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What is military-to-military engagement good for?

Posted By on October 18, 2017 @ 12:30

In recent weeks, there has been a debate over the value of military education and training assistance provided to Southeast Asian states. The debate follows the UK’s recent suspension of education and training assistance to Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, over the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. Washington has been mulling options to limit ties to the Tatmadaw, or at least halt plans to expand existing engagement.

Australia, however, will continue its engagement. A Department of Defence spokesperson said that Australia was working with the Tatmadaw to ‘promote professionalism and adherence to international laws … It is therefore important we maintain appropriate lines of communication with the Myanmar military.’

This debate basically boils down to two opposite poles. On the one hand, human rights groups have argued for a complete suspension, given the devastating condition of the Rohingyas. Referring to Australia’s position, one group claims that ‘it shows the total abandonment of human rights as a core part of Australian foreign policy’. On the other hand, some argue that engagement is the only way Australia could positively change the Tatmadaw. Others also previously argued that US military assistance could be the key in Myanmar’s democratic transition.

This debate is of course neither unique nor new. During the Cold War, many debated the extent to which US military aid could shape the human rights record or democratisation process of its recipients. Recently, how the US and NATO could build local security forces has been one of the central questions in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan. In Australia, one could think of the debate over the value of engaging the Indonesian Army Special Forces following the 1999 Timor fiasco and in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings.

In any case, the two poles of the engagement debate—suspension or continuation—are equally unconvincing. They rely on assumptions, expectations and anecdotal evidence rather than a thorough systematic investigation of the complex nature of military assistance programs.

For one thing, there’s no singular ‘military-to-military engagement’. It consists of dozens of activities and programs, from joint training and professional military education to arms sales and military dialogues. Each of these has different logics and functions, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to evaluate their value or problems. Sweeping statements that military engagement is either useful or repulsive provide us with little understanding about what specific promises and pitfalls they might have.

For another, there are different ways we could measure the effects and value of military engagement and assistance. Different bilateral military engagements have different historical donor–recipient contexts. Many donors and recipients in Southeast Asia, however, consider the value of military assistance or engagement to be primarily political.

Some donors care more about what the programs could do to boost their bilateral relationship with the recipients. Australia’s Defence Cooperation Program with Indonesia, for example, has often been used as a barometer to gauge the health of the bilateral relationship. Other donors simply want the recipients to help them with specific needs (such as providing intelligence on local terror groups), or to equip recipients with the necessary tools to fight a future regional conflict (such as maritime security assistance to several Southeast Asian states).

Recipients, meanwhile, consider engagement as providing symbolic legitimacy to their armed forces or political regimes. In the mid-1990s, for example, Indonesia had banked on Australia’s continued military engagement to get Washington to restore education and training programs that had been suspended. Occasionally, recipients have genuine specific training needs to sustain their operational readiness.

These political values notwithstanding, the Tatmadaw debate is at heart about the potential organisational effect of military-to-military engagement. And when we talk about organisational effects, we’re implicitly talking about ideational influence—about how Western donors, including Australia, could ‘impart’ or ‘export’ their professional military values and norms of democratic civil–military relations.

Such ‘norms transmission’, in turn, is about the degree to which a military could remodel itself into the system, structure and values of another (what scholars call ‘military emulation’). Unlike the political lens, this benchmark implies that the primary function of military engagement—particularly education and training programs—should be to fundamentally change the recipient’s organisational and professional outlook.

However, the success of military emulation depends on one critical condition. Officers receiving foreign military education or training should be, by and large, promoted to key leadership positions. If organisation-wide professionalisation were to take place, for example, the recipient should have a ‘buy in’ of the values that the donors are offering. What better way to achieve that than to have senior leaders championing those values inside the military? Put differently, if we adopt emulation as a benchmark, we need to demonstrate that Western-trained officers have been promoted to senior and leadership positions in their respective militaries.

Officials, however, provide anecdotal evidence; the fact that a few generals were Western-trained is somehow considered evidence of engagement success. Former President Yudhoyono, for example, was the poster boy for the expansion of US military training in Indonesia. Yet my own research shows that out of 677 Indonesian Army generals who graduated from the academy from 1950 to 1990, less than 16% were US-trained. Further statistical analyses reveal that foreign education has no significant effect on their overall career trajectory.

So, without any systematic evidence that Western military assistance programs—whether from the US, the UK or Australia—have successfully created a critical mass of senior leaders in recipients’ militaries, how do we know those programs have any organisational effect? To be persuasive, both proponents and detractors of military engagement should provide thorough examinations of the programs’ complexities, rather than talking past each other based on assumptions.

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[1] recent suspension: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/19/uk-suspend-training-burmese-military-treatment-rohingya

[2] mulling: http://time.com/4952270/myanmar-rohindya-us-military-ties/

[3] halt plans to expand: https://www.voanews.com/a/mccain-drops-plan-expand-military-ties-myanmar/4026509.html

[4] said: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-29/australia-to-continue-myanmar-military-training-despite-concerns/9002198

[5] argued: https://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/William-C.-Dickey-and-Nay-Yan-Oo/Myanmar-s-military-holds-key-to-further-reform

[6] could shape: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1354066109344659

[7] central questions: http://press.georgetown.edu/book/georgetown/exporting-security

[8] debate: http://sdsc.bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2016-03/WP-SDSC-387_0.pdf

[9] engaging: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjR9evEjdPWAhXrslQKHQnwC5gQFggmMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fbellschool.anu.edu.au%2Fsites%2Fdefault%2Ffiles%2Fpublications%2Fattachments%2F2016-03%2FWP-SDSC-373_0.pdf

[10] maritime security assistance: https://thediplomat.com/2016/04/americas-new-maritime-security-initiative-for-southeast-asia/

[11] military emulation: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09636419608429280?journalCode=fsst20

[12] poster boy: https://books.google.com/books?id=DVi0U-tWK74C&pg=PA74&lpg=PA74&dq=US+military+training+yudhoyono+poster+boy&source=bl&ots=n_TVblYl4D&sig=vhWywxfT3MPqyAKQzvAP3i_ZpMs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiIuPHymNPWAhVS_WMKHZdyAJkQ6AEINTAF#v=onepage&q=US%20militar