CSS Research and Policy Seminars with Polina Beliakova

Senior Research Fellow Polina Beliakova presented two new papers on civil-military relations at at CSS Research and Policy Seminars in April. Her first paper analyzes the erosion of civilian control of the military beyond the traditional measure of coups, and her second investigates the causes of deference, defined as the delegation of authority to military leaders for tasks that are normally fulfilled by civilian officials.

In the first paper, Beliakova argues the same conditions that increase the probability of coups in autocracies, such as the occurrence of intrastate conflict, can lead to the erosion of civilian control in democracies. She tests this argument by presenting several statistical models alongside a plausibility probe case study of the First Chechen War. This paper makes a vital contribution to the literature and policy making on democratic backsliding as it clarifies the likely trajectory of a democratic country as it experiences gradual degradation in its civil-military relations.

The discussant, Sidita Kushi, encouraged Beliakova to narrow the focus of her paper to her key contributions while granting less time to repeating hypotheses already well explored in the literature. Kushi also reviewed the quantitative data presented in the paper and the case study, proposing some alterations to the models and variables. She asked for more historical background to the study of the First Chechen War and indicated where interviews and survey results could improve the case study.

In the second paper, Beliakova analyzes why civilian authorities delegate some of their powers to uniformed actors. After discussing the triangular dynamics connecting the government, military, and society that legitimize the delegation of powers via the popular vote, Beliakova introduces three novel theoretical pathways to help explain civilian deference. Civilian deference can leverage popular support for the military to make a given policy more popular, reduce the government’s exposure to the backlash that could result from a given policy, and defer responsibilities to the military in order to ensure its support. These pathways were then compared to the main alternative explanation that there is a genuine need for the irreplaceable expertise of military actors on certain issues.

Beliakova’s first case study covers the high number of military appointments to senior civilian positions under President Trump, which mostly resulted from a need to gain support for the administration’s policies. The second case looks at the loosening of civilian control during counterterrorism missions in Yemen, Somalia, and Syria after 9/11, which Beliakova attributes to a combination of her three causal pathways. The last case study discusses Trump’s decision to let military leaders define the number of troops necessary to win the war in Afghanistan in 2017, which was both an attempt to avoid responsibility and secure the military’s support.

The presentation was followed by a lively discussion involving other CSS members. Several topics were covered, including how the Trump administration and post-Cold War era fit within the long-term militarization of U.S. foreign policy, the concept of democratic backsliding, the arguments of the defenders of deference to military expertise, the role of civilian members of the military-industrial complex (corporations, think-tanks, etc.) and their ability to frame foreign policy debates, decision-making processes among senior civilian leaders, and potential avenues for further study.

CSS looks forward to following the development of Beliakova’s innovative research agenda on the erosion of civilian control of the military.

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