Dissertation Project


My dissertation Conscientious ‘Acceptance’: The Impact of Public Support on Conscription (click to download) examines one aspect of these communications: the narratives the government is using when talking to the public about the military. It does so to answer the research question of “What makes a state maintain conscription, especially during peacetime?”.

Conscription has proven to be a practical and efficient recruitment policy in the past because it allowed countries to muster great numbers of soldiers in the face of looming threats. However, the end of the Cold War changed these perceptions: conscript militaries are ill-suited for today’s security challenges, and citizens are increasingly less willing to support this infringement on their personal freedoms. Even though this would suggest a shift away from conscription, especially in times of peace, it is still practiced in over half of all states globally. Additionally, there exists a trend of countries bringing back the draft or keeping it, even though they are under no external threat.

I suggest that existing models on why countries have conscription should be extended to include Winning Coalition Acceptance. This is based on Selectorate Theory which suggests that every leader who wants to stay in power needs to secure enough support (Winning Coalition) to ensure political survival. The size of Winning Coalitions ranges from small, which usually implies authoritarian systems with only a few supporters that need to be kept satisfied, to large, meaning democracies with many groups that impact political survival (e.g., influence on elections). As the Winning Coalition increases in size, the chances for dissatisfied actors in the coalition with the ability to influence policy grows, and it gets harder for leaders to keep everyone in check.

If a leader wants to maintain conscription in a country that lacks traditional reasons that would usually favor conscription (e.g., external threat, economic needs), they need another way to “sell” the draft to their Winning Coalition. For me, the vehicles for doing this are Conscientious Objection and Alternative Civilian Service. They describe policies that allow draftees who do not want to join the armed forces to serve their required service times outside of the military. These alternative policies are highly regarded by the public because they provide the function of supporting the social sector with cheap labor. Consequently, leaders of states with large Winning Coalitions and without external threat or economic need will be inclined to implement Conscientious Objection and Alternative Civilian Service and highlight their benefits when they want to successfully introduce conscription (hypothesis 1). Additionally, once established, the draft will only be maintained as long as Winning Coalition Acceptance is high. Thus, leaders will have to continuously stress the advantages of Conscientious Objection and Alternative Civilian Service and downplay conscription. If that does not happen and Winning Coalition Acceptance decreases, the likelihood of debates on conscription’s future increases (hypothesis 2). Once these discussions appear, leaders who want to maintain the draft will have to highlight Conscientious Objection and Alternative Civilian Service. Only when these topics are salient in public discourse will a country be able to keep conscription (hypothesis 3).

I test my theory through a mixed-methods approach. For the evaluation of hypothesis 1, I created my own quantitative dataset by building on Asal, Conrad, and Toronto’s (2015) ‘Determinants of Military Conscription’, adding Winning Coalition Size, and collecting original data on the status of Conscientious Objection globally. This allowed me to statistically investigate whether policies on Conscientious Objection and Alternative Civilian Service were influenced by the size of a country’s Winning Coalition. The assessment of hypothesis 2 followed a typical-case approach based on the Federal Republic of Germany. In particular, I collected and examined roughly 1,300 unique newspaper articles published in the German newspaper ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ from 1997 to 2010 through linguistic inquiry and word count analysis. Hypothesis 3 employed a most-similar-case design based around the Republic of Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany. It relied on qualitative analysis of over 3,000 German-language newspaper articles. After collecting these manually, I examined them with the help of NVivo to establish the salience of Alternative Civilian Service (as a proxy for Conscientious Objection) and Conscription.

During my analysis, I found evidence that Winning Coalition size has a positive impact on a government’s decision to implement Conscientious Objection. Moreover, interstate rivalries have a dampening effect on the likelihood of introducing the policy. Additionally, it appears that a lack of Winning Coalition Support for conscription leads to serious debates about the future of the draft, even in countries that successfully maintained conscription during times of peace, like the Federal Republic of Germany. Lastly, I showed that when discussions about conscription arise, high salience of Conscientious Objection and Alternative Civilian Service plays a crucial role in maintaining the draft. When it was high, as in the Republic of Austria, conscription was maintained. Conversely, the draft was suspended in Germany, where discussions about conscription featured low salience of Conscientious Objection and Alternative Civilian Service.

These findings indicate that public support for conscription matters for its future, especially in countries with large Winning Coalitions. Without this backing, forced recruitment will disappear during peacetime. To secure the approval of the Winning Coalition, leaders will employ a variety of narratives (such as Conscientious Objection). This also supports my notion that narratives matter for Civil-Military Relations in general.

The full dissertation can be access through the Tennessee Research And Creative Exchange.