Navigating the Politics of Security Governance

by Louis-Alexandre Berg · May 6th, 2022.

“Political will” may be the most commonly cited obstacle to effective security governance, but it is probably the least understood. Growing evidence shows that in countries affected by violent conflict, security governance – the way security forces are structured, managed and overseen – is central to sustained peace and security.[1] Yet, when international actors attempt to support changes to security governance, they often run into political headwinds. In response, critics argue that programs are overly technocratic, disconnected from local realities, or not locally owned – but it is not clear which realities or whose ownership matter most. And, while donors often point to the absence of political will to explain failure – they attribute success to technical capacity rather than politics. Even when they acknowledge its importance, international actors rarely incorporate attention to politics into programming.

My book, Governing Security After War, examines how local and international actors navigate the politics that shape security sector governance, and when their interactions lead to institutional change.[2] For many political leaders, security forces provide much more than security – they mobilize voters, repress opponents, allocate jobs to supporters, protect commercial monopolies, or help allies avoid prosecution. To ensure they serve their interests, politicians rely on informal networks in the security forces, and use their discretion over appointments, finances, and operations to maintain them. Since institutional changes that increase transparency and accountability reduce these discretionary powers, they may threaten some leaders’ political power.

Yet political interests are rarely homogeneous, and competing interests create openings for change in the security sector. Through quantitative analysis of conflict-affected countries, I found that institutional change is most likely when political networks are fragmented, and political leaders lack cohesive informal ties to the security forces. Field research in several countries, including Liberia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Timor-Leste, revealed how, under these conditions, expanding oversight and accountability can help some politicians by limiting the influence of rivals and preventing internal threats.

International involvement is rarely neutral in terms of its political effects. On the one hand, donors can end up inhibiting effective security governance by empowering those who benefit from the status quo. In addition, donors sometimes pursue unrealistic changes when they fail to recognize political constraints. On the other hand, they can enable change by supporting those who benefit from stronger oversight, and by helping to manage internal challenges. After the Liberian civil war ended in 2003, factions in the army and police openly threatened political leaders. As the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf worked with the UN and donors to restructure the military and police, it faced numerous demands for influence over recruitment or resource allocation – including by factions whose support she needed to stay in power. Merit-based recruitment and increased transparency helped counteract these pressures, but they also fueled backlash by groups that lost their influence. External actors helped to manage these challenges by identifying sources of opposition, channeling resources to proponents of change, and backing them politically at key moments.[3] Still, some changes stalled when political leaders responded to political pressures, or external actors failed to provide the support needed to overcome them.  

My research highlights the importance of integrating attention to the politics of institutional change into program planning and implementation. International programs tend to emphasize operational capabilities over governance. When they focus on governance, they limit their attention to technical skills or procedures. In the Democratic Republic of Congo after 2002, external actors helped to integrate and train the armed forces but tensions over rank, command, and resources contributed to renewed fighting.[4] Donors supported new personnel, financial, and accountability procedures, but politicians routinely ignored them.[5] Institutional change is often necessary to improve capability, but it requires political openings. Analysis of actors, interests, and networks in the security sector can identify where institutional change is likely, when opportunities, obstacles, or trade-offs arise – and where resources are better spent elsewhere.

Political openings sometimes emerge even in the most difficult environments, for instance when new parties come to power or cohesive networks split. In Ukraine, institutional constraints contributed to the armed forces’ struggles to confront Russian military and insurgent forces in 2014.[6] As NATO countries increased security assistance, corruption in the defence industry and procurement systems slowed the transfer of equipment.[7] Although the Ukrainian government strengthened civilian control and updated command structures with NATO support, close ties between political leaders, oligarchs, and the defence industry stalled crucial changes.[8] After the 2019 election, however, new political leaders with weaker ties to oligarchs and the military succeeded in overhauling defence procurement and military industry.[9] NATO support was helpful because it prioritized institutions, and because Ukrainian leaders recognized the value of institutional change for their political success.

Recognizing political openings is not sufficient in the absence of the ability to respond. Examining cases of successful institutional change, I nearly always found international officials who understood political challenges, and directed assistance appropriately. Certain ingredients helped, including:

  • Integrating political analysis into program planning and implementation;
  • Empowering officials in the field with the flexibility to respond to changes on the ground;
  • Astute use of resources and conditions on aid to bolster supporters of institutional change and to overcome opposition;
  • Deploying advisers for extended periods with the background and skills necessary to interact with high-level officials and navigate political challenges;
  • Investment in communication, relationships, and trust with host-country officials.

Security governance also reflects realities beyond the security sector. International actors affect political conditions in numerous ways – by negotiating peace agreements, expanding political competition, or targeting commercial interests of powerful actors. Attention to the politics of institutional change can help move beyond overly technocratic approaches and vague conceptions of “political will.” It can also point to long-term strategies that look beyond the security sector to build the foundations of effective security governance.

[1] Berg, LA. 2020. “Civil–Military Relations and Civil War Recurrence: Security Forces in Postwar Politics.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 64 (7–8):1307–1334; Carey, SC, NJ Mitchell, W Lowe. 2013. "States, the Security Sector, and the Monopoly of Violence: A New Database on Pro-Government Militias." Journal of Peace Research 50(2):249-258; Toft, MD. 2010. Securing the Peace Princeton University Press; Walter, BF. 2002. Committing to Peace. Princeton University Press.

[2] Berg, LA. 2022. Governing Security After War: The Politics of Institutional Change in the Security Sector. Oxford University Press.

[3] Berg 2022

[4] Baaz, ME and Verweijen, J. 2013. “The Volatility of a Half-Cooked Bouillabaisse: Rebel–Military Integration and Conflict Dynamics in the Eastern DRC.” African Affairs, 112(449):563-582.

[5] Robinson, C., 2012. “Army Reconstruction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 2003–2009.” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 23(3):474-499.

[6] Flaws in personnel, command, logistics, and procurement contributed to major defeats early in the conflict. Drohan, B. and A. Forney. 2015. “The Lessons of Debaltseve" Foreign Policy. Available at

[7] Radin, A. 2020. Institution Building in Weak States: The Primacy of Local Politics. Georgetown University Press.

[8] Radin 2020; ANTAC. 2017. “War and Business.” Available at

[9] Zagorodynuk, A. et al. 2021. “Is Ukraine’s reformed military ready to repel a Russian invasion” Atlantic Council. Available at

Photo: Javier Allegue Barros, Unsplash 

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