June 1, 2022
Until late 2020, global trendlines suggested that coups were becoming a relic of history. Sadly, unconstitutional military takeovers during the past 20 months in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali (twice), Myanmar, and Sudan, as well as a presidential “self-coup” in Tunisia, punctured that hope. This eruption of coups is a dispiriting addition to the larger democratic recession of the past 15 years. Coups obviously deal a body blow to democracy in the countries where they occur, but they also have contagion effects: successful coups can prompt would-be coup plotters elsewhere to try their hand. Accordingly, the Biden administration should build out a more robust coup response policy as part of fulfilling its promise to put democracy at the heart of its foreign policy — even while it grapples with serious problems with democracy at home.
What should an enhanced anti-coup strategy entail? The Biden team can start by sharpening its immediate post-coup playbook. But to effectively counter the growing coup trend, Washington needs to look beyond immediate response. It should seek to sustain pressure on coup perpetrators in the longer term while also pursuing policies to reduce the chances of a coup from happening in the first place.
Bolstering the Immediate Post-Coup Playbook
To date, the U.S. government’s response to coups has focused on actions immediately following the coup itself. Typically, senior U.S. officials rush out with critical statements and urge the coup leaders to set out plans for a transition back to elected civilian rule. Following that, the administration sometimes partially or fully suspends economic and security assistance. And in some cases, the administration imposes targeted sanctions on specific persons and entities that facilitated or supported the coup. This informal playbook — which at best has been somewhat unevenly applied if one compares, for example, the relatively active U.S. response to the 2021 coup in Myanmar to the relatively passive response to the 2021 coup in Guinea — can be strengthened in several ways.
- Return to (expeditiously) calling a coup a coup. After the 2013 coup in Egypt that ousted elected president Mohamed Morsi and brought General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power, the Obama administration bent itself into a pretzel to avoid uttering the word “coup.” It did so out of a desire to avoid triggering any statutory restrictions — like Section 7008 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, which requires that aid be restricted in the event of a coup — and thereby preserve policy flexibility with a close ally. The special linguistic caution around that coup has bled into unhelpfully vague U.S. administration statements immediately after several recent coups. The result has dulled the power of the initial U.S. condemnation, drawing attention to the U.S. semantic contortions rather than the coup itself, and squandering the opportunity to immediately galvanize domestic and international resistance. Even in instances where the State Department ultimately determines that a coup has occurred under Section 7008, its spokespeople often hesitate to use the word in the event’s immediate aftermath. For example, the State Department in September 2021 criticized the “military seizure of power” in Guinea, and in January 2022 said the military in Burkina Faso had “dissolved the government and the national assembly and suspended the constitution,” but in both cases refrained from using the word “coup” until weeks or months Yet as former U.S. government legal counsel Sarah Harrison points out, “simply calling an event a coup does not legally trigger application of Section 7008.” That trigger requires a formal determination by the State Department, and some events that in everyday use would be described as a coup (such as recently in Sudan) will not meet State’s specific legal standard. Harrison also points out that previous U.S. administrations were willing to call a coup a coup in colloquial use (as with the 2009 Honduras coup), while still stressing that Section 7008 was a separate issue. Thus, to fortify the U.S. government expeditiously calling coups “coups,” one of two things needs to happen. Congress could provide a legislative fix that would allow State greater explicit flexibility to more quickly to call coups “coups” in real time without implications for the eventual determination that will determine aid cutoffs. Or, State could follow the informal Honduras precedent and be more forthright in calling coups “coups” when events are breaking, arguing that Section 7008 determinations will be separate from public statements.
