No. 1 - Jan. 1997
Vol. 45 - pp. 15-19

Defence transformation
in the new democracies:
A framework for tackling the problem

Chris Donnelly
NATO's Special Adviser for Central
and East European Affairs

Chris Donnelly
All nations in Europe are confronted by problems stemming from the restructuring, reform and downsizing of their armed forces but nowhere is this more acute than in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In this second of two articles to be published in NATO Review, the author argues that the new democracies must find their own national solutions to the problem of defence transformation though, as a contribution to the debate, he puts forward ideas on how a solution might be sought. In the previous edition of NATO Review (No. 6, November), the author had called for a more frank exchange of ideas on resolving the difficulty faced by all these countries which must limit defence spending while attempting to provide effective armed forces.

The prodigious social changes that have occurred in Central and Eastern Europe over the last few years have been nowhere more dramatic than in the defence and national security establishments of the new democracies.

Attention has, quite rightly, been focused on the positive aspects of this change - the move away from confrontation to friendship, the development of partnership activities, the reduction in the size of armed forces in both East and West, the increased openness and demilitarization of societies. Far less attention, however, is paid in the media to the dramas and tensions resulting from the restructuring, reform and downsizing which confront the national armed forces themselves.

While these tensions and problems afflict all armies involved, NATO members, former neutrals and partner countries alike, the extent of change and the enormity of the associated problems are far greater in Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, the magnitude of the difficulties faced by armed forces in transition, and the problems of Central and Eastern European countries in establishing effective management of defence and security policies, is only just being recognized.

This is a far more complex issue, and far more difficult to resolve, than was thought when the process of transformation was begun five or six years ago. It is only now being realized that those societies, including Russian society, which are transforming from a command to a market economy and democratic system, will have to reform fundamentally their entire framework of defence and national security. This involves a total reassessment of their national security requirements, developing new mechanisms and procedures for elaborating national security policy and for crisis management, a major restructuring and downsizing of the military system, a reorientation of the officer corps and of the military philosophy generally, and a far-reaching reform of the military-industrial procurement and production system.

NATO member nations have tended to focus on only one element of this transformation - the establishment of democratic control over defence policy. Furthermore, they are beginning to understand that their approach to creating effective armed forces within a democracy and market economy does not always offer an appropriate model for Central and Eastern European countries.

The fact is that a national strategy for the transformation of the national defence establishments has to be just that - a national strategy. No external agency, individual or institution can provide an answer. But as all Western countries have had to struggle with this problem over time, there is a value in Western specialists sharing their experience and analyses of the problem, as certain elements may nevertheless be applicable to the new democracies.

In working on this issue with Central and Eastern European countries over the past few years, I have developed my own ideas of how to structure an intellectual framework to address the problem, and it is on these conclusions that this article is based.

I believe that the basis for a strategy could be found in the following process:

  • determining the nature and extent of the problem;
  • breaking the problem down into basic elements;
  • planning the solution to elements of the problem;
  • implementing the solution.

Realization of the nature and extent of the problem

In many countries, the problem is not appreciated, or its extent and complexity are not acknowledged. Sometimes, it is denied that a problem even exists. This should not come as a surprise. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are in the process of changing their entire system of values and a thorough understanding of this fundamental process is an essential prerequisite for tackling civil-military relations. The first requirement, therefore, is for a detailed and thorough study of this question as an element of the transition process. As the understanding of the general situation improves, so will the national capacity to deal with it.

At this point, external collaboration can be valuable, because it is often easier for an outsider to see the essential elements of a problem. I have become aware, for example, of a certain tendency in post-communist institutions to separate research from action, in the belief that once a problem has been identified it has been solved. Research must be coupled to a planned programme of action.

In addressing this question in Central and Eastern Europe, it has to be borne in mind that in any society, the factors which, over a long period of time, would normally mould the size and shape of the armed forces are domestic history plus historical national culture. An army reflects its society and is much more shaped by it than by a potential threat. Only under the really imminent threat of war does an army adapt to meet this challenge.

But for 40 years, Soviet and Warsaw Pact military organizations reflected not their own national historical and cultural background but an ideologically driven system which kept socialist countries in a permanently semi-mobilized state. In military terms, this was doubtless a most effective system but it contributed to the destruction of the socialist countries' national economies.

This artificial situation has now been ended, but it has left a painful task of realignment. The army has to get used to the idea that its entire basis for operation and even existence has been changed fundamentally. In the meantime, society has to understand that it has to build up and nourish a new kind of army.

