Military Power and Effectiveness: A Review Essay of Three Theories

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GESI Analysis, 21/2017

Abstract: Some policymakers and scholars assume that democracies are more effective warfighters. Their logic resides on two main ideas: First, given public participation in democratic foreign policymaking, this regime type will pick winnable wars while avoiding impossible conflicts. Second, since democracies foster individuality and critical thinking, they cultivate more military human capital within their societies.

This essay reviews one of the most popular democratic theories for military effectiveness and compares it with two different explanations for military outcomes: Risa A. Brooks’ theory of Strategic Assessment and Elizabeth Kier’s Organizational Cultures theory. In conclusion these two theories offer better explanations than democratic theories and are superior analytical tools to assess military effectiveness. 



The assumption that democracies are better warfighters than autocracies is common in the West. Reiter and Stam (2002) provide one of the most well-known arguments for democracies’ superiority both at picking and fighting wars. These authors claim that democracies have two main advantages. First, democratic leaders pick only winnable wars; this is because they face the threat of electoral punishment and thus, they are more careful when starting wars (Reiter and Stam, 2002, 4). In other words, if a war seems difficult to win, state leaders will not wage it because they fear losing their office. For that reason, democracies fight wars that are “short and victorious” (Reiter and Stam, 2002, 4). The second reason is that democracies have better military leaders and soldiers (Reiter and Stam, 2002, 4). This is due to higher morale, higher individual initiative, less likelihood of surrendering and better leadership (Reiter and Stam, 2002, 59). To support their arguments, the authors use a large-n sample to compare hypothesis.

This paper presents two theories of military effectiveness that challenge the former arguments. First, Risa A. Brooks theory of Strategic Assessment and Civil-Military relations provides a more complex and narrow explanation on how domestic civil-military relations are determinant of military success; independently of the regime type. Then, this paper will evaluate Elizabeth Kier’s theory of organizational culture and military effectiveness and argue that the case of the French Third Republic shows how democracies can succumb against an autocratic nation. Both of these theories rely on in-depth case studies to support their arguments, and although their methods are “less strong” than a large-n sample (Van Evera, 1997, 51), they still seem more rigorous and sound that the above mentioned democratic theory.

Finally, this paper presents two conclusions. First, the examined theories show that democracies do not always pick “winnable wars,” as Brooks showed in her case-study of the U.S. postwar planning in Iraq. Second, Kier shows with the French case that a democracy with “competing cultures” may actually trump its own human capital by choosing suboptimal military policies that respond to domestic threats. Therefore, there is substantial variation when producing military power both within democratic and autocratic regimes. In other words, regime type does not necessarily create military power.[1]


The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment 

One set of theories that explain military outcomes without considering regime type as a main variable is the civil-military relations school. This set of studies argue that regardless of regime type, civil-military relations is the paramount independent variable that explains military potential, either at the battlefield level, or at the war level. This section will discuss one study of civil-military relations: Risa A Brooks’ theory of strategic assessment.

Brooks lays out a theory trying to explain how civil-military relations influence strategic assessment in armed conflicts, and how this interaction shapes the international behavior of nation-states (Brooks, 2008, 15-16). Explicitly arguing against explanations of military superiority caused by democratic regime type, Brooks states that democracies are sometimes victims of strategic failure caused by contentious civil-military relations (Brooks, 2008, 12). That dynamic truncates the strategic debate and thus invites defeat (Brooks, 2008, 12). In fact, Brooks argues that military outcomes are independent of regime type, whether democratic or autocratic. She states that autocracies “should, at times, perform perfectly well at strategic assessment” (Brooks, 2008, 12). Another important conclusion of Brooks’ work is that strategic assessment can vary even within the same regime in a short period of time (Brooks, 2008, 258). Although Brooks does not lay out an elaborate quantitative analysis, her theory is sounder than Reiter and Stam’s in what she calls the “admittedly unscientific test of historical common sense” (Brooks, 2003, 186).

Brooks’ theory is based on the premise that “the process of deliberation and decision making is crucial to understanding the strategic and policy choices leaders make in international conflicts” (Brooks, 2008, 15). Therefore, according to this study, two causal variables affect strategic assessment and in turn, military effectiveness. First, preference divergence and second, the domestic political-military balance of power (Brooks, 2008, 23). Moreover, the theory uses four “attributes” that disaggregate the two variables; these are information sharing, strategic coordination, structural competence and authorization process (Brooks, 2008, 4). Consequently, there are six situations where States’ level of strategic assessment can be, but in sum, the worst combination is high preference divergence and shared power; while the best scenario is low preference divergence and high political dominance (Brooks, 2008, 7).