- Give less weight to claims of coup popularity. U.S. policymakers sometimes take a too-forgiving view of justifications presented by coup leaders, especially when those leaders suggest that the coup was justified because it has popular support. Coups are sometimes initially popular — citizens who suffered under terrible governance from the ousted regime may cheer on those promising a clean slate. But a coup’s popularity usually fades quickly as its leaders struggle to provide for their citizenry or deliver meaningful change: witness the situation in Tunisia, for example, where the initial public enthusiasm for President Kais Saied’s power grab last July has considerably cooled. In addition, the initial popularity of a coup may reflect a skewed information environment and repression. Rather than implicitly accept or propagate popularity rationales, U.S. messaging should stress that holding free and fair election at regular intervals — a hallmark of democracy– is the best test of leadership popularity. Better information about public opinion in many emerging democracies would also help policymakers understand the real scope of popular opinion. U.S. officials should also not fall for the false promise of stability offered by many coup plotters. In reality, coups often beget more volatility.
- Advocate for transition plans that are specific and fit for purpose. U.S. government representatives should push for post-coup transition plans that include a clear, realistic timeline for a return to civilian rule, with well-defined milestones along the way. They should not be overly lengthy (e.g., the recent example of Mali’s interim parliament approving a transition plan allowing the military to rule for up to five years), but long enough to ensure fair electoral administration and allow opposition to consolidate. U.S. officials must avoid the inclination to take too credulous a view of coup leaders’ post-coup promises to quickly hold elections or include civilians in government. Further, they should remain mindful that not all contexts require the same template — as Judd Devermont noted when he was at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, not every coup-afflicted country needs to rewrite its constitution, for example.
- Marshal broader — and sharper — coalitions. When coups occur, the United States should look for every opportunity to serve as a convener of or collaborator with a wider regional and international response. The African Union and ECOWAS have been stepping up on some (but not all) African coup responses; given the African Union’s well-entrenched norm against coups, they should be an active partner where relevant. In addition, recent experience indicates some longstanding U.S. partners may offer more tepid or unhelpful responses if they have countervailing interests at stake such as counterterrorism equities, as was the case with France in Chad, and Gulf states in Sudan. The U.S. government should anticipate and attempt to address these head-on — potentially by integrating coup response pledges as commitments developed during the post Summit for Democracy “year of action.”
A robust immediate response to a coup is crucial. But it is equally important that the U.S. government stay the course, especially considering how long it can take for democracy to be achieved or reinstated. Given the wide range of foreign policy crises facing policymakers today, it is not surprising that U.S. and other international attention to a coup fades quickly after the event. So coup plotters are learning that external repercussions from coups tend to be short-lived, and some are making the calculation that they can withstand them. More needs to be done to ensure international and regional responses have staying power.
- Galvanize — and sustain — a high-level interagency response process. To help avoid post-coup signal drift in U.S. policy, the administration should establish a National Security Council (NSC)-driven process to oversee U.S. responses to coups. This process should seek to design general policy guidelines, maintain high-level attention to and messaging on milestones laid out for any post-coup transition process, and ensure the considerable leverage of Defense and Treasury Department tools are aligned with State and USAID. Country-by-country responses to coups inevitably suffer from a lack of learning across cases and a lack of policy consistency. A wider bureaucratic mechanism with the capacity to learn comparatively and maintain focus can help.
- Mobilize more carrots and sticks. With coup plotters showing a willingness to absorb now-routinized aid suspensions, the U.S. government should strive to broaden its array of tools, and thus expand leverage, as months go by after the coup. More intentional uses of U.S. influence at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, for example, can be a key negotiating chip in some post-coup contexts. The strengthened democracy/rights sanctions regime, especially visa restrictions, asset freezes and forfeitures, and targeted financial sanctions, can be employed more widely and more effectively for coup responses; at the same time, autopilot uses of blunt instruments should be avoided and sanctions carefully tailored. The administration can also work to galvanize domestic private sector interests against coup plotters and more effectively redirect aid and supportive messages to civic groups and other pro-democratic constituencies in coup-affected countries.
- Link U.S. government coup responses to broader geopolitical policy deliberations. The U.S. government (unsurprisingly) classifies coups as a “democracy problem,” and views responses to particular coups as a separate policy stream from its deliberations related to geopolitical competition. Yet, in reality, these two policy arenas are often linked: with non-democratic powers increasingly influencing political junctures in countries across the globe, would-be coup plotters have alternative patrons. The U.S. must integrate into its policy deliberations analysis of how China, Russia, the Gulf States, Turkey, and other authoritarians may support coups or coup leaders for their own purposes, and also think more three-dimensionally about how to counter their roles in particular countries over the longer term.
