Political and Military Coups Research Paper

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. The Nature and Causes of Coups d’Etat

A. Definition of Coups d’Etat

1. Extralegal or Illegal Transfer of Power

2. The Noncritical Role of Violence

3. The Inconsequential Nature of Popular Will

4. Affirmation of Social and Institutional Structures

5. Types of Coups d’Etat

B. The Causes of Coups d’Etat

1. Acute Causes of Coups d’Etat

2. Chronic Causes of Coups d’Etat

III. Internal and External Policy Implications of Coups

A. Consequences of Coups d’Etat

B. “Coup-Proofing” and Other Internal State Policies

1. Redundancy

2. Surveillance

3. Loyalty

4. Funding and Appeasement

C. Foreign Policy Responses to External Coups

1. Responses Directed Toward the Coup State

2. Responses Stemming From the Coup Itself

IV. Future Directions for the Study of Coups d’Etat

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

In the study of comparative politics and international relations, few phenomena are quite as mysterious as the coup d’état. In many countries, coups are a regular and even frequent source of regime change. Coups can be observed nearly every year all around the world, and there is a large and diverse body of coups, successful and unsuccessful, for scholars to study. Yet fundamental questions about coups persist. In a revolution, we can observe mass social movements of people seeking change. In legal regime changes, whether hereditary or democratic, we can observe a process that is frequently clear and usually public that guides the transition of power from one government to the next. This clarity is absent in most coups d’état. This is problematic for both scholars and political leaders. Scholars want to understand coups in order to grasp the overall picture of regime change in international politics. Political leaders need to understand coups as they are likely to encounter this sudden and unpredictable change in government, possibly even their own.

In an effort to explore this puzzling phenomenon, numerous scholars have attempted to explain the nature, causes, and consequences of coups. This research paper first defines and characterizes coups d’état. Next, it discusses the main factors thought to cause coups to emerge. Third, it examines the consequences of coups, both within the state and for other interested countries. A necessary component of this examination is a discussion of how states seek to prevent coups from occurring. Last, this research paper suggests some directions for future research on coups d’état.

II. The Nature and Causes of Coups d’Etat

What is a coup? Like many terms in the study of international politics, the term coup has entered our popular lexicon. Coups have come to refer to any action that is characterized as sudden, decisive, dramatic, and usually highly successful. As we shall see, some of these characteristics, though certainly not all, typify coups d’état. The word coup is of French origin and means stroke or blow. Therefore, a coup d’état is literally a “blow of state” or, more idiomatically, a blow aimed at or against a state. However, this tells us little about the nature of coups and what distinguishes coups d’état from other forms of regime change, especially their close cousin, the revolution. The first task of this section, therefore, is to provide a definition of coups d’état.

A. Definition of Coups d’Etat

Broadly, a coup d’état is a form of regime change. When coups are successful, a new or at least partially new government supplants the prior power structure. Coups are similar in this way to all other forms of regime change, from democratic elections to mass revolutions. There are, however, key differences that distinguish coups from other types of regime change. These key differences are discussed below.

1. Extralegal or Illegal Transfer of Power

Perhaps most obviously, a coup d’état is not a legal transfer of power. If a transfer of power occurs according to some legislative action or constitutional directive, a coup has not taken place. It is tempting to say that coups are irregular or abnormal transfers of power. However, coups happen so regularly and repeatedly in some countries that this is not a useful way of understanding coups d’état. Furthermore, notions of irregularity or abnormality create a status quo bias in our understanding of coups d’état. Coups may or may not lead to better governance for their people, but by treating them as irregular or abnormal transitions of power, we give undue benefit to the leadership previously in power. Therefore, it is useful to think of coups as regime changes occurring outside of any stated or previously agreed-on transfer of power.

2. The Noncritical Role of Violence

In comparison with other forms of regime change, coups d’état do not necessarily rely on violence or the threat of violence to affect the transition of power to a new government. This notion may initially seem counterintuitive, but once understood, it helps to clearly differentiate coups d’état from other forms of regime change. In a revolution, the government is expelled from power by direct violence or threat of violence. In a coup d’état, the government loses power because an elite faction is able to use its resources to acquire a preponderance of power in government without significant violence or coercion.

