A Dual-Edged Sword: Aiding National Defense in Fragile Democracies

Aiding National Defense
A row of Abrams tanks manned by Kuwaiti soldiers rolls down the street during rehearsals for the 50/20 Celebration parade Feb. 21, 2011, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Kuwaiti celebrations marked the 50th anniversary of independence from Great Britain and the 20th anniversary of the ouster of Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. Photo by M. Benjamin Gable, U.S. Army.

By Randell Yi

Aiding National Defense in Fragile Democracies

Just as the United States appeared to have disengaged from large scale nation building, it massively doubled down on providing economic and military assistance to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion. While total military aid flows to all recipients increased from $7.34 billion in 2000 to a peak of $24.32 billion in 2011, Ukraine alone has received an unprecedented $29.3 billion in the year since the beginning of the war in 2022. While this influx is necessary to sustain Ukraine’s armed forces in the field, it is hard to imagine that so much materiel might flow into a state that is rife with corruption without altering the political economy surrounding its deeply flawed but still pluralistic democracy. Despite its ongoing anti-corruption efforts, it is not inconceivable that Ukraine might prevail militarily yet lose its democratic spark to an oligarchy reinvigorated by aid dollars.

Ukraine is not alone in facing the conundrum of balancing the imperative of generating a strong national defense against preserving its democracy. Because militaries often play an outsized role in shaping trajectories of consolidation toward or away from democracy, national defense is not only about protecting a sovereign state from military threats emanating from without and within—its behavior is also equally vital toward ensuring its governing regime’s continuation. Protecting democracy in particular means upholding the norms and practices that underpin it by moderating its involvement in domestic politics and by upholding the rule of law.


Militaries can challenge fragile democracies at least as much as they provide protection. For instance, because the Huntingtonian notion that they should remain apolitical does not hold in the absence of robust civil-military relations norms, it is unreasonable to expect fragile state militaries to sit idly on the sidelines as impartial observes. Research also shows that promissory coups by emboldened militaries are one of the leading causes of democratic backsliding as evidenced by the recent spate of coups that befell Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea in just the last two years. In addition, security forces tied up in patronage systems pose a risk to democratic processes as predatory organizations that abuse precious state resources. Finally, in the former Soviet Union a necessary reduction in the size of bloated security apparatuses since the 1990s was accompanied by their de-professionalization, in which case their institutional weakness fed into broader patterns of patrimonialism and semi-authoritarian tendencies. Although armed forces are necessary to enforce sovereignty, they can also pose a threat to the regimes they are intended to protect when they do not restrain themselves from opportunism.

Against this backdrop, attempts to build fragile state militaries must contend with the allure of what Stephen Biddle defines to be a modern force. Arguably the decisive force employment patten since at least 1900, this kind of complex and tightly orchestrated tactical and operational-level construct “poses painful political and social tradeoffs” to achieve. Consequently, many fragile states requesting military aid want the look of a modern force—and the politically salient symbols of authority and legitimacy that modern Western hardware affords—without allowing it to possess the potentially volatile social substance that makes it work. For one, implementing such a system successfully requires empowering lower ranking personnel, but granting so much autonomy absent pre-established trust and robust professional norms to guide self-regulation risks a breakdown in order and discipline. Forces lacking this glue risk becoming expensive but ineffective “Fabergé Eggs” that are easily broken by foes who should be no match according to conventional materiel-centric measures of military capability.

Assisting fragile democracies with meeting their security needs while avoiding destabilizing pitfalls is the most fundamental challenge that military aid providers face. State fragility is not just about institutional weakness, though. Perhaps counterintuitively, it can also result from excess strength in one or more institutions that others cannot keep in check, and building a partner’s military capacity can upset such a state’s already precarious balance. Even so, as I argue in my recent article, providing military assistance to fragile states is not necessarily a fool’s errand as military aid investment does appear to generate modest improvement in terms of corruption (neopatrimonialism), coup risk (praetorianism), and military efficacy (deaths to political violence). But what within aid providers’ control can strengthen this correlation?

Making Security Force Assistance Work

Several analyses of security force assistance’s performance suggest deemphasizing expensive materiel solutions and focusing on educating partner nation officers instead might be an effective way to improve upon the current approach to aid provision. However, building effective forces that respect democratic norms entails much more than either infusions of hardware or college-level seminars. In addition to these materiel and non-materiel factors, social capital provides the foundation for the associationism, trust, and cooperation that is key to making democratic institutions work—and modern militaries effective. This is the essence of what Clausewitz spoke of when he stated that “most of the matters dealt with in this book are composed in equal parts of physical and of moral causes and effects. One might say that the physical seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade.” Unfortunately, although assisting partner nations with such “moral” issues at the ministerial level where it might make the biggest difference is the domain of Defense Institution Building, this activity remains an ill-defined and disjointed. While not a panacea for all of the issues that beleaguer security cooperation, social capital development via robust DIB efforts should be the starting point for “building the capacity for capacity to be built.”

Done properly, security force assistance has the potential to strengthen the prospects for democratization. Effective militarily forces are an essential component of national defense, but to defend democracy they need to accumulate the social capital that allows the material “hardware” and non-material “headware” to be harnessed for good. It provides the basis for restraint that inhibits the opportunism behind corruption and undue meddling in domestic politics. Military utility and political suitability are incompatible to the extent that social capital is lacking, and only when the two are present can a fragile state’s security apparatus truly defend its society.

About the Author

Lt Col Randell Yi is a Doctoral Student in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He served as an Air Advisor to Iraqi Air Force and Ministry of Defense senior leaders in 2017 and holds an MPhil in Military Strategy from the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or of the United States Air Force.

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