6+1 Questions

8 November 2021, 0900 EST

Name of the book

Erica De Bruin. 2020. How to Prevent Coups d’état: Counterbalancing and Regime Survival. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

What’s the argument?

Coup d’états are less likely to succeed against rulers who “counterbalance” their militaries with presidential guards, militarized police, and other security forces outside of military command. 

However, this approach to “coup proofing” can breed resentment within the military that ends up provoking new coup attempts, even as it makes them harder to carry out.

The existence of multiple security forces also makes it more likely that coup attempts will escalate into a full-blown civil war.

Thus, while counterbalancing may prevent successful coups, it’s a risky strategy for rulers. It may ultimately make their regimes more, not less, insecure. 

Tell us why we should care

Coup attempts are less common than they once were, but they remain a pressing concern for both autocrats and democratic leaders. In 2021 alone, we’ve seen coup attempts in Mali, Niger, Guinea, Chad, Sudan, and Myanmar.

Even failed coup attempts can produce bad outcomes. Rulers who have survived a coup frequently use it to justify repressing political opponents. After the failed 2016 coup in Turkey, for instance, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan purged members of the military and public service, arrested political opponents, and shut down a number of media organizations.

I show that understanding how counterbalancing works can help us predict where coup attempts will occur, whether they will succeed, and how violent they are likely to be.

Why should we believe your argument?

I drew on more than 2,200 government documents, memoirs of coup participants, media stories, and other sources to compile a dataset of security forces in 110 countries over fifty years. It provides fine-grained information on the supervision, staffing, equipment, and deployment of each security force in each country. These details enable me to identify which forces have the potential to serve as effective counterweights to the military. I combine this statistical analysis with case studies of coup attempts in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Moreover, many earlier studies of counterbalancing focus on successful cases – ones in which rulers counterbalanced their militaries and remained in power. This makes it difficult to know whether counterbalancing, rather than other factors, was actually responsible for keeping them in office. In contrast, I examine both failed and successful outcomes.

Why did you decide to write it in the first place?

There’d been a couple of fantastic books on coup proofing, including Caitlin Talmadge’s The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes and Sheena Chestnut Greitens’s Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence. Talmadge, Chestnut, and others demonstrate that coup-proofing tactics can undermine the effectiveness of militaries on the battlefield and create incentives for security forces to repress civilians. I thought it worth trying to figure out whether these tactics actually did what they were intended to do – prevent coups.

What would you most like to change about the piece, and why?

I did not anticipate that the book would come out in a moment in which people were wondering whether a coup was unfolding in the United States. The book itself is pretty clear about its scope conditions—it focuses on countries with less well-institutionalized norms against coups than the United States has, and it’s about traditional military coups, rather than self-coups or insurrections.

But Donald Trump’s efforts to remain in power illustrated to me some of the limitations of the boundaries that scholars of American and Comparative civil-military relations have typically drawn between their work. Since publishing the book, I have also taken to heart Risa Brooks’s call for scholars of coups and democratic backsliding to be doing more to bridge insights from their thus-far quite siloed research agendas, and have been trying to do that in my work going forward.

So if I were starting all over again, I might have been more explicit about how I think the research in the book does and does not speak to other forms of military intervention in politics beyond traditional coups, as well as how counterbalancing operates in contexts like the contemporary United States.

How hard was it to get the book published?

By the time I submitted the book manuscript to a press, the process was a smooth one. It took about two years from the initial submission to appearing in print. At Cornell UP, I was very lucky to find an editor that was invested in the manuscript, and reviewers that were enthusiastic and constructive.

However, it did take me five years after finishing my dissertation to first submit the book manuscript to a press—three years to decide that I did, in fact, want to write a book, and then another two to write it.

I had initially planned to publish my dissertation as a series of articles. But in the process of revising article drafts in response to reviewer feedback, I started to be able to envision a book I actually wanted to write, which turned out to be one that looked quite different from my dissertation. I think that if I had tried to turn my dissertation into a book without rethinking the central research question and the framing, collecting new data, etc., the publication process would have been much more difficult.