No. 1 - Jan. 1997
Vol. 45 - pp. 22-25

Ensuring military security
in a democratic society

Yuri Kirshin
Member of the Academy
of Military Sciences, Moscow

Yuri Kirshin
Totalitarian governments, the author argues, can easily prepare for, and wage, war while security policy in a democracy is essentially defensive and must be assured of popular support. Thus, democracies, and this is especially true of Russia, must find a way to ensure that the population accepts the need for sufficient resources to be allocated for defence. The author suggests that the adoption of democracy by the Russian people and the army cannot be taken for granted, the officer corps, in particular, fearing that it could undermine their authority. This problem is further compounded by the fact that the Communist Party had ensured that military theory was the prerogative of the state, and had regarded any independent creative thought as dangerous. The author therefore concludes that, as Russia implements the reform of the military, there is a need for much greater study of military theory which must be freed from its Marxist inheritance.

The end of the Cold War inspired great hopes for the achievement of a lasting peace but world developments in recent years have overturned these optimistic expectations. Wars are still being waged and armed conflicts continue to rage, and although the threat of nuclear war has diminished, it has not entirely disappeared. Many states are building up their military machines. Unlawful trafficking in nuclear materials is a stark reality. The uncontrolled flows of conventional weapons, especially by means of the arms trade, are destabilizing the international situation.

It is important in these circumstances to assess the possibilities for democratic states to ensure their military security - a task that is especially relevant for Russia which has embarked on democratic reform and is living through a period of transition.

The emergent Russian democracy is experiencing great difficulties in maintaining its military capability. Military reform is proceeding erratically, and it is focused on military and technical issues while insufficient attention is paid to the problems of democracy. The army to be reformed is conservative and lags behind the democratization of governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Peaceful policies of democratic countries

Totalitarian regimes are sources of war with a tendency to resort to the use of armed force to resolve various economic, political, ethnic, religious and territorial problems. Decisions on unleashing acts of aggression are taken by a narrow circle of political leaders and strategists, as we saw in Nazi Germany, and in the Soviet Union with respect to Finland and Afghanistan.

The militarization of politics, of the economy and cultural life is a feature of totalitarianism, and this was true of Soviet socialist totalitarianism. In the Soviet Union, the balance between the civilian and military sectors of the economy was distorted, and natural and economic resources were usurped to the detriment of the population. Thus, the quality of life in the country deteriorated, as did the demographic situation and the environment.

Most democratic states, on the other hand, are inherently peaceful, and many ideas on disarmament and the prevention of war have been put forward by such nations. Furthermore, democracy makes it possible for a broad anti-war movement to be launched should the government embark on the path of militarization and aggression.

This situation is due, in the first place, to the fact that the military policies and doctrines of democratic states are defensive, and their armies are intended to repulse acts of external aggression and to prevent war.

Second, democratic nations do not militarize their politics, economies or intellectual life but rather maintain a rational balance between the quality of life and the military capability of the state, and between the civilian and military sectors of the economy.

Third, such nations maintain democratic civilian control over military policies, the army and the military budget.

Finally, decisions on key issues of war and peace are taken by a broad circle of political leaders, including the legislature and the executive branches of government, which must be assured of popular support. The leaders of democratic countries tend to have a more humane and fair attitude to their peoples and to the rights of the individual.

Unlike totalitarian regimes, democratic nations base their security on popular trust and support, on respect for the law, and on the promotion of upright and competent leaders. The popular support of democratic governance is more enduring and solid than the repression of totalitarian regimes and the operations of their secret services.

This does not mean, however, that democratic nations have not waged and will never wage wars of aggression. There is a considerable gap between the abstract ideal of democracy and the way in which it is practised in the West - it is no secret that some democracies can be inhumane. But it is true to say that countries with insufficiently developed democratic regimes have been known to seize territory and suppress national democratic movements.

The democratic forces of the world have a powerful potential to prevent all kinds of wars, both those between and within nations, which are waged by political, economic, cultural and military means. The prevention of war is at once a science and an art; that is, it is necessary to draw on social, natural, and technical sciences, yet research in these areas has not been pursued thoroughly and profoundly enough. In particular, scientists could advise on the creation and use of capabilities to deter aggression, but more than scientific knowledge is required since the skill in applying it in concrete situations is also needed if wars are to be prevented. That is to say, it is necessary to master the art of war prevention.

War fighting capabilities of totalitarian and democratic regimes

Totalitarian regimes have vast opportunities for preparing for, and waging, wars. In extreme circumstances, the Soviet Union was able to mobilize the population to carry out industrialization and collectivization, to build up a powerful war potential, win the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War), and quickly achieve economic recovery.

But the possibilities of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are not infinite. Catherine II maintained that, "A great empire like Russia will collapse if any other rule than autocracy is established, because autocracy alone can ensure the speed required to meet the needs of remote areas, while any other rule would be destructive owing to the slowness of its forces and actions." She may have been right for the conditions that existed in Russia at the time but it is unwise to jump to conclusions about the potential of authoritarianism. The Second World War demonstrated that the Anglo-Saxon democracies were able to generate the will and the capacity for a heroic effort for the defeat of fascism.

The success of democratic nations in a defensive war does not come automatically or spontaneously. A democratic regime is inherently more diverse and humane, setting high professional and moral standards for the political and military leadership, but its defence capability will depend on the depth and scope of democratic development. The less developed a democracy, the more difficult it is to resolve the issues of war and peace and to prepare and wage defensive wars. The ideal conditions are a strong democratic state and a well-developed civil society since such a regime is capable of waging a truly popular war.