In casual discussions of the topic, the term bloodless coup has become popular. This term is illustrative of the general nature of coups, even if the literal application of the term is misleading. Coups are most successful when the least amount of physical violence or threat of violence must be marshaled. This is because coups leverage the already existing power of the cooperating elites to wrest control of the full political apparatus for themselves. Consider the prototypical example of a military coup. A group of generals grows dissatisfied with the way the civilian government is prosecuting a war. Rather than develop a revolutionary force to fight the government, the generals use their governmentally vested power to command their soldiers to surround the capital for the purposes of protecting it. Now, with their power well displayed, the generals can assert authority over the civilian leadership in the capital. If the coup is optimally successful, the civilian leadership will turn its power over to the generals. If the generals encounter resistance, publicly arresting or executing a few resisters demonstrates both power and restraint. Resistance can be crushed with a minimum number of casualties. This is clearly a different political process from mass revolution, which often leads to substantial casualties (Leiden & Schmitt, 1968). Therefore, it is clear that coups d’état reflect a type of regime change in which the importance of violence is tangential at most.

3. The Inconsequential Nature of Popular Will

In the modern world, most regime change occurs as the result of some form of popular will. In the case of democratic elections, an electorate of citizens or subjects selects its new leadership. Popular will also matters in revolutions and civil wars. In civil wars, the people will tend to back a new government when it meets their ideological interests (because it is fighting for causes they support) or because they believe it is in their material interest to do so. That is, they believe that the new government is better able to provide for their security or that their support will mitigate punitive action from the new government. Either way, public support helps secure the transition of governing power after a civil war has concluded.

In the case of revolutions, popular will is even more directly involved. Popular will is a basic requirement for a popular uprising, and whether the uprising gains sufficient strength to depose the current government depends largely on the extent of the popular will supporting it. Social movements seek policy change, and when the favored policy change can best be accomplished through regime change, that social movement becomes revolutionary in character. Therefore, the popular will of the movement empowers the revolution. Without popular support, the revolution will fail.

This requirement is not at all necessary for coups d’état. Coups d’état regularly seem to occur without any consideration of popular will. One important scholar of coups, Edward Luttwak (1979), affirms this characteristic of coups in his seminal work, Coup d’Etat, a Practical Handbook. For a coup to be successful, Luttwak believes, the smallest number of functionaries needed to seize the reins of power is the preferred coalition. In fact, the coup is frequently a tool of those looking to contradict the popular will in the case of a democratic election. Whether Luttwak’s notion is correct or not, it is clear that the coup d’état is fundamentally an elite phenomenon rather than a product of popular will. The elites who most often seem to be involved in coups are governmental actors, military actors, and economic leaders (Jackman, 1976). As discussed below, the coup’s elite character serves as a key in both predicting the occurrence of coups d’état and designing state policies to prevent them.

It should be noted that just because coups originate from small groups of elite individuals, popular support is not perpetually irrelevant. A coup can seize power, but once it begins to govern, its continued success depends on popular support. Coups that fail to capture popular support typically fail (Luttwak, 1979). This may also help to explain why the presence of a coup is one of the most powerful predictors of subsequent coups, a factor also discussed below (Bueno de Mesquita, Siverson, & Woller, 1992).

4. Affirmation of Social and Institutional Structures

Some authors have argued that coups d’état fall within a category of political phenomena known as elite political instability (Fosu, 2002). This term seems to suggest that coups are destabilizing to a social system. In effect, this is true. Coups, and especially repeated coups, do seem to negatively affect economic growth. However, it is more important to note that the intended effect of a coup is not to destabilize the social or political institutional structures of a society. This sets the coup d’état apart from other forms of social movements or revolutions (Gurr, 1970; Kousis & Tilly, 2005; Tilly, 1978; Tilly & Tarrow, 2007).

Consider the brief example above of the military coup deposing a civilian government. The generals have no interest of invalidating their own authorization to command their troops. Doing so would undermine their own power. The last thing the instigators of a coup d’état would like to do is fundamentally upset the current social order, because they are elites in it. Rather, their interest is in emphasizing social and political institutions that allow them to claim power. In this way, coups are by nature more conservative than other forms of regime change. This helps us understand why some coups come to power promising policy change whereas others come to power promising to prevent policy change. The coup is not necessarily progressive or reactionary but rather a lateral transfer of power within the existing power structure of a society.

5. Types of Coups d’Etat

The four criteria discussed above form the groundwork for a definition of the coup d’état:

A coup d’état is an extralegal transfer of power that affirms traditional social and political power structures and occurs without major contributions from violence or popular will.

