The Soldier and the State 2.0. Assessing SSR Mechanisms to Achieve Democratic Civilian Control

by Cornelia-Adriana Baciu · August 28, 2017.

Democratic civilian control is a significant component and policy objective of Security Sector Reform (SSR). Discussing mechanisms to achieve them (as inherent parts of SSR) is essential for effective and sustainable implementation.   

With an incremental global focus on Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development aiming at advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies, SSR is getting increased scholarly attention. This post focuses on one important objective of SSR: democratic civilian control. My assumptions are based on extensive research on civil-military relations in theory and practice. I argue that SSR’s proposed mechanism of civilian oversight needs a more robust conceptual and practical understanding, particularly in the context of increased coherence and hybridisation of security and peace approaches.         

Democratic Civilian Control

Civilian control or oversight over armed forces refers to the subordination of the military to civilian institutions and represents one of the policy objectives of SSR. Oversight of the security sector and armed forces represents a necessary condition for the consolidation of democracy[1;2], although civilian oversight should not be equated with democratic civilian control – because the subordination of the armed forces to civilian institutions is not inherently democratic. Achieving sustainable civilian oversight in stabilisation contexts and post-conflict or transitional countries, with powerful armed forces, such as numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia requires efficient and consistent approaches. Thus, defining and operationalising the mechanisms which can enable sustainable democratic civilian control of the defence and the security sector in the framework of SSR-related operations is of substantive importance.           

From a theoretical perspective, there are three major models to achieve civilian oversight: (i) institutional separation (divergence) of civilian and military institutions, claiming that autonomous and professionalised armed forces would not interfere in politics[3], (ii)  the sociological approach, arguing that the way to achieve civilian oversight is through the integration (convergence) of militaries with societal values[4] and (iii) mixed approaches, which advocate interdependent or concordant civil-military relations[5].  

Goodness of Fit

SSR and similar approaches of comprehensive security governance – in general implemented by the United Nations, European Union and their partner agencies – argue that the way to achieve democratic civilian control is through the professionalisation of armed forces, in Huntington’s institutionalist sense. Military professionalism is based on a dichotomist understanding of civil-military relations, i.e. military non-interference in political affairs and vice versa, the argument being that a professional, politically neutral and autonomous military prevents military coups and guarantees civilian oversight. Huntington’s model of civilian control is based on a Clausewitzian understanding of war, according to which “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. While Huntington’s approach emerged as a constitutional arrangement in the American domestic post-Second World War context,[6] its propositions might be partly outdated for the contemporary (much more complex and interdependent) international security environment. Not only has the nature of conflicts changed to more hybrid types of confrontations, but the role of military has also expanded towards development and human security sectors since the 1990s. SSR mechanisms need thus be conceptually reflective of these developments. I argue that (1) military professionalisation is a necessary but not sufficient condition of oversight and (2) a politically neutral and autonomous soldier might misfit collaborative and hybrid approaches to peace and security promoted by SSR.    

Firstly, as seen in practice, an autonomous and professional military in the institutionalist sense does not necessarily result in greater civilian control. For example, in the case of Pakistan, high levels of military professionalisation and discipline have not prevented armed forces from taking political power (four coups d’état in total since country’s emergence in 1947) and interfering in politics during periods of civilian regime. Thus, a highly professional and autonomous military in Huntington’s institutionalist sense does not preclude the risk of intervention.    

Secondly, SSR’s is transitioning to hybrid approaches of security, which focus on (local) ownership and encompass both formal and informal processes, actors and institutions. During implementation, SSR processes and standards can result in ‘adoption, adaptation or rejection by domestic actors’[7]. Thus, input legitimacy and support from local communities represent major prerequisites for SSR, which aims at democratic state-building through strengthening accountability and governance capacity. Preferences at individual or communal level might generate tensions between the two logics – SSR standards and local norms – with an expected impact on SSR’s operationalised activities and tangible achievements. Recent empirical studies suggest that insufficient involvement of local actors in the design of SSR milestones and activities in Guinea-Bissau and Liberia had a negative effect on its implementation[8].