Preventing Coups in the First Place
Finally, a robust anti-coup strategy should go beyond responding to coups once they have occurred, and also focus on heading them off in the first place. While not every coup is predictable, many recent ones have been predicted well in advance and are part of a well-established pattern of democratic erosion. While the U.S. government should not overestimate its influence, it can better marshal its available tools to shape local actors’ incentives, thus disrupting a country’s journey down a path toward a likely coup.
- Push hard against term-limit overrides. Defiance of term limits on presidential power can be a gateway to coups. The recent coup in Guinea, for instance, was partly a reaction to the president weakening term limits and encountering little regional and international resistance. When term limits are not in place, or when a “constitutional coup” occurs allowing a president to maintain office, a peaceful path to power for those who aspire to it can appear elusive, fueling military options. A clear, strong U.S. policy opposing term limit overrides, potentially including former Freedom House Africa Director Jon Temin’s suggestion of an automatic review of assistance toward any country that overrides term limits, will complement and bolster strong pushback against coups. Washington should also push regional partners, such as the African Union, to observe their own norms against term limit overrides.
- Discourage the personalization of politics. Coups sometimes reflect backlash not just against specific anti-democratic steps by an existing regime, like a term limit override, but against a broader personalization of power. The concentration of tremendous power and attention in the hands of one leader, and the poor governance that often accompanies it, unsurprisingly can provoke discontent directed at that individual. Even when personalization of power doesn’t generate backlash, it can crowd out institutional development needed for a functional democratic transition after a leader leaves the scene. The United States and other likeminded international actors can do more to work against such personalization of power and attention. This may include stepping up engagement with alternative actors and institutions — whether in regional and local governments, civil society, and opposition parties, or broadening diplomatic engagement with other central governance institutions in the country that are supposed to provide checks and balances on the country’s leadership. It may also entail working to disrupt the illicit financial flows and other forms of corruption that may be feeding the personalization of power.
- Make security actors full partners on democracy policy deliberations. New attention should be given to policy processes and guidance that join up U.S. democracy policy objectives with U.S. security cooperation. For many of the U.S.’s relationships, security cooperation is the most active arena of bilateral engagement, and the most potent leverage to shape counterpart government incentives — for better or worse. More effectively leveraging these relationships will enable earlier action on signals that may augur a potential coup. Bringing together the democracy and security domains of U.S. foreign policy may surface uncomfortable tradeoffs: for example, a U.S. imperative to counter Chinese or Russian influence in some countries may sometimes suggest soft-pedaling concerns about democracy’s backsliding to maintain positive relations with selected leaders. But these tradeoffs should be adjudicated head-on, not elided by way of separate policy processes.
The recent spate of coups does not rise to the level of a global epidemic. Yet it clearly has potential contagious qualities, especially as other would-be coup leaders learn how best to take power and insulate themselves from international pressure. For a sharp indication of this, witness the geographic proximity of many recent coups. Accordingly, the United States, acting together when possible with other democratic partners, should do more to develop and implement a comprehensive anti-coup strategy. To take a medical analogy one step further, such a strategy must not just strengthen near term-responses but emphasize long-term follow-up, and also greater attention to prevention.
International actors have only limited leverage in coup-affected countries, as the frustrating aftermath of the Myanmar coup demonstrates abundantly. Yet the United States should also not underestimate its influence, either. When working alongside partners, Washington can wield considerable tools to affect the calculus of local players. It can also unleash the substantial power of example in standing in solidarity with pro-democratic actors on the ground.
Conversely, a lack of robust U.S. response is remembered long afterwards, as well.
For the Biden administration’s ambitious agenda to counter the global democratic recession, a more holistic anti-coup strategy should serve as a critical plank.
About the Author(s)
Frances Z. Brown ( (@franceszbrown) is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the co-director of Carnegie's Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program. She previously worked at the White House, USAID, and in non-governmental and research organizations.