However, within this definition, there is still a great deal of room for different types of coups. The differences tend to revolve around the nature of the participants in the coup and their proximate objectives. For example, many scholars distinguish coups that originate through civilian forces from those that originate within a state’s military. The military’s role in the coup d’état is studied more frequently than any other portion of the state apparatus (First, 1970; Jackman, 1976; Jackman, O’Kane, Johnson, McGowan, & Slater, 1986).

This distinction is further subdivided by Samuel Huntington, who describes three types of military coups (Huntington, 1968). Huntington (1968) describes a guardian coup, which seeks to replace ineffective governance with effective governance. This coup fits the military generals’ actions described above. In contrast, a breakthrough coup is attempted by junior officers and seeks to undermine the military hierarchy, using civilian power to validate the transition of power. Finally, a veto coup is used by the military to prevent action taken by the civilian government against the interests of the civilian military. Other authors add additional types of coups, including the self coup, in which a government attempts to seize additional powers for itself. This conception of coup is problematic because if the legality of the power seizure is contested, the coup can merely be considered part of politics as usual.

B. The Causes of Coups d’Etat

Now that a definition of coups d’état has been established, we can turn to the pressing issue of causality. Like many political phenomena, the incidence of coups d’état appears to be multicausal. This section will briefly describe some of the causes of coups and conclude by evaluating their relative importance in the general phenomenon of coup origins. For conceptual clarity, the proposed causes of coups are subdivided into acute and chronic conditions. These categories are not unproblematic, but they reflect the notion that some proposed causes are proximate to the origin of the coups, while others are societal conditions that set the stage for a coup to emerge. These terms are used instead of direct and indirect causes of coups in an attempt to demonstrate that all the proposed variables are seen as probabilistic, rather than deterministic, causes of coups.

1. Acute Causes of Coups d’Etat

Many proposed causes of coups are acute, in that they occur proximate to the origins of the coup itself and might be seen as part of the process that directly leads to the coup itself. A number of these causes stem from factors within the military. Eric Nordlinger (1977) discusses the role of grievances within the military as a source of willingness to challenge the civilian government. These grievances may be particularly strong if they combine structural grievances with heightened personal grievances on the part of specific military leaders. Others consider the role of military popularity in the eyes of the public. Higher popularity may tempt elements within the military to seize power.

In addition to military causes, other domestic causes yield logical links to the emergence of coups. Luttwak (1979) points to domestic political crises as a window of opportunity for the emergence of a coup. These political crises could be constitutional, economic, or even electoral in nature.

Other acute causes of coups are generated from external sources. Michael Desch (1999) argues that military threats from abroad can create opportunities for coup instigators to obtain power, promising to ward off external threats. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al. (1992) find that military defeat and participation in war raise the likelihood of a coup. Finally, direct foreign intervention may increase the likelihood of a coup d’état. According to one study, approximately 10% of all coups d’état involve the participation of a foreign power (David, 1987). There is no simple relationship to this involvement. In some cases, it appears that foreign involvement is the original cause of the coup attempt. This is typified in Operation Ajax, a U.S. effort that led to the deposition of Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953. In other cases, coup instigators reach out to foreign powers in an attempt to gain additional power and leverage to apply domestically. The 1965 military coup that seized power in Algeria appears to have done this by reaching out to other regional powers in Africa (Quandt, 1969).

2. Chronic Causes of Coups d’Etat

There are numerous structural and institutional factors associated with the emergence of coups d’état. Aaron Belkin and Evan Schofer (2003) have developed a structural model of coup risk, which serves as a very useful overview. The first set of factors revolves around the material or structural factors of the state in question. First, what is the character of the economy of the state? If a state’s export economy is particularly monolithic, this factor will hypothetically raise the likelihood of a coup. If a single industry or export is particularly powerful or influential, then controlling the management of that industry would be critical to capturing the power of the state. Certain types of exports lend themselves to this type of consolidation at the export level. Oil, valuable minerals, timber, and other materials that are of high value and require capital-intensive extraction are particularly vulnerable to this type of coup propensity.

A second structural condition is centralization of wealth (Jackman et al., 1986). This factor is correlated with the notion of a monolithic export economy described above. If wealth is highly centralized, coup risk is hypothetically elevated because the coalition of wealthy elites necessary to cause a coup is considerably smaller. An egalitarian distribution of wealth should have the effect of decreasing the likelihood of a coup d’état.

