Reversing democracy’s international decline has emerged as a pillar of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy.  The goal marries our values and our security: just as America’s internal stability demands strengthening our democracy at home, global stability requires halting the march of authoritarianism abroad.  Yet while better governance of law enforcement is front and center to America’s internal democracy discussion, the security sector is overlooked by the democracy support community abroad.  Meanwhile, the Pentagon and security experts pay attention to potential allies’ security sectors – but often give governance short shrift, focusing instead on training, equipment, and capabilities. Both sides need a rethink.

Security Sector Governance is Central to Democracy

For many African Americans and other visible minorities in the United States, problems with security sector governance are at the heart of diminished trust in democratic institutions. Police brutality and unequal policing led to a year of Black Lives Matter protests. Inequitably applied force, unequal demographic representation in law enforcement and military hierarchies, overprotective or racially biased unions, and other challenges of security sector governance are among the core democratic challenges the U.S. must address. But backlash to these ideas has already spurred counter-protests under a “blue lives matter” flag. Unequal policing of such protests and counter-protests have in turn led to murders, intimidation, and has further sundered the country’s democratic fabric.

And yet overseas, the professional democracy support community largely leaves security sector governance to “security” professionals. Traditional areas of democracy support like assistance for elections, political parties, and civil society all tacitly assume that governments are not using violence or intimidation against their people to inhibit their exercise of civil and political rights. That assumption is not grounded in today’s reality.

The central role the security sector plays in democracy is most visible at moments of transition. When a country begins to open up, whether the transition turns bloody, as in Belarus, reverses itself, as in Myanmar, or follows a less violent path, as in Sudan, hinges almost wholly on whether various law enforcement and military security agencies choose to exercise restraint, or even support change. Whether norms, incentives, and formal governance structures within these institutions (surveillance, methods of hiring and firing, corruption, and so on) support defecting and refusing to use violence against their populations, or lead them to side with a brutal regime, is determinative in whether a country can begin the transition process.

Democratic regimes that wish to outstay their electoral welcome systematically erode security sector governance in order to undermine democracy from within. In countries like Venezuela, co-opted security sectors may be given a cut of the state’s power to generate economic wealth in return for using their armaments to allow authoritarian, corrupt leaders to continue in power. This kind of endemic corruption is destabilizing; as Thomas and Christopher Carothers found, 10 percent of regimes fell from 2013 to 2018 due to anti-corruption protests. But such protests did not necessarily usher in democracy. Freedom House found that of the nearly two dozen countries that experienced major protests in 2019, most faced reductions in freedom in 2020. Co-opted security sectors with a stake in the status quo frequently play a role in ensuring that a corrupt country maintains that structure of power, despite a change in regime.

Politicization is another means by which politicians undermine security sector governance to erode democracy from within. Indonesia and Brazil both politicized their military and other security forces in 2020, appointing uniformed military into civilian roles in ways that turn these forces from symbols of the nation to supporters of a party or regime. Politicizing security sectors can make them pliant and politically beholden so that leaders can use these forces to subvert democratic norms. Such subversion can take many forms: turning police and military forces against peaceful protestors, bringing armed military and law enforcement personnel into the legislative chamber to intimidate lawmakers, as Nayib Bukele did in El Salvador, or turning law enforcement against peaceful civil society groups, as in Turkey. By politicizing hiring and budgeting processes and using highly charged rhetoric, elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies destroy governance norms of professionalism and eventually, capacity.

Finally, while Russia has generally been undermining democracy in Europe through support for far-right parties, disinformation, cyberattack, and spreading polarization, it has not ignored the security sector. As part of its strategy for so-called “hybrid warfare,” Russia has been cultivating violent, far-right, fringe groups and individuals and has supported pro-Russian biker-groups, football fans, and white nationalists across European states. These supporters can form the nucleus of paramilitary units, as they do in Slovakia, or brownshirt-like violent arms of political parties of the sort that stalked a number of European states during the interwar years.  They could also be encouraged to infiltrate law enforcement and security services, particularly in countries such as Germany, where elite units in the military and police have already shown such a predilection towards illiberal, anti-democratic ideologies that they don’t need much of a foreign push.

Monitoring and understanding a regime’s governance of its military and law enforcement through tools like the new evaluation framework used by the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM), which includes a series of governance metrics, should therefore be a crucial part of America’s democracy support toolkit globally.

Security Sector Governance also Affects U.S. Security – And Needs Strategic-Level Attention

While the democracy support community needs to give more attention to the security sector, the security community likewise needs to spend more time thinking about governance and democracy – particularly as it relates to the security sector itself.

Security sector governance monitoring should be a necessary step in the process of evaluating potential security partners. A security sector that is efficient and effective as a war-fighting partner, but which undermines democracy in its home country, creates instability that does not advance American interests abroad. Similarly, security sectors deployed to police borders – as in the Northern Triangle – but that simultaneously undermine democracy and the rule of law within those borders, cause the very problems the United States is trying to address through band-aid border protection.

