Civilian-Military Relations in Latin America

By Bruneau, Thomas C.; Goetze, Richard B., Jr. | Military Review, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview
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Civilian-Military Relations in Latin America


Bruneau, Thomas C., Goetze, Richard B., Jr., Military Review


FOR SOME TIME NOW, there has been debate in academic circles about just how much civilian politicians in Latin America need to know, and do, to control their militaries. David Pion-Berlin, a highly regarded scholar on Latin American civil-military relations, has argued that "civilians do not have to worry about investing the necessary time to understanding defense, strategy, tactics, preparation, budgeting, deployment, doctrine, or training." (1) Pion-Berlin bases his argument on deductive logic and history, but we believe the situation has changed significantly in the region. Therefore, we respectfully disagree. In our opinion, civilians must know enough to be able to ensure that the armed forces are doing what they are required to do, not only in terms of submitting to civilian control, but also in successfully fulfilling the current very wide spectrum of roles and missions assigned to security forces in Latin America. Unlike Pion-Berlin, we believe that the security threats facing Latin America are now so broad and so critical that civilians have little choice but to engage with them and invest political capital in responding to them.

We must first recognize that in agreement with Pion-Berlin there is, in fact, an important disincentive for civilians to become expert on military issues. (2) In Aesop's fable about the hedgehog and the fox, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. This suggests that the fox, for all of his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's defense." (3) Like foxes, democratically elected politicians must know many things, while the armed forces, like the hedgehog, only have to know one big thing: national security--even though the definition of this concept is in transition. Military officers spend their careers studying and training in it; they belong to institutions that focus on it; and they ascend through the ranks depending on their knowledge of it. It is impossible for civilians, lacking this background, to develop anything like the national security expertise of military officers. We have seen senior military leaders use a hedgehog strategy to challenge civilian control of the military precisely because of the dearth of civilian knowledge about national security issues.

We believe that civilians do not need to be experts on national security to exercise control over the military and determine its roles and missions. However, they clearly must know something, and just as important, they must be aware of what they don't know. In Latin America, and particularly in Central America, security is being reformed to mean much more than "national" security: it is widely understood to include "public" and "citizen" security as well. While civilians might not need to know everything about national security, they must know about public and citizen security, and they must be ready to act in response to the demands of society regarding both. National security has meant defending the continuity and sovereignty of a state. This is the traditional role of national defense forces. Public security refers to the state's ability to maintain public order so that basic sectors such as transport, communications, and commerce can function. Citizen security addresses the exercise of human, political, and social rights by individuals and groups in a democracy.

The combination of threats in contemporary Central America is so serious that it challenges all three levels of security. Civilian elites currently employ the armed forces, among other instruments, to respond to these challenges. Public opinion surveys reveal that insecurity is the first concern of citizens in Central America. Our interviews indicate that political campaigns hinge on it, and that politicians expect to be held accountable for it. Even the academic literature is catching up to this fact of life. (4)

A Spectrum of Missions

Before turning to these threats, it might be useful to examine a national security mission that some countries view as an opportunity: peacekeeping and peacemaking, collectively termed Peace Support Operations (PSO).

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