In addition to economic variables, scholars have considered historical factors that may influence coup propensity. Key among these are the lingering effects of colonialism. Many former colonies have well-developed and well-trained military forces. Often, the level of institutionalization and cohesion in considerably higher in the military than in the civilian government. This was the case in Pakistan when Pervez Musharraf was able to seize power in 1999. Musharraf was able to gain power not only because the military held violent coercive power but because the military was understood to be as legitimate a basis of power as the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif. Colonial powers such as France and Great Britain often emphasized the training of military forces over the establishment of indigenous civilian institutions. This choice may serve to make former colonies more prone to coups. In addition, colonial legacies may affect the full enfranchisement of the citizenry. Huntington (1968) points to this idea in proposing that coups are more likely in societies that limit political engagement to a subset of their citizenry. Citizens outside the political process may seek a coup as a means of political participation. Note, however, this hypothesis somewhat contradicts the idea that coups are primarily elite driven.

Other historical factors affecting the likelihood of coups d’état are the legitimacy of the regime in power and the strength of civil society. Even if the military or other organs of the state are highly cohesive and institutionalized, if there is a correspondingly strong civil society, coups are much less likely to occur (Jackman, 1978). A strong civil society raises the minimum number of participants necessary to carry out a coup, and if the society is strong enough, the number of necessary coup participants will rise beyond the point of feasibility. Additionally, if the regime in power is seen as legitimate, Nordlinger (1977) argues, a coup will be less likely. Some have argued that this variable is close to tautological as those deposing a regime of course will consider it illegitimate.

A final historical factor that influences the likelihood of a coup is a previous coup. Numerous authors point out that coups often beget additional coups (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 1992). There are several logical ways to explain this empirical finding. First, the presence of a coup may be an indicator of societal conditions that promote the emergence of a coup. Since a coup by nature does not seek to alter societal or institutional power structures, the factors that led to the first coup persist and may allow for additional coups. A second explanation can be called the political instability pathway. Because coups by nature are extralegal transfers of power, a coup weakens the legitimacy of social and political institutions. In the same way, then, that a heart attack weakens the muscles of the heart, a coup weakens the institutions of power. This creates windows of opportunity for additional coups. Finally, some authors point out that new regimes are generally less stable than established, institutionalized regimes. Therefore, any time a regime changes, by coup or otherwise, it is more likely to be susceptible to instability, including additional coups (Sanderson, 2005).

What can we learn from these diverse hypothetical causes? Clearly, a portrait of a state ripe for coup d’état is beginning to emerge. Such a state is perhaps a former colony; has a monolithic export economy; exhibits weak governmental legitimacy; and has a weak civil society, a clear economic elite, and a powerful, institutionalized, and cohesive military. When these factors are coupled with military grievances, external threats, or domestic political crises, a coup is likely.

III. Internal and External Policy Implications of Coups

While political scientists have expended a great deal of effort to define and consider the causes of political and military coups, a growing area of study has been the consequences of coups d’état and the policies that states implement to deal with the potential for coups both at home and abroad. This section thus deals with three questions. First, what are the consequences of coups d’état? Second, how do states attempt to protect themselves against the onset of a coup, and how successful are these efforts? Third, how do states react to coups in other countries, and what role does this reaction play in their foreign policy?

A. Consequences of Coups d’Etat

After a political or military coup d’état has taken place, several effects can be regularly observed. Before we can consider any others, we must turn to the success of the coup. Coups d’état regularly fail. In a study of 16 West African countries from 1955 to 2004, Patrick McGowan (2006) found that the military plotted a coup 169 times. Out of these plots, 87 led to actual coup attempts. Of these attempts, 43 failed and 44 succeeded. So the success rate of a coup depends on when measurement begins. Looking only at coup attempts, we would find that coups succeed about half the time. However, given our theoretical understanding of coups, we would expect the success rate to be quite high because coup instigators would initiate coups only when their chances of success were very high. According to this logic, a 50% success rate is low, assuming that the costs for the instigators are quite high. Alternatively, we could measure coups from the origins of a serious plot. By this measure, coups succeed only a quarter of the time. This seems more appropriate as many coup plotters will be dissuaded by the difficulty of successful execution. This observation raises an important question in the study of coups d’état: Why are coups initiated in the face of such high costs when they fail so frequently? A relevant direction for future research is discussed in the final section of this research paper.

