Democracy and the Armed Forces: Do we have a problem to solve?

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The attempt to politicize the Armed Forces represented a setback of more than 30 years in civilian-military relations, exacerbating a historical problem that has accompanied us since the birth of the Republic (1889) and that seemed well underway from the 1990s onwards. If this process is not reversed by the next president (if an opposing candidate is elected in October 2022), it could compromise not only democracy but also the image of the Armed Forces and, ultimately, national security itself. These were the main takeaways of this webinar, which included the participation of two military retirees and one of Brazil’s leading scholars on the subject.

“The question that arises is whether the recent turmoil in civilian-military relations is just a conjunctive spasm, or could it signify something more lasting? I think it's conjunctive. A good civilian-military relationship implies that there is civilian control of the Armed Forces and that first and foremost, they dedicate themselves to protecting the homeland, avoiding politicization,” said Admiral Antônio Ruy de Almeida, former director of Brazil’s School of Naval Warfare and current member of the International Conjuncture Assessment Group of the University of São Paulo (GACINT/USP). 

“With the inauguration of democratically elected President Fernando Collor de Mello, from 1990 onwards began a virtuous period of strengthening civilian control over the military and withdrawing the military from politics. There was a clear setback when former President Michel Temer appointed General Joaquim Silva e Luna to the position of Minister of Defense in 2018, and the Bolsonaro administration has deepened that. If an opposing candidate is elected in October 2022, they will have a lot of work to do to remove the military from the political arena once again,” said political scientist Octavio Amorim Neto, professor at the Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration (EBAPE) at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), in Rio de Janeiro. 

“It is a fact that the military has a leading role in the federal government today. But it’s a passing anomaly linked to a character—the current president of Brazil. With responsible action, future rulers will put things in their proper place,” said General Francisco Mamede de Brito Filho, former head of the Center for Strategic Studies at the Brazilian Army Command and General Staff College (ECEME),  and who also commanded the 16th Brazilian Contingent in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah).

According to Admiral Ruy de Almeida, substantial advances have been made in relations between civilian and military authorities since the re-democratization. However, there is still much to be done to establish a solid and consistent national defense project under the command of political power: “It is fundamental that a climate against the Armed Forces is not created and that they are not weakened, because that would compromise the security of the Brazilian State itself.” 

Brazil’s Federal Constitution, whose guardian is the Federal Supreme Court, and the governmental machine’s controlling institutions, such as the Brazilian Congress and the country’s Federal Accounting Court (TCU), are at the disposal of the democratically elected president to reinforce their control over the Armed Forces, said Brito Filho.

“They are in a position to assess whether the military’s participation in public administration is legal or excessive. I find it inappropriate to have active-duty military in civilian positions. On the other hand, military retirees are ordinary citizens and can participate in governments or Congress, as they no longer have any power over the country's defense apparatus,” said the general. 

For Amorim, having military in positions at different levels of the federal government is not only a legal and constitutional issue but an eminently political problem: “The consequence of this excessive participation of the military in day-to-day politics is bad for democracy and the Armed Forces, as it could threaten their legitimacy with the population.”

The Minister of Defense position was created in 1999 during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration. During his, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s and Dilma Rousseff’s terms, a civilian always occupied that position—responsible for exercising superior direction of the Armed Forces (Navy, Army, and Air Force) and coordinating their actions. “Having a civilian at the head of the Ministry of Defense is an important symbol of civilian control over the Armed Forces,” explained the political scientist.

“Should the Minister of Defense be civilian or military? The fundamental thing is that they be a good minister. Yet, I agree that the position requires more civilian- and political-sector attributes, as it is important for the minister to reach across the aisle to other government bodies and government levels (federal government, state governments, and local governments) and to the Legislative and Judiciary branches. Nelson Jobim and Raul Jungmann were successful ministers and both highly respected by civilians and the military,” said General Brito.

National Defense requires more civilian participation

All three speakers agreed that representatives of civil society and other federal ministries and government offices should participate more actively in preparing basic Brazilian defense documents, such as the National Defense White Paper, the National Defense Strategy, and the National Defense Policy.

“National defense is a multidisciplinary concept, and military personnel and the Armed Forces currently have a heavy hand in defining its priorities. Representatives, senators, members of other public bodies and the Judiciary, and specialists linked to public and private institutions’ strategic study centers must effectively participate along with the other ministries involved in defense affairs. It is important that every segment contributes to the next revision of these documents,” said General Brito Filho. 

“The military must inform the government heads and society of the technically appropriate conditions to guarantee homeland security. However, society defines the desired level of security or even the acceptable level of insecurity through its elected representatives. The challenge is balancing the maximum level of military security while sacrificing the least amount of other social values,” said Admiral Ruy de Almeida. The former director of Brazil’s School of Naval Warfare believes it’s essential that every segment of Brazilian society is involved because it creates a solid culture of national defense.

“Civilian neglect of military matters is staggering. Brazil is not an irrelevant country. Until recently, we have expressed legitimate ambitions, such as the desire to have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. We need well-structured and equipped professional Armed Forces for that,” said Octavio Amorim. 

According to the political scientist, presidents prior to Bolsonaro “were timid in donning the mantle of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces,” and the country’s future leaders should assume that crucial role with more conviction. “They must send a clear signal to society that they are in charge. They must also convene the National Defense Council more frequently to create opportunities for military and civilians to meet and interact at the highest decision-making level,” he said.

Amorim emphasized the importance of creating a civilian analyst career position within the Ministry of Defense structure. “Having a high-level civilian bureaucracy within the Ministry of Defense alongside the military bureaucracy will take us much further in civilian control of the Armed Forces. There is strong resistance. The president must be directly involved for this to be possible and propose a Bill to Congress for creating that position and defining its budget,” said the FGV professor.

The Supreme Court must definitively interpret article 142 of Brazil’s Constitution

Per Brito Filho, the Supreme Court  should rule on the direct action for the declaration of unconstitutionality (ADI) filed by the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) as soon as possible. The party is asking the Court to clarify Article 142 of the Brazilian Constitution, which sets the constitutional mission of the Armed Forces. 

“We see a recurrent appeal—in my view, wrong—to an alleged moderating power attributed to the Armed Forces in Article 142 of the Constitution. As guardian of the Constitution, Brazil’s Supreme Court must definitively interpret the constitutional mission of the Armed Forces. Justice Luiz Fux has already expressed his opinion on the matter, rejecting the interpretation that the Armed Forces have the power to be the ultimate arbiter of political conflicts. That power rests with the Supreme Court. Based on the independence between the Branches, the checks and balances mechanisms moderate conflicts. Now, it is up to Brazil’s Supreme Court to take a position on the matter and bring the matter in controversy to an end,” concluded the retired general. 

Watch the full webinar (in Portuguese).

Read the article “Back to Center Stage: Causes and consequences of the political role of the military under Bolsonaro”, written by Octavio Amorim Neto for the Journal of Democracy.

Otávio Dias is the content editor at Fundação FHC. He is a political and international affairs journalist, a former correspondent for Folha de São Paulo in London, and former editor of the website.

Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations).


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