Dialogue, mediation and negotiation of SSR outputs at various institutional levels (e.g. local, national, et cetera) are likely to increase the probability of sustainable implementation. Empathy for local context increases the sense of ownership at community level and the likelihood that the institutional reforms proposed by SSR will be accepted and durable. Processes of hybridisation facilitate the management of anticipated frictions between importing (local) and exported (SSR) values and standards. This is where a rift between SSR’s recent affinity for hybrid approaches of security and peace, and purely institutionalist understandings of civilian oversight – claiming non-interference and separation between military and civilian affairs – might emerge. While the principle of civilian control should be institutionally guaranteed under constitution, armed forces and political institutions need to permanently exchange expertise during interactive processes. Networks, multi-actor communication and expert debate represent prerequisites of comprehensive approaches to security, to which SSR also subscribes. I argue that a hybrid understanding of civilian oversight, corresponding to interdependent (not divergent), civil-military relations, would better fit strategic exigency, coherence and multidimensional demands characterising SSR’s operational environments.    

A mechanism of civilian control based on a logic of interdependence might be worthy for review under the current SSR model. A ‘targeted partnership’ and inclusive interaction between ‘military, political elites and citizenry’ in the political decision-making process[9] increases information symmetry as well as the prospective for durability of the decision taken. The type of partnership proposed refers to effective and interactive dialogue between military, civilian institutions and society (e.g. non-governmental organisations, think tanks, academia, media). For SSR actors, this would imply the inclusion of representatives (both formal and informal) from all three sectors into regular consultations and their meaningful integration in SSR processes at policy formulation and implementation levels. Such pluralist and interactive model is likely to be more reflective of cultural and institutional peculiarities of countries in which SSR is being implemented and decrease the risk of defection given the coordinated and intermingled oversight structure. In addition, particularly in countries with previous military regimes, such as Pakistan, a re-orientation of armed forces’ roles towards human security and development activities might ensure a sustainable democratic transition process. A meaningful engagement of militaries in stabilisation and democracy-supporting processes is likely to decrease their propensity to coups or intervention in politics (unsolicited by civilian institutions). Overall, a model based on interdependent relationships, which would give all relevant stakeholders a sense of ownership in the participatory sense, is likely to strengthen the aims of the modern democracy – guarantee of security, crisis prevention and the sustainable safeguard of the society[10] – and optimise domestic decision-making outcomes regarding state capacity to cope with (internal and external) security threats[11]. Greater interdependence between state, military and society are not only of strategic importance, but can also increase accountability and legitimacy and thus sustainability of democratic political decisions.      


This post discussed the conceptual heterogeneity between SSR trends and one of SSR’s components, civilian oversight. I argued that there might at least two aspects which are worthy of additional consideration under the current SSR strategy: (1) the insufficiency of the professionalisation approach alone to ensure democratic civilian control of armed forces and (2) the mismatch between a divergent (autonomous armed forces) understanding of civil-military relations and multidimensional, multifunctional operations in a complex, increasingly interdependent domestic and international order. To overcome these shortcomings, I proposed a model of civilian oversight based on interdependent relations between military, political institutions and societal actors.   

To conclude, the implications for policy of the conceptual considerations discussed in this post are that SSR-based models and similar comprehensive approaches aimed at promoting peace and security in fragile or transitional societies should dedicate additional attention to the component of democratic civilian control and the most efficient mechanisms to sustainably achieve it.      


[1] Diamond, L. (1999) Developing democracy: Toward consolidation. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, London, p. 11.

[2] Przeworski, A. (1991) Democracy and the market: Political and economic reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 73-9.

[3] Huntington, S. P. (1957) The soldier and the state: The theory and politics of civil-military relations. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[4] Janowitz, M. (1960) The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait. Free Press.

[5] Schiff, R. L. (2012) Concordance Theory, Targeted Partnership, and Counterinsurgency Strategy. Armed Forces & Society 38 (2), 318–339.

[6] The theory of objective civilian control, on which SSR is currently based, was originally conceived in Huntington’s Civilian Control and the Constitution in 1956 and aimed to describe the changes in the American army from common citizen to professional soldiers.

[7] Schroeder, U. C., Chappuis, F. & Kocak, D. (2014) Security Sector Reform and the Emergence of Hybrid Security Governance. International Peacekeeping 21 (2), 214–230, p. 214.

[8] Detzner, S. (2017)  Modern post-conflict security sector reform in Africa: patterns of success and failure. African Security Review 26 (2), 116-142, p. 120.

[9] Schiff, R. L. (2012) Concordance Theory, Targeted Partnership, and Counterinsurgency Strategy. Armed Forces & Society 38 (2), 318–339, p. 319.

[10] Foster, G. D. (2005) Civil-Military Relations: The Postmodern Democratic Challenge. World Affairs 167 (3), 91–100, p. 93.

[11] Brooks, R. & Stanley, E. A. (eds.) (2007) Creating military power: The sources of military effectiveness. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.