When coups do succeed, we first can observe the steps that the coup instigators undertake to consolidate their power. These steps generally fall into two categories: institutionalization and integration. The institutionalization step reflects the attempts of the coup instigators to legitimize and normalize their new position as the leadership of the state. The integration step reflects their attempts to buttress their position in leadership by making additional bargains with power centers inside and outside the state in order to prevent their removal. Whereas revolutions and democratically elected governments enter with a mandate of popular will, coup instigators do not enjoy this benefit. As a result, the days immediately following a coup are the most critical for the new leadership. It is in this time that the new leaders are most susceptible to a countercoup or other action that will remove them from power.

Coup instigators begin to institutionalize their leadership through interaction with elites and the general populace. The new leadership often makes use of its current sources of power and attempts to spread that legitimacy throughout the society (Leiden & Schmitt, 1968). For example, when Musharraf seized power in Pakistan, his chief source of power was the Pakistani military he controlled. Because the military of Pakistan is highly institutionalized, deeply professionalized, and politically active, Musharraf was able to use this position to convey a sense of legitimacy to both the Pakistani populace and other Pakistani elites. Often accompanying this portrayal of legitimacy is a set of promises or other forms of political framing to communicate a justifying narrative for the seizure of power. For example, the new leaders may claim that they seized power to end the corruption of the prior regime. They may also seize power to restore the state to greatness, to prevent calamity, to end oppression, or for other noble causes. Several prominent scholars refer to these promises as the coup’s pronouncements (Luttwak, 1979; Nordlinger, 1977). Whether anyone deeply believes these tales may not be important. So long as the new leadership is able to prevent a countercoup, its pronouncements become part of the political narrative.

Coup instigators also work to integrate their power throughout the state they have seized. While the institutionalization step might be dismissed by some as mere political theater, the integration step is clearly crucial to the short-term success of any coup. When a coup succeeds, by definition a small number of individuals place themselves at the top of the governance structure. For their effort to be successful, they must link themselves fully to the traditional reins of power in the government and society. A helpful analogy is to think of a heart transplant. In the days and months following a heart transplant, recipients must typically take medication designed to prevent the body from rejecting the new organ. The new leadership must initiate a similar process after a coup. The leadership must reach out to other leaders, social institutions, industries, and other sources of power and convince them that they can trust the new government and may even find it advantageous. This behavior takes the form of reassurance, deal making, and incorporation. The ideal, for the coup instigators, would be to reassure these power sources in society that the new government would not dramatically alter the status quo. Often, this coincides with the coup’s political rhetoric: The coup itself may be promising to return the society to a previously understood status quo. However, when powerful players in a country’s domestic politics cannot be reassured, the new leaders may offer deals. Deals can take the form of increased political power or autonomy for cooperation with the new regime. This form of deal making can lead to the final option of the new leadership, inclusion. In order to bolster its own power after a coup, the new leadership may be forced to invite other power brokers from the society into the new government. Obviously, this is not advantageous for the coup instigators, and it may ultimately lead them to be more susceptible to a secondary coup by the very powers they are forced to include by necessity in their new government.

B. “Coup-Proofing” and Other Internal State Policies

When we consider the causes of coups d’état, we are immediately presented with a list of hypotheses for the prevention of coups. However, most literature on the prevention of coups has focused on two topics: the limited number of structural conditions that generally protect states from coup-type instability and the broader set of conscious policies some states undertake to reduce or eliminate the likelihood of future coups in their country.

First, a substantial number of studies have emerged out of political economy to test what structural factors ward off the emergence of a coup. In seeking to understand coup risk, many of these studies grapple with Huntington’s (1957, 1962) contention that modernity is the best defense against a coup, but that modernization is a great risk for political instability. If this is true, is it also true that less developed states, those likely to be susceptible to a coup, are unable to move into a low-risk environment without jeopardizing their own political stability? According to John Londregan and Keith Poole (1990), not exactly. Testing a large set of countries’ economic and political behavior from 1950 to 1982, Londregan and Poole find several results that confirm the causes of coups mentioned above. Particularly potent among these causes are the existence of a prior coup and poverty within a country. However, Londregan and Poole also find that not only is a higher rate of societal wealth a powerful inhibitor of future coups, but economic growth is also a surprisingly effective coup preventative. In this respect, studies of development tend to disagree with Huntington; economic modernization does not necessarily lead to a coup as long as societal income is increasing (Jackman et al., 1986). This suggests that all types of governments, including authoritarian governments or those seizing power via a coup d’état, should have an interest in promoting economic development as a means of insulating themselves against a future coup.

