.

The military’s capacity to provide defense is ironically strengthened through military conflicts. This is a dark way to think about defense, but it can be translated to other aspects of state capacity. The ability of the state to alleviate poverty is strengthened through social welfare programs. Large scale disaster relief efforts domestically are strengthened through the participation in efforts outside its borders. The lessons learned from international efforts to contain epidemics like Ebola and AIDS were instrumental to develop strategies to handle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Pion-Berlin highlights three different areas where the military has been used beyond its traditional role in providing national defense. He gives detailed analysis of how the military has performed in delivering internal security, disaster relief, and social programs. The key insight from these chapters is some martial capabilities translate well into these areas while others do not. For example, the military has a mixed record in its ability to deliver internal security particularly in its use against drug cartels. It does well when missions are defined and the potential for civilian casualties are low. But it can struggle in urban settings and has sometimes exacerbated violence and produced human rights violations of its own.

Beyond Military Missions

There are lessons for the concept of state capacity here. The resources devoted to the military are not easily translated to resolve many challenges. They have defined skills that are refined to deliver their primary purpose. Some of those skills can be applied to other areas, but they are never as efficient as an organization devoted to the specific challenge at hand.

Disaster relief is an area where the organizational capacity of the military can supplement civilian efforts. Its core functions develop superior skills in the management of supply chains which are valuable for the management of disaster relief. Nonetheless, there are clear drawbacks to the overreliance on the military for any domestic mission. Moreover, the military will have limitations that are endemic due to its core organizational purpose. The true evolution of any organization requires a fundamental transformation of its core mission rather than a simple expansion of its capabilities or resources.

State capacity relies on the development of multiple organizations with different purposes to meet distinct challenges. The organizational capacity of the military cannot replace the role of law enforcement without significant drawbacks. Pion-Berlin makes clear law enforcement is uniquely designed to balance the use of force with the protection of civilians. The military cannot internalize the restraint necessary for domestic law enforcement without a fundamental change in its core mission, its culture, and its priorities.

Dangers of Undefined Military Missions

The consequences of military involvement beyond their traditional roles have become even more apparent in the years since the publication of this work. Pion-Berlin contrasts the way the military was used to deliver social programs in Venezuela and Bolivia. Hugo Chávez relied on the military for a large infrastructure and development program in Venezuela, while Bolivia used the organizational capacity for the deliver of a more modest program of educational vouchers. The Venezuelan program brought military leaders into roles traditionally led by civilians. This encouraged the military to cross a line between the execution of public policy to its formation. In contrast, the Bolivian program had a limited and defined role. It was led by civilian decision makers who relied on the military organizational structure solely for execution.

In recent years, authoritarian government has been consolidated through the support of the military. The campaign of Juan Guaidó to overturn Nicolás Maduro largely failed because military officers remained loyal to the regime. In contrast, the military in Bolivia was unwilling to use force against protestors. Evo Morales ultimately stepped down from power because the military was not willing to stand by the regime. The circumstances in Venezuela and Bolivia are complex and multi-layered. And yet, the roles of the military have been central to their political outcomes. Of course, the ultimate outcomes of both nations remain uncertain. Still, the paths they have taken thus far have been shaped by the ways their militaries were incorporated into governance.

Final Thoughts and Significance

It is natural to limit the importance of Military Missions in Democratic Latin America to the subdiscipline of civil-military relations. But I have argued its importance extends into broader considerations about state-building and modernization. Francis Fukuyama has beaten the drum about state capacity, but rarely gets into the actual weeds of the ways it is developed. Too often this discussion remains as a high-level conversation. David Pion-Berlin offers an opportunity to look under the hood and consider the obstacles to the expansion of state capacity. The unfortunate reality is state capacity depends on the consistent allocation of resources to allow for learned experiences. But its not enough to simply “feed the state.” Resources must become allocated to the right agencies and departments to develop the proper toolkit to handle the challenges of governance.

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