Democracy and Coups d’Etat: Time for a New Look

October 14, 2013

In 1917, asking Congress for a declaration of war, President Woodrow Wilson famously cited a key goal: to “make the world safe for democracy.” In doing so, he set the stage for U.S. foreign policy for years to come.  Almost 100 years later, the State Department explicitly identifies democracy promotion as a cornerstone of U.S. policy:

The United States remains committed to expanding upon this legacy until all the citizens of the world have the fundamental right to choose those who govern them through an ongoing civil process that includes free, fair, and transparent elections.

Every year, the United States spends millions to support foreign elections, while invoking strict penalties on countries that are perceived as non-compliant with acceptable rules covering the transition of government power. Yet disagreement persists on what qualifies a country as “democratic.” Certainly, it takes more than holding elections to qualify, and once a government is elected, often too little attention is paid to its commitment to building democratic institutions and governance mechanisms, implementing the rule of law, and codifying norms to protect civil liberties.

A key problem with U.S. policy is that it frequently fails to recognize that political systems are linked closely to social and economic conditions.  The goals set by the United States and other western democracies reflect those of developed countries with educated populations and a strong tradition of democratic government. In developing countries with weak economies, endemic poverty, and no tradition of democratic government, reaching those goals is a slow and sometimes painful process. Democracy’s promised changes lead to high expectations that are not easily met, and the result is a frustrated population open to other promises.  When the United States suspends assistance programs after a coup, it can – in some scenarios – represent a real setback that benefits no one but radical groups waiting in the wings.

In these cases, when elections do not bring change or an elected leader decides to ignore the Constitution and remain in power, the people may support – or even demand – military intervention against the elected government.  When coups of this nature are followed by relatively free and transparent elections and the military eventually steps aside in favor of the new government, the result can be positive in the mid- and long-term.

To be sure, this runs counter to conventional wisdom. The international community is generally quick to condemn a military coup. Nothing, we are told, is worse for democracy than a coup.  But sometimes military intervention is necessary in the short term to avoid a larger conflagration or to lay the groundwork for a more functional – and democratic – civilian government to emerge in the future.

Increasingly, coups have prevented control by radical groups.  Let’s look at a few examples:


In 2009, Niger’s elected President Tandja held a popular referendum to change the constitution to allow him to remain in power. He had reportedly planned to give Niger’s high quality uranium rights to Iran and North Korea.  In  2010, the military ousted him and led a return to civilian control, returning to its barracks after a relatively short transition.  Elections were held in 2011 that resulted in the election of opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou.

Following the coup and election, Niger has emerged as an ally against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO. Niger has welcomed American assistance and participates in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.  Had there not been a coup in 2009, the picture might be quite different; Niger might be a foe rather than an ally. In this case the military stepped aside and supported the transition to a civilian government, providing a good example of positive results following a coup d’etat.


In 2009, the Honduran Army ousted  President Manuel Zelaya on orders from the Supreme Court, supported by the Honduran Congress, the Attorney General, and much of the population.   Zelaya, who had allied his government with Hugo Chavez’s ALBA movement, was planning to rewrite the constitution to remain in power.  The coup was consistent with Honduran law, but condemned by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the European Union.  Consistent with its suspicion of military coups, the United States was more cautious, delaying for a time the expected severance of aid that normally follows a coup, working instead to resolve the impasse.

In November of the same year, National Party conservative businessman Porfirio Lobo was elected President in scheduled general elections. Some candidates claimed that that fair elections were impossible and refused to take part, while Mercosur countries also claimed that the elections were fraudulent. Other actors, however, including the United States, recognized the elections as legitimate. Among the poorest countries in the hemisphere, Honduras has been plagued by a high crime rate, cartel violence, and corruption and is now the per capita homicide capital of the world.

The international community limited assistance following the coup, and national resources needed to address economic and social problems were diverted to security. This was a mistake, as it severely damaged already-tenuous popular confidence in the government.  This was a mistake, as the military came to act as the agents of the civilian government. Despite the occurrence of a coup, in this case, the country in quesiton could ill afford to lose any international support.