In fact, states will go to great lengths to prevent coups. Not surprisingly, states that have suffered coups or whose governments came to power as the result of a coup d’état often exhibit the most conscious policies that attempt to shield the state against future coups. When the government of a state cannot count on economic development as a means to protect itself against a future coup, it may adopt several types of policies, which can be organized into categories of redundancy, surveillance, loyalty, and proper funding. These concepts are well summarized and illustrated in several recent works, notably that of James Quinlivan (1999).

1. Redundancy

One of the chief weapons of all states against a coup is redundancy. Because coups come to power by seizing control of a critical aspect of the state apparatus, one means of guarding against this is to create multiple versions of state institutions. Most often, this behavior is seen in the military of a state and the state’s intelligence services. First, many states, and particularly states with reason to fear future coups, will create multiple militaries with parallel hierarchies. This is particularly true in authoritarian governments. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Revolutionary Guard served as a separate, parallel military hierarchy to the normal Iraqi army. The creation of the Revolutionary Guard helped to insulate Saddam’s Baathist regime against potential coups from the regular military apparatus. At the same time, the regular military served as a check against coups emanating from the Revolutionary Guard.

States often also employ redundancy in their intelligence services. Because intelligence services by nature work with restricted information and clandestine policies, they are often breeding grounds for coups d’état as a form of regime change. A prime means of preventing this is the creation of multiple intelligence agencies, whose mission in part includes spying on each other. By positioning itself as the sole arbiter between warring intelligence services, the leadership of the state assures itself that it holds the most complete intelligence picture and that its intelligence services are too busy with turf battles to challenge its leadership.

2. Surveillance

A second powerful policy of coup-proofing is surveillance. While intelligence services regularly gather information on subversive groups within a state, surveillance speaks to a broader sense of scrutiny that inhibits the emergence of coups. Here, the analogy of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon is useful. According to Bentham, the panopticon was a prison with a sphere of cells surrounding a single watchtower, whose guard the prisoners could not see. Because prisoners could always potentially be observed, and because they could never know whether they were actually being observed, Bentham believed that their behavior would be scrupulous. If the powerful members of a society function in an environment where trust is low and there is an ongoing belief in their continued surveillance of each other, the opportunities for forming a successful coup coalition are very few. Some leaders, through public trials of corruption or treason, will demonstrate that the society or at least the government is vigilant against threats. As long as the perception within society is one of general vigilance and relatively low trust, many potential coup conspiracies can be dissuaded, even if they were unlikely to be detected in the first place.

3. Loyalty

A third and very powerful tool of coup-proofing is to rely on previously existing forms of loyalty. In many societies fearful of political instability, there are often deep ethnic or religious cleavages. Governmental leaders will capitalize on these social cleavages as a means of insulating themselves from threats of a coup d’état. By promoting members of their own religious sect or ethnic group into positions of power throughout the society, the governmental leaders are assured that challenges to their authority are reduced. A coup that displaces them would also displace the leadership of other power centers in the society. This means that a coup has fewer places to generate from in the first place. Quinlivan (1999) points to this type of ethnic and religious networking in such supposedly coup-proof states as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

4. Funding and Appeasement

As was stated above, economic development and income growth are powerful inhibitors of coups d’état. However, not every state continuously experiences such prosperity. When income is not growing in a society or economic development is not occurring, the leadership of the state may worry that the risk of a coup is increased. When this is the case, one of the most direct responses that a state can take is to ensure that those it supports financially do not challenge its authority. This means that the state must make certain that elements within the state apparatus are economically satisfied. If the state fears that a coup might originate from the military, the risk of such as coup is reduced if the military is well paid and well compensated (Byman, 2006). When the vast majority of individuals within an organization are individually satisfied, the pool of potential coup conspirators is very shallow. This observation also serves as a corollary to the idea described above that disastrous foreign conflicts could be a source of potential coups. When the military is insufficiently compensated or is losing a war, its dissatisfaction may raise the risk of a coup. Therefore, keeping critical organs of the state satisfied will help ward off the onset of a coup.

