Sunday, November 04, 2007

Civilians and defense in Latin America

David Pion-Berlin and Harold A. Trinkunas, “Attention Deficits: Why Politicians Ignore Defense Policy in Latin America.” Latin American Research Review 42,3 (2007) 76-100.

Abstract: Interest in defense issues among Latin American politicians has faded with the advent of widespread democratization in the region and the retreat of the armed forces to their barracks. Defense policy is rarely subject to the same level of public scrutiny and debate as other major policy issues faced by the region, such as health, education, and public safety. This is puzzling because by ignoring defense policy, civilian leaders in the region risk ceding authority to their militaries, allowing them a degree of self-management and undermining the consolidation of democratic civilian control of the armed forces. This article explains civilian politicians' inattention to defense as a function of three factors: a historical path that has produced armed forces with limited capabilities that are more often a threat to their own governments than their neighbors; a relatively benign international threat environment in Latin America that makes neglect of defense policy a low-risk proposition; and the low importance that voters assign to the provision of the national defense as either a public or a private good. Under these circumstances, it is rational for most civilian politicians to ignore defense policy and focus their attention instead on coup avoidance.

I had briefly mentioned their analysis last year in its previous incarnation as a LASA paper. It addresses something that any student of civil-military relations figures out very quickly—interest about defense in Latin America is astonishingly low, and has always been that way. Civilians are generally content to let the armed forces figure things out for themselves. I use this argument as part of an analysis about the military and intelligence services in an article in Third World Quarterly coming out next year.

They cite Chile as an example where legislators and others have made a more concerted effort to become knowledgeable about defense. However, interested civilians and officers in Chile still routinely evince frustration at the general lack of attention—further, even though in the past President Bachelet made a point of taking courses (and even getting a degree) on defense, she says almost nothing about the issue and still appoints Defense Ministers with no background on it (though, to be fair, at least the administration is gradually trying to modernize the ministry itself).

Pion-Berlin and Trinkunas come to the following unfortunate conclusion, with which I agree:

Should these conditions remain unaltered, it is unlikely civilian politicians will "discover" defense planning as a worthy policy goal any time soon. To the extent that this remains true, it may lead to a set of undesirable outcomes. If civilian leaders don't care about defense, they will not oversee efforts to reform military practices and doctrines. Absent civilian prodding, militaries—which are inherently conservative institutions—will fail to adapt their behavior and ideas to changing circumstances. The less concern civilian leaders show for defense, the more the military will resort to self-management, which in turn could breed greater levels of autonomy and pose problems for civilian control (p. 95).


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