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The Construction of Liberal Democracy: The Role of Civil-Military Institutions in State and Nation-Building in West Germany and South Africa

Authored by Dr. Jack J. Porter. | April 2010

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“Rogue” and “failed” states present numerous security challenges to the United States and the rest of the international community. Not only do these states offer refuge and at times assistance to violent nonstate actors such as terrorist organizations and pirate syndicates, their continued inability to respond to citizens' needs and unwillingness to respect human dignity establish the foundations for ongoing regional and global instability. With this challenge in mind, current U.S. and international foreign and security policy is directed at assisting these fragile communities in their efforts at democratic state and nation-building. The primary focus of this analysis is a detailed exam- ination of two earlier and successful efforts at democratization—the Federal Republic of Germany and South Africa—paying particular attention to the role of civil-military institutions. After outlining the substantial theoretical and practical obstacles confronting these states, the monograph highlights the potential roles that the new armed forces can play in the democratic transition and consolidation phases. The analysis concludes with a number of policy recommendations and suggestions for those involved in these formidable and critical efforts.


With their first apparently successful democratic elections behind them, the future Afghan and Iraqi governments must now refocus their attention on the construction and consolidation of legitimate political, economic, and social institutions. Both the short-term authority and effectiveness of the representative government hinge directly on the development of these institutions and the extent to which they are regarded as reasonably efficient in satisfying the core needs of Afghan and Iraqi citizens.

Long-term authority, however, is another matter altogether; one that depends, in part, on the formation of a robust civil society. This is a tall order to say the least. Nonetheless, the challenge of state-building is not new to post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) Afghanistan or post-2003 Iraq. Significantly, these and other fledgling liberal democracies will not be forced to approach these formidable challenges on their own and instead can count on varying levels of assistance from the United States and the international community.

If the development of representative political institutions and free market economic structures and the formation of a sense of nationhood (“we-feeling”) were not demanding enough, both nascent democracies must confront significant internal and external threats to their states' security. Certainly, much has been written recently about the creation, training, and expansion of the Iraqi security forces and their proposed vital role in combating the increasingly violent insurgency. Although less publicized (at least until recently), similar efforts are also underway in Afghanistan.

With this in mind, the objective of this monograph is to briefly analyze how civil-military institutions were designed in post-World War II Germany and post-Apartheid South Africa, with particular attention to their contribution to state and nation-building. Clearly, numerous international and unit level differences preclude drawing too many direct conclusions from this analysis. Nonetheless, I argue that important similarities exist and may assist policymakers in their efforts, as well as advance our understanding of the complicated and multifaceted decisionmaking process behind the creation of civil-military institutions.

This monograph is organized as follows. First is a brief introduction of a theoretical approach to civil-military relations. Second, the post-apartheid restructuring of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), 1994-2000, and the creation of the Bundeswehr, 1949-56, are analyzed. Following these case studies, some of the implications of these two experiences for the current efforts at reconstruction in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere are discussed. Finally, a short conclusion on some of the unfinished business and possible pitfalls of these efforts is presented.


Designing democratic civil-military institutions is obviously a formidable task. These efforts are all the more difficult for states with authoritarian, militaristic pasts. When this is coupled with social and economic conditions characterized by inequality and enmity, efforts at democratic state and nation-building may prove elusive.

However, the political rehabilitation of Germany, culminating in its current leadership role in European integration, demonstrates that successful democratic state building is possible. While South Africa's efforts at both state and nation-building are still in their early stages, qualified progress has been made. In both cases, I argued that military institutions played a vital role.

On the surface, this is not a contentious or innovative claim. However, when one analyzes in detail the multifaceted approach to the design of civil-military institutions in these countries, one realizes how extensive a role they were able to play. They were constructed not only to respond to the countries' core security requirements, but also proactively designed to promote democratic ideals and civic values and assist in the reconstruction of the national community.

With combat operations still underway in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it is hard to be too optimistic. Furthermore, many confounding variables stand in the way of successful democratic transitions in these two countries. For example, without substantial and prolonged international involvement and assistance, prospects for democratic transition will not be as hopeful in Iraq and Afghanistan as they were in Germany and South Africa. Nonetheless, if one were to ask informed observers in the summer of 1945 what the prospects of a democratic Germany were, or the same question in the late 1980s about South Africa, most would have responded with similar skepticism and perhaps scorn.