The failure of right-wing populist movements in recent European elections does not necessarily mean that the spread of populism is declining in the Western world. In fact, over the course of the last four decades, such movements have gradually increased their support base. Moreover, they gained momentum during the last few years due to the massive refugee influx into Europe and increased terrorist activity in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. This trend seems set to continue for the next several years, given the absence of immediate solutions to the current issues present in the Middle East.
The rise of populism will obviously have important global consequences—the recent decision by the U.S. (the second largest carbon emitter) to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement under Trump’s presidency is a good example in this respect. Among others, an important issue area that may be influenced by increasing populism is civil-military relations. In fact, civilian oversight of the military is seen as one of the most important elements of democratic governance. The important question in this respect is: To what extent would the spread of right-wing populism in the West influence the nature of civil-military relations across the world?
Considering the fact that right-wing populist movements are largely unconcerned with the promotion of democratic norms and institutions in the developing world, rising populism may weaken the capacity of civilian governments to oversee their militaries. One reason for such an expectation is the populist leaders’ disregard for promoting democratic values abroad, which may eventually encourage military elites to oppose their government when faced with ideologically undesirable chief executives. More importantly, Western populist leaders may even overtly support such interventions when they have prior disagreements and conflicts with such chief executives on some international issues.
Another reason is populist leaders’ reluctance to provide financial assistance to developing countries, as demonstrated by the recent U.S. plan to substantially cut the foreign aid budget. Given the fact that U.S. laws ban the granting of aid to countries whose duly elected governments have been deposed by a military coup, it is reasonable to assume the level of civilian oversight of the military has been higher in countries that receive aid from the U.S. than in others in the developing world. Now with the substantial cut to the aid budget, there is a significant chance that civilian governments’ power to oversee their military in countries that formerly received U.S. aid may be weakened over time.
Increase in military disobedience to civilian governments has two potential consequences. First, post-modern military coups (i.e., legislative coups) may spread. Post-modern coups can be defined as breakdowns of government due to military pressure without resulting in a direct takeover by the military or breakdown of democracy. Although this is an important scholarly topic, currently no political science study has systematically examined it in a global context, possibly since there is no comprehensive data (my current research is focused on collecting historical global data on post-modern coups and exploring their determinants).
The phrase “post-modern coup” was first used in 1997 in Turkey in order to refer to the conflict between the hard core secular generals and the sitting Islamist prime minister. The military did not literally conduct a coup, but it overtly threatened the ruling coalition—composed of the Welfare Party (RP) and the True Path Party (DYP)—in an attempt to force them to resign. After months of political pressure, the prime minister stepped down. Then, a new government was formed within the same parliament that left RP and DYP as the new opposition parties. Although the post-modern coup concept was first applied in Turkey, it is not the only country that has experienced such military intervention in politics. Similar operations took place in other countries with parliamentary systems of governance, such as Spain in 1982, Solomon Islands in 2000, Papua New Guinea in 1997, and so on. Such type of intervention can also happen in presidential systems. For example, reports show that the military played an important role in the impeachment of the former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Second, traditional military coups d’etat may return to the scene across continents. Military coups were prolific during the Cold War, when the United States and Western European countries prioritized the fight against communism over the promotion of liberal values. During this period, there were eight military coup attempts and four successful coups around the world per year on average, while once the Cold War ended these numbers decreased by half. Studies show that there is a strong relationship between U.S. foreign policy and the likelihood of military coups. One reason for the frequency of military coups substantively decreasing after the Cold War could be that developed Western societies made efforts to build and strengthen democratic institutions in third-world countries during the post-Cold War era. Studies also found that U.S. foreign policy shifts related to human rights and democracy is one of the key determinants of the survival or breakdown of democracies around the world. As right-wing populism increases in support across Western societies, the foreign policy priorities of those countries may start mimicking their Cold War era priorities.
Post-modern coups tend to be less violent than traditional coups. However, the occurrence of a post-modern coup in a country demonstrates that the military acts behind the scenes and undermines the democratic legitimacy. More importantly, it signals that the military can step in at any moment if their desires are not met. Therefore, both forms of military intervention are almost equally detrimental to democracy and the will of the nation, and the spread of either form generally creates further instabilities in the developing world. In the long run, it is likely that such volatility would affect the United States and other Western countries financially, politically, and socially, in the same ways as has unrest in the Middle East.
Abdullah Aydogan, Ph.D., is a research scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. His research primarily focuses on political parties, parliaments, voting behavior and democratization.