Can Coups Ever Be Acceptable?

World history couldn’t be written, or understood, without the history of coups (real and attempted ones). So last weekend’s events in Turkey fit into a pattern. 25 years before, in the hot summer of 1991, another attempted coup in Moscow was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire.

It always is difficult to properly assess these extra-constitutional, mostly (but not necessarily) violent moves. The clove revolution in 1974 in Portugal certainly brought a harsh and unpleasant dictatorial regime to an end. It may have been illegal, but was it illegitimate? The attempted coup against Hitler by a group of Wehrmacht officers belongs into the same category. And what about the events on the Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989? In Turkey, the officers trying this not quite professional attempt claimed to serve democracy and human rights, but they opened the doors for a much more autocratic regime than before (which may have materialized anyways).

So this reminds us that history is often written by the victors. But, in addition, many events, like coups, are quite ambivalent. Do we have any clear criteria for sorting out coups, into acceptable ones and clearly bad ones?

– Prof. Klaus Segbers

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  1. Julian Junk 2 years ago

    Normative questions are always a challenge for analytical responses. The normative choice between acceptable and clearly bad is in this case particularly difficult to answer - not only because acceptable and bad are in nuances pointing to different variables, but as well because the related topics makes the identification of benchmarks complex. Let’s take just the acceptance path: Acceptable for whom? Acceptable for „us academics in the West“? Acceptable for those experiencing the coup as a population of a given country? Probably the best measure for a normative acceptable coup is acceptance by the demos in the coup-country. But even that would be tricky and one needs additional benchmarks: Did the coup attempt to right severe wrongs? Was there no chance to reach this goal by the very fundamental democratic procedure: elections? Thus an acceptable coup might be one, which is regarded as legitimate by the overwhelming majority of the demos while at the same time protecting important minority rights, which is directed against fundamental violations of human rights and democratic principles, and to which all alternative paths like elections are credibly blocked. The attempted coup does certainly not fall into the category of an acceptable coup along these lines - regardless of whether it has been staged or not.

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  2. Robert Legvold 2 years ago

    My shallow thoughts on the subject are not worth much. They are shallow, because they are uninformed by any knowledge of a literature providing normative criteria for judging coups, if such exists. My reaction would be at the level of the average person’s common logic. By that standard, the issue of whether a successful coup is good or bad (whether an unsuccessful coup attempt is good or bad is a related but separate matter) would seem to depend on its consequences: if the situation in the country—the security and safety of the country; the welfare, happiness, and opportunities of the bulk of the population—is better afterwards than before or has a real chance of becoming so, then some might say the coup was “good.” By that standard I can think of very few coups in the 20th century—Turkish, Greek, African or Latin American—that measure up. But even that standard begs a number of important questions. What are the normative implications of change brought about by illegal/extra-constitutional means? Does that, in turn, depend on the enormity of the evil a coup attempts to redress (Hitler’s regime versus your everyday corrupt, semi-authoritarian regime)? And how are costs to be factored in—the number of lives lost or destroyed in the course of events or after? The latter is as large an issue—as we will see in the case of the recent Turkish coup—when a coup fails. Perhaps it also makes a difference if the coup is the context of revolution or not: e.g., November 1917 in Imperial Russia versus recent events in Turkey. Then the criteria presumably need to be applied to the revolution as such. Finally, all of this is further complicated, if there is disagreement over what constitutes a coup. Moscow insists that what happened in Kyiv in February 2014 was a coup, the West as a revolution, and the two sides have radically different assessments of whether these events were good or bad.

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  3. Irina Busygina 2 years ago

    Coups were happening throughout the world history, and they are going to repeat, both successful and failed. There is no way to stop them. For analytical purposes, however, I think we don’t need that much clear criteria to sort coups into “bad” and “acceptable”, as we know enough about them per se – they are anti-constitutional. We assess a coup not by what it was (except, perhaps, for the issue of was it with bloodshed or not), but by what was the ruling regime before the coup, and what happened after (the nature of changes). And here we have an ample room for interpretations as our assessments of regimes and their changes differ a lot. Thus, if we by default consider a regime bad (intolerant), then we tend to believe that the coup that overthrew it (or, at least, tried to do so) was acceptable. We even tend not to use the term “coup” when talking or writing about related events. Interestingly, however, intolerable regime can contain within itself the premises for the future positive changes, while its premature collapse can block them. In his seminal “Society and Democracy in Germany” Dahrendorf claimed, that this was Nazism that ruined the social basis for authoritarianism in Germany. So, if the coup of 1944, that was aristocratic in composition, had succeeded, Germany's postwar chances for democracy would have been quite doubtful.

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  4. Alexei Voskressenski 2 years ago

    There are concepts and notions of legality and legitimacy. Different combinations: illegal-illegitimate, illegal-legitimate, legal-illegitimate, legal - legitimate can help to attest coups under different political regimes and under different historical circumstances. Acceptable is what is approved by majority, but this is revolution. Acceptable is what is beneficial to the people, but the appraisal of this is in most cases subjective and biased.