In my evaluation, no post-communist country has yet achieved a totally satisfactory degree of democratic control and good civil-military relations. In all cases, as societies transform, their armies lag behind. Moreover, in many countries, this gap is getting bigger. It has become clear that this is a long-term and complex problem that will be difficult to solve.

Breaking the problem down

When discussing "democratic control" the totality of the issue being dealt with is, in reality, "the transformation of defence establishments in post-communist states". This can first be broken down into three very distinct, though interlinked, areas:

  • democratic control itself;
  • civil-military relations;
  • defence reform.

These three aspects are frequently confused or blurred, or only one element is seized upon, the other two being ignored while it is claimed that the problem has been overcome when in fact only a partial and inadequate solution has been achieved.

For example, it is no good claiming that "we have good democratic control" if the country has an army which is in a shambles; no one in the government really knows how many hospital beds are the equivalent of the cost of a battalion of tanks, or if the civilian government cannot identify how many tanks are required to defend the country.

These issues are not just the job of soldiers to decide - the decision must be a mutual balance of responsibility between politicians and their technical specialists, just as the number of hospital beds a country can afford is decided not by doctors alone but by politicians in discussion with doctors, so no NATO country lets its military decide how many tanks to buy. A pluralistic society recognizes that the conflict of interest between ministers in government is a reflection of the conflict within society where resources are always finite.

Each of the above three main areas can be further broken down as follows:

Democratic control encompasses government direction of military activity and parliamentary oversight of both government and the military (the English word "control" is often inadequately translated in this respect).

Civil-military relations include army-government relations, and army-society relations.

Defence reform covers restructuring the armed forces so that they reflect the need for defending an independent state, and reorientation of military psychology to come to terms with operating in a democracy. This latter factor is very important and often overlooked. It is a common Central and Eastern European military view that the more democratic a country becomes, the less respect there is for the army. This is, of course, very wrong. A democracy needs a competent army well supported by the population. But it is easy to see how this attitude has arisen amongst the armies of Central and Eastern Europe which have suffered unstructured defence cuts instead of planned reform.

These issues carry with them certain requirements. Democratic control brings a responsibility for the military to educate civilians in the government, parliament and media on military affairs, and it is incumbent on civilian officials to be prepared to learn, so that civilian and military can collaborate effectively. Democratic control also presupposes an effective division of responsibility between individuals and institutions which, in practice, means the General Staff giving up certain responsibilities to the civilian authorities. It is the function of knowledgeable civilians to represent the military in political disputes.

Good civil-military relations are a two-way street. The military must help shape the attitude of the civilian population, and the best tool for that task is the media.

As for defence reform, this requires not just technical restructuring but changes in attitudes within the armed forces. Communications must be established which work bottom up, to supplement the top-down issuing of orders. The armed forces must be prepared to consider alternative military structures as an element of a national security concept.

Planning the solution

There are, I believe, four principles or "rules" which may serve at least as a start in addressing the core of the problem.

Rule 1. A country which has no problems of civil-military relations and democratic control is a country which has no democracy.

There will always be tension between civilians and military because there is no such thing as a democratic army as it is, by its nature, authoritarian. The key is learning how to cope with reconciling a non-democratic institution within a democracy. Secondly, there is no perfection. No nation is satisfied with its achievements in this field - everyone is striving to improve. In this subject there can be no teachers and students - only students with different degrees of experience and attainment.

Rule 2. Every country will have a different solution to the problem which they will have to work out for themselves.

Western institutions cannot and will not step in and solve problems like this, whatever some Central and Eastern European countries may think.

Rule 3. Defence transformation, good civil-military relations and democratic control are problems which must be solved. They cannot be ignored or they will destabilize society.

These problems should not be seen merely as conditions imposed by some Western institutions. Rather, they are prerequisites of a normal healthy society with which other countries can deal comfortably.

What are the objectives of transforming the defence establishment? This process is not only an essential element of democracy and market economy but it is also an essential element of having an effective army in the modern age. Thus it is in the interests of both the civilian government and the military authorities that it is successfully achieved.

Rule 4. Democratic control is a two-way process between army and society, not one where politicians simply dictate to soldiers.

It is essential to avoid the development of a hostile attitude where the civilian authorities regard the armed forces as dangerous elements to be restrained. Civilian governmental institutions must give the armed forces the care, the respect and the financing they need in order that mutual trust, and a common interest in resolving the problem, can be developed. The essence of this symbiosis is accountability. The army is accountable to the government, the government is accountable to the army and to parliament, and parliament is accountable to the people.