Brooks presents eight case studies to test her theory. An illustrative case is Egypt’s strategic assessment in 1962-1967; when Nasser and his military chief Amer were in the middle of a highly competitive relation. Brooks argument is that high preference divergence and a shared balance of power explain the puzzle of Egypt’s striking defeat against Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 (Brooks, 2008, 63). But more interestingly, Brooks’ second case study is Egypt in the 1973 war with Israel. In this case, Egypt’s military did better than six years before and had a greater bargaining power to negotiate with Israel, despite the final war outcome (Brooks, 2008, 139). The argument is that the military performance of the same country against the same enemy can have a high variation in a short timeframe. In Egypt’s case, the combination of high preference divergence but low division of power meant better strategic assessment, which in turn favored Egypt’s interests (Brooks, 2008, 57). In sum, the Egyptian case study shows how an autocratic regime had high variation in strategic assessment, and thus military power, within a six year period.

Another illustrative case is the U.S. postwar plans in Iraq in 2002-2003. This time, there was clear political dominance but high preference divergence (Brooks, 2008, 261). For that reason, the evaluative process of military and political activity during the initial phase of the war was successful (Brooks, 2008, 261). Nevertheless, Rumsfeld and the Administration isolated themselves from military planners and hindered strategic coordination, leading to critical weaknesses in strategic assessment for the postwar Iraq (Brooks, 2008, 261). As is commonly known, this failure was costly for Iraq, the Middle East, the U.S. and its democratization project for Iraq. Thus, although Brooks provides more case studies worth mentioning, the bottom line is that civil-military relations are a better explanatory variable than regime type, whether democratic or autocratic.


Elizabeth Kier´s Theory of Organizational Culture and Military Effectiveness 

Elizabeth Kier tries to explain how organizational culture affects military effectiveness through doctrine and policy. Although culture is an ambiguous and complicated variable, she claims that it was organizational culture what caused one of the biggest puzzles of contemporary military studies: the French defeat during WWII. Kier’s study of the French case shows how a large-n sample does not provides sufficient depth to understand the nature of military effectiveness. In fact, this case shows how one of the strongest democracies dramatically fell against a rising autocracy, not only losing battles and territory, but losing its own existence.

According to Kier, culture is “the set of assumptions so unconscious as to seem natural, transparent, undeniable part of the structure of the world” (Swidler cited in Kier, 1997, 26). Culture is problematic as a causal variable (Long, 2016, 15); however, it can be highly consequential for military policy; since doctrine and strategic choices will be made based on beliefs about the real world (Kier, 1997, 28). As Kier argued, “culture screens out some parts of “reality” while magnifying others (Kier, 1997, 28).” Therefore, this theory predicts that “part of the effectiveness of any organization [including the military] stems from its development of organizational culture” (Kier, 1997, 29).

In addition, Kier’s main argument is that when there is no social agreement on culture (competing cultures), then, cultural views transform into ideologies which are more self-conscious, articulated and structured than culture, and provide specific guidance for social action (Kier, 1997, 27). “Ideologies are powerful because they tell actors what their goals are and how to achieve them” (Kier, 1997, 27). This dynamic of competing cultures or ideologies creates an environment fraught with rivalry; and actors will pay more attention to domestic political threats than external enemies (Kier, 1997, 27). In other words, “in designing military policy, civilians’ concerns about power politics are often at the domestic level (Kier, 1997, 22)” and in many historical cases “domestic political considerations trumped strategic ones”(Kier, 1997, 23).

To sustain her theory, Kier delves into the French and British cases during the Interwar Period. During the Third Republic, France’s military policy was deeply divided between the Left and the Right. Both sides were deeply engaged in military organizational debates. The Left, based on Republican ideas and wary of a repressive State, advocated in favor of a conscript-formed militia. On the other hand, the Right, afraid of domestic instability and an increasingly powerful Left wanted a professional army (Kier, 1997, 57). In the end, the Army based its forces on one-year conscripts. Since French military leaders believed that conscripts could not conduct complex operations, they chose a simpler, defensive-oriented doctrine; which emphasized the use of fortifications and eschewed mechanized warfare and the use of reserves (Kier, 1997, 77-78). This is an example of how the deeply held belief that conscripts could not conduct complex operations had strong strategic consequences during the war. In addition, as the military felt threatened by the Left and by Communists, it became more dogmatic and less open to debate, further reinforcing the defensive doctrine (Kier, 1997, 83). Consequently, the French military policy was victim of France’s domestic ideological division.

