When Civilian Oversight is ‘Civil’: Parliamentary Oversight of the Military in Belgium and New Zealand
In October of 2016, Russia accused the Belgian air force of killing civilians in Syria. In many political systems, this might cause the opposition to attack the government either because they feel betrayed by the government’s secrecy or because it is an opportunity to score points. Instead, Belgium’s secret-cleared parliamentary committee overseeing military operations met, sufficient information was provided to prove that the Russian accusation was baseless, and the opposition was then satisfied. What could have been a conflict within Belgian politics and perhaps a civil-military confrontation was quickly defused. This was possible because Belgium has a cooperative form of civilian oversight of its armed forces. We find a similar type of cooperative oversight in New Zealand. Drawing on principal-agent theory, which identifies two types of oversight –police patrols and fire alarms– our study argues that Belgium and New Zealand use a third type of oversight to scrutinize their military affairs: community policing.
Existing principal-agent studies note that principals, such as legislatures, use ‘active police patrols’ or ‘reactive fire alarms’ to hold agents, such as executives, to account. Police patrols and fire alarms tend to rest on suspicion and confrontation toward the agent by the principal. Community policing, on the other hand, refers to oversight that emphasizes a comparatively higher degree of trust and collaboration between the principal and the agent. The aim of community policing is not to detect the agent’s misbehaviour through intrusive measures or alerts, but to satisfy the principal’s concerns that the agent is being transparent and to assure the agent that the principal respects their autonomy in return. Rather than stressing confrontation, community policing relies more on confidence-building between the principal and agent.
In adding to principal-agent theory, our paper argues that oversight operates along a spectrum of trust (Table 1):
Table 1. Trust and Oversight Strategies
|Form of Oversight||Community Policing||Fire Alarms||Police Patrols|
The higher the trust between the principal and the agent, the more likely that a community policing approach will be adopted. As trust diminishes, principals will rely on increasingly more intrusive oversight efforts, from fire alarms to police patrols.
Community policing is an inherently fragile form of oversight, insofar as it depends on collaboration between the principal and the agent, and on rewards instead of sanctions to ensure that the agent acts as the principal demands. But community policing also has important advantages over police patrols and fire alarms. Notably, under community policing, principals can get a high degree of information from the agent for relatively little effort. Under police patrols, information usually comes at the cost of more effort, while fire alarms trade-off minimal information for less effort. As long as it holds together, therefore, community policing can be an attractive form of oversight as compared with police patrols and fire alarms (Table 2).
Table 2. Forms of Oversight
|Oversight||Police Patrol||Fire Alarm||Community Policing|
|Tools||Sanctions and rewards||Sanctions||Rewards|
To illustrate how community policing works, we examine how the Belgian and New Zealand Parliaments oversee their military and defence officials.
In Belgium, community policing involves satisfying all political factions that they know what the defence minister and military are doing and why, while leaving the executive to set policy and make military decisions. In keeping with the nature of Belgian federalism and the country’s factional political culture, the aim is to build confidence amongst Belgium’s political parties. As a result, the Belgian Parliament emphasizes sharing information in secret committees that include representatives from these parties. The system focuses on making all parties and factions feel that they have been properly consulted and informed.
In New Zealand, by contrast, community policing involves ensuring that the defence ministry and armed forces operate and make decisions with a high degree of transparency and openness. The New Zealand Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade committee reviews and scrutinizes estimates and military acquisitions in a public setting, using unclassified information provided by the Ministry of Defence and New Zealand Defence Force. This process is enabled by the New Zealand government’s efforts to increase transparency and establish a bipartisan defence consensus between New Zealand’s major parties. Underlying New Zealand’s approach to community policing is the government’s belief that confidence in its ability to control the armed forces is best achieved by showing Parliament, and by extension the public, that the defence ministry and armed forces have nothing to hide.
Our research suggests that community policing may be a response to past failures of oversight. Indeed, one avenue for future research would involve examining whether failures tend to encourage the adoption of a community policing approach. Belgium developed new parliamentary procedures to oversee defence procurement and military operations because of scandals that revealed the limitations of its Parliament’s oversight powers. These new procedures and the lessons of the scandals fostered a greater effort by all sides to improve transparency. Likewise, a severe crisis in New Zealand’s civil-military relations led to a new consensus among the major parties, the Ministry of Defence and New Zealand’s military that produced greater transparency and, with it, greater trust.
Our article concludes that more work is required to see if community policing oversight happens in larger countries and within other kinds of political structures, such as presidential systems. Our purpose was to establish that there is a third form of oversight that relies on trust and collaboration, instead of suspicion and confrontation. The next step is to see if the concept has limited or wider application.
Philippe Lagassé is associate professor of international affairs and Barton Chair at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.
Stephen M. Saideman is professor of international affairs and Paterson Chair at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.
Lagassé and Saideman’s EJIS article is available free of charge until the 15th of April 2019.