Peacekeeping’s Perverse Effects: Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Remilitarized Politics

16 October 2018, 1410 EDT

In under two weeks, Brazil will have the second round of its presidential election. Former military officer and fan of fascists Jair Bolsonaro looks set after a strong first-round showing to defeat Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad. If he wins, Bolsonaro will have strong party backing in Congress, though he does not care much for the legislature—in 1999, Bolsonaro said Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship “should have killed 30,000 people more, starting with Congress and [then-President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso.” Bolsonaro’s running mate is retired General Hamilton Mourão, his planning adviser and likely Minister of Transport is General Oswaldo Ferreira, an anti-environmentalist who looks for inspiration to infrastructure projects enacted by Brazil’s military government, and Bolsonaro has promised to stack his cabinet with generals. Current and retired military officers have been prominent backers of Bolsonaro, and Bolsonaro announced that he would not accept any result other than victory, menacingly saying “I cannot speak for military” but that there “could be a reaction by the Armed Forces” if he lost and deemed it due to PT fraud (never mind that the PT is not currently in power).

As Michael Albertus highlighted, the military is returning to Brazilian politics in a big way. While the military in Argentina was punished for its dictatorial Dirty War, elites with ties to dictatorship never faced sanctions or fully left the political scene in countries like Brazil and Chile. In Brazil, civilian leaders managed to weaken the military during the transition to democracy, but it retained a broad scope of activities, including internal security and development, especially in combating the drug trade, a mission with which current President Michel Temer tasked the military earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro spent his time as a representative in Congress “interested in helping the military above all else,” and his message that he will restore law and order both resonates with a Brazilian public fed up with high rates of violent crime and with a military keen to reassert itself.

‘Law and order,’ however, can be slippery terms twisted to suit political whims, and Bolsonaro has demonized opponents, engaged in racist, homophobic, and misogynist rhetoric, and suggested military violence against refugees. Bolsonaro supporters are implicated in dozens of street attacks on journalists and opposition supporters. Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo have been advised by Steve Bannon, who Eduardo considers an ally in the fight “against cultural Marxism,” suggesting continuity with the dictatorship’s anticommunism. Bolsonaro’s son Carlos posted images of torture in response to protests against his father. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s anti-crime rhetoric seems to resonate most with those who fear crime, rather than those directly affected by violence: Brazil’s northeast, where homicide rates have been rising rapidly, overwhelmingly voted against Bolsonaro.

The military’s renewed prominence in Brazilian politics may be a product not only of the incomplete transition to democratic civilian control and frustrations with violence at home, but also due to the military’s ostensibly liberal role abroad. Yesterday, Philip Cunliffe in a short Twitter thread highlighted the ways in which the Brazilian military’s participation in international peacekeeping has both empowered the military and shaped military commanders’ consideration of their role in domestic politics. Leading United Nations peacekeeping operations in Haiti, Cunliffe implies, caused Brazilian officers to rethink the military’s potential role in ordering society, while a failure to reform a constitutional provision on the military’s role in ‘defending and guaranteeing’ law and order left Brazil open to renewed military intervention in politics. Christoph Harig in fact suggested in 2015 that Brazilian forces were likely to bring their peacekeeping experiences home from Haiti to try to apply them in domestic “Guaranteeing Law and Order” missions.

In Haiti, Brazilian forces were operating in a context long pathologized in the West as dysfunctional. Not only were Brazilian troops given an opportunity to pursue national stabilization and development (their ostensible goal at home during the dictatorship), they were also part of an imposed international mission that could disregard domestic civilian leaders and public opinion, as well as their own diplomats. This represented a throwback to what the late Alfred Stepan called the ‘new professionalism,’ in which military leaders in countries like Brazil and Peru developed an institutional culture holding that they could govern more efficiently and effectively than civilian politicians. Cunliffe’s post led Giulia Piccolino and Nathaniel Powell to share anecdotes about authoritarian rhetoric by Brazilian officers on peacekeeping missions in Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In a new article, Cunliffe discusses how, despite arguments that international peacekeeping missions may help preserve democracy in troop-contributing countries, the experience and ideas that peacekeeping veterans bring home may actually undermine democracy in the longer term: peacekeeping leads to praetorianism. Peacekeeping can produce military growth or the maintenance of a larger military than would be necessary purely for national defense, while it can also make peacekeepers expect or become accustomed to resources that the UN and other international organizations provide for peacekeeping missions. Maggie Dwyer has shown how peacekeeping participation increased expectations for compensation among West African militaries, generating grievances and domestic mutinies. Peacekeeping participation can also bring commanders to new prominence as leaders within the military and in domestic politics (Cunliffe highlights Pakistani coup-maker and former dictator Pervez Musharraf). This can occur in both autocracies and democracies—Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, for instance, went from playing a heroic role in the ill-fated UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda to becoming a senator at home.

The potential contributing role of peacekeeping experience in swings toward authoritarianism in Brazil and elsewhere merits further investigation. Though militaries may seek a balance between the ‘warrior’ and ‘peacekeeper’ role identities among troops, even where peacekeepers deploy for a mission with noble intentions, the realities and frustrations of the job may move them from idealism to prioritizing instrumental concerns of advancement and economic reward, breeding disregard for rules and regulations. Even if the ‘liberal world order,’ such as it is or was, is in decline and peacekeeping missions may become less frequent, the after-effects of peacekeeping may live on, for better or, as Cunliffe suggests, for worse. Pre- and post-deployment surveys of troops deployed or not deployed for peacekeeping missions and ethnographic studies of military units before, during, and after peacekeeping deployments can help untangle how peacekeeping participation changes attitudes toward the role of the military in domestic politics. Scholars of peacekeeping and civil-military relations would also be wise to track the political trajectories of military officers who led peacekeeping missions.

For scholars based in or studying the United States, the Brazilian election and the global authoritarian zeitgeist warrant a long, hard look closer to home. In the lead-up to next month’s midterm elections, Marine Corps veteran (and criminally-indicted) Rep. Duncan Hunter and three retired Marine Corps generals recently engaged in illiberal, racist smears of against a Muslim political opponent, and both major political parties are seeking to capitalize on the cultural cachet of military veterans. While there are many studies of the physical and mental health effects of deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq, less attention has been paid to political effects among veterans. Alongside the bellicosity bred by self-selection into an all-volunteer military (and some veterans’ and service members’ conscientious objection), the supposed stabilization and nation-building missions of US forces abroad can easily be drawn as points of reference in an environment of increasing domestic political polarization and street violence, potentially justifying increased domestic military intervention. Militias with armed forces veteran members, like the Oath Keepers, already see themselves as forces for domestic stability and defense of their particular vision of the Constitution.

When the military is the most trusted institution in the US; National Guard troops have been deployed to the US-Mexico border under multiple administrations; and President Trump and his backers suggest deploying federal military forces in Chicago, there may already be fertile grounds for US military leaders to seek a more prominent political  and security role domestically. Back in 1987, British Royal Air Force officer Nicholas Rusling suggested that domestic military intervention in security and an increased governmental role for active and retired military officers were major risk factors for breakdowns of democratic civil-military relations in the US and United Kingdom, factors that seem clearly present today.

In Brazil, the US, and elsewhere, political turmoil and social violence, be they actual or more perceived, are being used as justifications for increased military intervention in domestic politics. While there should not be, of course, a presumption of malevolence among security forces and veterans, especially where militaries have participated in peacekeeping or stabilization operations abroad, citizens should be wary of efforts by active-duty and retired military officers to seek a larger domestic political role.