There is no doubt that neglect by political leaders is the single biggest obstacle to defence reform in Russia and several other Central and East European countries.

Western attempts to help address the problems of defence transformation were at first often resented since they were sometimes seen as preaching, offensive or insensitive. East-West military-military links frequently do not contain enough civil-military cross-fertilization and if this is not compensated for, it can actually make the problem worse, isolating Central and Eastern European military staffs from their own civilian governments.

Furthermore, existing Western training courses are usually much less effective than they should be because the Western course organizers are unable to tailor them to the psychology, mentality and value system of the audiences. The only answer is for countries to resolve their own problems and then find Western sources to assist them with specific aspects in a mutual project.

To outline a solution to the problem requires addressing a number of areas where governmental or non-governmental specialists can make a specific contribution. First is the need to address imperfections of new constitutions - settling the issue of where the power lies. Such imperfections can include a power struggle between president/parliament/government, and polarization between political parties. This can draw the army into politics - a very dangerous development - which can result in making it part of the power struggle or in the government giving no proper political lead so that the army is rudderless. Then there is the question of civilian competence in defence issues which, often lacking, can affect civil servants, parliament, the media and the public.

It does not matter how good in theory the democratic structures for control are if there are no competent civilians to man the ministry of defence or who can talk to the military on equal terms, if there is no real understanding in parliament of the army's justifiable needs, and no means of educating the voter.

These are acute problems found in all Central and Eastern European countries and, at their core, is the absence in most of these countries of a stable and institutionalized civil service. When a government changes, most of the civilian staff in high positions are instantly changed too, thus there is no capacity for the development of a reservoir of expertise. There is a high wastage rate of civilians joining and leaving a ministry of defence, and the military holds civilians in contempt. If all advisers to defence policy-makers are military, and policy-makers are ignorant of military realities, then the army, not the government, is controlling defence policy.

Tuchyna & Gutman
Slovakia's Chief of Staff Col. Gen. Jozef Tuchyna (left) and Slovenia's counterpart Col. Gen. Albin Gutman attend the Military Committee meeting in Cooperation session at NATO's Brussels headquarters last April, a forum which promotes military to military contacts. (NATO photo 23Kb)

As has been noted above, achieving defence transformation is dependent on a mutual civil-military understanding. No parliamentarian or civil servant can be satisfied he has good democratic control if the army is a shambles and has a bad image, and in most Central and Eastern European countries this is the case. Nowhere does the population understand the need to invest in defence, nowhere is there an adequate understanding of how to control defence budgets properly.

Just as the officer corps has a bad opinion of civilian experts and politicians, so also it is common for civilian intellectuals (many of whom serve in parliament) to despise the military and not to admit its justifiable needs. The military often compounds this by being excessively sensitive to criticism, maintaining a myth about past heroics, failing to learn from its own mistakes and covering up inadequacies. In the long run, this attitude, too, erodes military effectiveness. Yet friction generated by conflicting interests between the military and a civilian government is perfectly normal, indeed it is essential to maintaining the health of both the nation's military system and its political mechanisms. But it needs regulating if it is not to be destructive.

Post-communist military society is still a society closed to civilians and which resists civilian interference. While there may be good reasons for this, and the situation is certainly better than it was, it remains a serious problem. The military fears depredations by ignorant civilians. It has a strong sense of its own loyalty and, in defence matters, it is convinced that it knows best. Furthermore, the military is very distressed by the strains of transition.

The result is military resistance to efforts to develop democratic control, which itself generates hostility and prevents a mutually advantageous solution from being worked out. As a result, there is no Central and Eastern European country that has the effective army it needs and no government that can evaluate what kind of defence it requires, nor what size, nor evaluate the proposals of its generals.

Implementing the solution

It is the duty of all who hold positions of influence or authority - civil servants, media representatives, parliamentarians, university staff - to address the detail of the problem that falls within their own area of responsibility, viz: constitutional issues, competence of experts, dialogue with the military, selling the military to society, and helping to make it more popular; and seeing that the military develops pride in itself and makes itself competent and efficient.

These ideas do not constitute a solution to the problem of defence transformation, they are only an outline of how a solution might be sought. This problem must be resolved by the nations themselves. No institution, not even NATO, can of itself provide the answer. It is only when these nations have begun to tackle the problem effectively that NATO will be able to provide useful help.

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