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Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups

15 Mar 2016
Reviewed by Mitchell Sutton

The military coup is surely one of the most deliberately misunderstood phenomena in the world of international politics, oft dismissed by media and academics keen to discourage unauthorised meddling in democracies’ domain. On the face of it, the issue seems to be quite simple to the extent of being deemed unworthy of deeper analysis. According to received wisdom, coups occur when military leaders utilise their hard power assets to overthrow their political masters, acting on a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.

However, as Naunihal Singh explains in Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, many of these commonly-held assumptions have little foundation in hard fact. Singh starts his investigation by dividing the topic into three different aspects: why coups start, how the dynamics of coups unfold and what determines their outcomes. The data assembled to answer these questions is one of the strongest points of the book, with the author drawing on both a wide quantitative dataset and a series of case studies from the coup-prone West African state of Ghana. Included in the former are all known military coup attempts between 1950 and 2000, successful and unsuccessful, correlated against a variety of economic, political and military factors.

Surprisingly, the  discourse on the ‘why’ is largely inconclusive, with the author finding that coups were possibly more likely to occur in states that were neither strongly authoritarian nor strongly democratic (anocracies), marked by low economic development and a past history of successful coups. The studies of the ‘how’ and the internal dynamics of coups are far more insightful and allow the author to posit his own fascinating theory of coup dynamics. Noting the high correlation between the rank of the coup -makers and coup success and the link between the outcomes of coups across time, Singh posits that coup dynamics and success are governed by what are known in game theory as ‘coordination games’.

Under this military-centric model, victory in a coup attempt is not based on brute force or political popularity but is rather dependent on generating the psychological impression of inevitability. A successful coup initiator will manipulate the knowledge available to high ranking officers, bluffing them into believing that the majority of the army has defected to the rebels (what the author refers to as ‘making a fact’). Not wanting to remain on  the losing side or potentially start a civil war by resisting, officers will engage in bandwagoning behaviour by joining the side they perceive as most likely to win. Those from higher ranks are more likely to succeed as they are more easily able to produce the required credibility, whilst past successful coups positively shape perceptions of the likelihood of current success.

Whilst the model is convincing in the case studies presented, it ultimately rests on the assumption that both the pro and anti-coup factions within a military will prioritise avoiding intra-military bloodshed over their own interests and political beliefs, even if it means backing an outcome that they personally dislike. Though the author provides convincing evidence in his eight or so Ghanaian examples and analysis of the 1991 Soviet coup attempt, the backing of quantitative data is less convincing, as it relies on only two correlates (rank and past outcomes). In spite of the author’s arguments, these could easily lend themselves to alternate interpretations, such as increased rank providing greater hard power capability.

Regardless of whether the reader agrees with the coordination game theory or not, Singh’s work is an original contribution to the study of civil-military relations and a highly credible piece of scholarship. The data is of a uniformly high standard, with the quantitative dataset accounting for random effects, fixed effects and rare events and the theory supported by game theory models. Likewise, the case studies have been primarily built around original research conducted by the author and his associates in Ghana, including many interviews with coup participants and bystanders. Seizing Power is thoroughly recommended to anyone with an interest in the phenomenon of the military coup and the study of military-political relations in general.

Naunihal Singh, Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, John Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Mitchell Sutton is an independent strategic analyst, specialising in Indian Ocean geostrategy and Australian military affairs. He regularly contributes articles to a number of defence sector publications, including Naval Forces, Safety and Security International, Asian Defence and Diplomacy and Defence Today.