C. Foreign Policy Responses to External Coups

There are two general approaches to considering the foreign policy implications of coups. The first approach is to suggest that because coups are deeply idiosyncratic, foreign reactions to coups will be highly varied, with very little predictability from coup to coup. While it is certainly true that each coup is unique in its full range of participants, execution, and consequences, arguing that there are no systematic reactions to coups d’état is also misleading. Therefore, this section presents the broad but observable foreign policy reactions that coups d’état elicit from other states. These responses can generally be further subdivided into foreign policy responses toward the coup state and foreign policy responses because of the coup itself.

1. Responses Directed Toward the Coup State

When states react to a coup d’état within another state, two factors seems to predominantly affect the response. The first factor is domestic politics within the state. Democratic states usually respond negatively to coups that subvert the democratic will of another people. This has been aptly illustrated in the U.S. reaction to the recent military coup in Honduras. Much of the intransigence of the U.S. reaction can be explained by noting that it is not clear who is defending the democracy of Honduras. Is it Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected leader who was deposed by military forces? On the other hand, were the military forces seeking to preserve democracy from Zelaya, who appeared to be looking to extend his rule through constitutional manipulation? It seems that should the United States have been able to arrive at a decisive answer to this question, it might have adopted a position in favor of one side or the other. However, as of this writing, the United States continues to push for compromise between Zelaya and the military, suggesting that it sees democratic intentions on both sides of the contest.

Ideology also played a major role in external coup support or opposition during the cold war. Numerous examples of coups engendered by the United States and the Soviet Union in third-party countries suggest that the superpowers were not only willing to support military and civilian coups d’état to obtain more favorable state leadership but also to help create these coups. Particularly instructive on the U.S. side are the cases of Guatemala and Chile (Cullather, 2006; Linz & Stepan, 1978; Westad, 2007). In these cases, the United States went against democratic inclinations to support coups d’état that replaced governments that looked as if they might favor the Soviet Union.

Ethnic motivations may also play a role in responses to coups d’état. When the coup is executed by forces characterized by shared ethnicity, Donald Horowitz (1985, 2001) finds, we can expect that the coup’s leaders will receive support not only from domestic ethnic compatriots but also from international kinsmen. Horowitz also describes a seesaw coup, whereby different ethnic groups struggle for control of a country through coups and countercoups, with each side receiving external as well as internal ethnic support.

Generally, when a state opposes a coup in another country, whether for ethnic or for ideological reasons, the typical response is to sever diplomatic ties with the new government and to refuse to recognize its legitimacy. If the new government can survive, its survival raises problems for the opposed state. At what point will the opposed state reengage with the government? Often, democratic countries tie their reengagement to some form of democratic activity. For example, if the new government promises or delivers democratic elections, this strategy serves as an avenue toward rapprochement. On the other hand, when a foreign government favors a coup d’état, it is often complicit in the institutionalization and integration project of the new government. It is in the foreign government’s interest to legitimize the new, coup-installed government as quickly as possible.

2. Responses Stemming From the Coup Itself

Although most of the observable foreign policy of states in reaction to a coup d’état are directed toward the coup itself, one particular form of reaction is directed internally. This research paper has already discussed the extent to which a previous coup raises the likelihood of a future coup. Richard Li and William Thompson (1975) find that states also react in ways that suggest that they worry that a coup in a proximate country might raise the risk of a coup in their own country. Li and Thompson find that in fact the presence of a coup in a nearby country does elevate the risk of coup in one’s own country. They conclude that this process is a result of reinforcement, whereby coup instigators are emboldened by coups occurring in other, nearby countries. As a consequence, many states that witness nearby coups often are more likely to adopt coup-proofing behaviors of the types described above. It is also possible, although presently untested, that coup contagion is actually a product of self-fulfilling prophecy. When a state reacts to a nearby coup with coup-proofing policies, the inception of these policies themselves may actually increase the likelihood of a coup d’état.

IV. Future Directions for the Study of Coups d’Etat

The systematic study of coups d’état has, unfortunately, given way in recent years to investigations of other types of regime change. Part of the space often given to the study of military and political coups has been overtaken by a renewed interest in terrorism and complex insurgencies. This change in scholarly pursuits may reflect generational preferences, or it may reflect the changing nature of international politics. The dust of the third great wave of democratization has settled, and there is no longer a cold war to impel some coups forward. However, even a casual accounting of recent coups suggests that coups d’état remain an important and relevant phenomenon of international politics. It is important that recent authors have also demonstrated that the risk of a coup can dramatically influence multinational foreign policy. Daniel Byman (2006) has argued that a coup in a country such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Egypt could dramatically inhibit U.S. efforts to fight al Qaeda in the Middle East. The study of coups remains important, and the importance will grow as scholars turn to answer the following questions.

