The Political Nature of Strong Armies

March 29, 2016 A military’s role goes beyond fighting wars.

|March 29, 2016

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By Jacob L. Shapiro

Summary What do the militaries of China, Pakistan, Egypt and the United States have in common? They not only defend their nation-states, but also uniquely shape the ways their states develop.

The definition of war, according to military scholar Gen. Carl von Clausewitz, is “an act of violence intended to compel [your] opponent to fulfill [your] will.” In other words, nation-states establish militaries so that they can force an opponent to do what they want. However, a military’s role can also be more complex than just fighting an enemy. Despite the fact that no major global war is currently being fought, many of the world’s nation-states still maintain large standing armies with hundreds of thousands of active military personnel. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there are over 20 million military personnel on active duty throughout the world. If you take into account reserves and paramilitary forces, that number climbs to well over 60 million.
 
The first reason countries maintain large militaries is that nation-states cannot be too optimistic – they must be prepared for armed conflict and develop military capabilities according to their own unique threat environments. But the second reason is that national militaries often help maintain national unity. 
 
Take China for example. China has a mass-mobilization army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), that was designed to fight a type of war that isn’t fought anymore. But the PLA is not just a military force – it is a political force too. It serves both as the ultimate guarantor of the Communist Party’s rule and it is an institution for advancement for poor Chinese young men with dismal prospects. The PLA has to be strong enough to fend off a potential attack from Russia or Japan – but before it can do that, the PLA must be part of the glue that holds China together. Without that stabilizing effect, China is at risk of fragmenting along regional lines, as it has numerous times through its history.
 
That is what makes the directive issued by China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) on March 28 so significant. The People’s Liberation Army Daily reported that, at the order of President Xi Jinping and the CMC, the PLA will no longer provide paid services. These include all kinds of services in which the PLA currently is involved, ranging from military-operated hospitals to public hotels. No new contracts for paid services may be signed, and all existing contracts are not to be renewed over the course of the next three years. According to the report, exceptions will be made for particularly vital tasks, but even these will be governed by a currently undefined civil-military arrangement.
 
The PLA was previously banned from overt participation in the economy in 1998, but the situation today is very different than the growth-tinted landscape of the late 1990s. Xi is purging all of his opponents from every part of the Chinese government. His reform of the military is one of the most important ways he is attempting to consolidate both his and the Communist Party’s control over the main instruments of power in the Chinese state. The CMC directive is meant to eliminate PLA officers’ access to local and independent sources of money and power throughout China. Many of these officers depend on or greatly enjoy the extra money that comes with being a PLA officer. “Corruption” and “potential challenge to Xi” are now synonymous terms in China.
 
This particular move, announced in November and unveiled on Monday, is one of a number of recent military reforms Xi has pushed. It is not a zero-sum game – the PLA needs the Communist Party arguably just as much as the party needs the PLA. Xi has had to compromise on some new appointments for various regional commanders and has had to make clear that the state will provide jobs for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese military personnel who will lose their positions as a result of the reforms. The fact that Xi seems capable of issuing such an order is an important indicator of the effectiveness of the government in Beijing.
 
Another model for the military’s role in stabilizing (and at times upending) domestic politics can be seen in Egypt and Pakistan, where the military often rules directly. Both Pakistan and Egypt were at one point British colonies, and one of the results for both was that the military became the most vibrant institution in the country and has remained so. In Pakistan, the military does not just own roughly a third of all heavy manufacturing and some 12 million acres of land. It is also the provider of services when a calamity like an earthquake or a flood takes place. The National Logistics Cell, the executive bureau of the Pakistani government in charge of crisis management, was founded by a military-backed government in 1978, and has been in charge of everything from managing the logistics of Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to building new roads and improving the quality of Pakistan’s infrastructure.
 
However, the Pakistani military has never been able to dominate Pakistan by itself. In 1971, Pakistan descended into civil war, which resulted in the province of East Pakistan, today known as Bangladesh, declaring independence. And though the military is a highly respected institution in Pakistani civil society, it has never been able to govern without some kind of constitutional framework that includes parts of the civilian government. Various generals, like Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, have carried out coups, but in each case those leaders had to legitimize themselves to the civilian population via some sort of constitutional process. The result is a country where the military plays an important role in all the affairs of state, from defending Pakistan from potential threats from India and Afghanistan to responding to incidents like the suicide bombing on March 27 in Lahore.
 
In Egypt, the situation is even more pronounced, particularly when it comes to the economy. While the Pakistani military has one hand around Pakistan’s economy, the Egyptian military has both hands around it. It is notoriously difficult to estimate just how much of the Egyptian economy is dependent on the military, but some estimates suggest that the military contributes 45 percent of Egypt’s GDP.
 
The Arab Spring is often misinterpreted when it comes to Egypt. Hosni Mubarak’s ouster was encouraged by the military because Mubarak was hoping his son would replace him. His son had ambitious ideas about privatizing the economy and weakening the military’s hold over the affairs of state. And each time the Egyptian military intervened – in 2011 to overthrow Mubarak and in 2013 to remove Mohamed Morsi from power – it was greeted in the streets by Egyptians thankful the military was back in charge. In recent years, due to insufficient resources to support Egypt’s population growth, the position of the Egyptian military has become slightly more tenuous. But even so, there is no institution in the country that can consider mounting serious opposition to the the power of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s heirs.
 
Even in the United States, the military plays a crucial role in the cohesion of political life. When the United States was founded, the Continental Army was made up of various local colonial militias. Even as the nation neared its 100th birthday, the U.S. government did not possess enough force to preclude the secession of the South. In 1860, the U.S. Army had only 16,000 troops, and the top general in the country – a graduate of the country’s national military academy at West Point – opted to fight for his state rather than for the Union. The odds were long in defeating the North, but they were also not impossible.
 
The result was a bloody civil war that set the U.S. on a path of military development from which it has never looked back. The next six presidents were former generals, and two after that – William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt – were also military leaders. The Mississippi River made the United States naturally wealthy, but the U.S. military is as responsible for keeping the United States united as the Constitution. The result was that no force attempting to challenge the government in Washington would last long. The recent standoff in Oregon between supporters of the anti-government Bundy family and U.S. forces was more a farce than a serious story because there was no doubt about how the story was going to end. The power of the military-industrial complex of which Dwight Eisenhower spoke in 1961 is so overwhelming that even were a new regionalism to rise in the United States, it would be too weak to develop into a significant threat.
 
The purpose of a soldier is to fight a war, and the purpose of an army is to defend a state from the hostile intentions of another power. But the military establishments that grow out of the need for these institutions also have lives of their own. Like any institution or bureaucracy, they grow and change with time, and the relationship between state and military is never static.