Military Regimes

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Military Regimes




The study of military regimes rose to prominence within the social sciences during the latter half of the twentieth century, thanks in part to the presence during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s of a large number of military regimes around the globe. In 1979, fourteen military regimes held power in sub-Saharan Africa, nine in Latin America, five in the Arab states and North Africa, three in Southeast Asia, one in South Asia, and one in East Asia. No single social science discipline dominated the research into military regimes. Political scientists, economists, sociologists, and historians all devoted much time and energy to studying this form of government.

A military regime is a form of government wherein the political power resides with the armed forces. The military is the legitimate power-holding group that centralizes political and legal authority. Military regimes, however, cannot simply be classified as governments dominated by the military, because they are seldom purely military in composition. Civilian bureaucrats and politicians generally play a role in the government, but the military always has the final say. The presence of civilians in military governments shows that military elites do not necessarily organize military regimes. Nevertheless, a military regime is always governed by a military officer, active or retired, with the support of the military establishment, and the political structure includes routine mechanisms for high-level military officers to influence policy and political appointments.

Military regimes are generally held together by their egalitarian belief in equal political, economic, social, and civil rights for all people. Thus, military regimes emerge most often as products of political, economic, and societal crises to replace weak executives and governments. The most popular mechanism used to achieve this is the military coup détat, wherein members of the armed forces remove a states chief executive through the use or threat of force. Once the military regime is firmly in place, characteristic features of this form of government include an intact military hierarchy, and a militarily controlled security apparatus. Military regimes also include features that would characterize governments more generally. These include institutions for deciding questions of succession, and routine consultation between the leader and the rest of the officer corps.

Despite the fact that military regimes are generally egalitarian, historically a variety of ideologies have held them together. Military regimes have practiced authoritarianism and free market liberalism, for example, in the military government of Augusto Pinochet in Chile from 1973 to 1990. Avowedly socialist military regimes held power in Haiti from 1957 to 1994 and also in Peru for a short period. These variations can occur because military rule is fundamentally undemocratic. Democracies require self-expression and the questioning of authority. Thus, the ideology that holds democracies together is inherently antiauthoritarian. However, military regimes are grounded in the military model of giving and taking orders and absolute obedience. Therefore, depending on the ideology of the armed forces, variations among military regimes are inevitable.

Military regimes require unquestioned obedience to the leadership, which holds absolute power, to stabilize the government. This makes military regimes both authoritarian and autocratic, but the degree of authoritarianism varies from regime to regime. Once power is established, variations abound. Military regimes are shaped by a mixture of variables derived from specific conditions peculiar to particular countries, which complicates conceptualization even further. In the Middle East and Africa, for example, military regimes have often been autocracies led by a single military officer, whereas Latin American military regimes have frequently been ruled by a junta, a committee composed of several officers.

Despite these differences, however, most military regimes are variations on one of four basic types, described by Christopher Clapham and George Philip in The Political Dilemmas of Military Regimes (1985). The first is known as a veto regime, which pits the military against strongly organized civilian political structures. Veto regimes support the existing social order and their aim is to defend it. Consequently, these regimes are highly repressive. The second type, the breakthrough regime, seeks to attack a social order that threatens its plans for modernization. Breakthrough regimes attempt to radically reform government. As with veto regimes, a high degree of repression is likely.

A third type is the moderator regime. Highly professional militaries make up these regimes, which aim to clean up the mess made by civilian governments and then return power to the civilians. Found in societies at varying levels of social and economic development, moderator regimes tend to be highly unstable due to internal disputes over exactly when to relinquish power. Moderator regimes are not particularly authoritarian or repressive. The fourth type, factional regimes, are formed when military officers align themselves with civilian political actors and groups based on shared traits such as ethnicity or ideology. Like moderator regimes, factional regimes tend to be highly unstable and are not particularly repressive.


Although military regimes certainly existed prior to World War II, the modern military regime is distinctly and analytically a new phenomenon restricted to the developing and modernizing world. The impetus for military regimes is found in the changing nature of the military itself and in its role in the development and modernization of the society within which it exists. Protection against communist or revolutionary takeover was historically the most common objective of military regimes, especially during the 1960s and 1970s.