When COIN (counterinsurgency) was the coin of the realm, the U.S. government tended to see a country’s poor, weak security sector as a problem of capacity. Weak states were assumed to need money, equipment, and training to improve skills and secure borders. After twenty years in which success (while sometimes possible at the pointy end of the spear) was almost always undermined by failure at the strategic level, it became clear that the problems with creating effective, democratic security forces had less to do with capacity and more to do with twisted incentives of political actors: too often inimical to the creation of strong, capable, professional security forces.

As the Department of Defense plans to expand military abilities by working by, with, and through allied nations, their security sector governance becomes a question of diplomatic and high politics concern that is also at the heart of U.S. alliance structure.  Thus, the security sector governance of potential partners must be elevated above the technical level. Senior officials need to know whether a potential partner’s security sector can protect sensitive military equipment and implement basics like export controls. But they also need to know whether corruption is so destabilizing that further assistance could reduce, rather than build, capacity, by causing fights over increased spoils. And they need to understand whether security sector brutality is fueling terrorism or local rebellion, and if so, whether it is part of a governing structure the regime cannot dismantle without undoing its own base of power.

Democracy Support and Security Sector Governance in an Atmosphere of Great Power Competition

And yet there are forces pushing in the opposite direction. As the U.S. military sees great power competition heating up, some argue that best way to maintain allies in the face of Chinese and Russian attempts at cooptation is via security sector programming. On this logic, the United States should use its crown jewels – its security sector training, funding, and arms – to buy friends and influence. If it pushes too hard on governance, it will simply push potential allies straight into the arms of China and Russia. So separating security sector cooperation, assistance, and foreign military financing and sales from security sector governance programs is necessary to compete effectively in the tough new geopolitical reality.

Too often, the United States ends up feeding well-intentioned assistance and training into an impervious, corrupt system that eats the aid and spits out further instability.

The competition America is in with China and Russia is real, and serious. Nor is it only a geopolitical threat – U.S. democracy itself is part of the playing field, with active foreign attempts to exacerbate national divisions and undermine trust in America’s democratic system. However, separating security assistance from governance actually augments the strength of China and other authoritarian competitors while diminishing our attempts to support democracy globally.

Many security systems mimic the political structures of their countries, where politicians use sinecures, bribes, and corruption to reward, punish, and keep the system functioning and themselves on top. In similar fashion, police and military are expected to collect bribes from the people of the country and pass the largesse up the chain of command. Those on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy brutalize citizens and are in turn brutalized by their superiors.

By viewing security assistance and cooperation as transactional, the United States puts itself on the side of such regimes that are causing their own security challenges. When a state alienates its people through corruption and predation, it creates violent backlash. Interviews with over 500 violent terrorists in Africa and the Middle East found that those that joined voluntarily had a particularly fractured relationship with the state: 83 percent believed government only looked after the interests of a few, 75 percent didn’t trust state security (with police being the least trusted of all state institutions), and 71 percent of them identified a brutal killing or arrest by the state as the final trigger that tipped them into violence themselves.  Thus, security assistance and cooperation to strengthen forces that do not reform their governance can contribute directly to greater terrorism.

In these contexts, security assistance and cooperation doesn’t help the security sectors purchase needed goods; it simply feeds these systems of corruption. Lower-level troops and officers become angrier as those at the top skim ever more funding out of their budgets, using the ongoing poverty and inability in the ranks as excuses to ask for more funds. U.S. training in such regimes can inadvertently lay the groundwork for coups, as in Mali and Honduras, or U.S. military equipment can filter out to enemy troops, as in Libya.

Too often, the United States ends up feeding well-intentioned assistance and training into an impervious, corrupt system that eats the aid and spits out further instability. Meanwhile, kleptocratic, personalistic, transactional government networks are precisely the types of governments with which China and Russia work best – these are their strongest natural allies. The United States does not operate well in the systems of violence and disorder that such predatory states create. Slow, bureaucratic structures are ill-suited to their personalistic, transactional environments. But China, Russia, and Russian mercenaries excel in them. Feeding corrupt or anti-democratic systems might turn an individual leader’s affections temporarily towards the United States, but the ultimate effect of strengthening such systems plays into the hands of our competitors.

Knowing When to Say No

That means the United States cannot be afraid to say no. Ending foreign military sales, loans, security sector assistance, or cooperation may occasionally mean that a country will look to a competitor for military goods. But if an ally is so quick to turn to Russia or China, the United States must ask whether the partner could have been counted on when the chips were down. Low-quality allies who drain U.S. resources and attention without ever being able to fight their own battles do not augment U.S. power. Let them drain the coffers and patience of our competitors.

In a world where authoritarian forces are pushing from without and factions are destroying democratic norms from within, democracy supporters can no longer afford to leave security issues to security professionals. Likewise, security professionals cannot leave governance to the democracy experts if they want to work with capable, effective security partners.

Security sector governance should be elevated within the Biden Administration’s strategic documents, policy priorities, and rhetoric, to take its essential role in national security strategy and democratic stabilization into account.

IMAGE: Honduran soldiers and national police shoot tear gas during clashes with protesters nearby the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa on June 29, 2009. (Photo by JOSE CABEZAS/AFP via Getty Images)