Military Culture and Institutional Trust: Evidence from Conscription Reforms in Europe

The forthcoming article “Military Culture and Institutional Trust: Evidence from Conscription Reforms in Europe” by Vincenzo Bove, Riccardo Di Leo, Marco Giani is summarized by the authors below.

Did the suppression of military conscription contributed to decreased institutional trust in Europe? Most European countries discontinued military conscription from the early nineties onwards. This was an uncontentious decision. Obsolescent mass-armies were perceived as a relic from the past, ill-suited for high-technological contemporary warfare, while burdening public finances and undermining the skill development of young men. From a symbolic point of view, the introduction of all-volunteer forces represented a milestone in the fortification of the pax Europaea. Yet, in recent years, politicians and experts have blamed low levels of civic virtues and institutional trust to the decision to suppress conscription. They argue that forgoing the transmission of values of loyalty, patriotism, and a respect for the law and the interactions between individuals from varied backgrounds during their “impressionable” years has weakened the tie between the citizen and the state. We provide evidence in stark contrast with the romantic idea that conscription served as a ‘school of nation’. 

Based on fifteen European countries that discontinued military conscription during the last decades, our study compares the level of institutional trust among cohorts of men who reached the drafting age just before its abolition, with institutional trust among those who were just exempted.    We find that trust in the legislative, judicial, politicians and political parties later in life is about 5% higher among the latter group. This gap in institutional trust is unlikely to simply reflect underlying attitudinal trends, unrelated with the approval of military policies. Indeed, such gap cannot be observed among women from the same cohorts, unaffected by the conscription reform.  Conscription appears to coalesce young men around the primacy of the military over mistrusted democratic institutions. Accordingly, attitudes towards institutions are more homogeneous among conscripts than among non-conscripts. And the positive impact of avoiding conscription on institutional trust is stronger in post-socialist countries, where the pervasiveness of military and political corruption at the time of the reform was relatively higher, the abolition of military conscription was part of a broader reorganization of defence policies, and the reform occurred later in time, compared to Western Europe. 

Overall, our findings indicate that discontinuing military conscription cannot be blamed for the widely acknowledged and worrying corrosion of institutional trust, thus invalidating the policy rationale of some conscription-enthusiasts, such as President Macron, who strongly defended the re-introduction of the Service National Universel as a way to transmit French values and strengthen social cohesion among the youth. 

About the Authors: Vincenzo Bove is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Warwick, Riccardo Di Leo is a PhD Student in Economics at the University of Warwick, and Marco Giani is a Lecturer of Political Economy at King’s College London. Their research “Military Culture and Institutional Trust: Evidence from Conscription Reforms in Europe” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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