The early 1960s saw a rapid rise in military regimes, which led many scholars to conduct theoretical analyses of the phenomenon. These studies focused on military intervention in politics as an exceptional and negative departure from the norm of an elected civilian government. Analysts had previously assumed that economic and social modernization in developing countries would lead militaries to become more professional and modern. The hope was that this would prevent them from meddling in politics in favor of defending their countries against internal and external attack.

In practice, however, as John Johnson argued in The Military and Society in Latin America (1964), the military was frequently the most modernized and technically advanced sector of the middle class, which allowed it to make a special contribution to development, and especially democratization. His theory was validated by the mid-1960s, when militaries overthrew one government after another, especially where decolonization was in progress in Africa and Latin America. The research argues that in turbulent modernizing societies the armed forces are best suited to promote order, making them highly likely to intervene in politics.

Marxism heavily influenced a second set of analyses that emerged during this period. Scholars in this camp utilized dependency theory, which suggests that the wealthy nations of the world need a peripheral group of poorer states in order to remain wealthy. These scholars argued that that the dependency of poor states on wealthier states led to close ties between their militaries. This led to the premise that the armed forces were willing instruments of capitalism and its domestic class allies. In turn, the militaries of poorer states would do as wealthier states pleased. Consequently, wealthier nations advocated military intervention to safeguard their control over essential economic materials.

The theory of bureaucratic authoritarianism was also used to explain the abundance of military takeovers during the 1960s. This highly influential theory combines elements of modernization, dependency, and Marxist theory to argue that military takeovers may occur as one of the stages of industrialization. The theory posits that populist democracy initially fosters urbanization, popular participation in government, and trade union development. This is followed by a stage in which industrialization needs to deepen, and governmental control over the popular sector is seen as the way to maintain order and pursue policies that will attract foreign investors. Military takeover can be an efficient way to achieve this.


Beginning in the mid-1970s, many military regimes started to hand power back to civilians. In turn, theoretical analyses of military regimes began to ask why. In The Military and the State in Latin America (1987), Alain Rouquié argues that the militarys lack of legitimacy due to unfulfilled promises of democratization precipitated the change. The disillusionment of the economic elite and the middle class due to the repressiveness and economic incompetence of military regimes was another contributing factor.

Policy performance also helps explain why military regimes declined in number. Early research failed to find lower levels of economic development or performance in countries with military regimes compared to countries with other forms of government; these studies, however, failed to establish any strong relationship between regime type and public policy performance. Karen Remmer, in her Military Rule in Latin America (1989), convincingly shows that the military is in fact not generally very successful as modernizers or as promoters of economic development. As far as social policy goes, the principle difference between military and civilian regimes is that the military spends more money on weapons and the civilians spend more money on social welfare. This inhibits public support for military regimes and ultimately forces them to turn power back over to civilians.

The number of military regimes around the globe decreased dramatically beginning in the 1990s. Their lack of international legitimacy and inability to rule successfully even when they were robust were the prominent factors in their decline. The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union also made it more difficult for military regimes to use the threat of communism as a justification for their actions. Nevertheless, military regimes continue to hold power around the globe. Military regimes came into power in countries such as Fiji, Thailand, and Mauritania at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Military regimes in Libya and Myanmar, which came to power during the 1960s, are still thriving. In the end, although the number of military regimes has decreased dramatically around the globe, it appears unlikely that they will become extinct anytime soon. Understanding why is the challenge that social scientists now face.

SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Coup d;Etat;Democratization; Militarism;Military


Clapham, Christopher, and George Philip. 1985. The Political Dilemmas of Military Regimes. London: Croom Helm.

Danopoulos, Constantine. 1988. The Decline of Military Regimes: The Civilian Influence. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Johnson, John J. 1964. The Military and Society in Latin America. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Odetola, Theophilus Olatunde. 1982. Military Regimes and Development: A Comparative Analysis of African States. Boston: Allen and Unwin.

Perlmutter, Amos. 1980. The Comparative Analysis of Military Regimes. World Politics 33 (1): 96120.

Remmer, Karen L. 1989. Military Rule in Latin America. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Rouquié, Alain. 1987. The Military and the State in Latin America. Trans. Paul E. Sigmund. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sigmund, Paul E. 1993. Approaches to the Study of the Military in Latin America. Comparative Politics 26 (1): 111122.

David Mastro

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Military Regimes

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