When he was first elected, in 2014, Indonesian president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, presented himself as a democratic reformer — the first president not from the military or the Jakarta political elite and someone who would deepen democratic change. Yet the opposite has occurred.
In a country where the army played a central role in politics during the long Suharto dictatorship but had been placed under greater civilian control after Suharto collapsed, Jokowi has brought the notoriously brutal and corrupt military back. He has surrounded himself with military advisers and has placed the armed forces in charge of many civilian duties across the country, from teaching in schools to overseeing development projects. Jokowi, who had no experience in national politics before becoming president, seems to feel bolstered by the backing of the army, and he now seems to be trying to give the military even more political powers — to the detriment of Indonesia’s regressing democracy.
Indonesia is hardly unique. In the past decade, militaries around the world have become involved in domestic politics and public policy to an extent not seen since the Cold War. From Indonesia to Nigeria to Mexico, civilian leaders had established a fairly high degree of control over once-powerful militaries during transitions to democracy. Yet in recent years, armed forces in many countries have broken those bonds — sometimes with the invitation of elected leaders like Jokowi.
In many cases, these armies have stepped back into positions of power with the assistance of some of the world’s most powerful autocrats from Russia, Cuba, and China. For example, Cuba has backed the Venezuelan military and Russia has bolstered military dictators across Africa.
This era of remilitarization has been a significant boon to authoritarian powers — and it is often harming US and other democracies’ interests in critical regions. Beyond that, the return of the armed forces almost always has disastrous consequences. Military involvement often sparks or prolongs intrastate conflicts, and restoring armies to power in places where they have track records of rights abuses invites them to engage in brutal behavior again.
A ‘coup epidemic’
In one set of circumstances, democratically elected leaders or leaders of semi-authoritarian regimes are inviting militaries to play larger roles in politics and policymaking, to boost the elected politicians’ personal and political power. These leaders use the militaries as police forces, election observers, and even judges with fewer constraints than actual bureaucrats. In addition to Indonesia, this scenario has unfolded in Asia in Bangladesh, Cambodia (an autocracy with a democratic veneer), the Philippines, and Sri Lanka in recent years, all places where the army had once played a major role in politics but had then been sidelined in the democratic era.
The men in green also are back in the two biggest countries in Latin America, Mexico and Brazil, where Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and former Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro have had the military take on a wide range of policy and political roles. Other leaders have brought the military back into politics and policy in El Salvador, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela — where the military now is the most powerful actor and essentially co-governs with President Nicolás Maduro.
In Africa, there have been similar developments in Nigeria and Niger, where elected leaders have essentially invited the military to play a much bigger role. In Nigeria, the military now is serving as the police in much of the country.
But in other circumstances, militaries are taking over power directly, at levels not seen since the Cold War. Coups have taken place in Egypt, Myanmar, Thailand, and many African states in recent years. Brazil was close to a coup earlier this year. The U.S. Institute for Peace noted that the number of coups and coup attempts in 2021 matches the high point for the 21st century, and this rate has persisted. Scholars have argued that there is now a “coup epidemic” in the Sahel region of Africa, with recent coups or attempted ones in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, and Niger, among other countries. UN Secretary General António Guterres has expressed fear about the militarization trend and urged the UN to take tougher action. (It has not.)
There are several reasons for the remilitarization. The return of the militaries to political and policy power comes at a time when public opinion, across a broad range of countries, has become more willing to consider authoritarian forms of politics. People showing interest in authoritarian leadership often feel that democracy has not solved major problems and that political classes have become corrupt.
But big autocratic powers are also either directly promoting the militaries’ return or helping them consolidate their influence. Cuba, for instance, has sent advisers to bolster the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan regimes and to empower the military in both those countries.
Moscow had not been a player in Africa for decades after the Cold War, but via the Wagner mercenary group and regular Russian soldiers, it has recently involved itself deeply in a range of African states. According to the Brookings Institution, “between 2015 and 2019, Moscow signed 19 military collaboration agreements with African governments.” Russia has been using the Wagner Group to help military dictators take or hold control of countries like Libya and Mali, as well as the Central African Republic, where an elected leader has now become a military-backed dictator supported by Russia. Vladimir Putin’s regime appears to be building up its presence in Burkina Faso, Chad, and Guinea as well. In the process, it has helped depose internationally recognized governments and undermined many of these states’ chances of returning to democracy.
In Asia, China has used aid, rhetorical support, arms, increased trade, and other measures to show its continued support for countries, from Myanmar to Thailand to Indonesia to Cambodia to Sri Lanka, where the military has taken outright control or gained power within domestic political systems. It does so even when, in places like Myanmar and Cambodia, democracies like the United States impose sanctions — and thus China gains even more control in these countries.
Indeed, when the Thai military launched a coup in 2014, it explicitly looked to China to support it after the United States imposed sanctions on the kingdom. Relations between Beijing and Bangkok have grown closer ever since. Although the Thai military has now allowed elections, held earlier this year, it (along with the king) remains the most powerful actor in the country and will control much of the state even after the election is finally resolved. US policymakers now wonder what side Bangkok, a US treaty ally, will take if there ever is a US-China conflict.
Overall, the return of militaries, whether they are being handed power or taking it outright in coups, is adding to a global democratic regression. According to V-Dem, an organization based in Sweden that tracks global democracy, the number of liberal democracies in the world peaked in 2012, at 42 countries. Now there are 34 such countries — and they’re home to only 13 percent of the world’s population. Now 70 percent of the world’s population live in authoritarian states, up from 49 percent in 2011.
The trend can perpetuate itself. Military involvement in politics has been shown to make governance worse, as the armed forces are generally less equipped to handle civilian tasks than civilian agencies. This poor governance can further sour publics who may already be dissatisfied with democracy, leading to a cycle that then winds up giving more power to the military and other strongmen leaders.
All of this represents a huge challenge for the United States and its partners. As Cuba has gained significant control over Nicaragua and Venezuela, there have been massive exoduses of people from those countries to the US southern border. Cuba also has allegedly allied with China to provide places in Cuba to spy on the United States. Russia’s widening influence in Africa — which is likely to continue despite the fall of the Wagner Group, as Moscow will probably increase its use of regular soldiers in Africa instead — has given it a toehold in a wide range of valuable industries on the continent and reduced the influence of Washington and Paris.
Meanwhile, a recent study by the Lowy Institute, a leading Australian think tank, showed that China was now more influential in nearly every Southeast Asian state today than the United States, a sharp reversal from the situation a decade or two ago. In the event that US-China relations continue to deteriorate, it is doubtful that Washington could, in the long run, count on many Southeast Asian states for support.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World.”