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  5. Caroline King 2 years ago

    Is there such a thing as a democratic coup d’etat? Certainly, since Ukraine and Egypt the concept of coup deserves revisiting. Ozan Varol outlines 7 features of democratic coups: as a military coup staged against an authoritarian regime, in response to popular opposition and in support of the population’s demand to an authoritarian leader to step down, to which he/she does not respond; the coup is staged by a highly respected military, who execute the overthrow , facilitate free elections and accompany the transition to transfer of power to democratically elected leaders…

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  6. Justas Paleckis 2 years ago

    The criteria of benefit for one or another country usually outweigh in assessing the coups. Nowadays, it is taken into account the human rights and how democratic or anti-democratic the overturned regime was. None influential country or organization protested too much when surely democratically elected president was overthrown by the military in Egypt - after all, the spread of radical Islam was stopped. It seems that this was expected by the military who attempted a coup in Turkey, although the Islam of president Erdogan has not been very radical yet. We will not know what the reaction would have been if the putsch was successful. Now it is likely that a turn to strengthening the authoritarianism (was there not created a pretext for this?) will not receive tangible after-effects. Ankara is not in a hurry anymore towards the EU and as a NATO member, Turkey is too important. And also one must bear in mind that a rare coup has no links with a powerful foreign country or countries.
    The criteria have been and will remain unclear. A question arises when looking back on the history: The Great French Revolution in 1789 or a coup? And the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which marks the centenary next year?

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  1. worldklaus 2 years ago

    A few brave men of the Turkish Military tried to stop the Genocide in regard to the Kurdish Minority. For domestic political reasons (see me previous posts) President Erdogan started a full scale military assault in East Turkey. The military coup was focused on stopping this Military Conflict as parts of the Army are opposed to this civil war like activities. According to the Turkish Newspaper “Yeni Safak”, a military commando at the night of the coup tried to extract the leader of the Turkish PKK party Abdullah Ocalan. Also did various Kurdish fighting groups cease fire immediately after the coup started. In my view these are strong indications that this was a coordinated attempt. The 2 F16 fighter planes and the air-to-air re-fulling plane started from the airport in Incirli, which would not make sense as this air-base is far away from Istanbul. But taken into account that Incirli is the largest US fighter plane location outside the US, I refuse to believe that this is a coincidence. I do not buy the explanation that the “Gullen” network is behind this coup. This is just my point of view, and I acknowledge that it is way too early to evaluate the motives and forces of the recent coup in Turkey. I was just outside of Istanbul during the coup and currently the situation is still unclear. There will be never clear rules and parameters for this kind of complex event. Just time will tell, and maybe we should leave this to historians for debate.

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    1. Stuart A. 2 years ago

      While you can debate whether the coup would have eventually made Turkey more democratic, it is highly unlikely that it would have benefitted the Kurds. The Turkish military more or less hates the PKK, and a military led government would almost certainly intensify Erdogan's assault on Kurdish regions. Also, the soldiers sent to 'extract' Ocalan, were likely sent to kill him according to the most recent reports.

      This being said, I doubt the AKP narrative that Gulen was behind the coup, rather it appears to simply be a nationalist/secularist faction within the military.

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      1. worldklaus 2 years ago

        Our opposing views just show how difficult it is to evaluate military coups and label them "good" or "bad". I believe that the Turkish Military had the moral obligation to intervene and stop the excessive violence against the Kurdish Minority. I also believe that "foreign" forces were backing this up. It is not acceptable that for domestic political reasons East Turkey is bombed into the ground. I agree with you that the Military in general hates the "PKK", and I do not support the military actions of the PKK. The "Kurdish-questions" has to be resolved peacefully.

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  2. Filotas N. 2 years ago

    Coup is a word whose meaning differs from one person to another. A military coup-like in Turkey- can be considered as a coup from a group of people whereas from another coup it can be thought to be "the change" of a situation usually bad. A coup also can be considered the situation imposed by the IMF, concerning the countries of Southern Europe. A coup also can be referred to governments, which not only seek the well-being of the country but also provide funding in their followers.

    So there will always be a coup if one group wants to change the situation that fits the other group.

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  3. King 2 years ago

    Erdugan created the situation in which a coup could be accourred, the coup is the response of turkish army and some groups of the society to his extremism and erdugans involvment in the regional crisis such as syria.
    He made the wrong choise for regional cooperation and alliance, Qatar and Saudi are not reliable allies for him and proofs shows the UAE involvement and financial support in the coup.
    Erdugan is managing a coup against the coup and this could led the society to such a bigger problem.

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  4. Dmitry 2 years ago

    There is often a conflict between what is legal and what is legitimate. Colonial rule may have been legal and protected by laws enacted by the colonial powers, but also illegitimate as colonial government was based on subjugation and repression of the colonized. On the other hand, power may be legitimate but illegal like the rule of a de-facto independent and popular but separatist government. Coups as such are always illegal and unconstitutional but not always illegitimate. Therefore, the matter of coups raises an old but ever so pertinent moral issue. Does the end justify the means? Can moral ends be achieved by immoral means? Can one use violence to fight for peace or against an unjust order and risk creating another just like it? In my opinion, coups, when successful, lead to abuses of power and when unsuccessful are used as a pretext for power consolidation. We should not place much hopes on coups, because they rarely produce meaningful change. For example, in Egypt the 2011 «revolution» was no more than a coup, which only touched the very top of the iceberg leaving the «deep state» perfectly intact, and another coup reversing the gains of the «revolution» followed almost immediately. True transitions take time to begin and flourish, and we should always view «coups» as well as «revolutions» with extra caution.

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