Perhaps, the French case is the best challenge to the democratic theories of military effectiveness, since at that time France was among the richest and most military powerful democracies, and had a strong liberal tradition. However, contrary to the British case, in France “each culture held a consistent set of assumptions about, and prescriptions for, military policy (Kier, 1997, 57).” This domestic dynamic of “competing cultures” led to a disastrous campaign against the well-coordinated German forces. According to Kier, competing cultures hindered strategic assessment, a cost that the Third Republic paid against Nazi Germany, an autocratic State.

With her theory, Kier shows that the international system may be secondary to domestic politics when shaping military policy and doctrine. This is especially the case in countries with competing cultures or ideologies, a feature that many liberal democracies regard as a virtue. In other words, a consensual culture, like Nazi Germany can generate more military effectiveness than some democracies, like France’s Third Republic.



Reiter and Stam argue that democracies excel at war due to two main factors: because they pick easy, winnable wars, and because they create better military human capital (Reiter and Stam, 2002, 4). Nevertheless, the theories presented above show that this is a simplistic view of the enormously cryptic phenomenon of military performance. In fact, Reiter and Stam’s argument illustrates how despite the usefulness and interest of large-n samples, they should be used carefully to avoid the fallacy of overgeneralization, especially when dealing with highly complex dependent variables. Additionally, Downes criticized Reiter and Stam’s quantitative research and corrected some flaws and repeated the statistical analysis. After this, Downes found that democratic regimes “are no longer statistically likely to prevail” (Downes, 2009, 47). In sum, none of the theories presented here completely explain military effectiveness, however, the Strategic Assessment and Organizational Culture theories help us to understand military performance at a deeper level and they demonstrate that regime type is not a decisive variable.

Both of Reiter and Stam’s arguments are unsound. First, Brooks demonstrates how democracies can sometimes pick difficult, even unwinnable wars. In her case study on the U.S. Post-war planning in Iraq 2003, her theory explains that despite the political dominance over the military, preference divergence over a defense reform trumped strategic assessment. This launched the country to a conflict for which it was unprepared “both in concepts and resources” (Brooks, 2008, 227-228). This failure had negative consequences for the U.S. both at the domestic and international level. Additionally, Brooks finds that most explanations of the poor post-war planning stemmed from “idiosyncratic factors exclusive to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the Administration he served” (Brooks, 2008, 226). Contrary to the view that policy-makers that fail pay the price, George W. Bush’s Administration was reelected the next year, and the highest cost that some of its members had suffered is retirement from active political participation.

Moreover, the French case illustrates that democracies do not necessarily provide better soldiers or military personnel. Even when fighting for France –one of the oldest liberal democracies— cultural, ideological or civil-military divisions can prove catastrophic for the common national interest against an existential threat. Furthermore, this case also shows how the democratic “marketplace of ideas” does not always foster a positive debate that translates into better leadership and into soldiers that generate optimal decision-making. In fact, according to Kier’s theory, the French “marketplace of ideas” resulted in a half-way military and doctrinal compromise with catastrophic strategic consequences: the end of a democratic State and the triumph of an autocracy.



Brooks A., Risa. (2008), Shaping Strategy: The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Brooks A. Risa. (Fall 2003), “Making Military Might: Why Do States Fail and Succeed: A Review Essay.” International Security 28, no. 2.

Desch C. Michael. (2008), Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Downes, B. Alexander. (Spring 2009), “How Smart and Tough Are Democracies? Reassessing Theories of Democratic Victory”, International Security, 33 no. 4.

Kier, Elizabeth. (1997), Imagining War: The French and British Military Doctrine between the Wars. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Long, Austin. (2016), The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the U.S. and U.K. New York: Cornell University Press.

Reiter, Dan and Stam, C. Allan. (2002), Democracies at War, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Talmadge, Caitlin. (2015), The Dictator´s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes. New York: Cornell University Press.

Van Evera, Steven. (1997). Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science. United States: Cornell University Press.

Weeks P. Jessica. (2014), Dictators at War and Peace. New York: Cornell University Press.


Pablo Reynoso Brito earned a M.A. in International Affairs and International Security Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Pablo Reynoso was a Carlos Slim Foundation Scholar between 2015 and 2017.


[1] There is a rich literature on military effectiveness and regime type. Some critiques of democratic theories of military effectiveness include: Downes, B. Alexander. (Spring 2009), “How Smart and Tough Are Democracies? Reassessing Theories of Democratic Victory,” International Security, 33 no. 4; Brooks A. Risa. (Fall 2003), “Making Military Might: Why Do States Fail and Succeed: A Review Essay.” International Security 28, no. 2; Desch C. Michael. (2008), Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

There is also a significant amount of work on authoritarian regimes and military power.See: Talmadge, Caitlin. (2015), The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes. New York: Cornell University Press; Weeks P. Jessica. (2014), Dictators at War and Peace. New York: Cornell University Press.