SSR and Clausewitz's 'remarkable trinity'

by Thammy Evans · February 18th, 2016.

A few years ago, a high ranking military officer visited DCAF-ISSAT to get a brief on lessons and developments in security sector reform, and to see how modern military thinking on operations could benefit from our insights. About 15 minutes into our presentation, the officer had a lightbulb moment and said "Ah - so you're saying that if military efforts towards SSR only concentrate on military recipients and doesn't take into account the effect on other actors in the security sector, then our efforts are not in fact contributing towards reforming the sector as a whole - and can not count as part of a holistic reform of the sector". This was indeed a succinct summary by the officer.

The officer duly returned to his Unit and implemented this learning, and ensured that subsequent training for military exercises with an SSR angle took into account the other actors in the security sector. Reviewing the results of the exercise not so long ago, I could see that the exercise had indeed done well to dovetail military efforts with efforts being conducted in other areas of the security sectors (such as the criminal-justice chain). Considerable monitoring efforts were put in place to ensure that efforts were not out of synch with the capability of other key actors such as the police, courts, and prisons. Military targets to improve the capability and effectiveness of partner  host nation troops were reported on in this light, and much was made of the need to not progress too fast (or too slow), but to get the tempo of 'reform' just right. 

The lessons and measures of the success of the exercise were remarkable not so much for what they achieved, but for what was sorely absent. No mention was made in any significant form on progress made to balance efforts made to improve the military effectiveness of the host nation, with the military accountability of the armed forces undergoing reform support. There were certainly  no measures of the effect for the accountability of troops to themselves, their chain of command, or their nation. Unfortunately, a second light bulb moment that should have come later in our presentation a few years ago, had been overshadowed by the first. 

The 'remarkable trinity' between the military (with its inherent capability/effectiveness), the other actors in society from whom it draws its place (i.e. legitimacy and sustainment), and the government[1], which governs how the military is used and how it is accountable (i.e., policy), was remarked upon most notably by the much revered military theorist Carl Maria von Clausewitz. From his early 19th century treatise On War, which drew inspiration from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars and their successive waves of state building and domination by Napoleon Bonaparte, there are clear lessons for the military analyst of SSR.

'These three tendencies' (see Figure 1 above) as Clausewitz called them '...are deeply rooted in the nature of the subject, and at the same time variable in degree. A theory [of change, or reform programme] which would leave any of them out of account, or set up any arbitrary relation between them, would immediately become involved in such a contradiction with reality, that it [i.e., the theory or programme] would become invalid' and therefore destined to fail.

And so, those programmes which consist solely of 'train and equip' for effectiveness alone, are destined to fail, or worse still cause more harm than good (although of course this is inherently difficult to prove). Those programmes which consider only their relationship with one element of the trinity (e.g., accountability only to Government, without understanding who security is for, i.e., the people; or security relations with other actors in society, without building accountability) are equally destined to fail. And even those rare programmes, which aim to consider reform of security actors in relationship to policy and to sustainability, will need at some point or another to reckon with the relationship, legitimacy and accountability between the Government and its people.

Clausewitz remains both revered and highly criticised. The relevance of the 'remarkable trinity', however, endures and is well worth keeping in mind by both military and civilian supporters of reform.[2]

[1] Clausewitz, On War, Ware, 1997, p.24.

[2] I am grateful to Lt Gen (retd) Marc Caron for first bringing my attention to the applicability of the 'remarkable trinity' to SSR.


Thammy Evans
21 Mar 2016, 18:37:46

There are few good examples of this - the Dutch programme in Burundi, the Bantay Bayanihan in the Philippines and security capacity building in Mindanao, the US reform programme of the Liberian Armed Forces. There are others, such as military reform in the Balkans generally, although it is sadly easier to find commentaries on what was wrong with these reform processes, than what has been gone well. We are trying to collect more examples here in the Forum.

Oanh-Mai Chung
2 Mar 2016, 10:23:50

Are there any contexts that would cite where SSR took this 'tri-faceted' approach have been successful?