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The Military Transition: Democratic Reform of the Armed Forces

The Military Transition: Democratic Reform of the Armed Forces by Narcis Serra. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 270 pp.

Since the early 1990s—with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the flourishing of democratic regimes in Latin America—social scientists have sought to articulate the factors required for a successful transition from an authoritarian to a democratic government. In The Military Transition, Narcis Serra seeks to analyze reform of the military as an essential and distinct part of the move toward democracy.

Narcis Serra was a professor of economics at the University of Seville and the Autonomous University of Barcelona before he was elected as the first mayor of Barcelona since the Spanish Civil War. He later served as Spain’s minister of defense from 1982 until 1991. Professor Serra has served as a consultant for a number of defense ministries in Latin America and Eastern Europe, amassing more than a decade of practical experience dealing with how to bring the military of a once authoritarian regime under the control of a democratically elected government. According to Serra, transforming the military is important for countries transitioning from authoritarian regimes to democracy; without it democratization cannot succeed. Military reform will usually take longer than other parts of the transition because there are often limits to changes that can be implemented. For example, without an agreement by competing political groups on military reforms, the emerging factions will try to court the military to gain power. When such negotiation with the armed forces occurs, the military becomes an autonomous institution outside the control of elected officials. To mitigate this phenomenon, he suggests there should be a democratic consensus on military reform by the major political parties.

The author holds that the transition to democracy is a two-stage process. The first stage, transition, is relatively short. This consists of initial steps such as the election of government leaders. The second stage, referred to as consolidation, takes much longer because it requires a change in mind-set about the role of government institutions. Consolidation is achieved when a democratic government not only determines its security and military policy but also places the armed forces in a position equal to other governmental departments. The military cannot remain an autonomous institution that negotiates its position with the government.

Serra further argues that reducing the military’s autonomy should be taken in graduated steps. The most important step is establishing a ministry of defense with a civilian at its head. The ministry should be supported by legislation on national defense which spells out the roles and responsibilities of the minister and the subordinate military leadership. The best leverage for civilian control over the military is economic. The minister of defense should have authority over the budget and future military spending. The minister and staff should take the lead in defining military missions and setting policy. The executive and the other department heads should be leery of attempts by the uniformed military leadership to circumvent the minister of defense in the decision-making process.

The relationships among senior military leaders are critical in the process of consolidation. The minister of defense should solicit the opinions of the generals but avoid any kind of negotiation. Joint chiefs or defense councils, made up of military members, should not have command authority but should instead be advisory. Two problematic areas Serra identifies are military intelligence services and the military justice system. He notes that the military system of justice should not be used to provide military members immunity, and any use of the military for domestic intelligence gathering will inevitably bring them into domestic politics.

Of particular interest to US military officers is Serra’s chapter on controlling the armed forces in what he calls the “stage of democratic persistence,” otherwise known as the United States. In this section, he looks at civil-military relations during the Clinton and Bush II administrations. He poses the question of whether the military of an advanced democracy should be more like Huntington’s The Soldier and the State, with its own set of values, or should seek to be more like the society it serves. In the end Serra concludes that for the military to fulfill the role society deems it to play, it must adapt itself to that society and not become foreign to its values, thus disagreeing with Huntington’s thesis about the role of the military in the state.

Serra clearly has expertise in the area of military transitions to democracy and familiarity with various attempts at consolidating military rule. However, his investigation of the use of the military by leaders of “struggling democracies” lacked depth, particularly in the area where democratically elected executives seek to consolidate power using undemocratic means, including politicization of the military. The examples of Venezuela and Ecuador come to mind. In such instances, the military’s obligation to defend the constitution, even over the desires of the political leadership, may serve a positive purpose. The study of civil-military relations is far from complete, but Narcis Serra’s work makes a valuable contribution in understanding this important subject. While readers may not agree with some of Serra’s conclusions, The Military Transition is a valuable work for those interested in civil-military relations and for military personnel and diplomats working with the armed forces of partner nations.

Lt Col David Woodworth, USAF

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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