First, is there a simple definition of coup success? There remains substantial disagreement within scholarship on coups d’état on the critical factors determining coup success. Some argue that the critical factor is the execution of the coup. If a coup succeeds in supplanting the previous government, then the coup is considered successful (Luttwak, 1979; Nordlinger, 1977). In contrast, coups are politically successful only if the coup instigators remain in power long enough to develop rudimentary institutionalization and integration and subsequently exercise power. This cannot really happen in the early days of a coup, but how long must a coup endure before it is considered successful?

Second, are coups discrete phenomena or contextual events? Many large quantitative studies of coups d’état treat them as discrete phenomena. In some ways, there is much to recommend this choice. It suits the data requirements of statistical studies. Coups are clandestine and focused on a small group of instigators, so they appear to emerge from nowhere. However, this research paper has detailed a number of ways that coups affect and are affected by structural and historical conditions. The context of the coup matters, and this context is well treated by the idiographic historical studies of coups. Unfortunately, too many histories of coups treat them as idiosyncratic, with no knowledge to be gained by a comparative study of coups d’état. It seems that future studies of coups must learn from both these perspectives. Future studies need to take great account of the social and historical factors influencing coups while at the same time seeking a nomothetic, comparative understanding of coups as a social phenomenon.

Third, what is the normative place of coups? The scholarship on military and political coups d’état has rarely stopped to consider the ethical questions associated with a nondemocratic regime change. Future research should examine the normative implications of coups. While coups are attempted with a variety of intentions, do these intentions matter? If a military coup seeks to save the country or prevent broader pain to its people, do these motives make a coup acceptable? A second line of normative questioning relates to violence. No coup is truly bloodless, in the sense that someone must be coerced out of power. However, some modern coups seem to be nearly bloodless. Does this matter normatively? Should it change how foreign states ought to respond to the coup? A final consideration is the role of popular will. What if, as may have been the case in Honduras, a coup is reflective of popular public opinion? Does that factor justify the use of extralegal, nondemocratic means to seize power? Future research should consider these questions and integrate them into a comparative analysis of coups d’état.

A fourth and final set of questions is methodological. What theoretical approaches and methodological tools wait to be applied to the study of coups? One theoretical approach that has not yet been applied to the study of coups d’état is political psychology. Political psychology can add to our understanding of coups d’état by helping future scholars theorize when coups d’état are accepted, the role of perception and framing for the legitimacy of the coup instigators, and the role of risk propensity in initiating a coup. For example, could the extensive work on decision making under conditions of risk help future scholars understand why some coups are initiated and others are not (Farnham, 1994; McDermott, 1998)? A second theoretical approach is the voluminous and continually growing social movement literature. Although many classic studies of coups d’état make use of social movement literature, important advancements, both theoretical and methodological, can be applied to the study of coups (Davis, 2005; Tilly & Tarrow, 2007). In addition to new theoretical directions, there are opportunities for new methodological directions in the study of coups. Rather than relying on large sample, quantitative studies or historical case studies, the phenomenon of coups could be studied through the use of process tracing. As opposed to correlation, which is the main finding of statistical studies, process tracing seeks to use nuanced historical data to test hypotheses within a single case. Combining this method with a quantitative study could yield more insightful results. A second fruitful methodological path is to employ computer simulations of regime change. Recent advances in computer simulation software allow for increasingly complex forms of behavior to be modeled and iterated in a game-theoretic context. This methodology would be a useful way to further test hypotheses in areas such as coup-proofing and coup contagion.

V. Conclusion

This research paper has sought to explain the state of scholarship on political and military coups d’état. Coups are an extralegal transfer of power that affirms traditional social and political power structures and occurs without major contributions from violence or popular will. Among acute causes of coups, foreign intervention and military defeat help explain the emergence of coups. Among chronic causes, the most powerful predictor is the presence of a prior coup, although economic and political factors change coup risk propensity. Certain policies tend to follow coups as the new regime seeks to consolidate its power. Other policies seek to prevent future coups through a process known as coup-proofing. There are unanswered questions, untapped theoretical traditions, and underused methodological traditions that will keep the study of coups rich and productive for years to come.

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