The civil society in particular has a major role to play in implementing military policy. It guarantees that participation in war is appropriate; that the rules and customs of warfare are observed; and that there is popular support for the war effort. Civil society makes it possible to mobilize regional social structures as well as all the ethnic and religious communities to defend the country.

As practice shows, in order to wage a defensive war the democratic state has to restrict some elements of democracy: to increase the degree of centralization, to make some changes in the market economy, to increase the role of the executive branch of government and to toughen legislation.

At the same time, centralization should not be allowed to go too far or it can lead to the establishment of a tyranny, or "enlightened authoritarianism" on the assumption that this can be more efficient not only in repelling aggression but also in eliminating crime and corruption, and advancing reform, including military reform.

The prolonged experience of the Soviet Union illustrated this problem including the numerous methods employed by the political and military leadership and the behaviour of the masses. Now, Russia and its army has many personalities in the authoritarian mould, and some reformers, including in the military, argue that without such a regime the communists will strengthen their position in the country.

When analysing the connection between democracy and the maintenance of the military, it is important to identify the most practicable system of recruitment into the army. The record of a professional army is contradictory. On the one hand, it is democratic since it is based on the voluntary principle but, on the other, it loses its ties, to some extent, with the people. It is important that a democratic society, and this is especially true for Russia, mount a major information campaign to explain to the population the need to allocate sufficient resources for the defence of the country, and this campaign should be conducted not only by the federal leadership, but also by the constituent parts of the Federation.

Democracy does not require repression either in peacetime or in times of war, thus servicemen, not fearing violence, repression, arrest, insults and humiliation, will have a higher level of morale and fighting skills, but this, too, will require a tremendous educational effort.

In the Russian state, the moral and political potential could be enhanced by encouraging the population of the Federation, or the regions, to participate in the debate, drawing on their experience in the field of the economy, their traditions, ethnic and religious background, and on the rights and freedoms which have been extended to them. It may be noted in passing that the theoretical aspects of the connection between military security and the development of democratic processes in the Federation have yet to be worked out.

In totalitarian states, the opposition is usually driven underground, so its impact on military security, in both times of war and peace, is often insignificant, as was the case in the USSR. In democratic states, the opposition acts legally which makes it harder for a uniform military policy to be imposed. Unity is only achieved when there is a perceived threat to all the parties and movements.

Acceptance of democracy by the people and the army in Russia is by no means to be taken for granted. Russia is living through a transitional period and the democratic state and the civil society are only just being formed. As the years pass, the situation will change. Freedom of expression, of assembly, freedom of conscience and new values will emerge as powerful factors of patriotism. Then the people and the army, when the need arises, will stand up for democracy and freedom with enthusiasm and dedication.

Many generals and officers associate democracy with anarchy, insubordination and lack of discipline. They are afraid that democracy will undermine the authority of the commander, make warfare more difficult, and loosen discipline. Such sentiments must, of course, be reversed but, for the moment, theory and political science do not provide effective arguments for the re-education of the officers corps.

Development of military theory

Democratic countries, unlike totalitarian states, have broader opportunities to develop every aspect of military theory. In the Soviet Union, the development of military theory had been dedicated entirely to the overriding political goal. This is borne out by some assumptions of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine on war and the army: the only cause of war is the private ownership of property; imperialist countries are the only source of war; the socialist countries wage only just wars; socialist countries have the moral right to be the first to unleash war; war is a vehicle of the revolution; a nuclear world war would result in the defeat of imperialism; wars lead to socialist revolutions, and so on.

The Marxist-Leninist doctrine on war and the army provided the methodological and philosophical basis for all the components of military theory which developed under its influence. The monopoly of this doctrine, which did not address the diversity of the problems of war and peace, nor the preparation and conduct of war, was one of the reasons for the incorporation of some erroneous principles into military science.

The doctrine imposed the theory of social and economic systems on the analysis of societal development as well as on military science, wars and the building of the armed forces. The history of wars in the socialist countries was tied to the study of slave-owning, feudal, capitalist systems and to socialist systems. Any serious comparison was incompatible with the social-class approach which left out a large number of wars which did not support the theory. The class approach, which prevailed in every department of military theory, enabled the leadership of the Communist Party and the Soviet state to combat dissent.

Under Soviet rule, military theory became the prerogative of the state. The country did not have a single alternative military science research centre, as the Party leadership perceived independent creative thought as dangerous, thus it acted as the supreme ideological arbiter. Debate was only allowed on military-technical matters and was confined to a narrow circle of people. Censorship quashed any original ideas.

Military commanders had little knowledge of the works of Western strategists and the books by the "enemies of the people" Verkhovsky, Svechin and Tukhachevsky were banned. All the ideas of Western strategists were proclaimed to be false and reactionary. Military scientists were expected to oppose Western military ideology, and they were not permitted to see any grain of rationality in the works of Clausewitz, De Gaulle, Douhet, Colomb, and Guderian. As dissenting opinions in military theory were banned, military scientists were reduced to providing arguments to support the ideas of the top military commanders.

In the armies of democratic states, plurality of opinions is allowed in every department of military theory. There are many independent centres of military studies and many journals and newspapers discuss these issues. Diversity of opinion is a feature of government, academies, schools and research centres.

As Russia implements democratic reform and pursues reform of the military, a number of theoretical problems must be resolved. Above all, it is necessary to develop the political aspects of military theory in order to free it from its erroneous Marxist inheritance. Unfortunately, the present level of these studies does not rise to the new challenges, nor does it match the requirements of a democratic rule-of-law state with a market economy.

There is no doubt that the capacity of democratic and totalitarian states to ensure military security is a subject that requires a great deal of further study by military theorists. The ideas expressed in this article, while not by any means the last word on this subject, will hopefully contribute to this task.

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