In August 2008, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz led a successful coup against Mauritanian President Abdallahi following months of growing tension and popular dissatisfaction with Abdallahi’s increasingly Islamist policies.  Members of Abdallahi’s own party joined the opposition in a censure motion that resulted in the forming of a new government with no opposition representation; Abdallahi’s firing of top generals provided the catalyst for a coup that was widely supported by the opposition and many from the President’s own party. The military intervention was, however, immediately condemned by the international community.

Unlike the case of Honduras, in this case the U.S. acted quickly to suspend assistance, including training for Mauritania’s military to counter a growing AQIM threat.   This was a poorly calibrated reaction that hurt both democratic governance and U.S. interests in North Africa.

Abdel Aziz delivered promised elections and won the Presidency. Following certification of the election by foreign observers, the U.S. lifted bilateral assistance restrictions. Since then, President Aziz has emerged as an ally and key figure in northwest Africa in the fight against extremists.  The coup was judged too quickly by the West and should serve as a good example of a positive outcome.


Mali presents a different picture.  In March 2012 low-ranking soldiers carried out a senseless coup with little or no popular support, complaining that they lacked government support in their fight against the Tauregs in the north.   Presidential elections had been scheduled for April 29, and President Touré had announced that he would respect the Constitution and not seek another term.  The U.S. suspended bilateral aid.  Without popular support, and lacking able leadership, the poorly-planned coup further empowered radical Islamists in the north and severely damaged Mali’s already-struggling economy and image.  Under international pressure, elections were held in July 2013.  Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected President.  On September 6 the State Department issued the following statement:

Following Wednesday’s inauguration, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns signed a determination that a democratically elected government has taken office in Mali. The determination has been transmitted to Congress, thereby lifting the restriction on assistance to the Government of Mali, in place since the March 2012 military coup. The United States will therefore resume bilateral development assistance immediately, but will continue to assess when and how to reengage with Malian security institutions.

The United States supported France and other African countries in the effort to control the Islamists’ advance, while at the same time encouraging the Malian Government to peacefully resolve long-standing Taureg demands.

The decision to suspend assistance at a critical time contributed to AQIM’s success and placed additional pressure on French and Chadian forces.  The decision illustrates the American internal debate about whether to prioritize regional security or democracy promotion. The Malian case deserves careful consideration, as it is likely that the United States will be faced with similar decisions in the future.


In July 2013, Egypt’s military overthrew the elected government of Mohammed Morsi after months of urging the government to come to some sort of accommodation with the opposition. Egypt’s top military officers acted after millions of citizens across the country demonstrated for Morsi’s removal. The U.S. did not label the action as a coup, in order to continue to provide bilateral aid.

Egypt’s position as a key player in the region was a major factor in the U.S. decision not to label the action a “coup,” which it clearly was.  Reacting to Egypt’s importance to U.S. policy, in his September 24 speech, President Obama told the United Nations General Assembly that “our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point. The United States will, at times, work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations but who work with us on our core interests.”



There is no one-size-fits-all tool for analyzing coups.  Endless debate on semantics is unproductive.  If a military coup, often in a time of crisis, responds to popular will and leads to an elected civilian government that is more responsive to its citizens, it is an agent of positive change and should not be rejected out of hand.  Proponents of democratic government and all that it implies should consider each coup on its own merit, paying attention as well to the conduct of elected governments.

Indeed, it is worth asking whether democracy promotion always serves the core interests of the U.S. Whether for the purposes of maintaining stability or preserving allies in the struggle against extremist groups, the United States and other western democracies have found themselves re-evaluating how hard to press for democracy and when to embrace the decision by a country’s military to intervene internally.

As the above examples show, military coups followed by a transition to elected government may well be in the interests of the United States and, equally as important, to the populations who have been disappointed and frustrated by the imperfections of a nascent democracy.  Reaching the goal of representative government is a long process.  Those who achieve it will do so by supporting the right leaders, and in many cases this will involve support of civil organizations and the military. It is time for another look at how the United States conceptualizes coups.


Janice Elmore is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose 25 year career included assignments to embassies in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Bosnia, and the Sudan with a focus on political-military and law enforcement issues.


Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad