No. 2 - Mar. 1997
Vol. 45 - pp. 32-35

NATO partners and allies:
Civil-military relations and democratic
control of the armed forces

Marco Carnovale

of NATO's Political Affairs Division

This article follows on those written by Chris Donnelly in the last two issues of the NATO Review. It offers another view of what it means to achieve healthy civil-military relations and democratic control of the armed forces. It looks at various problems related to that effort, such as how long it takes to make progress and how to measure it. It also illustrates some of the activities that NATO and partners are developing in this sphere. It argues that achieving democratic control of the military is not a rigidly structured endeavour, but rather a long process, which is difficult to measure and does not lead to universally definable results. Nonetheless, it remains an indispensable task for new and old democracies alike.

Both partners and allies agree that to enhance democratic control of defence (1) is a common priority, for three main reasons. First, it is an essential element of democracy. As Kant taught us, democracies are much less likely to go to war, especially against one another: therefore, democratic control of defence increases the likelihood that a country remains at peace, and thus improves its security, which is what defence forces are all about.

Second, far from tying its hands, democratic control of defence is useful for the military. The latter, just as other organizations, benefits from external scrutiny and oversight which catalyse improvement and help prevent abuse and waste; as demonstrated in many European countries and elsewhere in the world, a more transparent military is more efficient and effective than one which operates in social seclusion and above the law.

Third, democratic control of defence provides the armed forces with indispensable legitimacy. In doing so, it earns them a greater degree of acceptance and respect by society at large, which they will need when seeking manpower (including conscripts) and national resources.

The Partnership for Peace Framework Document rightly places democratic control of defence as a high priority and it has remained a focus in the activities of the Partnership Work Programme. It has also been the subject of several brainstorming sessions of the NATO Political-Military Steering Committee (PMSC).(2) The PMSC first met with partners and experts from capitals to discuss this issue in September 1995. Allied and partner representatives agreed that there are no universally accepted definitions or models of democratic control of defence. NATO itself cannot provide a model, simply because each ally follows its own unique cultural, political and military traditions.

However, allies, and particularly those which have recently made their own transitions to democracy, can and do offer valid examples. Militaries which have been tied to undemocratic regimes in the past may not be seen in a good light by their own populations. This, however, should not be an impediment to their contribution to democracy today; the military must transform itself to become a full-fledged component of democratic society; the latter, in turn, should not hold the military as a whole responsible for the errors of past regimes.

Common denominators

Of course, building up experience takes time. To address democratic control of defence is therefore a long-term commitment, and there is as much value in the process itself as in the end result. How long does it take?

An old adage says that one needs a bag of seed and 200 years to grow good British grass. At NATO, allies and partners are planting the seeds, but British grass may actually be fast-growing when compared to the problem addressed here, because no 'definitive solution' is ever available when it comes to democratic control of defence. The goal is a mental attitude, not a fixed mechanism. This should result in a flexible approach so that appropriate steps can be taken in new situations. Thus, patterns of democratic control of defence may vary according to circumstances and change with time.

However, while there is no 'correct' model, there are common denominators which, in the view of many allied and partner experts, should be present everywhere. These include:

  • First, a constitutional and legislative structure with clearly defined responsibilities and appropriate checks and balances among state institutions;

  • Second, clearly defined civilian control over the Ministry of Defence and the military establishment, with civilian officials of a government having key roles in both;

  • Third, substantive and detailed, not just perfunctory, parliamentary oversight over security policy and spending; a parliament limited to a rubber-stamp role betrays poor democratic control of defence;

  • Fourth, sufficient transparency of decision-making to allow for a thorough public scrutiny of defence matters. While there are obvious requirements for secrecy in defence programmes, these should not be pushed beyond what is strictly necessary, and must not undermine democratic accountability;

  • Fifth, an informed national debate on security, in which a special role is played by civilian experts in government, media, political parties, and by independent sources of advice and critical assessment, such as research institutes.

If all of the above common denominators were present, the military would have the tools it needs to perform its proper role in a democratic society. The soldier should be a citizen wearing a uniform and, as such, an organic part of democratic political life. In fact, armed forces deeply rooted in a democratic society are a barrier against the danger of militarization of government for nationalist or even personal ambitions. Also, besides its core function of national defence, the military may be called to perform additional functions in peacetime, such as emergency relief, control of the national territory or peacekeeping abroad. Therefore, the military is an essential component of the political life of a democratic state at all times.

How to integrate the military in the political life of each country varies, and, again, there is no 'right way'. For example, some countries (among both allies and partners) allow active duty military officers to be elected to parliament; others require that they resign upon being elected to public office; in still others, for an officer to take a political stand is considered unacceptable altogether.

Civil-military relations, crisis management and peacekeeping

The new post-Cold War tasks of NATO - crisis management and peace keeping - make democratic control of defence even more important. These missions have also seen wide spread participation by many partners, as in the NATO-led IFOR, and now SFOR, missions in Bosnia. Here, there is no clear distinction between peacetime and wartime, entailing a much greater need for continuous civil-military interaction.

These are truly political-military enterprises, in which civilian leaders and military commanders contribute to the decision-making process. More than ever, political leaders must understand the military tools at their disposal, and military commanders must understand the underlying political purposes and constraints. Aims are developed and decisions taken by political authorities, whether in national capitals, or at the headquarters of international organizations such as the UN or NATO. The military provides advice on what it considers militarily feasible and what resources are necessary.

For these operations to be successful, a secure and trusting civil-military relationship must be taken for granted. This has always been an important factor, but it is indispensable when addressing the conflicts and crises which have emerged in Europe since the end of the Cold War. In the former Yugoslavia, NATO, together with the UN and other international organizations and many partners, had its first experience in the field. While lessons have been learned for further improvement, it has proved to be a success, in no small part thanks to the smooth functioning of civil-military relations among the actors involved.

The role of other international organizations in strengthening democratic control of defence is also appreciated at NATO. This is why NATO has sought to involve the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the EU, the WEU, the North Atlantic Assembly (NAA) and the Council of Europe in its initiatives on democratic control of defence. A PMSC meeting with partners entirely devoted to the democratic control of defence aspects of the OSCE Code of Conduct was held in May 1996, with the participation of all the above-mentioned institutions, including a direct contribution by the OSCE itself. NATO looks forward to continued effective cooperation with other actors in this way.

Rühe, Dobrzánski & Millon
German Defence Minister Volker Rühe (left) clasps hands with Polish counterpart, Stanislaw Dobrzánski (centre), and French Defence Minister Charles Millon (right), after signing an agreement in Warsaw on 28 January to strengthen military cooperation between the three countries.
(Belga 33Kb)

Developing the security debate

Just as an open debate on fiscal and monetary policies is needed in a market economy, one on security policies is essential in a democracy. While the former is developing rather well in much of Central and Eastern Europe, the latter is not; although considerable progress has been achieved, the democratic transitions remain incomplete. Efforts to improve democratic control of defence have been perceived as a way to 'qualify' for NATO membership. But to build a complete democracy is important whether or not a country develops closer ties to NATO or aspires to membership; it is a goal in itself.

To have an informed debate one needs knowledgeable debaters! Hence the overriding requirement to strengthen civilian expertise in defence. The role of education in forming a competent pool of civilian expertise is paramount. This process also contributes to recasting the image of the military, which is often faced with widespread apathy or, in some cases, open antipathy, from the population at large.

Incompetent politicians are not respected by the military as their leaders, though some in the military may prefer incompetent civilian interlocutors in the mistaken belief that they would delegate more and ask fewer questions. This is misguided, however, because incompetence does not prevent politicians from asking questions; they just ask the wrong questions, do not understand the answers and feed a vicious circle of mutual distrust.

NATO allies and partners run a large number of activities to develop civilian expertise in security. NATO has strengthened its information programmes for partners including conferences and seminars (such as at the NATO Defense College and at the NATO School (SHAPE) in Oberammergau), visits programmes, fellowships, etc., and it has sought to improve their focus and avoid being patronizing. Participation of students from partner countries in NATO courses and at such courses in member nations is growing, and not only in the defence field, but also in areas such as financial control and public administration. Both civilian and military participants attend, and a true international civil-military community of defence experts is being formed. It is essential that partner countries make the fullest use of civilians who return from these courses, and that the participants contribute their newly acquired expertise to enhance democratic control of defence at home.

Private foundations, too, fund programmes aimed at strengthening civil-military relations. Though competition is fierce, many foundations are devoting funds and specific attention to this question. In this context, research 'think-tanks' in Central and Eastern Europe (which often link up with their Western counterparts) are an invaluable resource for their countries.

A case-study

In trying to move from theoretical discussion to concrete field work, NATO held a formal PMSC session with partners on democratic control of defence in a partner capital last October. The meeting, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, was opened by NATO Deputy Secretary General Sergio Balanzino and Slovenian Foreign Minister Davorin Kracun, and was also addressed by numerous high-level Slovenian officials from both Government and Parliament. Contributions were also provided from representatives of the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

This was the first time the PMSC has met outside NATO headquarters, and it was an invaluable opportunity for members to have a first-hand look at how one partner country, and a newly independent one, has been moving to create its own model of democratic control of defence and to compare and contrast it with the experience of other partner countries.

The four sessions of the meeting were devoted to the legal framework which defines civil-military interaction in Slovenia, including normal peacetime arrangements and special provisions for crisis situations; to the system of parliamentary oversight of defence policy and budgets; to the relationship between the armed forces and the government; and to the role of NGOs and the media in the national security debate.


PfP Exercise
"The military may be called to perform additional functions in peacetime, such as emergency relief and peacekeeping." Here, Hungarian soldiers take part in the PfP peacekeeping exercise Cooperative Best Effort '96 last September.
(Belga 35Kb)

Democratic control of defence is a problem of considerable magnitude, but much progress can already be seen, in part as a result of the stimulus provided, in many countries, by the desire to prepare for NATO membership. This author has argued that it takes a long time to make progress in the development of civil-military relations and that there is no definitive solution. In NATO there are as many solutions as there are nations, and this will continue to be so once the Alliance takes in new members.

Even if there were one optimal solution, it could never really be 'achieved' because if it were this would mean the end of democracy, which implies a continuing, if regulated, juxtaposition among different competing claims for resources and policy choices. The emphasis here must be on the process: NATO partners and allies, together with other organizations, will continue to work at improving democratic control of defence. In the spring of 1997, a further meeting of the PMSC is envisaged on parliamentary oversight of defence, and another one in a partner capital is expected to take place in the autumn.

Lack of target models should be no cause for pessimism over democratic control of defence: true, one cannot define it but, to paraphrase a former member of the US Supreme Court, we all know it when we see it!


  1. This article uses the term "democratic control of defence" as short hand for "healthy civil-military relations and democratic control of defence forces" as achieved, in part, through adequate defence reform; these are admittedly different categories, though highly interdependent ones (see article by Chris Donnelly in NATO Review, No. 1, January 1997, pp. 15-19).

  2. The NATO body which manages Partnership for Peace.

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